Wednesday 30 May 2018

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid

Since it was written in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid has baffled and frustrated analysts. On first glance, it seems considerably more violent and pessimistic than the popular 1989 film that rebirthed Disney animation. For example, the little mermaid loses her voice by having her tongue cut out. The sea witch in the story is just a disgusting old crone, not the emblem of voluptuous female sexuality that is Ursula (ironically based on drag performer Divine).

Though having sanitized the original story, as they are wont to do, Disney's film still has unique qualities of its own. Unlike most of Disney's Princesses, Ariel is a flawed character. She is a teenager, rebelling against her upbringing and existential nature to forge her own identity, generally making bad decisions all along the way. It is only the love she has been able to inspire in others that redeems her choices and grants a happy outcome. As with Cinderella, there is a tendency for adult critics to look down on Disney Princesses who are not already full-formed, virtuous adult characters. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that she is also somewhat controversial.

This is not the theme of the original story, however. The little mermaid does become obsessed with the surface world - she had five sisters visit it and come back with marvelous stories about it for half a decade before she was finally able to see it for herself - and there is a prince that becomes the object of her obsessions. What really troubles her, though, is the fact that mermaids lack an immortal soul. It is this puzzle that mermaids should live for 300 years and then dissolve into sea foam while humans should only live for 70 years on Earth but inherit Heaven that draws her to make the choices she does. The Little Mermaid is a deeply religious story that makes little sense without Andersen's own devoutly religious outlook.

The Little Mermaid meets the prince. Illustration by Bertall.

In the Western European lore inherited by Andersen, mermaids were not believed to have immortal souls. Rather, they took considerable delight in luring men to their deaths, ostensibly to rip their souls from them. Much of mermaid mythology developed out of Greek Sirens, who would lure ships only to have them dashed upon the rocks. Richard Wagner's four-part epic opera Ring of the Nibelung, composed between 1848 and 1874, begins and ends with the aquatic Rhinemaidens who are moral innocents. Of course, that concept does not mean the same thing for us a century and a half thereafter. Moral innocence was not considered a virtue in the Victorian Era, but rather, a product of immaturity. The Rhinemaidens still lured and seduced men to their deaths, but they did so with a childlike ignorance that any such cruelty was wrong. The playwright George Bernard Shaw described the Rhinemaidens as "thoughtless, elemental, only half-real things," adding the dated punchline "very much like modern young ladies." Emerging from the ocean depths, mermaids, sirens, nymphs, Rhinemaidens, and their ilk embody primordial, pre-moral, cthonic urges.

Hylas being lured by the Naiads. Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1896.

Andersen's mermaids are very similar. They live and frolic in the oceans as moral innocents, free of want but also free of souls. They live for a very long time in the Sea but eventually dissolve into nothingness. Being creatures of the Sea, they have a sense of the primordial about them, like Adam and Eve before the fateful fruit. Much like the first couple, the little mermaid suddenly gains moral awareness and her childlike, pre-moral happiness is taken from her. She cannot be content knowing that humans have immortal souls and she does not. Troubled, she takes her questions to her grandmother...

"If human beings are not drowned," asked the little mermaid, "can they live forever? do they never die as we do here in the sea?"
"Yes," replied the old lady, "they must also die, and their term of life is even shorter than ours. We sometimes live to three hundred years, but when we cease to exist here we only become the foam on the surface of the water, and we have not even a grave down here of those we love. We have not immortal souls, we shall never live again; but, like the green sea-weed, when once it has been cut off, we can never flourish more. Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to dust. It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars. As we rise out of the water, and behold all the land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see."
"Why have not we an immortal soul?" asked the little mermaid mournfully; "I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars."
"You must not think of that," said the old woman; "we feel ourselves to be much happier and much better off than human beings."
"So I shall die," said the little mermaid, "and as the foam of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?"
"No," said the old woman, "unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well; but this can never happen. Your fish's tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome."
Then the little mermaid sighed, and looked sorrowfully at her fish's tail. "Let us be happy," said the old lady, "and dart and spring about during the three hundred years that we have to live, which is really quite long enough; after that we can rest ourselves all the better. This evening we are going to have a court ball."

