"Body or Soul": On Versions of the Little Mermaid
By A. N. Devers
A couple of years ago, I developed and taught a “Fairy Tales and Contemporary Fiction” class at Adelphi University. The syllabus paired classic fairy tales with contemporary adaptations in novel, short story, and poetry forms. I presumed that the students would be (at the very least) superficially familiar with common versions of the tales, but I quickly discovered that Grimm, Perrault, and Andersen were strangers to them. What they knew was Disney, inside and out. As a child growing up in the 1980s, I watched the Disney movies, too, but I also read the original tales. My students, on the other hand, could barely outline the plot of Little Red Riding Hood (Why? Not a Disney movie). Greater cultural deficits aside, this meant they were under the misguided impression that fairy tales always end “happily ever after” One reading of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid would cure them of that misconception.
Andersen’s story, which he wrote in 1836, centers on a mermaid princess who, at 15, is granted the same privilege as her older sisters: permission to swim the surface to view the world above the sea. On the occasion of her ascent, there’s a terrible storm and our mermaid rescues a handsome prince from a shipwreck, falls in love with him, and becomes desperate to leave her ocean home and family to be with him on land. She brokers a deal with the villainous sea witch: she will sacrifice her voice in exchange for a pair of legs. But her sacrifice is far worse in the Andersen tale than the Disney movie ever lets on. Here, the sea witch makes no qualms about the horrors of the mermaid’s bargain:
I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.
About the sea witch, Andersen and Disney’s creators are in agreement: she is the most grotesque of fairy tale villains. In Marina Warner’s fantastic From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers Warner claims that Disney’s characterization:
[E]xpresses the shadow side of this desiring rampant lust; an undulating obese octopus, with a raddled bar-queen face out of Toulouse-Lautrec and torso and tentacles sheathed in black velvet, she is a cartoon Queen of the Night, avid and unrestrained, what the English poet Ted Hughes might call “a uterus on the loose.”
Fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar describes Disney’s witch as a “Medusa-like octopus who […] represents the monstrosity of feminine power.” Andersen gives little physical description of the witch, but his characterization of her is equally appalling: “There sat the sea witch, allowing a toad to eat from her mouth, just as people sometimes feed a canary with a piece of sugar. She called the ugly water-snakes her little chickens, and allowed them to crawl all over her bosom.”
Despite the great sacrifice, Andersen’s mermaid agrees to the sea witch’s conditions. She goes to land but is unable to woo the engaged prince in time to stop his nuptials. The mermaid’s sisters, learning of her fate, offer their hair to the sea witch as a trade to save their sister. They give their sister a knife and tell her that she must kill the prince to return to the sea. But she can’t do it. Instead, she tosses the knife into the sea and her body dies. She transforms into “a daughter of the air.” She learns from others like her that she has lost her soul but can win it back by doing good deeds for 300 years.
Marina Warner traces Andersen’s inspiration for The Little Mermaid to both Eastern and Western traditions “about undines and selkies, nixies, Loreleis, and Mélusines, in which the fairy creature appears on earth and stays with a mortal as his bride only on certain conditions.” There is The Arabian Nights’ “Julnar the Sea-born” about a silent bride who comes from the sea and Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, about a selkie who “loses the love of her prince to the human princess who can speak (and sing).” For Warner, Andersen’s mermaid is “sister to Philomel, and to Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, and to other raped and mutilated figures of myth and tragedy.”
Knowing nothing of this dark legacy, my students were unprepared for the trials and sufferings in store for Andersen’s mermaid. When we read the original story in class, there were moans of agony and protestation. My students immediately decided they far preferred the Disney version. They believed, and it’s an innocent assumption, that the Disney version is kinder to the mermaid than Andersen. But I disagree. Andersen’s heroine may lose her soul, but Disney’s mermaid sacrifices her physical identity in order to claim her man. There’s no question that around the time this film came out there was a cultural shift. Is it a coincidence that the media started reporting stories about teens requesting boob jobs and liposuction for their birthdays around the same time as this film’s release? Maybe. Or more likely, Disney’s fairy tale reflected the contemporary culture that had already made a disturbing change.
