An excerpt from the essay “Mr. Andersen Lives Happily Ever After” an essay about the Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), author of famous fairy tales including “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Little Match Girl”, and “The Tinderbox.” His stories have served as an inspiration for the Disney movie The Little Mermaid and Frozen.
I remember my mother reading “The Little Mermaid” to me, as I lay in my bed, a crudely constructed bunk bed made of out thick, dark planks. I had insisted my parents buy me a bunk bed, even though I was an only child, which tells you in one brief image everything you need to know about my childhood loneliness.
One thing I remember about the story is the colors, a feeling of diving into a clear, blue world: “Way out at sea,” the story begins, “the water is blue as the petals on the loveliest corn-flower, and as clear as the purest glass, but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor rope can reach.”
The opening of the story spends a long time describing the underwater world of the mermaids. We’re told, for example, that roof of the sea king’s palace is “made of sea shells that open and close with the water currents.” Each one contains a “glittering pearl…just one of them would be a fine ornament for a queen’s crown.”
The Little Mermaid’s appearance is described in detail (“skin as clear and delicate as a rose petal, and her eyes were as blue as the deepest sea”), as are the various fashion accessories of the mermaid-world. The mermaids clip oysters to their tails, for instance; it’s quite painful, but the more oysters you can clip to your tail, the more aristocratic you are.
Looking at the story now, these long introductory descriptions seem so perfectly Hans Christian Andersen. That oyster detail, for instance: so subtly subversive, poking fun both at fashion conventions and the arbitrary nature of aristocratic status. Here’s a description of the Little Mermaid’s grandmother: “She was a wise woman, but proud of her nobility, and so she wore twelve oysters on her tail; the other aristocracy could only carry six. Apart from that she deserved a lot of praise…” The understated sass there is almost worthy of Jane Austen. At the same time, there’s something childishly over-the-top about this world: everything’s extravagantly beautiful, and covered in precious jewels.
As a child growing up in hot Arizona, I spent most of childhood in pools, soaking myself until the chlorine made me see double and turned my blonde ponytail green and bedraggled. One of the best games to play with friends was “Mermaid,” the crux of which was to describe how beautiful you would be as a mermaid. “I’ve got long, red hair, and my tail is blue and sparkly, and my shells are silver and gold,” you would declare to your friend, who would pretend to listen before launching into her own description: “My hair is black and my tail is silver and my shells are covered in sapphires.”
Then we would try to swim around the pool with our legs crossed, like a mermaid tail, which was very hard. We’d get bored quickly and move on to something else.
The opening of “The Little Mermaid” reminds me of that kind of play: lots of enthusiastic, over-the-top description, at once obsessively concerned with detail and gloriously unconcerned with follow-through. For instance, Andersen has the Little Mermaid’s grandmother explain the lack of mermaid afterlife thusly: “We can live for three hundred years, but when we cease to exist, we become only foam on the water and don’t even have a grave amongst our dear ones down here.” Then, less than a page later, the grandmother says, “We’ll spring and skip about during the three hundred years we have to live. It’s a good long time. Later we can so much the better rest in our graves.”
In my current collection of Andersen fairy tales, this inconsistency results in a footnote, and my favorite kind: the Sassy Footnote. While the rest of the footnotes merely note historical detail or issues with translation, this Sassy Footnote slyly observes, “Andersen evidently forgot that the grandmother has just explained that mermaids do not have graves.”
In response to this, I hear the exasperated voice, not of Andersen proper, but the character I created for my play The Clockmaker, a play about Andersen’s life. A crucial aspect of Andersen’s character as I saw it was a tendency to fudge details, both in his own life and his work. “I don’t write according to rules; that would be too tedious,” I have him, in a paraphrase of his own words, say, “The pen has to run and the heart dictate.”
In addition to the inconsistency of detail within the story, “The Little Mermaid” has the baggy, uneven feel of a first draft. The opening, for instance, is proportionally longer than the rest of the story; the Little Mermaid has five sisters, and Andersen describes the birthday celebration of each one before we even get to the central conflict of the story. Seeing as how when the Little Mermaid leaves the sea, we never return, and the sisters only ever appear as a group, the necessity of nearly two pages describing each sister’s birthday festivities, one by one, seems excessive.
This tendency to overload the beginning of a story with description, while rushing through the main parts is something I’ve seen in many first drafts, including my own, and in combination with the grandmother’s inconsistency, makes you wonder if Andersen allowed his pen to run after his heart without going back to revise.
