Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 6, 2008

Reading The Little Mermaid

Those Disney princess films are charming to legions, problematic to many, and some of both to more. My daughter grew up playing with the red-headed Ariel doll and memorizing the pretty fabulous songs from the 1989 animated version. E. recently told me of a vivid memory of me reading the “real” story to her while we vacationed in Maine. I can’t find that paperback in the house and it may well have been ousted, but I remember it, too. We got sucked in by the pretty pictures and probably an alternative to the Disney book, which, unlike the films, I find plodding and pedestrian in their summaries. But this “real” version? My girl mentioned being kind of scarred.

Scarring is not a mom’s intent. (spoiler alert, for those sticking to their Disney happy endings) Trying to recover some dignity, I said, “Well, the mermaid got to be sea spray in the end.” E. was having none of this now as she wanted none of it then, and I’ve got to say, reading some old fairy tales, thank goodness for Walt. But while I could wish for a happily-ever-after, Andersen’s version is moving. The Little Mermaid has a crush on the prince for sure, but in those pre-feminist times (this was pub. in the 1840s) she’s no damsel in distress. A turning point is her rescuing the prince from the sea, and her triumph at the original end is sacrificial but also compassionate and bold. And while she wants that prince, her longing extends to worlds beyond the quite lovely one she has known -– she wants cities and mountains and the ability to climb. Her yearning is moving, plus there are just lovely, in the Maria Tatar version from The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, descriptions of undersea life.

Living between two worlds? One student, who will graduate in a few months, noted how surprised she was to feel she was reading about herself.

I don’t necessarily suggest reading this book with kids (Tatar offers the footnotes, with psychological, political, and sociological interpretations, as something a reader might discuss with her child. This is a great book, but uh, no to that.) Tatar mentions that P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, said she’d rather “see wicked stepmothers boiled in oil” than slog through Little Mermaid. Maurice Sendak hated Hans Christian Andersen’s tales as did Ursula Le Guin, who wrote. “That didn’t stop me from reading them, and rereading them. Or from remembering them.”



  1. I did read the original of this story as a child, and I loved it. I remember all the pain–in the version I read, it was definitely literal pain as her tail [MORE SPOILERS] split into legs. I remember the sadness, too–but it seemed to me it was a sadness with freedom, the freedom of her getting to make her own choice.
    When I was lucky enough to go to Copenhagen and see the statue of the Little Mermaid on the rock, it was nice. Yes, I knew the statue itself was a kind of commercialism/tourism, but still–I was standing in the town where Anderson wrote his story and looking out at a symbol of it. And I remembered the story & was pretty glad I didn’t just have the Disney version in my head.

  2. .
    … and so Becky became a writer.
    That is a great story. I love the ambiguity and complexity, but… those feet. My students were grimacing and so was I. It is wonderful to know you could get beyond it!
    And see that statue; the pictures are gorgeous, with water behind — and as tourist traps go you could do far worse. I can hardly get to Boston without making a byway through the Public Garden to admire Nancy Shoen’s rendition of Make Way for Ducklings, and the kids who climb over them, and the mermaid statue seems right up there with that. Yeah, it wouldn’t work with Ariel.

  3. Oh, I would so love to see those ducklings! 🙂

  4. I didn’t read the original of this until I was an adult, reading it to one of my kids, home sick from school for the day. We were both shocked. But it was powerful. Happy? No. Powerful? Definitely. I think I was disappointed in her (not the story, but her choice), but I can’t remember for sure. It’s been years. I need to reread this and see what effect it has now.

  5. Yes, the power that carries through is amazing. Me who can hardly remember what happened from morning to afternoon am still mulling. I think all the great fairy tales are a treasure trove for poets.

  6. Yes! I have a fairy tale-related poetry project on the back burner right now, in fact. You’re right…they have a depth that is similar to poetry, so that’s a good match.

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