One of my blogger buddies, an Australian writer, pointed me toward the ‘Buried Words and Bushwa’ blog because of a post about mermaids. Are mermaids monsters? There’s certainly something monstrous about a creature that is half human and half fish. This second Aussie blogger, Metan, wrote about the historic fear of these almost-human sea creatures and included a clipping from a 1911 Scottish newspaper. It was definitely my kind of history lesson. She also pondered how the Disney concept of mermaids took over our collective consciousness, transferring mermaids from the scary zone to the land of happily ever after.
I’m not sure how it happened, but it certainly did. If you go back to the folk tales collected by the Grimm brothers — the original stories — you’ll find some pretty GRIM tales, filled with the kind of violence that you don’t find in Disney films. It seems like all of our fairy tales have been sanitized — swept clean of real evil, scary choices and bad consequences.
The blog about ‘real’ mermaid sightings sent me to the 1836 Hans Christian Andersen story. For .99 I got an illustrated version for my Kindle and read the kind of bedtime story that gives you nightmares. Yes — The Little Mermaid (the original Little Mermaid) is not a happily ever after kind of story.
The beautiful mermaid princess falls in love with the human prince she rescued from drowning and learns that, unlike humans, mermaids do not have immortal souls. The only way for her to obtain a soul is to share his. He just has to love her more than anyone else.
Of course there is no way for him to love her as she is — with a fish tail — so she must sacrifice everything for the chance of winning his love. When I say everything, I mean everything. She must give up her life under the sea, her beloved family and her beautiful voice. The physically painful transformation that will give her legs requires that she lose her ability to sing or speak.
Mute, human and without an immortal soul of her own, she finds that the prince loves her as he might love a pretty, stray dog. He takes her into his household but he loves another — a human. The little mermaid is doomed. She will die as soon as the prince is married to his human princess. Her sisters sacrifice their beautiful hair, exchanging it for a magical knife that our heroine can use to kill her rival and return to the sea. But she cannot bring herself to hurt the prince.
There’s simply no way to win here. She knows that she will be sea foam (the mermaid version of dust) soon. At the last minute, the creatures of the air adopt her. And in a coda that only a 19th century theologian could love, she will spend hundreds of years gaining and losing points toward an immortal soul on the basis of children being good or bad. (Yes, the children’s behavior drives her score up or down.)
OMG! This is very far from Disney and very far from any version of the story that I heard as a child. I woke up at four. I was having a nightmare about real fairy tales — the ones about real monsters, complete with big ugly teeth, claws and, yes, an occasional fish tail!