This is probably true: Andersen could never make up the lacks in formal education that separated him from his writer-ly contemporaries, and chose instead to make a virtue out of that difference: “His writing style was often labeled by contemporaries as ‘unaesthetic,’ since it was much too colloquial and colored by imagination. It usually placed greater value on the content than on the demand for a specific form,” writes Jens Andersen, author of a really wonderful Andersen biography, Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life.
This spontaneous, emotional style has its appeal but extended even into some basic mechanics: “Spelling mistakes and errors in punctuation were abundant in Andersen’s work. In this area, as well, he was the way he was, and he took pride in it.” In other words: the heart dictated, the pen ran, and the other people were left to correct spelling mistakes and lament over structural inconsistencies in exasperated footnotes.
Andersen’s great unrequited love, Edvard Collin, was always fussing at Andersen to be less emotional, less sentimental, more restrained; such rebukes can seem cruel, especially as it is the emotional core that makes Andersen’s stories so resonant and wonderful. If Andersen had listened to his critics—who were legion—he would have accomplished very little. Yet, it’s worth noting that it was Edvard Collin and other patrons who corrected spelling mistakes on Andersen’s applications for financial grants and smoothed over the thousands little details that Andersen deemed “tedious.” Andersen, cheekily, often misspelled even Edvard’s name, calling him Eduard— preferring as always the whimsical, personal inaccuracy to the sober fact.
Perhaps it is this quality more than other that makes Andersen’s work childish, in the best and worst senses of the word. There is a privileging of image and emotion over sense and structure. His world is vivid and beautiful and cruel and melancholy and overstated and petulant and self-pitying and intense and unfocused.
Much like childhood: You want a bunk bed, though you have no siblings. You
would be beautiful as a mermaid and no one loves you. The game is very important but you soon lose interest. Details matter and yet they don’t matter at all. It makes no sense. It makes all the sense in the world.
Andersen had a tendency to fudge details in his accounts of his own life, too. He claimed status an orphan, for instance, before his mother’s actual death; a dead mother makes for a more romantic, sympathetic detail than a mother dying of alcoholism in a hospital for paupers. He largely erased his half-sister Karen from his autobiographies. Karen, after likely turning to prostitution, died of consumption in a garret only a few streets over from where Andersen, now a fairly established writer, was celebrating the signing of a successful contract to release his collected works prefaced by an autobiography.
Andersen published four autobiographies. One was called The True Story of My Life. Another was called The Fairy Story of My Life. Karen, as noted, appeared in none of them, but young, dying women are a frequent motif in his fairy stories. In “The Little Match Girl” the titular character dies on the street, dreaming of warmth and food and love, mere feet from those enjoying a better life. In “The Red Shoes” a little girl named Karen is too proud of her red shoes; she is forced to dance in them until she must cut off her own feet. When is she allowed back into church at the end of story—forgiven for her sin of worldly, womanly pride—she expires, from happiness.
Perhaps to pull off the kind of personal transformation that Andersen did requires a certain creative editing of facts, a willingness to believe in fantasy to the point of near-delusion. He was born into poverty in a rural, isolated part of Denmark; his family was not respectable—most of the female members of his family worked as prostitutes or engaged in other “licentious behavior” of some kind. His father was an unsuccessful shoemaker. Andersen was, by all accounts, awkward, ungainly, unattractive, effeminate, and barely educated. He was lower class at a time and place in which social hierarchy was extremely restricted and upward mobility nearly impossible; the prevailing belief was that those of lower classes were morally, physiologically, and spiritually inferior. He was filled with passionate romantic feelings towards the same sex at a time when such feelings were increasingly being categorized as mental illness or physical and spiritual degeneration. He was repeatedly told that his aspirations to be a writer were foolish and his writing amateurish, and those giving him this feedback were not necessarily mistaken—his early writing was a hodge-podge of multiple languages, spelling errors, and recycled ideas. Yet he ended his life a beloved writer and a national treasure. His fairy tales have achieved a degree of immortality few writers can dream of.
“The Little Mermaid” is largely about such a near-impossible, painful transformation in the quest for immortality. The Little Mermaid is entranced with the world of the humans on land, and particularly a handsome young prince whom she saves from drowning. But she only makes the decision to trade in her fins for legs when she discovers that love may win her an immortal soul: “Only if you became so dear to a human that you mean more to him than his father and mother, if he clung to you with all his mind and heart, and if you let the minister lay his right hand in yours with promises of faithfulness here and for all eternity, then his soul would flow into your body and you would share in the happiness of humanity. He would give you a soul and yet keep his own.”