Other contemporary adaptations of The Little Mermaid offer more nuanced and intriguing possibilities for the protagonists. In the animated film Ponyo, created by famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo, a fish-girl, desires to become a human, and she uses her magical powers to transform, unsettling the natural world. She isn’t punished for her desire, per se, but she must find a way to right the imbalance she caused. In Samantha Hunt’s gorgeous novel The Seas, a girl in a Northwest seaside town full of alcoholics is convinced she is a mermaid. Her father disappeared when she was younger and she dreams of finding him in the sea. Like Andersen’s mermaid, she is in love with an unobtainable man. She explains, “When I see him walking with women that I don’t know I feel how I am not a part of this town. I feel as though I am floating in the surf and saw him on dry land with another woman but when I swim to shore I realize too late that I don’t have legs but a big tail and then I am beached and suffocating and the people who live in town are poking me with a stick wondering, 'What the hell is she?'” Hunt plays with familiar and subversive fairy tale elements, sprinkling them throughout her unusual and dark narrative. She turns the tale on its head, and allows her narrator to leave the land for the sea.
My students were often challenged by Hunt’s novel, at times unsure what to think of its strangeness, darkness, and sadness. But by the end of our unit on The Little Mermaid, they were also acknowledging the strangeness of their beloved Disney cartoon — and questioning its message for the first time. It’s the charming nature of fairy tales that we love them despite their horridness. But I wonder what the tale might look like decades from now, when it is adapted to reflect a new cultural moment. Instead of validating stereotypical gender roles and/or reflecting our culture’s acceptance and near-celebration of plastic surgery, I like to dream there will be a little mermaid who can have her man and keep her tail too.
On Aquamarine and My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl
By Sarah Kuhn
The Little Mermaid, no matter how her tale is told, is a heroine with the ultimate mundane dream: to be a boring human instead of the utterly fantastical creature she already is.
She gets a lot of flack for transforming her body to pursue what is basically a crush, but I can’t help but feel her quest is bigger than that — a yearning for an unknown that seems fantastical to her because it’s the complete opposite of her daily existence. Also, unlike some of the more ethereal fairy tale princesses, she is maybe just a little bit crazy obsessive about her quest. As a girl who files, catalogs, and cross-references her comic book collection, I can relate.
I love retellings of The Little Mermaid that capture this essential humanity, that give us a vivid portrait of this character and make us feel her yearning at every crucial stage. And yes, that includes the Disneyfied version, but it also includes two very different books: Alice Hoffman’s 2001 young adult novel Aquamarine and Rosa Guy’s 1985 tome My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl, which was later used as the basis for the musical Once on This Island. Both are slender volumes that use carefully chosen words to tell this story in a way that is economical yet poetic. And both draw you in fully with their very specific depictions of the Little Mermaid.
In Aquamarine the title character is a mermaid who Hailey and Claire, both 12 and best friends, discover at the bottom of the beach club pool where they spend their summers. Aquamarine immediately makes a big impression by snarling at them to go away. Hoffman observes: “[S]he was much ruder than most creatures you might find at sea. At sixteen, she was the youngest of seven sisters, and had always been spoiled. She’d been indulged and cared for and allowed to act up in ways no self-respecting mermaid ever would.”
Therein lies the chief appeal of Aquamarine as a heroine: she may be a fantastical creature, but she’s also a bratty, assertive, terribly complicated teenage girl with clearly defined desires and flaws. Though there is a romantic through line — Aquamarine crushes on college-bound Raymond, who runs the beach club snack shop — the meat of the book concerns itself with the friendship that forms between the three girls. Claire is moving away at the end of the summer while Hailey stays put, and Hoffman delicately underscores the shifting dynamic between the two girls as they try to go about their days without acknowledging the harsh fact that they’re about to be separated. This subtle sense of melancholy is a delicate thread that winds its way through the book and makes the girls’ adventure with Aquamarine all the more extraordinary. And while the specifics of this adventure may seem small scale (the duo helps Aquamarine go on a date with Raymond), Hoffman’s lyrical words capture the epic scope female friendships take on when you’re 12 and every millisecond of life seems weighted with earth-shattering importance.
