“Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above.”
And so begins the tale of “The Little Mermaid.”
Since it was published in 1837, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” has captured the imaginations of girls and women alike. Walt Disney’s reinvention of The Little Mermaid in 1989 became the catalyst for a new generation of mermaid lovers and birthed mermaid culture.
Why when the littlest mermaid is longing for the world above, we are longing for her world below?
Perhaps we identify with the mermaid’s longing because we know there is something more to life–even in our normal, everyday lives–but, we feel stuck.
The sea is often a metaphor for both power and beauty, invitation and danger. Its depths unreachable, its waves untameable. We want to change places with the mermaid. Our world is boring, hers an unfathomable mystery. But we can’t. We have no fins.
Not only do we desire to go where we cannot, we desire to be what we do not see ourselves as–the beautiful maiden. Mermaids are beautiful, alluring creatures–desired by men and women alike. Mystical and magical, they seem carefree spirits who can go where we cannot. They have a power we do not–they can protect or destroy (if you lean to sirens and mermaids being one in the same).
We want to be beautiful and powerful, desired and free to dive into the dark depths.
Mermaids have become the epitome of mystery and beauty.
Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”
In the original tale, after years of watching her older sisters the littlest mermaid is permitted to see the world above on her fifteenth birthday, but more than simply the allure of the mortal world she desires a soul–yes, a soul.
Mermaids, as creatures of the deep, were not given souls by Anderson. They simply died after three hundred years and become sea foam, transformed into nothingness.
“We have no immortal soul, no life hereafter. We are like the green seaweed – once cut down, it never grows again. Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, long after their bodies have turned to clay. It rises through thin air, up to the shining stars. Just as we rise through the water to see the lands on earth, so men rise up to beautiful places unknown, which we shall never see.”
“Why weren’t we given an immortal soul?” the little mermaid sadly asked. “I would gladly give up my three hundred years if I could be a human being only for a day, and later share in that heavenly realm.”
“You must not think about that,” said the old lady. “We fare much more happily and are much better off than the folk up there.”“The Little Mermaid,” Hans Christan Andersen
In the conversation between the little mermaid and her grandmother, Anderson paints a picture of what the mermaid longs for and what is forbidden to her. She would trade all she has, all she is, all her three hundred years for one day to be human.
But mortality, to gain an immortal soul, is forbidden to her, and so she laments,
“Then I must also die and float as foam upon the sea, not hearing the music of the waves, and seeing neither the beautiful flowers nor the red sun! Can’t I do anything at all to win an immortal soul?”
“No,” her grandmother answered, “not unless a human being loved you so much that you meant more to him than his father and mother. If his every thought and his whole heart cleaved to you so that he would let a priest join his right hand to yours and would promise to be faithful here and throughout all eternity, then his soul would dwell in your body, and you would share in the happiness of mankind. He would give you a soul and yet keep his own. But that can never come to pass.
And there we have it, the little mermaid’s gateway: the love of a mortal man.
(Ah, how we could dive into the dangerous thought that a woman’s freedom and liberation must come through the love of a man.)
On her fifteenth birthday she is bedecked in pearls and jewels and ventures to the world above where she happens upon the birthday cruise of a prince. She watches from her hidden place, peeking through the porthole windows, enamored with the prince and the scene. Then comes the storm.
The mermaid saves the prince from drowning. But he doesn’t know. He’s taken in by a group of women from a nearby convent. But the little mermaid keeps coming back, forlorn and lovesick, hoping for another glance at the prince. Eventually, one of her sisters has pity on her and takes her to the prince’s palace.
And on and on, until the mermaid finds herself in front of the sea witch trading her fins and voice for legs and a chance to win the prince’s love, thereby gaining an immortal soul.
The catch? Every step feels like stepping on a thousand knives and if the prince doesn’t fall in love with her but loves and marries another, then the mermaid will turn to sea foam the next day. No return to her mermaid family under the sea, no three hundred years to continue living out. Only, immediate death.
But the prince never loves her, not as a husband loves a wife. He’s fond of her, but only with the loving affection of a child, and he marries another. But the little mermaid has one more chance. Her sisters have bargained their beautiful hair for a knife. If she murders the prince and his bride in their sleep, then she can escape death of sea foam and return to her former life.
She cannot and, so, she jumps into the sea expecting death.
But, instead of becoming sea foam she is spirited away by the Daughters of the Air, spirits who roam the earth and can gain an immortal soul by doing good deeds for three hundred years.
In the end, the little mermaid gains a pathway to her ultimate longing, but not without pain, regret, and suffering. Not without three hundred years of earning her way.
There’s a lot that could be said of what Andersen was saying (or trying to say) between the lines, particularly in the church and immortality, longing and sexuality, morality through suffering. But that’s a topic for another day.
You can read the full text of the story here.
“There’s your draught,” said the witch: My Approach
The Sea and all Its Stars is my offering to the pantheon of “The Little Mermaid” retellings, but it deviates.
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to approach a “The Little Mermaid” retelling. When we feel an affront to our mermaid senses, I believe that comes from the love and identification we have put into the story. It is hard to see a beloved story ripped apart and reimagined when we have identified and put meaning into that story. In essence, we have become the story ourselves.
In my retelling (along with the incorporation of Greek myths), I kept some of the same elements of the original, but tell a different story. Even reviewing Hans Christan Andersen’s original tale, I noticed a surprising parallel flip that I hadn’t intentionally set out to do, but for that–you’ll have to wait to read it.
There is no sea witch, but there are a couple of older female characters who fulfill the fairy tale archtypes of matron and crone, while Thaleia the littlest nereid is the maiden.
There is a storm, a shipwreck, and a saving. Those chapters are some of my favorite.
There is a lost voice, but no stepping on knives. I really wanted to make it work, but it felt a little forced and since my novel is stretched over almost two years, every step feeling like a thousand knives seemed a bit too much pain to put my character through.
There are a cast of sisters who will do anything for their sister, but they don’t bargain murder for life.
There are no mermaid tails (except for Nereus), but there is some shapeshifting. That will probably be the most disappointing aspect in my revision, but so be it. It works for the Greeks.
In the end The Sea and all Its Stars is a story of longing for what is not, for what could be and being brave enough to follow the voices that beckon, even if it means pain and unraveling of what one knows to be true. To discover the deeper depths of life may not be hidden so far from where they seem.
“This is the way that we shall rise…”
Stories are transformative or, at least, they should be. Whether you’re exchanging fins for legs, voice for a soul, or wake up one day to realize you don’t have to be stuck in the same boring or hurtful or monotonus pattern. You have a choice. You can leave the ocean.
In everyday life, we rely on the pleasingly deceptive fantasy that we will always be whatever we are now, while fairy tales strip away this illusion, or narcotic, and point us toward the underlying truth. To be fully alive and aware of our human fate, we must do our best to wake up to the transformations–which mean the transience–of our lives.Spinning Straw into Gold, Joan Gould
Your story is transformative. Your longings and the choices you make, the sacrifices and sufferings you walk through are transformative. Your life will transform you whether you’re a willful participate or not. We are always becoming something.
But we are met with choice. Every day.
When life seems to hold no promise for tomorrow but loss or death; a locked door–inside us, or out–opens itself. […] We grow closer to what we hoped to be.”Spinning Straw into Gold, Joan Gould
What do you hope to be? Where is the door opening?