[This article was previously published in Italian here.]
Ever since the first rumor about the production of a live action version of Disney’s “The little Mermaid” many indignant voices were raised, because Disney casted a black actress for the protagonist.
So, I don’t give a damn. That’s not what I want to talk about.
Today the topic is not the Disney animation film, which is not even among my favourites, but rather its basis, the fairytale by Andersen, published in 1837. Especially the differences between fairytale and cartoon, which are many and grim.
You know the basic story: the youngest and most beautiful daughter of the sea king is attracted by human world and when, for her fifteenth birthday, she’s allowed to get to the surface and see it, by chance she happens to be in the middle of a storm where the human prince’s ship wrecks. She saves him, dotes on him and decides to run from home, get to the sea witch and obtain a pair of legs.
Here the two media start to differ: the sea witch will not take the princess’s voice with a spell (no character has an actual name in this fairytale), but in a much more brutal way, by cutting her tongue. Moreover the pact itself is terrible: every step will cause pain and bloodsheds from her feet and she’ll have just one year to have the prince fall in love with her and marry her. At the end of the year, if she hasn’t managed that, she’ll die.
Things are getting interesting here because the first part of the fairytale is an accurate description of merpeople’s society: hedonistic and happy at the bottom of the sea, with a very long lifespan, but devoid of what makes humans… humans, which is an immortal soul. Merpeople after their death are just… dead. A human can go to heaven, a mermaid can’t. So the stakes for our little princess are even higher than what we thought: not only her earthly life is at stake, but also the possibility of gaining the grace of God. Mark down this point, it’s important, before we get back to the story.
Here we have our little mermaid, turned into a human, rescued by her prince. He is enchanted by her, delighted by her presence; he keeps her in his court, but he sees her as some kind of pet/best friend, rather than a potential partner. Indeed, our prince is already in love: his heart belongs to the girl who saved him from the famous shipwreck. The little mermaid wishes she could tell him she is that girl, but of course… she’s mute. She can’t. And so months pass.
Eventually, the prince’s marriage with a princess from a nearby country gets announced. He’s a little reluctant because he wants to save himself for his beauty but… surprise surprise! When he sees the princess he recognizes her: that’s the girl who saved him! Yeah, he only remembers the young lady who rescued him after the little mermaid brought him on the coast, and that’s the princess who was in a nunnery at that time. So, the marriage will be celebrated and now the prince is enthusiastic about it to say the least. The mermaid finds herself fooled, to add insult to injury: destined to die soon, watching the man she loves happy with another woman.
Here comes a plot twist: the night before the wedding, coinciding with the last night of life for the mermaid, her sisters reach for her. They, too, made a deal with the witch: their beautiful hair in exchange for a way to reverse the spell. The mermaid just needs to stab the prince’s heart with a magical dagger and wait for his blood to wet her feet. No big deal, who hasn’t ever done it. When his blood will reach her feet, they will be reunited in a tail, she’ll turn back into a mermaid and will be able to come back home, back to her former life. Of course, she’ll die anyway and that will be her ending, but she’ll get to have three hundred years of contentment with her family, that’s an advantageous trade. The problem is, she doesn’t want to.
We are getting to the epilogue. The little mermaid watches her beloved and the princess sleeping together. She looks at the dagger, she watches the sunrise. And she decides to throw herself out of the ship they’re all on, to rejoin the sea.
Much to her surprise, her conscience survives. Her body dies, but she’s welcomed by the daughters of the air. God had mercy on her because of her selfless action: if she’ll continue on doing righteous things in the next three hundred years, she’ll be admitted to Heaven, too.
Let’s recapitulate, shall we?
We have a non-human creature destined to never get to Heaven, trapped in an unrequited love and unable to scream, forced to suffer in silence from atrocious pain. Her redemption, her chance for the better, is but metaphysical and at the price of completely giving up on her happiness and this miserable love.
Does this remind you of something? An outcast-from-society individual, trapped in a reality they don’t belong to? An unhappy love that cannot be named, that cannot be talked about, that, if pursued, will preclude the access to Heaven?
Andersen died a bachelor. Of course, his appearance was… how to say it… modest (a polite way to say he was ugly as hell), but finding a wife wouldn’t be that big of a deal anyway, not in the society he moved in, that we might remember being the Nineteenth Century’s one.
His work has, among the principal themes it deals with, sentimental isolation, love being never happy, never fulfilled. Let’s just think about the tin soldier, who can be with his ballerina only after death, or about the protagonists in “Only a Fiddler”. How is it possible that such a lonely person voluntarily chose not to have any company?
Well the answer is very simple: Andersen was uninterested in women. He was homosexual. He had decided not to entertain any relationship at a young age, because he was a deeply devoted Christian. That’s why, all in all, the Little Mermaid’s ending is a happy one: she gets redemption, she will go to Heaven. Her earthly suffering ends and there will be no more torment. In Andersen’s writing one might see almost everywhere this hope to be able to obtain a metaphysical happiness by personal effort, maybe the only hope that kept him going on for seventy years in a society he didn’t feel he belonged to and that would have (that had) excluded him without remorse. That’s why quoting the original fairytale to disregard the live action film makes zero sense, since the animated film is already such a big distortion of the original work that it cannot be defended, if we really want to be damned purists.
Paradoxically, if we really wanted to maintain Andersen’s original spirit, the mermaid should be male. Suddenly a black actress doesn’t seem so absurd anymore, does it?