Thursday, January 8, 2015

Sacrificial Love in Action: Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid"

Much of my spiritual journey and vocation has revolved around the quotation from St. John Paul II that stands at the top of this blog: “Do not be afraid when love requires sacrifice.” These words are simple, profound, and very true. Love and sacrifice cannot be separated. Even though I did not come across St. JPII’s quotation until I was in high school, this truth has surrounded me my entire life. One of the ways in which this truth entered into my life—besides through the lives of Jesus and the saints—was my all-time favorite fairy tale: The Little Mermaid. I’m not talking the animated Disneyfied musical that’s titled The Little Mermaid; I’m talking the Hans Christian Anderson story of sacrificial love in action. The story that grabs the mind and heart with love, sacrifice, sorrow, hope, and redemption.

I loved reading fairy tale books from the library (still do; I read parts of three different collections of fairy tales over the weekend), and one day when I was a young girl, I found a beautifully illustrated copy of The Little Mermaid. The illustrations were either watercolor or something similar to watercolor, and these images resonated the beauty of the story. Over the years, friends would talk about the Disney movie and sing the music, and I refused to watch the movie. How could I, knowing that Disney contorted a beautiful tale of sacrificial love? Well, when I was 17, I finally saw the movie at a sleepover, and I enjoyed the music and had a fun time. However, it’s not anywhere near the level of epic that the true fairy tale stands at. Sometimes, when I’ve asked people if they have actually read the original story, they’ll say, “Oh, doesn’t she just turn into sea foam in the end?” At which I usually do a mental face palm, and then try to explain the story to them.

So, O Kind Reader, if you desire to hear about the awesomeness of the True Little Mermaid, I invite you to pick up a version of the fairy tale, or if you know the general story, just follow along (I’ve included some direct quotations to give you some of the beautiful language of the story itself. The direct quotations from the fairy tale are selected from Fairy Tales and Stories, by Hans Christian Anderson. The MacMillian Company, 1921.).
So there are six mermaid princesses. And the youngest is—you guessed it—the Little Mermaid. When a princess turns 15, she is allowed to journey up to the surface of the ocean for the first time ever. So, the Little Mermaid hears the stories from her older sisters, and finally journeys up there herself. This happens to be the same day as the prince’s sixteenth birthday, and he’s having a party on his ship. When the storm comes during the party, the Little Mermaid witnesses the frantic scurrying of all those on board the ship as they tried to save themselves.

“She looked particularly for the young prince, and when the ship went to pieces, she saw him sink into the deep sea. At first she was very glad, for now he would come down to her. But then she remembered that people could not live in the water, and that when he got down to her father’s palace he would certainly be dead. No, he must not die; so she swam around among the drifting beams and planks, quite forgetting that one of them might have crushed her.”

So can we just stop right there and think about the sacrifice of the mermaid right here? “Quite forgetting that one of them might have crushed her.” She doesn’t even know the prince, but she sees him, thinks he’s handsome, and then decides to risk herself by saving his life. This is extremely awesome! She then brings the prince to shore, and leaves before he can see who his rescuer was. In the coming days, the Little Mermaid comes up to gaze on the palace quite often, and begins to love the race of human beings. She’s intrigued by the beauty and overall awesomeness of humans. Sweetness. She then questions her grandmother about humans.

            “’If human beings are not drowned,’ asked the little mermaid, ‘can they live forever? Don’t they die as we die down here in the sea?
            ‘Yes,’ said the old lady. ‘They, too, must die, and their life is even shorter than ours. We can live to be three hundred years old, but when we no longer exist here, we become only foam on the water, and have not even a grave down here among those we love. We have no immortal soul; we never receive another life…But human beings have a soul which lives forever, lives even after the body has turned to earth…just as we rise out of the water and see the human countries, so they rise up to lovely, unknown places, never to be seen by us.’”

So the Little Mermaid thinks this jazz about an immortal soul is awesome. She gets really sad, and asks why she can’t have an immortal soul—because she would gladly sacrifice her three hundred year life span to gain a soul and someday reach Heaven. Her grandmother tries to dissuade her from such thoughts, by explaining:

“Only if a man were to love you so that you should be more to him than father or mother; if he should cling to you with his every thought and with all his love, and let the priest lay his right hand in yours with a promise of faithfulness here and in all eternity, you would receive a share of the happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and still keep his own. But that can never come to pass,” she states, mentioning how humans think the mermaid fishtail is ugly. The grandmother then beckons the Little Mermaid to a court ball that evening, trying to distract her granddaughter from thoughts of an immortal soul.