It is often noted that “The Little Mermaid” sets up a really unhealthy model for young girls, proposing that women make extravagant sacrifices for the sake of a man. Yet I think the original story credits the Little Mermaid with a deeper ambition: she doesn’t just want a man—she wants to live forever.
She’s counseled to be content with what she has, but the longing for more, that driving ambition for nothing short of immortality, prevents the Little Mermaid from staying safely at home. The pursuit proves painful and arduous, and the Little Mermaid makes some extreme sacrifices, leaving her home behind forever and essentially mutilating herself.
And the quest for a man is (spoiler!) ultimately unsuccessful—the prince marries someone else. But the quest for an immortal soul, for which the man was only a means to an end, is more fruitful.
Success does not look like what the Little Mermaid envisions: there is no marriage and thus no gift of a soul. But she does achieve immortality of a kind, becoming an air spirit who might, with the help of well-behaved children, one day live forever.
It’s hard not see in this journey analogies for Andersen’s own: he was driven by desire for writer-ly immortality, and in pursuit of that was capable of a certain steely ruthlessness, shedding his family and essentially never looking back, just as when the Little Mermaid is told that she will never see her family again if she ascends to land, she replies, without hesitation, “I want to do it!”
It’s quite a fun game to tell someone who only knows the Disney movie about Hans Christian Andersen’s original version. Yet, reading the story again, I’m not struck by the differences, but how much the Disney movie actually gets right.
That long, baggy beginning, for instance, full of description of the mermaid’s kingdom: it’s the world-building of that underwater land where Disney’s Ariel (Andersen gives her no name) lives that makes the opening of the Disney movie so delightful. Andersen might not have gifted his mermaid with singing fish and crab friends with almost-Jamaican accents, but he understood the value of cute animal sidekicks: “[T]he fish swam right up to the little princesses and ate from their hands and allowed themselves to be petted.”
The Disney movie is actually shockingly faithful to the opening part of the story: in both, the Little Mermaid has a private place where she hordes cherished mementos, including a statute of a beautiful young boy. Both movie and book strike right at the heart of lonely youth with those details: “She was an odd child, quiet and thoughtful, and while her sisters decorated their gardens with all sorts of strange things they had found…she only wanted, except for red flowers that resembled the sun, a beautiful marble statue of a lovely boy.” With this, Andersen describes every young person sticking a poster of an actor on a bedroom wall, decorating any private space gifted to them, always feeling somehow apart.
This quest for self, fervid imaginings of a life and love that seem simultaneously close and impossibly far away: this is the power of The Little Mermaid, story and film. The little mermaid longs: how she longs. How she longingly longs. All of the mermaids love to hear about the human world up above but “none of them yearned as much as the youngest, the very one who had the longest time to wait, and who was so quiet and thoughtful.” Even the banalities of the human world seem exciting: “She especially thought it was strange and splendid that up on the earth the flowers gave off a fragrance that they didn’t do on the bottom of the ocean; and that the forests were green; and the fish that one saw among the branches could sing so loudly and delightfully that it was a joy.”
“What’s a fire, and why does it, what’s the word, buuuuuuuurrrrrnnnn,” I sing. “When it my turn? Wouldn’t I love, love to explore the world up above? Proper women, sick of swimmin’, ready to flllllllyyyyyyy…” I sing this song from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, wandering about by myself, on yet another vacation during which I am the only child and thus spend most of my time alone, talking and singing and reading and waiting. I sing it at a sleepover with a friend, until her father refuses to rent The Little Mermaid for us one more time. I sang it last week, in a friend’s living room, leading a group of friends in a drunken karaoke Disney chorus. I am always talking and singing and reading and waiting. Disney, in this case, gets it exactly and perfectly right.
Even when the Little Mermaid decides, fuck it, I’m going to the Sea Witch and get me some legs, the Disney movie keys into some of the story’s best details. “All the trees and bushes were polyps, half animal and half plant. They looked like snakes with hundreds of heads growing out of the ground.” In the movie, these become the slimy, “poor unfortunate souls” that Disney’s Ursula keeps trapped around her lair, folks whose desires backfired on them. Both story and film know that the search for transformation has its dark pitfalls.
