The Little Mermaid

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This article is about the fairy tale. For the Disney film, see The Little Mermaid (1989 film). For other uses, see The Little Mermaid (disambiguation).
"The Little Mermaid"
Edmund Dulac - The Mermaid - The Prince.jpg
The Little Mermaid and the Prince in an illustration by Edmund Dulac.
Author Hans Christian Andersen
Original title "Den lille havfrue"
Country Denmark
Language Danish
Genre(s) Fairy tale
Publisher C. A. Reitzel
Publication date 7 April 1837

"The Little Mermaid" (Danish: Den lille havfrue) is a fairy tale by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince.

The tale was first published in 1837 and has been adapted to various media, including musical theatre and animated film.


The Little Mermaid dwells in an underwater kingdom with her father (the sea king or mer-king), her dowager grandmother, and her five older sisters, each of whom had been born one year apart. When a mermaid turns 15, she is permitted to swim to the surface for the first time to watch the world above, and when the sisters become old enough, each of them visits the upper world one at a time every year. As each returns, the Little Mermaid listens longingly to their various descriptions of the world inhabited by human beings.

When the Little Mermaid's turn comes, she rises up to the surface, sees a celebration being held on a ship in honor of a handsome prince, and falls in love with him from a distance. A violent storm hits, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. She delivers him unconscious to the shore near a temple. Here she waits until a young girl from the temple finds him. To her dismay, the prince never sees the Little Mermaid or realizes that it was she who had originally saved his life.

The Little Mermaid becomes melancholy and asks her grandmother if humans can live forever and if they can breathe under water. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter lifespan than merfolks' 300 years, but that when mermaids die they turn to sea foam and cease to exist, while humans have an eternal soul that lives on in Heaven. The Little Mermaid, longing for the prince and an eternal soul, eventually visits the Sea Witch in a dangerous section of the ocean. The witch willingly helps her by selling her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue (as the Little Mermaid has the most enchanting and beautiful voice in the world). The Sea Witch warns that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea. Consuming the potion will make her feel as if a sword is being passed through her body, yet when she recovers she will have two human legs and will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. However, she will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives and as though her toes are bleeding. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries another woman, the Little Mermaid will die brokenhearted and disintegrate into sea foam upon the waves.

The Little Mermaid agrees to this arrangement and the Sea Witch cuts off her tongue. The Little Mermaid swims to the surface near the palace of the prince and drinks the potion. She is found by the prince, who is mesmerised by her beauty and grace even though she is considered by everyone in the kingdom as dumb and mute. Most of all he likes to see her dance, and she dances for him despite suffering excruciating pain with every step. Soon the Little Mermaid becomes the prince's favorite companion and accompanies him on many of his outings. When the prince's father orders his son to marry the neighboring king's daughter, the prince tells the Little Mermaid he will not because he does not love the princess. He goes on to say he can only love the young woman from the temple, who he believes rescued him. It turns out that the princess from the neighboring kingdom is the temple girl, sent there only temporarily to be educated. The prince loves her, and the royal wedding is announced at once.

The prince and princess marry on a wedding ship and the Little Mermaid's heart breaks. She thinks of all that she has given up and of all the pain she has suffered. She despairs, thinking of the death that awaits her, but before dawn her sisters rise out of the water and bring her a dagger that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid slays the prince with the dagger and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more, all her suffering will end, and she will live out her full life in the ocean with her family.

However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his new bride, and she throws the dagger and herself off the ship into the ocean just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warm sun and discovers that she has turned into a luminous and ethereal earthbound spirit; a daughter of the air. As the Little Mermaid ascends into the atmosphere, she is greeted by other daughters who tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. Because of her selflessness, she will be given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds for 300 years, and will eventually rise up into the kingdom of God.


