Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Little Mermaid

21 October 2003 The Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Little Mermaid
has the illustrations from the original edition by Pedersen and Lorenz Frolich

After a search on the internet, I found that scant attention is paid to Andersen's Mermaid. There are reviews and websites dedicated to Walt Disney's Mermaid, but not essays or insights to Andersen.

And although, Andersen is hailed as creating the literary fairytale, he's more aptly described at reviving the art of creative myth taking and mixing from the past, rather than being novel. A careful look into Mermaid, reveals it to be a rerun of Romeo and Juliet which is a rehash of Troilius and Cressydae, a rehash of Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbee. True, Beauty and Beast is more easily recognized as a rehash of Ovid's Echo and Narcissus, than the Mermaid. The reader's vision is clouded so that he does not recognize the source material by transferring the characters into different worlds. Instead of warring families of Verona, the tragedy opens under the sea with a delightfully realistic description. The reader buys it and enters into a fantastic world, hidden from human eyes. The extraneous characters are stripped from their supporting roles. Here we need no Mercutio, Thybalt, bumbling Friar John or meddling nurse, but the chief conflicts are still the same. Just as Romeo belonged to the wrong side of town and wrong family, the Mermaid belongs to the inacceptable world. The difference between the two tragedies though is immense. Romeo and Juliet are reflections of social problems; but the Mermaid is allegorical with elements of myth, giving it far greater room for interpretation. Although the plot can be easily summarised as based on love and rejection, the elements are heavily symbolic or imbued with symbolic meaning freeing the interpretation.

Consider first the symbols that are intrinsic to the environment. The language is highly crafted, yielding metaphor and simile like apples on a tree. Where does a mermaid live but in the sea? And the Prince on land. The mermaid is at home in water. It is her element, but the Prince needs solid ground and air to breathe and live. They are opposing qualities. A fish cannot live on land unless a notorious Chinese walking catfish, and it needs water to remain alive. Water can symbolize dreams or the unconscious, just as air can represent conscious thought, but the Prince lives and walks on solid ground. He is a practical, down-to-earth man. Art might be beautiful and having a birthday party on the sea with the Royal Fireworks and Water Music by Handel may be very pleasant, but it's only for diversion. He's not one to live in a garret and starve for a living. His concept of life is above mankind. He rules and doesn't particularly like getting his feet wet. He lives above and she below the waterline. And although the waterline seems to be transparent like the glass ceiling for women executives, it's still very difficult to break through and creates a very realistic barrier. The two worlds are irreconciliable.

There are other hidden problems. The mermaid lives in a different world, therefore, she speaks a different language. She comes from a different culture with different values. In her world, shells on the tail amount to prestige, but in his world, she would be only something for scorn. Andersen evokes an image of a person with the face pressed against the glass, but unable to communicate and touch the beloved. All the sisters have little gardens in which the create silhouttes and shapes of sea-related things, but the mermaid dreams of something outside her limited world—and creates a garden shaped like a sun she has never seen and places the figure of a man in the center.

Even before she sees the shipwreck, she is doomed. She loves what she cannot love and longs for the impossible, and has not the power of speech to ease her suffering. How many romantic poets have written about the beloved, to the beloved or for the beloved. The controversy over Shakespeare's sonnets continues. Catullus committed suicide. Brahms never married. Schubert is inextricably associated to Clara and what about Andersen? Caught in the social expectations of his age, he stepped back into the shadows, while Oscar took the stage. Although the conflict may be hidden in symbols, the silence of the Mermaid echoes in our thoughts. What if she could talk? Would it have been different? Would she still be rejected? It's hard to say. Selective mutism happens in reality, usually among children when they feel that what they have to say, or what they are is rejected. Teach a class, and you'll find that there is someone who hides his thoughts in silence. Silence is very hard to break. Have a quarrel with someone and later, it's very difficult to say "hello" although you were always good friends. Silence makes people awkward. And even if the mermaid could speak, what could she tell him? She came from a different world with different perspective and understanding. How can someone from a foreign country truly tell you how different his world and life was?

Or perhaps, the sea and the mermaid are only a symbol of dreams embeddded in the Prince's mind. It's nice to have a fantasy, but in real life, it's better to keep your feet on the earth and do things in a very practical way. People can drown in dreams and fantasies, get lost in drugs.

Sur la Lune- The Little Mermaid

Illustrations at Sur la Lune

Sur la Lune History

Sur la Lune- related stories hyperlinked

The Little Mermaid
notes about the sculpture

H C Andersen site
University of Southern Denmark

Variants on Sea-Maid

A History of Mermaids


22 June 2003 The Ugly Duckling

1 December 2004 Nix of Mill Pond

3 November Silence of Longing part 2

part 2: Rusalka, Berg and literary social criticism

1 November The Silence of Longing p2

reposted on 3d November was deleted

2 November Silence of Longing Part 1

1 November The Silence of Longing p1

24 October The Waterline p1

24 October The Waterline Going Deeper p2

24 October 2003 The Waterline: Drowning p3


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