In both versions, the Sea Witch demands that the Little Mermaid sacrifice her voice in order to gain legs. This is fairy tale literalness—the Little Mermaid isn’t sacrificing her authentic sense of self or her distinctive prose style; she’s actually not going to be able to speak.
“ ‘But if you take my voice,’ said the little mermaid, ‘what will I have left?’ ” The Sea Witch counsels that this will not serve as a roadblock in getting the Prince to fall in love: “ ‘Your beautiful appearance…your graceful gait, and your expressive eyes. You should be able to capture a human heart with those.’ ”
So it’s fairy tale literalness but it’s also fairy tale symbolism, which is typically both evocative and vague. This aspect also brings out critics of both story and Disney movie. Are we encouraging young girls to hide their true selves? To get a man through appearance and not personality?
Here I think the differences between the Disney movie and the story start to become important.
So let’s talk about those differences!
First: the gory details. So yeah, in the original, just like Disney movie, the Little Mermaid gives up her voice in order to attain legs—but she does so by having her tongue cut out.
Ow ow ow.
Speaking of pain, the process of attaining legs is explicitly described as being incredibly painful: “It will hurt,” the Sea Witch says. “It will be as if a sharp sword were cutting through you…every step you take will be like stepping on a sharp knife so the blood flows.”
But it’s really the ending that that is the crucial change between story and movie. Watch the face of the Disney-fan fall as you explain that in “the original,” the Prince doesn’t love The Little Mermaid back. They do become super-good pals, but he falls in love with someone else. In a twist that’s stepping-on-knives-cruel, the prince tells the silent former-mermaid this: “ ‘Yes, I love you best,’ said the prince, ‘because you have the kindest heart of all of them. You’re the most devoted to me, and you look like a young girl I once saw, but will never find again. I was on a ship that sank. The waves drove me ashore to holy temple, where several young girls were serving. The youngest found me on the shore and saved my life. I only saw her twice, but she’s the only one I could love in this life.’ ”
It’s just brutal, because of course the Little Mermaid was the one that saved him! But she can’t talk, so she can’t tell him that!
Really, the obvious solution here, the one that the narrative seems to set up, is for the Sea Witch’s spell to be broken somehow, so the Little Mermaid can tell the prince the truth, and we can all live happily ever after.
This is the edit the Disney movie goes with—and honestly? It makes sense. Most narratives don’t end up with secrets staying secrets. It’s not only heart-breaking but also narratively frustrating that in Andersen’s story the Prince never discovers the truth.
The original story opts for a more convoluted ending. It’s only about two pages—just about as much time as we spent on the sister’s birthday parties!—and it’s super-sad. The Prince finds the woman he thinks saved him, and they get married.
This part is confusing, and when I rewrote the story from the Prince’s point of view, in a story called “The Prince,” I found this aspect of the story kept throwing readers off, and I had to spend more and more time on it so that it would make sense to them. Basically, in Andersen’s story: the Little Mermaid rescues the Prince from a shipwreck but because he’s nearly drowned, he doesn’t remember much. He wakes up on a beach; the Little Mermaid is watching from the sea, but of course the Prince can’t see that. The first thing he sees is a lovely young woman, part of a group of novices from a local temple (presumably a convent of some kind; it’s never specified). This young woman, along with the other novices, takes him to the temple to make sure he recovers. He falls in love with the young woman whose face he first saw when he woke up, but he assumes because of the whole “temple” thing that she’s pledged her life to the church.
Later his parents pressure him to get married, so he goes to visit the princess they want him to marry, just to placate them. He’s really still in love with this nun-girl he saw on the beach because he thinks she saved his life, which she didn’t really do but kind of did, I guess? But it turns out the girl he saw on the beach is the same princess his parents want him to marry! Because she’s not a nun or anything, which presumably he would have realized if he’d ever followed up after meeting her on the beach, which he never did!
So they get married, and the Little Mermaid is screwed.
It’s a long set of convoluted coincidences, almost as if the narrative is twisting itself to avoid the Prince and Little Mermaid getting together by introducing this random other girl.
The Disney movie makes the “other girl” simply a spell cast by the Sea Witch, which honestly makes more sense, because it ties the whole story together and gives the Sea Witch believable motivations: she wants the Little Mermaid to fail—so that she turn her into a polyp—and so she intervenes, and as a result of this interference the Little Mermaid endures a lot of torture.
