The Little Mermaid: An Analysis of the Not-So-Happy Fairy Tale

11 November 2018

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When one hears the name, “Ariel” one would more than likely envision the image of a cute, red-haired mermaid and her sweet companion, Flounder. Thanks to Disney, whose 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid became a huge hit, most of everyone who has kids or was born after 1985 would easily recognize Ariel in this way and could probably quote 90% of the film. I chose to analyze this fairy tale, because what most of these fans don’t realize, is that The Little Mermaid was not an original Disney concept.Like most other Disney movies, The Little Mermaid was based off of a far earlier piece of literature. Additionally, the original version of “The Little Mermaid” was far from the joyous, happy tale depicted by Disney.

“The Little Mermaid”, originally written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, is indeed a love story, but one that ends more tragically than happily. The main character is a female mermaid, who is unnamed. Her top half and head resemble that of a human, but she has a long tail like a fish, which allows her to live and survive underwater. Her father is not just any mermaid, but the Sea King. The little mermaid lives in abeautiful coral castle with her father and grandmother, and is the youngest — and most beautiful — of the Sea King’s daughters. This little mermaid, unlike the rest of her sisters, is absolutely fascinated by the world above the surface of the sea. She always asks her grandmother to describe and tell stories about what the world is like on land. It is a rule in the little mermaid’s family that once the daughters reach the age of fifteen, they are granted permission to rise to the surface of the ocean and see the world on their own. Being the youngest, the mermaid has to wait the longest and is terribly eager to hear her sisters’ descriptions of the world above. When the day finally comes for her to go to the surface, she is overjoyed. When she gets there, she sees a big ship playing loud music and infers that it is a celebration. It is the birthday celebration of a young prince, whom the mermaid admires deeply as soon as she sees him. A terrible storm comes, and the Prince shipwrecks and is saved by the little mermaid. However, he is unconscious until she lays him upon land, and he does not know that he was saved by her, which saddens her. The mermaid learns from her grandmother that mermaids, unlike humans, do not have an immortal soul. When mermaids die, they dissolve into sea foam and cease to exist. In deep sorrow for not having a soul, the little mermaid seeks out the help of a Sea Witch. The witch makes her a deal and agrees to turn her into a human, but informs the mermaid of the extreme things she risks in exchange — she can never be a mermaid again, she will be in agonizing pain with every step she takes with her legs, she must marry the prince or she will die, and she must sacrifice her voice and let the witch cut off her tongue in exchange for transformation into a human. The little mermaid makes it to the surface and is discovered by the prince who takes her into his care. As she falls more and more in love with him, he is only fond of her as a friend or child, and has no thoughts into making her his wife. The prince ends up marrying a princess from a neighboring kingdom whom the prince believes to be the girl who saved his life. The little mermaid’s heart breaks and she prepares for her demise. Her sisters learned from the Sea Witch what had happened, and sacrificed their hair to give their youngest sister a knife. If she uses the knife to kill the prince, she can continue her life as a mermaid. The little mermaid refuses to kill the prince, and her body dissolves into sea foam. However, because of the selfless trials she has endured, she becomes a daughter of the air, which means she does have a chance of getting into heaven, and has a 300 year sentence. What makes this part of the story sad is that, when the little mermaid sees a smiling child, a year is taken off of her sentence, but when a child cries, another year is added, which makes it unknown to the reader whether the little mermaid will ever reach the heavens (Andersen).
The story qualifies as a fairy tale because of the enchanting mermaids and spells and motif of a love story. However, I think that this tale could almost fit as a fable, because even though this story isn’t very brief, a reader could indeed learn a lesson of appreciation and understand the consequences of taking dangerous risks from the sad story of “The Little Mermaid”.
While “The Little Mermaid” is a concept that came from Hans Andersen, rather than Disney, Hans had his own inspiration for writing “The Little Mermaid”, and it was based upon an 1811 novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, in which the main character, Undine, is a water-sprite who can gain a soul only by marrying a human being. Since the publication of “The Little Mermaid” in 1837, there have been many, many adaptations of the story. The first English translation of the story was published in 1872 by H.B. Paull. In 1901, a Czech opera entitled Rusalka debuted, about a water-sprite who desperately wishes to marry a human prince whom she has fallen in love with. In the 1950s, Classics Illustrated Junior published an adaptation of the story for young readers, it is issue 525. In 1960, a Japanese manga version of the story titled “Angel no Oka (Angels Hill)” was serialized, where merpeople who have the ability live on both land and sea. The princess, Luna, is exiled for breaking rules and is saved by a wealthy young human boy. In 1961, Shirley Temple Theatre broadcast a television version of “The Little Mermaid”, starring Shirley Temple as the Mermaid. An illustrated version of Andersen’s tale was released in 2000, with illustrations by Rachel Isadora. Because it is Andersen’s tale, and not adapted, the events of the story do not stray from Andersen’s original version. A bilingual retelling of the tale, entitled Little Mermaid/ La Sirenitawas published in 2003, where author Oriol Izquierdo tells the story in both Spanish and English. This version is for children, and has a happy ending, unlike the original version. Though all of these adaptations aren’t exactly like Andersen’s tale, they all have the same motifs. The main character is a female, and is half human, half sea creature. Her father is the King of the Sea, or equally important. The main character is fascinated by land and the world above the ocean surface. She falls in love with a prince, or a male of very high status, makes a deal or trade-off of some sort to be with the prince in which she sacrifices her beautiful singing voice.

