You’ve likely heard the story of “The Little Mermaid” many times before. It begins with a mermaid longing to explore the human world — a longing that intensifies when she falls in love with a prince. She then exchanges her voice with a sea witch for the opportunity to become human, and though the sea witch nearly ruins everything, ultimately, the mermaid gets her happily ever after. That story, which was most recently retold in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” starring Halle Bailey, is a classic, age-old fairy tale . . . or is it?
Actually, the “Little Mermaid” story most of us know and love is a rewrite of a much older, much bloodier fairy tale. In 1837, per ScreenRant, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen penned the original “The Little Mermaid.” It begins similarly to Disney’s familiar version, starting out by focusing on a mermaid longing to be with a prince whom she can’t reach. But in Andersen’s version, the mermaid’s trade with the sea witch requires a bit more than her voice. Instead, the sea witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue and gives her a pair of legs, though she warns her that every step she takes will feel like walking on knives. The sea witch also gives the mermaid a terrible ultimatum, telling her that if the prince marries someone else, she’ll die the morning after his wedding.
Andersen’s version also doesn’t exactly have the fairy-tale ending we’re used to. In his story, the prince falls in love with another woman, and the mermaid prepares to die. Then, on her last night alive, her mermaid sisters come to her and say they’ve bargained with the sea witch and sold their hair in exchange for a magic knife. But there’s a catch — in order to survive, the mermaid has to use the knife to kill the prince. Devastated, the mermaid chooses to sacrifice herself instead. She jumps into the sea, and by the morning, she’s nothing more than sea foam. Still, after her death, the mermaid meets mysterious airborne beings that tell her that her selflessness means she has a chance to attain an immortal soul. If she uses her next 300-year lifespan in the spirit world for good deeds, they tell her, she’ll be welcomed into heaven.
Intriguingly, the tragic tale may have been inspired by Andersen’s real-life heartbreak. Just before Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid,” per Lit Hub, he learned that his longtime friend Edvard Collin was engaged to a woman. For years, per the outlet, Andersen had been writing Collin letters that expressed romantic feelings toward him. “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench . . . My sentiments for you are those of a woman,” Andersen wrote in one letter. “The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” Through that lens, Andersen’s story can be read as a metaphor for suppressed queer desire.
No matter what version of “The Little Mermaid” you prefer, though, all the stories seem to say something about the pain of being excluded and the desire to become part of a world you can’t quite reach — and that theme is so universal that it’s not hard to see why the story keeps being told and retold.
“The Little Mermaid” is now streaming on Disney+.