"The Little Mermaid" was written in 1836, and first published by C.A. Reitzel in Copenhagen 7 April 1837 in Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. Third Booklet. 1837. (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Tredie Hefte. 1837.). The story was republished 18 December 1849 as a part of Fairy Tales. 1850. (Eventyr. 1850), and again 15 December 1862 as a part of Fairy Tales and Stories. First Volume. 1862. (Eventyr og Historier. Første Bind. 1862.).[1]

Debate over ending[edit]

Original manuscript, last page

Some scholars consider the last sequence with its happy ending to be an unnatural addition. Jacob Bøggild and Pernille Heegaard point out that:

One of the crucial aspects which any interpretation must confront is the final sequence of the tale, in which the little mermaid, against all odds, is redeemed from immediate damnation and accepted into the spiritual sphere, where the "daughters of the air" reside. In this, she is apparently promised the "immortal soul", which it has been her main motivation to obtain — along with the prince, of course. This ending has baffled critics because the narrative that precedes it points rather to a tragic conclusion than to a happy one.

— Jacob Bøggild & Pernille Heegaard, Ambiguity in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, Andersen og Verden [Andersen and the World] (1993)[2]

The working title of the story was 'Daughters of the Air'.[3] The daughters of air say they can earn souls simply by doing three hundred years' worth of good deeds, but Andersen later revised it to state that all this depends upon whether children are good or bad.[citation needed] Good behavior takes a year off the maidens' time of service while bad behavior makes them weep and a day is added for every tear they shed. This has come under much criticism from scholars and reviewers; one commenter writing "This final message is more frightening than any other presented in the tale. The story descends into the Victorian moral tales written for children to scare them into good behavior." P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and noted folklore commentator, says, "But a year taken off when a child behaves and a tear shed and a day added whenever a child is naughty? Andersen, this is blackmail. And the children know it and say nothing. There's magnanimity for you."[3][4]


