In celebration of World Book Day, on the 1st of March every year, I thought I would share one of my favourite stories of all time and why it means so much to me. As you can see from the title, the story is The Little Mermaid or The Little Sea Maid (as originally entitled by Hans Christian Andersen).
A lot of people tend to be rather surprised when I tell them that this is one of my favourite stories / movies of all time (that being the Disney version), and I mean OF ALL TIME. The reason behind this is because the story had a profound impact on me growing up. I had a somewhat unconventional childhood, and naturally sought books, movies and food as a form of escapism, as many kids growing up in the era of no iPhones and iPads did I’m sure (ah, the good ol’ days). It was the Disney’s The Little Mermaid that I became relatively obsessed with – from painting and drawing the images from my illustrated version of the book to singing along to all the songs in the movie (I still know all the lyrics by heart to this day btw #YEP #noshame). All my sisters thought I was weird.. they still do.
So why did it have such an impact on me?
Being the young, shy, impressionable gal that I was at the time, Ariel’s personality, especially compared to a lot of the other female leads in Disney movies/fairy tales at the time, was totally refreshing to me: she had several characteristics that I strongly identified with, and embodied a level of confidence that I admired and wanted to exude (this all harks back to me being uber-shy beyond the confines of my head and home when I was young):
- She’s one among many sisters (just like myself – I am 1 among 7! Yes, 7!)
- She’s super curious, optimistic and thirsty for knowledge (gadgets and gizmos of plentyyyy)
- She goes for what she believes in, straight up
- She’s kind to everyone and all things
- She has an unbelievable level of self-belief and confidence – she thinks she can get a Prince to fall in love with her in like 3 days with no voice #challengeaccepted
- Heart and head in sync – unlike many other fairy tales, Ariel actually spends a little time with her man – she even saves him whilst he’s drowning – and he’s supposed to be a sailor! Other female leads, such as Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel etc. play the damsel-in-distress card to a T. Ariel however is in the driving seat and is actually the pursuer
- She has talent #datvoice – X Factorrrrr style
- And finally…. she’s fearless – yeh I would never swim off with creepy eels (wth) to see an evil sea-witch (Ursula – I identified with her strongly too loool), let her take my voice and abandon all my family for a hot guy/Prince (hmmm, sounds tempting though, no?)
OK, so some of her behaviour may be questionable and no doubt driven by blissful ignorance and naivety – as are a lot things in life – and yep, she went a bit hard on the ‘love at first sight’ thing, pretty much ditched her family, her upbringing, the ocean etc. after one glance at Eric (let’s be honest, we’d all do the same for a piece of Eric 😉 ); nonetheless, the key message I took from it was ‘here’s to independent women who go for what they want wooeeee!’ (yes, this is what I took from the story at like 6-8 years of age… I started reading thick paperbacks very early on so probably read too much into things that I came across on a daily basis anyhow).
I remember being really annoyed when my older sister told me that Disney had put their own spin on the story by giving it a happy ending (Ariel kills Ursula, saves Prince Eric from drowning AGAIN, and then marries him with her father’s blessings and she lives happily ever after on the land with legs). You see, in Andersen’s original version of the tale, the little sea maid actually never wins over the Prince’s love and the story ends with her death. She turns into foam above the sea, and floats away among the clouds. At the time when my sister told me, I simply refused to believe this as it seemed like such a horrible ending – the fact that someone could give up everything for something they wanted and end up with absolutely nothing seemed like the most unjust thing ever. And so, I avoided reading the original version because the happier ending suited my world view.
It’s been nearly 18 years since my sister told me this, and only last week did I finally open up my beautiful blue bound copy of Andersen’s Fairy tales to read the original version. And the ending was just like she said it was. The little sea maid dies and as she floats above the sea, she watches the man she gave up her life, her soul, family and kingdom for, marry another woman as the sun sets and the birds echo the cries of her weeping heart.
The ‘realness’ or ‘humanness’ of the emotion in the story is what captured me whilst reading Andersen’s version.
A lot of people find it easy to dismiss fairy tales as simplistic children’s stories – but for me, the stories have always gone so much deeper, holding a multitude of layers and meanings to extrapolate from. The Little Mermaid is one of them. And now, having read this story again much older, with a more critical and open mind, and more years of reading and life experience, I can see it for what it really is: an honest and raw love story. The kind that comes with falling in love with someone for the first time, where boundless and irrational thought processes override all logic and action, and idealistic dreams and unseeing passion clouds the mind. The type where love is completely unconditional, where bleak reality hits home at some point and where feelings remain unsaid or unrequited. The type where human endeavors can ultimately amount to nothing but wasted time and energy, and where happy endings come to be seen as only reserved for childhood fantasies. The ‘realness’ or ‘humanness’ of the emotion in the story is what captured me whilst reading Andersen’s version. Dreams and hopes and desires are not always achieved and life doesn’t always work out the way we envisioned it. The little sea maid accepts this, and so is gracefully able to deal with the consequences of her actions.
So yes, the ending was really sad, but I didn’t mind. If anything, I connected even more with the story. It continues to inspire me, including my art. I find that today, the stories I enjoy the most are those that have the power to bring human depth and emotion to the foreground – the ones which tackle the reality of day-to-day life on Earth, from the gritty to the mundane, from heartache and loss to self-discovery and actualisation, and even acceptance that some things don’t always turn out the way we may have hoped. Growing up has meant that accepting sad or unfulfilled endings is something that I, and everyone to some degree, has to come to terms with. That’s not to say that life is super-depressing or anything, but it is certainly not like how many books which have neat, nicely packaged endings, would have us believe.
I originally wrote this post in celebration of World Book Day back in 2017. It has been updated since then for Cloud Cafe & Coffee in celebration of World Book Day 2018.