Finding no answers from her grandmother except to accept this fact and be content, and against the distraction of worldly pleasures and mantras of "stop worrying and enjoy life," the little mermaid makes the decision to visit the sea witch.
"I know what you want," said the sea witch; "it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your fish's tail, and to have two supports instead of it, like human beings on earth, so that the young prince may fall in love with you, and that you may have an immortal soul." And then the witch laughed so loud and disgustingly, that the toad and the snakes fell to the ground, and lay there wriggling about. "You are but just in time," said the witch; "for after sunrise to-morrow I should not be able to help you till the end of another year. 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."
"Yes, I will," said the little princess in a trembling voice, as she thought of the prince and the immortal soul.
"But think again," said the witch; "for when once your shape has become like a human being, you can no more be a mermaid. You will never return through the water to your sisters, or to your father's palace again; and if you do not win the love of the prince, so that he is willing to forget his father and mother for your sake, and to love you with his whole soul, and allow the priest to join your hands that you may be man and wife, then you will never have an immortal soul. The first morning after he marries another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves."
"I will do it," said the little mermaid, and she became pale as death.
"But I must be paid also," said the witch, "and it is not a trifle that I ask. You have the sweetest voice of any who dwell here in the depths of the sea, and you believe that you will be able to charm the prince with it also, but this voice you must give to me; the best thing you possess will I have for the price of my draught. My own blood must be mixed with it, that it may be as sharp as a two-edged sword."
"But if you take away my voice," said the little mermaid, "what is left for me?"
"Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man's heart. Well, have you lost your courage? Put out your little tongue that I may cut it off as my payment; then you shall have the powerful draught."
"It shall be," said the little mermaid.
Then the witch placed her cauldron on the fire, to prepare the magic draught.

Meeting the sea witch. Illustration by Bertall. 

The deal that the little mermaid makes with the sea witch appears Faustian. She must allow her tongue to be cut out, her every step on Earth will feel like knives against her feet, and she must wed the prince to gain her immortal soul or dissolve into sea foam on the morning after he weds another. This superficially Faustian arrangement, much like Adam and Eve's punishment for eating the fruit, betrays a fundamental fact that with an immortal soul comes moral awareness, and with moral awareness comes personal sacrifice.

Moral systems are ultimately extensions of metaphysical beliefs. They are, in a sense, optimal performance parameters based on how one thinks the universe actually operates. The metaphysical beliefs of the Modern Era have largely resembled those of the mermaids, in that belief in God and an immortal soul have been ditched to the wayside, humanity having moved "beyond good and evil" to an infantile, primordial, pre-moral state where the concept of personal sacrifice is abhorrent. Even the mild discomforts of normal, everyday life in free, democratic, multicultural mass society - where people might not agree with you about everything and make all sorts of unsolicited demands on your attention - are bitterly complained of as "oppression" and "micro-aggression."

With belief in God and an immortal soul comes the idea that humanity is imbued with higher moral obligation to God and to one another that requires sacrifice of one's own ambitions, effort, affluence, and temporal happiness. The exchange is the paradoxical promise that by giving up these things on Earth, we not only gain back something infinitely more fulfilling in the Hereafter, but actually enrich our lives intangibly in the here and now. Sacrifice brings maturity, which is the depth of the experience of being human. 

Even then, this exchange and even our immortal soul is contingent on the will of God. In Christian, and especially Protestant, theology like that held by Andersen, human will is a decidedly weak force. The sacrifices demanded of us are still only so much temporal, material activity by a temporally, materially-bound, finite being. It is beyond human power to elevate itself to the Heavenly spheres of God. That can only be accomplished by the self-sacrifice of Jesus, God Incarnate, who united Himself to us in our humanity so that He could unite us to Himself in His Deity.

Andersen metaphorically represents this by the little mermaid's immortal soul being dependent not on her sacrifice, but on how the prince responds to it. Her own deeds will not earn her a soul. She is dependent on another. Having risen out of the primordial, pre-moral state, she is still dependent on the Son of the King for her immortality. Even if we do not go so far as to interpret the prince as a Christ-figure (what happens at the end of the novel makes this a more uncomfortable analogy), it still recognizes that as humans we do not live unto ourselves but in relationship to others.