  • It was first translated into English by H. P. Paull in 1872.
  • It was made into an opera entitled Rusalka, music composed by Dvořák, first performed in Prague in 1901.
  • Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky's 40-minute long symphonic poem, Die Seejungfrau ("The Mermaid"), received its premiere in 1905.
  • The 1914 play The Garden of Paradise written by Edward Sheldon was adapted from it.
  • The 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen features a ballet version of the story.
  • In 1957, the French composer Germaine Tailleferre wrote a three-act opera version of The Little Mermaid (called La Petite Sirène in French) on a libretto adapted by Philippe Soupault.
  • Classics Illustrated Junior, a 1950s American comic book series, published a version of the tale as issue #525.
  • In 1960, Angel no Oka (Angel's Hill), a manga by Osamu Tezuka based on Andersen's history, was serialized.
  • In 1961, Shirley Temple Theatre broadcast a television version of "The Little Mermaid", starring Shirley Temple as the Mermaid.
  • "Coralina: La Doncella del Mar" starring Dyanik Zurakowska is the first segment of the 1966 Spanish anthology film Fantasia...3.
  • In 1966 the story appeared in the live action/stop-motion animated movie "The Daydreamer (film)" produced by Rankin/Bass. It centers on a young Hans Christian Andersen (played by Paul O'Keefe) and features the voices of Burl Ives as Father Neptune, Hayley Mills as The Little Mermaid, and in what would be her last film role Tallulah Bankhead is the voice of the Sea Witch.
  • One of the earliest animated films based on the story was the Soviet Union's 29-minute The Little Mermaid (Russian: Русалочка), released in 1968.
  • In 1974, Richard Chamberlain narrated a Reader's Digest animated version.
  • There are several anime adaptations of the story, including Anderusen Dowa Ningyo Hime) (Andersen's Story: The Mermaid Princess), a feature film directed by Tomoharu Katsumata (1975); and the 1991 NHK TV series Saban's Adventures of the Little Mermaid. There have also been the magical girl adaptions Mahō no Mako-chan and Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch. In the series Pokémon: Indigo League from episode 61 - "The Misty Mermaid".
  • In 1976, a live-action Rusalochka (Русалочка), a joint production by the USSR and Bulgaria, was released. Directed by Vladimir Bychkov, starring Vyctoriya Novikova as the mermaid and Valentin Nikulin.
  • Also debuting in 1976 was the live-action Czech adaptation Malá mořská víla, directed by Karel Kachyňaand starring Miroslava Šafránková as the The Mermaid, Radovan Lukavský as the King of The Ocean, and Petr Svojtka as The Prince, Milena Dvorská as The Sea Witch and Miroslava's sister, Libuše Šafránková as The Princess. It featured a score by Zdenek Liska and eschewed the traditional visual of mermaids having fish tails and presented them more as water sprits.
  • Japanese Jazz-Fusion Band "The Square" (now known as T-Square) wrote and released a song called "Little Mermaid" in 1982, with the album called "Magic".
  • In 1987, Shelley Duvall produced a version of the story for Faerie Tale Theatre with Pam Dawber as the Mermaid..
  • In 1989, the fairy tale was adapted into an animated film by Walt Disney Pictures called The Little Mermaid, after which a TV series of the same name followed, also by Disney, taking place before the movie's storyline, with a few episodes guest starring Mark Hamill of the Star Wars Original Trilogy fame as the original novel's author, Hans Christian Andersen. The film, however, differs so substantially from Andersen's original in so many details (including a happy ending in which the mermaid in fact marries the prince) that it has been said to "betray Andersen's tale while it exploits society's obsession with physical beauty and romantic love."[5] In 2000, a sequel titled The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, concerning the adventures of the Little Mermaid's human daughter Melody, who longs to be a mermaid, was released by The Walt Disney Company. A prequel was released in 2008 entitled The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning; the story is set before the events of the original film, in which King Triton has banned music from Atlantica. The movie also explains the absence of the Little Mermaid's mother.
  • Golden Films adapted the story in 1992 as The Little Mermaid. The production was distributed by GoodTimes Entertainment.
  • In 1997, the animated HBO series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child did an East Asian-influenced retelling on The Little Mermaid, featuring the voices of Tia Carrere and Robert Guillaume.
  • The novel, My Love, My Love: Or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, and inspired the musical Once on This Island, set in the French Antilles.
  • The animated German television series SimsalaGrimm did an episode retelling of The Little Mermaid.
  • Japanese artist Junko Mizuno adapted The Little Mermaid as Princess Mermaid, the third and final part of her "fractured fairy tales".
  • In 2004, the animated TV series Hans Christian Andersen The Fairytaler (alternately titled as Tales from H.C. Andersen) aired an episode telling the story of The Little Mermaid.
  • The Royal Danish Ballet commissioned Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach to create a modern rendition of this fairy tale. It was choreographed by John Neumeier and premiered on 15 April 2005.[6]
  • On 28 July 2007, the premiere of Lior Navok's version for actress, two pianos and chamber ensemble/orchestra.[7]
  • The Russian movie Rusalka (2007) by Anna Melikyan is a modern-day adaptation, set in Russia.[8]
  • On January 10, 2008, the stage version of the Disney film opened on Broadway. The music in the play is by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were also the composing and song writing team for the Disney original film.
  • The 2008 Hayao Miyazaki film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, was inspired by and based loosely on The Little Mermaid.[9][10]
  • Producers using the software Vocaloid have made two songs based on The Little Mermaid. One is sung by Luka Megurine and is called 人魚姫/Ningyo Hime (The Little Mermaid). The other is sung by Miku Hatsune, Luka Megurine, Meiko and Kaito and is called リトマメ / Rito Mame (Little Mermaid).
  • On March 20, 2010, San Francisco Ballet performed the United States premier of John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid".
  • An episode of the anime Devil May Cry: The Animated Series is loosely based on the story of The Little Mermaid, including a narration of part of the story.
  • In the book "The Mermaid's Madness (2010) by Jim C. Hines the Mermaid is named Lirea, and she is on a quest of revenge on the human prince who denied her advances, having been driven insane due to a side-effect of her transformation and a plan of her grandmother to use her as a means of granting the merfolk true souls (Although Lirea's younger sister argues that the belief that they do not have souls is based around superstition rather than fact).
  • Japanese visual kei band LM.C's track titled "Ningyo No Namida" (Literally "Tears of the Mermaid") is based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid".
  • In 2013 Adapt Theatre Productions, a small fringe-theatre production company located in Chicago, Illinois, premiered an adaptation of the story from the perspective of the little mermaid's sisters, who have kidnapped the story's Prince to judge his compassion for their deceased sister. The play, titled "Below", was written in blank verse by actor/playwright Lane Flores.
  • On November 3, 2013, a character named Ariel with a background that parallels that of Andersen's Little Mermaid became a recurring character on ABC's Once Upon a Time. She debuted in the sixth episode of the third season entitled "Ariel". She is portrayed by actress JoAna Garcia Swisher and unlike most of the other characters in the show does not have a counterpart in the series' fictional town of Storybrooke .
  • In 2013 the video game The Wolf Among Us by Telltale Games has a character in it named Nerissa. The main protagonist meets her in the second episode where she introduces herself and says that people know and used to call her as the Little Mermaid.
  • In 2013 there was a live-action made-for-TV German adaptation, Die kleine Meerjungfrau, directed by Irina Popow and starring Zoe Moore.
  • Blind Tiger, a London based Actor Musician theatre company, will premiere a new theatrical version of The Little Mermaid focusing on the true story of Hans Christian Andersen's influences when creating the fairytale. The show will open in December 2013 at the prestigious Riverside Studios[11]
  • In 2014, Czech artist Jan Balej premiered his modern-day stop-motion film adaptation, Little From the Fish Shop.[12]
  • 2014 South Korean television serial The Idle Mermaid is a 16-episode modern retelling.
  • It was announced in 2014 that Sofia Coppola has planned to direct a live-action version for Universal Pictures and Working Title Films.[13] Emma Watson was being eyed for the lead role in the film.[14]
  • The seventh game of the series Dark Parables, The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tides, puts a spin in the tale. The royal family of a king and his five daughters are cursed for betraying The Sea Goddess and binding her to the kingdom. The curse sinks the kingdom and turns the king into a man and crab hybred creature and his daughters into mermaids, thus binding them to the seas as she is to their kingdom. The way to break the curse is to collect the sacred orbs and use them with the staff to free The Sea Goddess.

