Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is the first fairy tale of its kind to take place, at least partially, in a world underwater. This fairy tale falls under the marvelous category due to the presence of the supernatural (like the mermaids and sea-witch) and the presence of magic (like the sea-witch’s potion). “The Little Mermaid” contains a few differences from fairy tales by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, especially in the amount of attention Andersen gives to the physical environment; however, the similarities (particularly among the motifs used) in Andersen’s story and other fairy tales are more abundant.
Motifs consist of the largest area in which Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is similar to fairy tales by Perrault and the Grimms, though it is easy to identify a few differences in this area as well. Perhaps the most prevalent motif is a female protagonist who desires something that she cannot necessarily have, but there are conditions and consequences in order for her to receive what she desires. In one Grimm fairy tale, Rapunzel’s mother desired a child and some of the witch’s rapunzel plant which she eats, but she has to give up her child in return for the stolen herbs (71). Likewise, the little mermaid has to give up her voice (and risk giving up her life) in order to become a human and to attempt to gain the Prince’s hand in marriage (also to receive an immortal soul) (Andersen 113). Just like the fairy godmother’s magical help in the Grimms’ story of Cinderella, the little mermaid is given time constraints for the magic to work: she will not be able to turn back into a mermaid and she must win the Prince’s heart (and marry him) before he marries another woman, or else the little mermaid will die and never gain an immortal soul (113).
“The Little Mermaid” is very much about a young girl’s yearning for love and success — gaining an immortal soul. While the little mermaid is given the much-desired qualities that female protagonists in other fairy tales have — such as beauty, gracefulness, and the loveliest voice — she is not made out to be an ignorant or unintelligible female as is so common in other fairy tales (Andersen 111). Another similar characteristic within this fairy tale is the carnal connotation in the idea that the mermaid needs beautiful legs and a lovely figure in order to gain the attention of the Prince; likewise, this fairy tale also emphasizes the idea that a lovely figure and voice is connected with goodness of spirit and morality (113).
Like other fairy tales, Andersen’s tale is a potential target for both criticism and praise from feminists. The criticism would be due in part to the traditional motif of a waiting female protagonist: first, the little mermaid waits for her 15th birthday so that she can go to the surface of the ocean, and then later she waits in vain for the Prince to fall in love with her and marry her (Andersen 106-108, 114-116). Other stories that portray the motif of the “waiting female” that might receive similar criticism include Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Rapunzel — each female protagonist waits, in her own way, for a happy life with a prince (Perrault 5-10, 17-21; Brothers Grimm 70-72). Feminists might also direct criticism toward the fact that the female protagonist is subject to the Prince’s fickleness and that the antagonist in the story is a female (the sea-witch) (113). The Prince’s character is made to be charming, attractive, and completely unaware of the sufferings or struggles of the female protagonist; this aspect of the fairy tale could be both criticized and praised by feminists, depending on the way they look at it (115). The little mermaid’s characterization might be praised: she is made to be beautiful, graceful, sweet-natured, brave, gifted with a lovely voice, and a compassionate heart that allows her to do good deeds and know the difference between right and wrong (113, 116-117). Another aspect of this fairy tale that feminists might praise is the fact that the little mermaid’s five sisters were not at all mean or cruel to her (105-110, 116-117).
Another common motif in most of these fairy tales is that the antagonist takes away something of value or importance from the protagonist. In Rapunzel, the witch first took the baby away from the mother and then took Rapunzel’s freedom away (Brothers Grimm 71). In another Grimm fairy tale, the antagonist Rumpelstiltskin attempts to take away the first born child of the miller’s daughter (49). In “The Little Mermaid,” the sea-witch takes away the little mermaid’s beautiful voice, which might be considered a representation of her innocence and purity (Andersen 113). Though perhaps not considered an evil character, the little mermaid’s widowed father is worth mentioning because he seems to just sit idle as his daughter goes through all of her sufferings — a similar motif seen in Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin.
The style of “The Little Mermaid” is similar to many of Perrault and Grimms’ stories in the sense that there are often graphic scenes, however Andersen’s tale differs because it lacks the typical “fairy tale” ending. For example, in Rapunzel, the prince is blinded as his eyes are gouged by thorns (Brothers Grimm 72). In Andersen’s story, graphic images depict the little mermaid receiving her legs as if a sharp sword were cutting her tail in two and then the mermaid experiencing great pain while trying to walk (113-114). Another graphic image in this tale is when the witch cuts out the little mermaid tongue – quite a different style than we saw in the movie (Andersen 113)! Stories like Cinderella, Aschenputtel, and Rapunzel have the typical “fairy tale ending” in which the female protagonist is able to overcome all of her struggles and marry the prince of the story (Perrault 21; Brothers Grimm 58, 72). “The Little Mermaid,” however, lacks this movie-style, “fairy tale” ending; instead, it contains an ending that has more of a didactic purpose. Although the little mermaid does not get to marry the prince in the end, she is rewarded for her compassionate heart and good deeds. She is given a more eternal reward than a prince: she becomes a “daughter of the air” where she can do good deeds for three hundred years in order to gain an immortal soul (117-118).
Finally, one of the biggest differences between Andersen’s style and the style of fairy tales by Perrault and the Grimms is that Andersen seems to pay more attention to the physical environment within the story. Some of the detailed descriptions within this story include the presented images of each princess’s garden, each of the mermaids’ own description of the world above the ocean surface, the images of the sea palace, and the description of the sea-witch’s dwelling (Andersen 105-107, 112). Each of these descriptions helped create deeper characterizations of each person in the story, which provided further insight into each character’s personality.
While some of the characterizations, motifs, and stylistic aspects of “The Little Mermaid” were quite similar to the aforementioned fairy tales by Perrault and the Grimms, Andersen’s tale contained its own memorable personality due to the detailed physical descriptions, the uncommon setting within the ocean, and the didactic ending rather than the common “fairy tale ending.”
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 105-118. Print.
Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 17-21. Print.
Perrault, Charles. “The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 5-10. Print.
The Brothers Grimm. “Ashenputtel.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 54-58. Print.
The Brothers Grimm. “Rapunzel.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 70-72. Print.
The Brothers Grimm. “Rumpelstiltskin.” Classics of Children’s Literature. 5th ed. Eds. John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000. 48-50. Print.