The finale of Andersen's tale is what has provoked the most consternation for critics. It appears so out of place that many scholars have felt that it was simply tacked on to render a happy ending, or an end that is at least not as dire, pessimistic, and cynical as what it appeared to be leading up to. It begins with the little mermaid's sisters visiting her on the eve of the prince's wedding, after having themselves visited the sea witch...
"We have given our hair to the witch," said they, "to obtain help for you, that you may not die to-night. She has given us a knife: here it is, see it is very sharp. Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the heart of the prince; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish's tail, and you will be once more a mermaid, and return to us to live out your three hundred years before you die and change into the salt sea foam. Haste, then; he or you must die before sunrise. Our old grandmother moans so for you, that her white hair is falling off from sorrow, as ours fell under the witch's scissors. Kill the prince and come back; hasten: do you not see the first red streaks in the sky? In a few minutes the sun will rise, and you must die." And then they sighed deeply and mournfully, and sank down beneath the waves.
The little mermaid drew back the crimson curtain of the tent, and beheld the fair bride with her head resting on the prince's breast. She bent down and kissed his fair brow, then looked at the sky on which the rosy dawn grew brighter and brighter; then she glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood. She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam. The sun rose above the waves, and his warm rays fell on the cold foam of the little mermaid, who did not feel as if she were dying. She saw the bright sun, and all around her floated hundreds of transparent beautiful beings; she could see through them the white sails of the ship, and the red clouds in the sky; their speech was melodious, but too ethereal to be heard by mortal ears, as they were also unseen by mortal eyes. The little mermaid perceived that she had a body like theirs, and that she continued to rise higher and higher out of the foam. "Where am I?" asked she, and her voice sounded ethereal, as the voice of those who were with her; no earthly music could imitate it.
"Among the daughters of the air," answered one of them. "A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. 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; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul."
The little mermaid lifted her glorified eyes towards the sun, and felt them, for the first time, filling with tears. On the ship, in which she had left the prince, there were life and noise; she saw him and his beautiful bride searching for her; sorrowfully they gazed at the pearly foam, as if they knew she had thrown herself into the waves. Unseen she kissed the forehead of her bride, and fanned the prince, and then mounted with the other children of the air to a rosy cloud that floated through the aether.
"After three hundred years, thus shall we float into the kingdom of heaven," said she. "And we may even get there sooner," whispered one of her companions. "Unseen we can enter the houses of men, where there are children, and for every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know, when we fly through the room, that we smile with joy at his good conduct, for we can count one year less of our three hundred years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!"

It is easy to see where some analysts might think that the ending when the little mermaid transforms into a daughter of the Air is a crude addition pasted on after the fact. It often finds itself omitted from many versions of the story, and comes as a great surprise to people who have only read such truncated versions in childhood. After all, the little mermaid's sisters provide her with a means to undo her situation and return to her primordial, pre-moral life in the Sea by sacrificing the life of the prince, and the little mermaid chooses not to take it. Instead she casts herself off and dissolves. To a Modernist mindset, one in which death has the final say and there is no higher court of appeal, this would appear to be her unhappy end. Self-sacrifice is for suckers.

One has to remember, when reading this text and Andersen as a whole, that his is not a worldview in which death has the final say. Recall that what troubled the little mermaid to begin with was the fact that she was merely to die while humans could live on in Heaven. Though unable to gain an immortal soul imparted upon her by love, her courageous act of self-sacrifice in love has given her a second chance in the Air. As an ethereal whisp, she has the opportunity to transcend even romantic love to actualize an all-embracing love for humanity.

In theological terms, this is replacing the specific, romantic love of "Eros" for the broad, humanistic love of "Agape," which is actually closer to God's love for humanity. In a sense, the little mermaid is happier because she has even transcended humans and is already closer to Heaven by being a supernatural worker of good in the Air. This echoes Dante's Divine Comedy, in which souls are condemned to the Inferno for acts motivated by selfishness and fear, are given opportunity in Purgatory for acts motivated by courage and obedience, and are inducted into Paradise for acts motivated by love. Purgatory is for those who have already been saved, that their courage may be worked up into genuine love. Her fate is not a consolation: it is a liberation.

But of course, Andersen, being Andersen, must end off with a little bit of moralizing to blackmail children into obedience!

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