The heroine in My Love, My Love is not literally a mermaid: she’s an orphaned peasant girl coming of age on a lush Caribbean island. Désirée Dieu-Donné saves the life of wealthy city-dweller Daniel Beauxhomme and falls in love with him. Guy’s writing has a beautiful, fable-like quality as she describes the island and Désirée’s growing awareness of the world around her. But she also manages the neat trick of providing a clear-eyed look at the race and class issues that make Désirée — who has darker skin than Daniel — an outcast in the moneyed world of the man she loves. For example: “Désirée never saw the sly glances of the hotel maids, nor did she listen to the gossip about ‘the woman who took off her shoes.’ And it didn’t matter to her that she was never asked to accompany Daniel and his father when le Père Beauxhomme insisted that his son visit old friends.” This ensures that while we admire the emotional openness of our heroine, we also don’t fully buy into the fantasy as she does. She doesn’t see, as we might, that her romance is doomed from the beginning: she simply believes that love will overcome all. In a way, that makes us feel for her even more.
Like Aquamarine, Désirée is set on a quest with a touch of the mundane to it. Because even though she is transformed in an external way once she becomes part of Daniel’s world (beautiful gowns, fancy shoes), her ultimate dream remains the same: all she wants is true love with Daniel. If she can achieve that, nothing else matters. Désirée’s fortitude and dedication to love make her as appealing a heroine as Aquamarine — but her ultimate fate is very different. And because it’s nearly impossible to talk about The Little Mermaid without talking about endings, please stop here if you’d rather remain in the dark about either of these books.
Much was made of the fact that the Disney version changed Hans Christian Andersen’s original ending, wherein the Little Mermaid gives up her own happiness and turns into seafoam. Personally, I always felt like a happy ending was the right one for Ariel’s story — and adapting classic tales is, to me, about the specificity different storytellers bring to the table.
Like Ariel, Aquamarine’s journey ends on a hopeful note: she returns to the sea, but keeps dating Raymond (who, luckily, is an excellent swimmer). Narratively, there’s a satisfying sense of rightness about this — it’s not as picture-perfect or tidy as Aquamarine transforming into a human or Raymond becoming a merman. Instead, it has them compromising, as couples do, to make something potentially wonderful work. And it adds a new dimension of fairy tale to the story: the powerful image of “a girl who was waiting for him, far beyond the breaking waves.”
Désirée is not as lucky. After her “prince” marries someone else, she is cast into the streets and trampled to death outside the grand hotel she once inhabited as a hopeful young woman in love. It’s stark and brutal (though enhanced by the image of a swarm of butterflies covering her corpse, perhaps to spirit away her soul), but having seen the tale unfold as we have, it also feels like the only way the story could end.
And yet, even though we may know that in our heads, even though any other ending would have felt utterly false, in our hearts, we can’t help but wish Désirée could have achieved true happiness as well. It’s a testament to both of these heroines — so lovingly created, so achingly human, so believably true in their yearnings — that we want both of them to attain that ultimate mundane dream that made them so relatable in the first place.
"Guppy Love": On Of Poseidon
By Shana Mlawski
To Homer, the Siren was a villain; to British sailors, a harbinger of nautical doom. To Hans Christian Andersen, she was the inspiration for a cautionary tale; to the Disney Corporation, a heroine and a goldmine. But no matter when they were written, and no matter who wrote them, sirenic fables always revolve around the twin dangers of curiosity and desire.