The Little Mermaid statue[edit]

A statue of the Little Mermaid sits on a rock in the Copenhagen harbor in Langelinie. This small and unimposing statue is a Copenhagen icon and a major tourist attraction.

The statue was commissioned in 1909 by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg, after he had been fascinated by a ballet about the fairytale. The sculptor Edward Eriksen created the statue, which was unveiled on 23 August 1913. His wife, Eline Eriksen, was the model. It has been severely vandalized several times.[15]

In May 2010, it was moved from its Copenhagen harbor emplacement for the first time ever, for transport to Expo 2010 in Shanghai where it remained until October 20, 2010. In the Disney version of The Little Mermaid when Ariel is sitting on top of the rock looking longingly at Prince Eric, she is in exactly the same position that the statue is in.


  1. ^ Hans Christian Andersen Center: Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid
  2. ^ Bøggild, Jacob, & Pernille Heegaard, "Ambiguity in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid", published in Andersen og Verden, Odense, 1993. Via Summaries of papers from previous international HCA conferences, Hans Christian Andersen Center, Institute of Literature, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of South Denmark
  3. ^ a b Sur La Lune fairy tales, notes on The Little Mermaid
  4. ^ Altmann, Anna E. and Gail deVos, Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales as Literary Fictions for Young Adults (Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2001), pp. 179-183.
  5. ^ Altman, Anne E., DeVos, Gail (2001). Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults. Libraries Unlimited. p. 187. ISBN 1-56308-831-2. Retrieved December 17, 2012. 
  6. ^ Britannica Book of the Year 2006, "Performing Arts, Europe: Dance"
  7. ^ "Lior Navok's 'The Little Mermaid'"
  8. ^ "Rusalka (2007)"
  9. ^ "Ponyo". Walt Disney Studios. 
  10. ^ Fred Topel (12 August 2009). "Legendary animator Miyazaki reveals Ponyo's inspirations". Sci Fi Wire. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Tizard, Will (2014-07-08). "Czech Animation ‘Little From the Fish Shop’ Dives Into Int’l Waters". Retrieved 2014-07-10. 
  13. ^ Fleming, Mike (March 18, 2014). "Sofia Coppola To Direct 'Little Mermaid' Live-Action Movie". Retrieved March 20, 2014. 
  14. ^ Emma Watson Addresses ‘Little Mermaid’ Casting Rumors
  15. ^ "Denmark may move Little Mermaid". BBC News. 30 March 2006. 

External links[edit]