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The dark story of the Little Mermaid you wouldn’t imagine

6 min read

Originally written on April 7, 2021. Updated 2023

But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” 🧜‍♀️

The tale of The Little Mermaid is one of the favourite for many people worldwide, but well do you know the original story and its darker ending?
‘The Little Mermaid’ was originally published on this day, April 7 1837, in Hans Christian Andersen’s first collection of “Fairy Tales Told for Children”.
Andersen was a Danish author, born in Odense, on the 2nd of April 1805. He had a difficult start in life, being born to poor parents and growing up in a very small home. His father was ill and passed away when he was only eleven, forcing his mother to send him away to earn money. He was an apprentice weaver, then worked in a tailor’s and a tobacco factory.
Leaving Odense aged fourteen, Andersen tried to make it as a singer, a ballet dancer and a manual labourer. His true passion, however, was writing. At seventeen when he met James Collin, the director of the Royal Danish Theatre, he found luck. Collin persuaded King Frederik VI to help fund Andersen’s education, thus giving him a real chance at becoming a successful writer. Andersen described these years as the most unhappy times in his life, as he was bullied by the other students, abused by his schoolmaster and may have struggled also with dyslexia. Despite this, he went on to study at the University of Copenhagen, then continued to travel, writing his famous travelogues.
Andersen was a writer of many forms.
He wrote novels, plays and poetry, but his fairy tales are well-known and loved by people across the world. The charming, original story of The Little Mermaid was published in Copenhagen by C.A. Reitzel, in the first collection of Fairy Tales Told for Children.

The original tale follows a similar storyline to many of the adaptations we know (and love) today: a young mermaid longs to leave the gloomy depths of the ocean and join the humans above the waves. After saving a beautiful prince from drowning, she sacrifices her voice to a sea witch, in order to be with her beloved on dry land. In Andersen’s version, however, the sea witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue (a macabre detail that Disney understandably left out) and gives her a pair of legs in exchange.
The legs come at a higher cost than just her voice, though: every step the princess takes will feel as though she’s walking on knives, and once she has taken the form of a human, she will never be able to become a mermaid again. She won’t be able to swim in the depths of the ocean or meet her family. But not only: if the mermaid is unable to make the prince fall in love with her, she will die on the first sunrise after he has wed another woman. Despite all this, the mermaid agrees to the witch’s conditions and goes to win the heart of her handsome prince on her quest for true love.
Unfortunately for the Little Mermaid, it’s not quite the happy ending she was expecting. Instead of the prince falling in love with the mermaid, he mistakenly falls for another maiden, and the little mermaid, heartbroken, can only watch as her time runs out to capture the heart of the prince. On the last evening of the mermaid’s life, her sisters rise out of the sea to tell her that they’ve struck a deal with the sea witch. The mermaid’s sisters exchanged their hair for an enchanted knife. Giving the knife to the mermaid, they tell her that she must plunge the blade into her prince’s heart and allow his blood to drip onto her feet. They will then grow together again as a fishtail and she’ll be allowed to return to the ocean.
However, the mermaid loves the prince so much that she can’t bring herself to end his life, and so instead she throws the enchanted knife out to sea and dives in after it, sacrificing herself.
As dawn arrives, the mermaid is reduced to sea foam.

“The Little Mermaid” was not Hans Andersen’s first title for his fairy tale. The original title was “Daughters of the Air”, because the story ends with the mermaid rising from the foam and being greeted by ethereal beings. These spirits claim immortal souls and, therefore, access to eternal life, by doing 300 years of good deeds. They explain that the mermaid earned the chance of eternal life by sacrificing her life to save the prince.
The story then ends with a moral for children: the daughters of the air tell the mermaid that for every child they find who performs good deeds, a year is taken off their three-century wait for a soul, but every naughty child they come across makes them cry, and for each tear wept, another day is added to their in-between life.
Interestingly, Andersen often wrote on themes of unrequited love and, in fact, he never married himself, despite seemingly falling in love numerous times.
The Little Mermaid was written after the marriage of his close friend, Edvard Collin. Andersen wrote love letters to Edvard containing sentiments such as, “I long for you, yes, this moment I long for you as if you were a lovely girl… My sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery”. The fact that Edvard didn’t reciprocate these feelings was a cause of great distress for the author.

Now a much-beloved story, Hans Andersen’s story has been adapted and remade countless times since it was first published, but the vast majority keep many of the original story’s characters in their adaptations. Arguably the most well-known adaptation is Disney’s 1989 animation, and although many of Andersen’s characters appear in the film, one of the most noticeable differences is the omission of the mermaid’s grandmother, who guides the young princess in life, telling her the secrets of humans and immortal souls. It is also the Sea King’s mother who mourns for her granddaughter when she chooses to become human.

Another widely known adaptation of the fairy tale is the Royal Danish Ballet’s production. Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg, went to see the performance at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, he was enthralled by the ballet and he commissioned Edvard Eriksen to sculpt a statue of the mermaid.
The sculpture was based on Ellen Price, who danced the lead role of the ballet in 1909. The statue was unveiled on 23rd August 1913 and was a gift from Jacobsen to Copenhagen. It is a major tourist attraction, and an official copy of it still sits on the rocks of the Langelinie harbour today, greeting the boats as they come in.

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