Or, to put it more bluntly, curiosity and smokin' hot babes. Anna Banks's first novel, Of Poseidon, is no exception. With two mermaid hotties at its center, the story has the fantastical revelations of Twilight, along with all the steam of a Harlequin Romance. Eighteen-year-old Emma — of violet eyes, albino complexion, and ever-swishing hips — is vacationing in Florida when she crashes into 20-year-old Galen, a walking six-pack who “could make sculpted statues jealous.” Galen's tall, dark, and — you guessed it — a merman. To be more precise, he’s a Sirena prince, next in line to the Triton throne. Galen's up on the surface in his bipedal form to investigate why sea creatures are so taken with the apparently-human Emma. Emma, meanwhile, would like to know why this dreamboat is interested in her. And before long, they're both curious about what the roof of the other's mouth tastes like.
Told in alternating chapters — first-person for chatty Emma and third-person for Galen — Of Poseidon seems, at times, to be more rom-com than fairy tale, with its clumsy but beautiful heroine, its belligerent sexual tension, and its barrage of plot points that conspire to keep our lovebirds (lovefish?) apart. On the other hand, romantic comedies usually don’t begin with a graphic depiction of the protagonist’s best friend getting her leg ripped off by a shark.
This is not your childhood Little Mermaid, that's for sure. For one thing, Banks keeps the magic to a minimum, replacing sea witches and spells with a kind-of-silly, kind-of-cool mer-science. The plot is propelled by the mystery of what Emma is and where she came from, a puzzle that requires a trip to a marine biologist, dissertations on Sirena genetics and physiology, and good old-fashioned human experimentation. Can Emma breathe underwater like merman Galen can? Science says, “No, but she can stay under a pretty long time.” Can Emma turn her legs into a tail and back again? Science says, “Answer unclear, try again later.”
Along with the biology instruction, Banks schools readers in Sirena politics and history. It turns out that Emma's ability to communicate with sea creatures is actually the rare Gift of Poseidon, and if she marries Triton's king (Galen's brother), it could end an undersea Cold War. On the other hand, if Galen mates with Emma, screwing both the peace process and his brother, it could lead to the Sirenas' extinction. Interesting as this premise sounds on paper, it is sometimes weighed down by overlong explanations. I wish, too, that Banks had developed Triton and its subjects a bit more, so the prospect of a mer-pocalypse would evoke more concern. Instead, Emma and Galen spend most of the book on dry land, bickering, threatening their romantic rivals with violence, and longing for each other. Perhaps this is as it should be. No one reads mermaid myths to learn about mermaid physiology or foreign policy — though if you're curious about how finned folk procreate, Banks has thoughtfully provided an answer. (They turn human and canoodle on a beach.)
While curiosity sets the tone of the mermaid fable, yearning — for foreign environments, for true love — is its driving force. In Of Poseidon, the yearning takes the form of, well, that yearning. The “let's get you out of that damp wetsuit” kind of yearning. Which is fine, except I had little investment in Emma and Galen's developing romance, which is too possessive and catfight-filled for my feminist sensibilities. That said, Banks can sure craft some swoony “kiss the girl” scenes. While sometimes her prose had me itching for an editor — Galen pinches the bridge of his nose so often I hoped he didn't have a sinus infection — Banks's language springs to life in the romantic scenes:
He brushes his lips against hers, cutting her off. They're softer than he ever imagined. And it's not enough. Moving his hand from her jawline to entwine it in her damp locks, he pulls her to him. She tips up on her toes to meet him and as he lifts her from the ground, she folds her arms around his neck. Just as hungry for him as he is for her, she opens her mouth for a deeper kiss, pressing her soft curves into him.
That smooch scene and others will have teen readers running for a cold dip in the ocean.
Mermaid stories can end in victory (Odysseus doesn't give in to temptation), catastrophe (the sailors drown), bittersweetness (the Little Mermaid loses her prince but wins a soul), or happily ever after. Of Poseidon eschews these options in favor of not ending at all. In a sequel-anticipating move, Banks stops the narrative at the exact moment of the big reveal, an anagnorisis that, while not entirely shocking, promises more interesting conflicts to come. It's as if Disney's Little Mermaid ended right when Ariel realizes the prince is about to marry a disguised Ursula, and viewers had to wait a year and buy another ticket in order to see the conclusion. But maybe keeping us from the climax is right in line with the mermaid mythos. When all is said and done, what Banks leaves us with is curiosity and yearning.
