Fairy Tales and Grimm Stories

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!


  1. Great post Candy and a truly scary fairytale. I think I must have read a watered down version when I was a kid because I remember that she could not speak or sing but somehow I thought it had a happy ending of some kind. I suspect my brain combined bits and pieces of the story from a number of sources…including Disney :/

    I love the bit about kids being able to help the Mermaid acquire a soul. I wish I’d known that when Katie was little… and yes, I /think/ I might have played that card on tidying her room. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t know lol!

    • Candy

      Yes, the end of the original story really did give me a creepy feeling — like Santa’s good and bad lists but more so. Anyway, I know I heard versions of the story as I was growing up, but I’m 100% sure that my father (our bedtime story reader) would not have read this one to us. When the mermaid goes to the witch and has to swap her voice for the painful transformation to having fee was really scary. I was a kid who got nightmares….. I don’t want to think about it. But of course I was a kid who got nightmares and vivid dreams — I still get them. Now, I just use them in stories, LOL.

      • My daughter is just the same! Even now at 25 there are some things she really should not watch on tv – like horror stories 🙂 Sadly she LOVES horror stories. Wish I’d made the connection when she was little!

        • Candy

          Now that she’s 25, I think you’re off the hook. Chuckling at this one, as I don’t always listen to my mom.

  2. Metan

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I did another scary mermaid one on Friday if you are interested, an article about a saintly mermaid and some creative taxidermy caught my eye.

    It is a pity that the Disney version of those fantastic fairy tales has taken over our minds, the ‘and everybody lived miserably ever after’ version is far more entertaining.
    I think it is indicative of our ‘nanny’ society, in the new interpretations all the rough edges are smoothed away and all the bad guys quickly neutralized. In the old stories bad things happened and sometimes you just had to get on with life despite unfairness. I think that those are much more realistic views of the world (I would rather the other ending in my life though!). We all want our kids to live happily ever after though don’t we, so those are the stories we want them to know!

    I’m sorry the mermaid gave you a bad dream, it certainly didn’t pay to be a real fairytale princess, chances are something awful would happen to you!!

    • Candy

      Yes, being a fairy tale princess certainly comes with a big price tag. They are the classic women-in-jepardy, only their dangers are usually magical. The Nanny society is, indeed, part of that clean-up crew.

      p.s. I thought I’d subscribed to your blog, but somehow it didn’t work. I will try again.

      • Blame wordpress Candy. The devs have been tweaking the system without telling us and we don’t usually find out about it until after the fact 🙁 I’m not a happy camper at the moment.


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