While preparing to review a ballet inspired by “The Little Mermaid,” I came across a subtle but profound message about grace that Hans Christian Andersen weaves through his famous fairytale.
First of all, let’s clear away the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” which takes Andersen’s dark tale and turns it into a standard princess story about winning the prince and living happily ever after. Contrast this with Andersen’s mermaid, who suffers excruciating pain and disfigurement, never has a chance with the man she loves, and loses him to another woman.
Great children’s story, right? Well, there is a happy ending, but it’s not what you’d expect. The mermaid ends up realizing she doesn’t need a man to be happy. This is in 1836! Yes, this young woman of character has everything she needs within herself–because of her graceful nature–and she joins a community of like-hearted females, neither mortal nor mermaid, but floaty, unseen creatures of pure spirit.
Remember how Andersen always sides with the outsider (“The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Match Girl,” and more)? True to form, his little mermaid, youngest of seven sisters, is a misfit in her watery world. No one understands her restless spirit, lack of vanity and yearning for love. I believe he’s drawing a distinction between this virtuous creature and the historical depiction of mermaids as deceitful sexual predators, singing sailors to their deaths.
One night, the little mermaid falls in love with a mortal man whom she rescues from drowning. She vows to somehow become human and join him on land; to do this she visits the sea witch, who cuts out her tongue to use in a potion that will turn her tail into legs. “But if you take away my voice, what is left for me?” the mermaid asks, before the tongue is taken.
“Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart,” replies the witch. She is ruthless, but she is right: Grace remains, even after the mermaid has lost her ability to speak and sing.
Forever silenced, and in constant pain from her new limbs, the girl remains devoted to her prince. Despite what she’s lost, she retains her true heart, her loving nature, and–Andersen is very clear about this–her grace. Grace is what buoys her in the dry, unfamiliar land in which she now moves.
“All who saw her wondered at her graceful-swaying movements,” Andersen tells us. Yet the mermaid is new to walking on land, and her steps are painful, so how could this be? I believe he means for us to understand that grace is in her spirit, her hopeful attitude, her perspective. Unlike her beautiful singing voice, it is something no one can take away. Her pain was terrible, “but she bore it willingly, and stepped as lightly by the prince’s side as a soap-bubble.” This grace of movement is a reflection of her love. It is a spiritual force infusing her movements from the inside out.
Still, she doesn’t win over the prince, who’s stuck on another woman and plans to marry her. This, according to the sea witch’s spell, will mean death for the little mermaid. Andersen compares her terrible failed sacrifice with that of her sisters, who come to her with a plan. They’ve given up their hair for an enchanted knife; once their little sister kills the prince with it, she’ll revert back to mermaidhood. But their act of love is tainted; their sister’s homecoming rests on blood.
Of course, the little mermaid refuses them. She nobly leaves her prince to his new wife and throws herself into the sea, expecting to die. And yet! “Hundreds of transparent beautiful beings” surround her, lift her up; she has become like them, lighter than air, floating out of the foam towards the clouds. She is now “among the daughters of the air.”
Now Andersen shows us how the little mermaid can acquire the true treasure–an immortal soul. But he also has a broader and quite practical point about the actions that we take, and how our behaviors can take on a spiritual, even angelic quality. This is something his young readers (and older ones) can carry out in their lives. It echoes what threads through “The Art of Grace,” in the wisdom I gleaned from my interviews and research into ideas going back to the ancients: Grace is about giving, loving, and thinking of others. And so it turns out that our little mermaid is in an even better place than if she’d won the prince’s heart. These “daughters of the air” have adopted her because she is like them–generous, kind and helpful. And there’s more:
“A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being,” one of these creatures tells her. “On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny.” But no matter: The daughters of the air can get themselves their own immortal soul ”by their good deeds.” They are independent women!
What kinds of good deeds, you may ask? “We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration.” After 300 years of doing such environmental works (Andersen was quite the progressive), and “giving all the good in our power,” they are able to receive an immortal soul. And they tell her: “You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing, you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds.”
In other words, she became one of these exquisite celestial beings because of her grace–her loving, generous, compassionate nature and actions. This, I find, is a beautiful message.
It’s a message that must have comforted the author himself, a lifelong outsider who never married and had unrequited affections for men and women. Some researchers have noted that “The Little Mermaid” may have been inspired by an ill-fated romance with a male friend who decided to get married. This could explain the mermaid’s loss of voice and the dramatic descriptions of her pain–allusions, perhaps, to being silenced and heartbroken at a time when Andersen could not be open about his feelings. This only makes the story more poignant, and Andersen’s notion of grace all the more exceptional, and powerful.
Related story: My review of Hamburg Ballet’s ‘Little Mermaid’: Adrift in a Sea of Despair