On Monstrous Beauty
By Rachelle Cruz
We immediately depart from Disney’s favorite hybrid — a honeyed voice, well-endowed redhead with a penchant for hoarding kitchen utensils and knickknacks — when we meet Syrenka in the first few pages of Elizabeth Fama’s Monstrous Beauty. One morning, Syrenka finds herself entangled in a fishing net set by the mortal man she desires. After cutting through the fiber mesh, she lifts her cheek above water, revealing herself, and then slowly approaches him. She longs for his love and attention despite the mother of the sea, Noo’kas’s warnings. After swimming deeper into the ocean with her lover, Syrenka misunderstands his struggles to breathe as fits of passion; she appears completely unaware of her terrifying strength. And here, we are reminded of a universal risk: “She had dared to love, and she had lost everything.”
We travel between the year 1873 and the present to follow a story of forbidden love between a mortal man and a mermaid, an intergenerational curse, and an investigation of ancestry set in historical Plymouth, Massachusetts. In present-day Plymouth, 17-year-old Hester swears off love, sex, and romance. She refuses to follow the familiar trajectory of her mother and her maternal ancestors’ tragically interrupted lives: fall in love, get married then mysteriously die in childbirth. The only vestige of Hester’s mother is a single, inherited token: a gold, heart-shaped necklace passed down from mothers in their deathbeds to newborn infants in her family for generations. Hester begins to wonder if this pattern is simply coincidence. As she explores the causes of these perplexing deaths, she encounters buried family secrets, stories of mass murder and spirits bound to the earth who speak to Hester, leaving clues about her history along the way.
Back in 1873, a few hundred years after Syrenka’s first encounter, we meet Ezra, a young naturalist with a keen interest in underwater life and the folklore that surrounds the mythic creatures who live in the bay. At a rocky outcropping near shore, while recording observations and sketching the wildlife around him, he glimpses a woman in the water: Syrenka. And despite the warnings from Olaf Ontstaan, a neighbor who believes mermaids are wicked demons, Ezra continues to meet with Syrenka. He learns more about her kind, examining then drawing her features, the webbing between her fingers, the sharpness of her fins. Wary of her own power, she forbids Ezra to touch her. However, the tension between them heightens, and their romance begins a startling gruesome and tragic chain of events.
Along with her mermaid sisters, Syrenka is pale and white haired, an immortal creature living in the deepest waters that requires no sunlight. She moves gracefully and is seemingly ethereal as her phosphorescent skin reflects the green ocean water. Her beauty is both mesmerizing and terrifying as we discover the blade-sharp fins attached to her wrists are weapons for survival and defense. While Disney’s Ariel sings longingly about joining her crush Eric, to be “part of [his] world,” Syrenka devours the internal organs of a mortal man to join her lover on land: “To give herself human form, she ripped open the fisherman’s chest, broke his rib cage, and ate his warm, moist lungs.”
In a guest blog post at "Birth of a New Witch," Fama discusses her reimagining of mermaids and the development of Syrenka:
Mermaids make no evolutionary sense. A human on top and a fish on the bottom? It feels too implausible. Add to this the eye shadow, sequins, and sea-shell bras that popular culture sometimes foists on these poor creatures, and they can verge on saccharine. But then I met some pretty brutal mermaids in the short story “The Third Wish” from Hellboy: Strange Places by Mike Mignola. These mermaids were worn and ruthless, their queen was the Bog Roosh, who had somehow transformed into a grotesque, giant catfish with breasts. Suddenly mermaids were so cool.
Their grotesque appetite and ferocity in Monstrous Beauty are utterly cool. Fama’s examination of both monstrosity and beauty (as mermaid, as mother, as daughter) and their blurred lines is deftly intertwined throughout the narrative, and it is satisfying to experience the interactions between richly complicated female characters who are kind sisters who take in a strange girl; widows who seek revenge and tremble at the responsibility of motherhood; and young women who decide that romantic love isn’t in the stars — “sea hags” and mermaids thirsty for power and hungry for beauty.