Additionally, Princess Fishtail, a 2002 picture book by Frances Minters illustrated by G. Brian Karas, puts a more modern spin on the classic tale, in which Princess Fishtail, who spends her days swimming with her dolphin friends and chatting with Tuna on her cell phone, falls in love with a handsome surfer and wishes to spend her life with the surfer on land (Minters). This story ends happily, and is closer related to the Disney movie rather than the original story. It’s important to note that this adaptation takes on a different title than “The Little Mermaid,” and I think that’s because by the time the book was published, the Disney movie was huge and popular and so they gave the book the title of Princess Fishtail so readers could distinguish a difference.
Other than these adaptations, the most popular is Disney’s The Little Mermaid. As stated previously, this film adaptation of the story was released in 1989 and was (and still is) incredibly popular, especially among young girls. The film starred Jodi Benson as Ariel, the mermaid princess who falls in love with Prince Eric. In this more family-friendly retelling of the story, Ariel only sacrifices her voice (not her tongue) and does indeed end up marrying the prince, and they live happily ever after. The movie was such a hit that Disney developed a TV series spin-off of the show, based on events before Ariel’s experience in the movie that ran from 1992-1994. In 2000, a sequel to the movie, entitled The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, focuses on Ariel and Eric’s daughter, Melody, who lives on land but dreams and longs for the sea, unlike her mother. Disney’s version of the story is still very popular today. The Disney movie is good, but when comparing it to the original story, it’s very fractured. The basic plot is somewhat the same, but the details of the events are completely different. First of all, it is not mentioned at all in the movie that Ariel does not have a soul, and that’s important because in Andersen’s story, the mermaid’s motivation was not just the love of a prince, but to gain an eternal soul. In the movie, King Triton forbids his daughters from going to the surface. In the story, the Sea King allows his daughters to visit the surface when they are old enough, and as the years pass by, the sisters are no longer fascinated by the surface. Perhaps if King Triton hadn’t been so strict, Ariel would not have been so tempted to disobey. Another way the movie fails the story, is the lack of a lesson learned. Ariel doesn’t learn a lesson at all. She whines about not being able to go to the surface, she breaks the rules and does it anyway, she puts herself and her entire kingdom at risk and then King Triton risks his life so that the entire kingdom isn’t lost to the control of Ursula, the sea witch. After that, Ariel marries the prince and lives happily ever after. Personally, I don’t think it’s good for a movie that is so influential to young minds to show children that they can do what they want and make dangerous risks with no repercussions. Additionally, the movie portrays King Triton as a control-freak, easily angered and unwilling to empathize with his daughter, and really only steps in to the situation to save the kingdom, whereas in the story, the Sea King is loving and even does what he can to help his daughter combat her terrible fate. I think the portrayal of King Triton is important, because it’s stereotypical and suggests that men with authority don’t know how to be empathetic and loving. Another reason why the Disney adaptation of the film ruins the story, is because of the unrealistic, close-to-perfection depiction of Ariel. Since it’s release over twenty years ago, young girls all over the world have seen the movie. Most girls watch the movie way more than just one time. Girls notice Ariel’s long, flowing hair, skinny little body and full chest. The character is supposed to be fifteen years old, yet the only article of clothing she is wearing is two shells over her breasts. Girls look at Ariel and marvel at her beauty, the way they admireevery other Disney princess. Many girls grow up wishing to someday be a princess. Many girls also grow up struggling with their self-esteem because they’re not super skinny, or full chested, and don’t have beautiful flowing hair and perfect skin. Most people would find no harm in letting their kids, whether boy or girl, watch these movies, but it’s important to realize that by subjecting kids to these images and ideals, we are priming them for society’s twisted expectations. Boys who watch the movie may have a mindset that tells them any girl who doesn’t have a perfect body isn’t good enough, and that girls are generally willing to put boys at the utmost priority in their lives. It could even go as far as subconsciously setting up expectations for a future partner. Boys want a perfect, pretty princess, and girls want a handsome, charming prince. As adults, we know that no one is perfect, and anyone who seems like they may have everything, certainly does not. Kids are not as aware of this, though. Due to the subliminal control Disney movies have over the minds young kids, it is another reason as to why the movie fails the story.

Ariel dolls and toys and other merchandise are still in production and sell well. Hot Topic, an American retail chain specializing in music and alternative culture-related clothing and accessories, released within the last two years an extensive Disney collection, most commonly portraying Disney princesses on shirts, tank tops, dresses, leggings and other accessories (HotTopic.com). I’ve personally noticed that Ariel items are among the most popular, I’ve seen at least a dozen girls wearing HotTopic Ariel merchandise and haven’t ever seen anyone wearing the other princesses.This goes to show that even individuals in their late teen years and early adult years still adore Ariel so much to the point where they will spend way too much money just to have Ariel’s face across their torso.

Since the first publication of the Little Mermaid, there have been many, many different renditions of the tale, and I’m sure there will be more to come. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale seems to have achieved the immortality that the mermaid herself so fervently longed for.

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