THE LITTLE MERMAID ~ the story behind my story
If you want your children to be bright,
read them Fairy Tales.
If you want them to be brilliant,
read them even more Fairy Tales.
- Albert Einstein
I have loved fairy tales ever since I can remember. These stories talked about things that were important. Maybe that's why I'm a storyteller. Fairy tales speak to the deep forces in life.
I spent most of my childhood summers and holidays with my grandparents in Meadowview, Virginia. The women broke peas and snapped beans on the front porch, and they told stories about their lives and their neighbors. But after dark, when the dishes were washed and put away, and the family sat on the slip-covered sofa and chairs, Aunt Mabel pulled out books and read to me. The stories of the Grimms Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen came to life, as mother knit, grandma crocheted, and the men hid behind newspapers - pretending not to listen.
One of the stories I repeatedly asked my Aunt Mabel to read was Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. My little sister Jo Ann died of childhood leukemia when I was seven, and The Little Mermaid was the story that explained death for me. It was much more satisfying than any of the other explanations I had been given. I knew that Jo Ann was a star in heaven, just like the Little Mermaid.
If you are puzzled, you are probably thinking of the Walt Disney movie that is based on the story. In Andersen's version, the Mer-queen, explained death to her. The Mer-queen reminded the Little Mermaid that merpeople live for three hundred years and then turn to sea-foam, and Poof! Life is over. But - she explained - human beings have a short life and they have something called a soul. "When a human beings dies," the Mer-queen told the Little Mermaid, "the soul separates from the body and goes into the starry heavens forever." (The Mer-queen says forever in a derisive manner.) Upon learning this, the Little Mermaid declared that she would gladly trade all of her three hundred years, if she could spend just one day as a human and then live forever among the stars.
The Mer-queen further told the Little Mermaid that there is only one way that a mer-person can become a human being: that is to marry one. "During the marriage ceremony, the human being's soul bubbles up and spills on to the mer-person." Then, according to the Mer-queen, the mer-person has a soul and is a human being. In Andersen's story, the prince is a vehicle to the Little Mermaid's long-term goal which is to live in the starry heavens forever.
The original Andersen tale puts another interesting twist into Disney's simplified story: the Mer-queen gave her granddaughter mis-information. The prince does not marry the Little Mermaid, and yet, because of her compassion, she ends up in the starry heavens. As a child, I found this conclusion quite satisfying. I still do.
Many people shy away from Andersen, saying, "He's much too dreary!" And, yes, there is the problem of the Little Mermaid becoming mute when she is a human being. As a child, I wondered why the Little Mermaid didn't write or use sign language. As an adult, the metaphor is clear. I know the agony of not being able to speak my mind - for whatever reason - and, as Andersen said, "that makes suffering all the deeper." Andersen's Little Mermaid feels like she is walking on knives "so sharp, the blood must flow." How many of us have tip-toed around situations on pins and needles, or have felt as though we are "walking on eggs"?
While the Disney versions of classic fairy tales can be entertaining, I believe that the original versions contain the essence of life. As parents, we have a desire to protect our children from the darker side of fairy tales - gender roles, violence, revenge, death. But young people are familiar with the plots in fairy tales. Children know about oppression, even though they cannot name it. We are only trying to live our own version of a fairy tale if we tell only saccharine versions of these stories. Exposing children to more than one version of the same story opens up space for questions and dialogue. This offers positive effects on critical thinking and literacy.
As a child, I played "prince and princess" with my friend Connie. We must have acted out Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast a hundred times - we even played Little Mermaid. What better way to examine our awe and curiosity about relationships? The wicked stepmother, the fairy godmother, the thorny vines, the uninvited thirteenth fairy, the prince..... we were all of the characters and all the events happened to us - as we played inside the house in Houston Texas, Venetian blinds tightly closed, dimming the room and keeping out the heat of the day.
I am in favor of telling the old tales as they were read to us in the 1940's. These stories do not tip-toe. They are bold in their announcements of justice. Fairy tales are metaphors for life. They give children (and adults) opportunities to think and to ask questions. Like: Are mermaids real?