Court ball vs. immortal soul? The Little Mermaid easily sees which is better. She leaves the ball and travels to the dwelling of the sea witch—which terrified her—because she is willing to risk and sacrifice all things for the prince and an immortal soul. So she goes to the sea witch, and sacrifices her tongue for a potion that will turn her fishtail into human legs. However, the sea witch points out, her new legs will be painful.

“It will seem as if you were cut with a sharp sword…you will keep your graceful walk; no dancer will be able to move so lightly as you; but ever step you take will be as if you trod upon sharp knives, and as if your blood must flow.”

The sea witch then explains that if the Little Mermaid does not win the prince’s love, on the first morning after he has married another woman, she will become sea foam. Despite her fears, the Little Mermaid thinks of an immortal soul and the prince, gladly sacrifices herself. She becomes human, and the prince becomes her dear friend. He does not know that it was she who saved him, and he “loved her as one loves a dear, good child, but it never came into his head to make her his wife.” Ultimately, the prince meets a princess and falls in love with her, and as the Little Mermaid holds the bride’s train at the wedding, she can only think about how this night would be the last of her life. As she stands on the ship where the after-wedding party and dance is taking place, the Little Mermaid cannot partake of the festivities.

“She knew this was the last evening on which she might see him for whom she had left her people and her home, had given up her beautiful voice, and had suffered unheard-of pains every day, while he was utterly unconscious of it all.”

After the party, the ship falls silent and the prince and his new bride go into the bridal chamber. The Little Mermaid stands on the ship’s deck and waits for her death at the rays of dawn. All of a sudden, her five sisters rise up in the water. They explain that they have sacrificed their long hair, giving it to the sea witch to save the Little Mermaid’s life. They toss a knife up to the Little Mermaid, and explain that before the sun rises, she must stab the prince’s heart with it and let his blood fall onto her feet. Then, her fishtail will grow back, and she will become a mermaid once again, to live for three hundred years with her family. The Little Mermaid takes the knife and walks into the bridal chamber. She looks upon the prince and his wife sleeping together, and—after struggling with herself—walks away, flinging the knife into the sea. The Little Mermaid has sacrificed her desires to be a selfless, loving woman. The sun rises and the mermaid throws herself into the water, feeling her body dissolve into foam.

But she’s not sea foam.

The Little Mermaid doesn’t feel pangs of death, and instead rises up. She sees hundreds of transparent beings who speak with a beautiful, spiritual melody. They explain to her that she is now one of them, a daughter of air. These beings do good deeds for three hundred years, and then receive an immortal soul and have eternal happiness and joy. The daughters of air tell the Little Mermaid that, since she had striven to sacrifice herself and do good deeds her whole life, after three hundred years of continuing this, she will gain an immortal soul and eternal life & joy. 

“And the little mermaid lifted her bright arms towards God’s sun, and for the first time she felt tears.”

I hope that you can see just how cool the original Little Mermaid is. Ariel may have cute red hair, but the true Little Mermaid has the guts to sacrifice her entire self for the sake of love.


  1. YES! Disney never seems to really "get" Hans Christian Andersen stories. I remember reading this one in Bratten's class, and was just struck by the realness of it all, and all the sadness and suffering turning into such a beautiful ending.

    It falls in right behind The Snow Queen, for me.

  2. This is really EPIC ! How did I missed such a great thing ? I've never been really fond of Ariel in Disney, because she is immature and capricious, in my opinion (typical teenager who falls in love with a beautiful but unknown prince, and rebels against her father's opinion, although full of good sense). But this changes everything ! Such love ? Great love ? In a fairytale ? Thank you for rehabilitating the Little Mermaid at such a high point in my esteem :)
    a French reader (forgive the grammatical aberrations ^^)

    1. My pleasure! I'm glad that you can now experience the true epicness of the real, true Little Mermaid :)
      (also, don't worry about any grammatical aberrations; I personally have gone through very few grammar books in my life, so I'm really not grammar-crazy.) :)