In the Andersen story, the Sea Witch is simply neutrally cruel; horrible things like giving up your voice aren’t part of any Sea Witch evil plan, but simply the cost of doing magic.
“I’ll never talk again,” sings Lady Gaga. “Oh boy, you’ve left me speechless.” In the unreliable-narrator-style of the pop song, she insists, “I’ll never write a song, won’t even sing along, oh boy you’ve left me speechless.”
“I’ll hold my breath until I die,” the young child insists. “Then you’ll be sorry.”
“I’ll never talk to you again,” your best friend tells you in second grade. She’s said this several times before, and it’s only true for a day or two, but that reduces the terribleness of the threat not even a tiny little bit. You wish you could leave her, but you have nowhere else to go.
“I think it’s better if we don’t talk again,” your ex-boyfriend tells your voicemail. “Don’t call me.”
“Fine,” says your boyfriend, annoyed that you are annoyed at something he’s said, “I’ll never say anything to you again, ever.”
It’s strangely empowering, this declaration that we will never utter another sound. If you won’t listen to me on my terms, then I won’t say anything at all. It’s self-mutilation as aggression.
But it’s also a contradiction, because the declaration of non-speech is also a form of powerful speech. By declaring Look what you’ve done, you’ve silenced me, you’re expecting a reaction: apology, chagrin, suffering.
The Little Mermaid’s cut-out tongue is like a fantasy enactment of these rash declarations: look what I’ve done to myself because of you. Magic and the fairy tale world make her able to follow through with the threat we’ve all made and received. I’ll never speak again.
Yet fantasy resolution is denied to Andersen’s Little Mermaid. The Prince never appreciates her silence or her suffering. But we, the readers, do. Reading the story as a child was like a reassurance that out there, somewhere, someone might appreciate all I didn’t say, all the things no one else wanted to listen to.
It’s also worth noting that The Little Mermaid’s silence tactic isn’t ultimately successful. The Disney movie is often criticized for its apparent message that a charming silence will win the guy, will get him to “kiss the girl.” But in the story, the technique is a big flop; the Little Mermaid is treated by the Prince as essentially a pet—he may not know that she was once part animal, but he treats her that way anyhow: “she was allowed to sleep outside his door on a velvet pillow.”
There is a sly bitterness to the description of the Prince’s interaction with the Little Mermaid. He leads her on: kissing her, playing with her hair, and laying his head against her heart. When they go on a sea voyage, he asks the Little Mermaid if she’s afraid of the sea, and then he tells her “about storms and calm seas, about strange fish in the depths and what divers had seen, and she smiled at his stories since she knew better than anyone what the ocean floor was like.” We’re several hundred years out from the coining of the term “mansplaining”, the phenomenon of a man launching into an explanation to a woman without pausing to reflect that she might know more about the subject than he, yet here we have a human man inadvertently manhumansplaining the sea to a mermaid.
Lots of characters in Andersen’s fairy tales are like that: on the edge of a magic they don’t fully understand and often accidently destroy. In “The Steadfast Tin Solider,” our honorable hero—a tin soldier possessed of one leg and a noble heart—is tossed into the fire by children unaware he possesses any sentience at all. He melts away, until all that remains is his little tin heart.
To sensitive souls, this makes Andersen’s the most grimly realistic tales of all, perceptive about the ways we accidentally ignore, annoy, and crush each other.
In Andersen’s stories, it’s often scholars and aristocrats—the ones who we rely on to investigate the truth and to dispense justice, the ones who should know better and who are often convinced they do—who are the most tragically oblivious to magic and to truth. This is the writer, after all, who wrote “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Still, even the young and innocent are also capable of cruelty. In “The Snow Queen,” a little boy gets a shard of mirror in his eye and in his heart. To him, everything now looks ugly, and he is cruel to his only friend, a little girl named Gerda.
Andersen, certainly, insisted that he did not write fantasies. Instead, he said, “the truth is so unhappy that it doesn’t look like reality at all.”
 Do mermaids “skip”?
 Fairy Tales: Hans Christian Andersen. Introduction by Jack Zipes. Translated by Marte Hvam Hult. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2007.
 Jens Andersen, Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Published by Overlook Duckworth, 2003. Translated from Danish into English by Tiina Nunnally, 2005.
Laura C.J. Owen was born in England, lived in Minnesota for school, and keeps moving to back to Arizona, where she grew up. She has degrees from Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Annalemma Magazine, DIAGRAM, Litro, and other places. More information can be found at http://www.lauracjowen.com