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Isn’t It Neat? Here’s the Ocean-Deep History of The Little Mermaid

May 12, 2023

It’s certainly best known today as a classic Disney movie, and one that opened a new golden age of animation for the studio. (And a live-action redux hits theaters this month.) But before it was all about Ariel, Sebastian, and Ursula, The Little Mermaid was a classic, book-length fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.


The take on The Little Mermaid with which most modern audiences are familiar is much different than Andersen’s 1837 version. In that story, the mermaid never gets a name. She does fall in love with a human prince and magically takes on human form and while she can’t speak, it isn’t because she trades her voice for legs — her tongue is cut out. Her ultimate quest isn’t true love, but rather a human soul and with it the chance to get into Heaven. In the end, the prince marries another, and the distraught mermaid throws herself into the ocean and turns into foam. But there’s a happy ending: She’ll get into Heaven after all, eventually, following 300 years’ worth of kind acts.


Andersen’s The Little Mermaid isn’t even an original tale but based on a popular 19th century novella. In 1811, German author Friedrich de la Motte Fougué published Undine, in which a water spirit of that name marries Huldbrand, a knight, to gain a body and a soul. Fouqué took the story from various stories from Greek and Irish folklore.


At the very end of Andersen’s story, when the mermaid sadly becomes sea foam, she’s bolstered and saved by a group of spirits called “daughters of the air.” That was an ending Andersen used, then deleted, then reworked. It reflects how his original title for the story wasn’t The Little Mermaid but rather Daughters of the Air.


Also the author of “The Princess and the Pea,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” among other timeless tales, Andersen was officially declared a national treasure in Denmark in the 1860s and died just after his 70th birthday in 1875. He didn’t live to see the construction of Den Iille Havfrue, “The Little Mermaid,” a bronze statue of his famous character. On display on Copenhagen’s harbor since 1913, Carlsberg Brewery founder Carl Jacobsen built the statue, inspired after seeing the Copenhagen Royal Theatre’s presentation of a ballet based on The Little Mermaid.

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