“The Little Mermaid” (Den lille havfrue in Danish) is a fairy tale written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul. The tale was first published in 1837 and has been adapted to various media, including musical theatre, anime and a Disney animated film.
Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark on April 2, 1805. Although a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, Andersen is best remembered for his fairy tales. Andersen’s popularity is not limited to children: his stories express themes that transcend age and nationality.
Andersen’s fairy tales, of which no fewer than 3381 works have been translated into more than 125 languages, have become culturally embedded in the West’s collective consciousness, readily accessible to children, but presenting lessons of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity for mature readers as well. Some of his most famous fairy tales include “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Nightingale”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Little Match Girl”, “Thumbelina”, and many others. His stories have inspired ballets, plays, and animated and live-action films. One of Copenhagen’s widest and busiest boulevards is named “H.C. Andersens Boulevard”.
“The Little Mermaid” was written in 1836 and first published by C.A. Reitzel in Copenhagen on April 7, 1837, in Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. Third Booklet. 1837 (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Tredie Hefte. 1837). The story was republished on December 18, 1849, as a part of Fairy Tales. 1850 (Eventyr. 1850) and again on December 15, 1862, as a part of Fairy Tales and Stories. First Volume. 1862 (Eventyr og Historier. Første Bind. 1862).
In the story, the Little Mermaid lives in an underwater kingdom with her widowed father (the sea king or Mer-King), her dowager grandmother, and her five older sisters, each of whom had been born one year apart. When a mermaid turns fifteen, she is permitted to swim to the surface for the first time to glimpse the world above, and when the sisters become old enough, each of them visits the upper world one at a time every year. As each returns, the Little Mermaid listens longingly to their various descriptions of the world inhabited by human beings.
When the Little Mermaid’s turn comes, she rises up to the surface, watches a birthday celebration being held on a ship in honor of a handsome prince, and falls in love with him from a safe distance. A violent storm hits, sinking the ship, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. She delivers him unconscious to the shore near a temple. Here, she waits until a young woman from the temple and her ladies in waiting find him. To her dismay, the prince never sees the Little Mermaid or even realizes that it was she who had originally saved his life.
The Little Mermaid becomes melancholic and asks her grandmother if humans can live forever. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter lifespan than a mermaid’s 300 years, but that when mermaids die, they turn to sea foam and cease to exist, while humans have an eternal soul that lives on in heaven. The Little Mermaid, longing for the prince and an eternal soul, visits the Sea Witch in a dangerous part of the ocean. The witch willingly helps her by selling her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue and beautiful voice, as the Little Mermaid has the most enchanting voice in the world. The witch warns the Little Mermaid that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea. Consuming the potion will make her feel as if a sword is being passed through her body, yet when she recovers, she will have two human legs and will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. However, she will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives, and her feet will bleed terribly. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die with a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.
After she agrees to the arrangement, the Little Mermaid swims to the surface near the prince’s palace and drinks the potion. She is found by the prince, who is mesmerized by her beauty and grace, even though she is mute. Most of all, he likes to see her dance, and she dances for him despite suffering excruciating pain with every step. Soon, the Little Mermaid becomes the prince’s favorite companion and accompanies him on many of his outings. When the prince’s parents encourage their son to marry the neighboring princess in an arranged marriage, the prince tells the Little Mermaid he will not because he does not love the princess. He goes on to say he can only love the young woman from the temple, who he believes rescued him. It turns out that the princess from the neighboring kingdom is the temple girl, as she was sent to the temple for her education. The prince declares his love for her, and the royal wedding is announced at once.
The prince and princess celebrate their new marriage on a wedding ship, and the Little Mermaid’s heart breaks. She thinks of all that she has sacrificed and of all the pain she has endured for the prince. She despairs, thinking of the death that awaits her, but before dawn, her sisters rise out of the water and bring her a knife that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid kills the prince and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more, all of her suffering will end, and she will live out her full life in the ocean with her family.
However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his new bride, and she throws the knife and herself off the ship into the water just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warm sun and discovers that she has turned into a luminous and ethereal earthbound spirit, a daughter of the air. As the Little Mermaid ascends into the atmosphere, she is greeted by other daughters who tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. Because of her selflessness, she is given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds to mankind for 300 years and will one day rise up into the Kingdom of God.
Some scholars consider the last sequence with its happy ending to be an unnatural addition. Jacob Bøggild and Pernille Heegaard point out that:
“One of the crucial aspects which any interpretation must confront is the final sequence of the tale, in which the little mermaid, against all odds, is redeemed from immediate damnation and accepted into the spiritual sphere, where the “daughters of the air” reside. In this, she is apparently promised the “immortal soul”, which it has been her main motivation to obtain — along with the prince, of course. This ending has baffled critics because the narrative that precedes it points rather to a tragic conclusion than to a happy one.”
— Jacob Bøggild & Pernille Heegaard, Ambiguity in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Andersen og Verden [Andersen and the World] (1993)
The working title of the story was “Daughters of the Air”, spirits who as Andersen conceived them can earn souls by doing three hundred years’ worth of good deeds. One of Andersen’s “daughters of the air” explains to the mermaid that
“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.“
This conclusion came under criticism from some scholars and reviewers. P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and noted folklore commentator, wrote, “This final message is more frightening than any other presented in the tale. The story descends into the Victorian moral tales written for children to scare them into good behavior…. a year taken off when a child behaves and a tear shed and a day added whenever a child is naughty? Andersen, this is blackmail. And the children know it and say nothing. There’s magnanimity for you.” Andersen, however, felt that his revised conclusion in which the mermaid is empowered to attain an immortal soul through her own agency was a decided improvement over the original ending, which climaxed in the mermaid’s dissolution. In 1837, Andersen wrote to a friend that “I have not, like de la Motte Fouqué in Undine, allowed the mermaid’s acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon an alien creature, upon the love of a human being. I’m sure that’s wrong! It would depend rather much on chance, wouldn’t it? I won’t accept that sort of thing in this world. I have permitted my mermaid to follow a more natural, more divine path.”
A statue of The Little Mermaid sits on a rock in the Copenhagen harbor in Langelinie. This small and unimposing statue is a Copenhagen icon and a major tourist attraction. The statue was commissioned in 1909 by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg, after he had been fascinated by a ballet based on the fairy tale. The sculptor Edward Eriksen created the statue, which was unveiled on August 23, 1913. His wife, Eline Eriksen, was the model. It has been severely vandalized several times.
In May 2010, it was moved from its Copenhagen harbor emplacement for the first time ever, for transport to Expo 2010 in Shanghai, where it remained until November 20, 2010.
Scott #248 was part of a set of six stamps released on October 1, 1935, to mark the centenary of the publication of the earliest installment of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The 5-øre light green stamp portrayed “The Ugly Duckling” (Scott #246). A left-facing portrait of Andersen is depicted on the 7-øre dull violet (Scott #247), 15-øre red (Scott #249), 20-øre gray (Scott #250), and 30-øre dull blue (Scott #251) stamps. The 10-øre orange features “The Little Mermaid”. The stamps were recess printed, comb-perforated 12¾. There were 78,837,440 copies of Scott #248 printed in booklet panes of four, tête-bêche with and without a gutter.