Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre's online course, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds The Little Mermaid is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s very best-known fairy tales, one that has also been used in innumerable films, stories and performances the world over. Andersen’s original tale contains a number of deviations from the fundamental structure on which a folktale normally is based. In the many versions found in films, plays, etc. these deviations are, however, rarely retained. New conclusions or other features that alter the structure of the original are quite simply incorporated. And now to the fairy tale as written by Hans Christian

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds Andersen: The little mermaid is not like her sisters. She is born with a longing for something else than the usual mermaid’s carefree life for 300 years. When she comes of age, as her sisters before her, she is granted a look at human life up above the water. Her sisters found this glimpse of something outside their own world interesting but nothing more than that. The little mermaid, on the other hand, is deeply influenced by both the tale told by her grandmother and also because her indeterminate longing is made tangible in the form of the prince who is shipwrecked. She saves the prince from a death by drowning that could have brought him down to her as a corpse.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds The little mermaid is obsessed by the thought of being transformed from a mermaid into a human being. She is also obsessed with the dream of leaving behind her unproblematic and happy life in order to gain a soul and humanity. The Little Mermaid So I am to die and float like foam on the sea, not hear the music of the waves, see the lovely flowers and the red sun! Is there nothing I can do to gain an eternal soul!? No!

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds the old woman said, only if a human were to fall so in love with you that you were more to him that his father and mother; if all his thoughts and love were centred on you, and he would let the priest place his right hand in yours and promise to be faithful now and in all eternity. Only then would his soul flow over into your body and you would partake in human happiness. He would give you a soul and yet retain his own. But that can never happen!

Skip to 3 minutes and 5 seconds For what is so lovely here in the ocean, your fish’s tail, they find ugly up there on the earth, they don’t understand it at all, there one has to have two clumsy props that they call legs in order to be considered beautiful or handsome! The grandmother tells the mermaid the conditions for the transformation, but rejects the idea that it is possible for normal mermaids. The little mermaid, however, has the resolve that protagonists in traditional folktales also possess. They are determined for something else. In that sense, The Little Mermaid contains a number of elements found in a classical folktale. The mermaid follows the realisation of her venture, which is to participate in the human or to become a human being.

Skip to 3 minutes and 59 seconds The helper is the witch, who in the classical folktale has supernatural powers and insights. She can provide the mermaid with the attributes and skills that are required if she is to continue and pursue her goal.

Skip to 4 minutes and 16 seconds But her services come at a cost: You’ve come at precisely the right time, the witch said, tomorrow when the sun rises I couldn’t have helped you before another year had passed. I will prepare a drink for you; before the sun rises you must swim with it to where there is land, sit down on the shore there and drink it, then your tail will split and contract into what humans call a nice pair of legs, but it will hurt you, it is as if a sharp sword passed through you. Everyone who sees you will say you are the loveliest human child they have ever seen!

Skip to 5 minutes and 4 seconds you will keep your floating walk, no dancer can float as you can, but each step you take will be like treading on a sharp knife that made your blood flow. Are you prepared to suffer all this? for then I will help you.

Skip to 5 minutes and 26 seconds But remember this, the witch said, once you have assumed human form, you can never become a mermaid again! you can never dive down through the water to your sisters and to your father’s palace, and if you do not gain the love of the prince, so that he forgets his father and mother for you, unless you fill all his thoughts and he lets the priest place your hands in each other’s so that you become man and wife, you will not gain an immortal soul! the first morning after he has married someone else, your heart will break, and you will become foam on the water.

Skip to 6 minutes and 10 seconds As mentioned, the witch is the helper, who presents the protagonist, the little mermaid, with a classic choice, and she chooses the painful path towards the possible fulfilment of her desire. The mermaid is cast out into her project. She must surrender aspects of herself in order to gain herself. She must surrender her lovely voice, the loveliest the sea knows, and also her fish’s tail in order to acquire the legs of a human being. But the cost of this is constant pain. The sea-witch is a helper as in the classical folktales, but are the choices offered the mermaid also classical? It might be relevant to discuss or consider to what extent her choices are fateful, as in the classical tragedy, for example.

Skip to 7 minutes and 9 seconds Or are they rather more modern, existential choices? The mermaid chooses pain and the path of pain, the path towards human life and realisation, and now it is scarcely the sea-witch’s potion any longer that is to make it possible for her to attain her goal, rather the unconditional love she has to show. It is love that is to conquer all and, ultimately, create her as a whole person. What love? Is it love of the other human, the prince, or is it a spiritual, divine love? The ending of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid transcends the narrative framework of the classical folktale. The little mermaid’s project is not successful.

Skip to 8 minutes and 3 seconds She does not gain the love of the prince that causes him, as in the fairy tale, to forget his father and mother and to think solely of her with all his mind, and allow the priest to join their hands in matrimony. She loses, and has to be transformed into foam on the surface of the sea the following morning. But now a different voice, a different destiny, is realised in Andersen’s fairy tale. Now the sun rose out of the sea.

Skip to 8 minutes and 39 seconds Its rays fell so gently and warmly on the deathly cold sea-foam and the little mermaid did not feel death, she saw the bright sun, and up above her there floated hundreds of transparent, lovely creatures; through them she could see the ship’s white sails and the sky’s red clouds, their voice was a melody, but so spiritual that no human ear could hear it, just as no earthly eye could see them, without wings they floated in their own lightness through the air. The little mermaid saw that she had a body like theirs, it rose more and more out of the foam.

Skip to 9 minutes and 29 seconds The powers of good save her, for her love is of a kind that conquers all, even the framework of the traditional folktale. It is worth discussing what power of love enables her to receive a human soul and divine mercy. It is striking that what she has to surrender to the sea-witch as the price for her transformation, her voice, for example, is now recreated in the heavenly sphere. In a European, Christian sense, this is a form of resurrection. It is, however, easy to read The Little Mermaid into many other mythological and narrative contexts.

Skip to 10 minutes and 16 seconds It would be interesting to discuss this issue as well as the plasticity of the fairy tale that enables it to be incorporated into so many kinds of narrative across various cultures and traditions.

An overview of themes in ‘The Little Mermaid’

In the video above, Professor Johannes Nørregaard Frandsen will reflect on the main similarities and differences between Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and the typical folk tale.

You will also hear storyteller Kari Brinch read extracts from The Little Mermaid.

While watching the video, you might think about the following questions:

  • Is the little mermaid a typical fairy tale protagonist?
  • What obstacles are she faced with in the wide world and can she overcome these?
  • What kind of love motivates her quest?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen Centre