for the Little Mermaid fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical
references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations
which appear on the Little Mermaid Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated
Little Mermaid to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.
1. Blue: Blue is the dominant color of this story, thanks in part to its watery setting. Blue represents the little mermaid's underwater world all the way to the color of her eyes and the sand. Notice how often the color is used to describe an element of the little mermaid's world as you read the story. Return to place in story.
2.Sea King: Note that while describing a utopian underwater world, Andersen has still given the kingdom a hierarchy with a king, princesses and subjects. The little mermaid's beautiful home and social standing within it make it hard to understand why she would want to leave it. Andersen's story explains that only eternal salvation is preferrable.
The best known Sea King in European folklore is from Russia. Two highly recommended books with stories about the Sea King are:
3. Youngest: Andersen maintains the common folklore pattern of telling the youngest sibling's story. Traditional folklore is primarily interested in only children or youngest siblings. Return to place in story.
4.Fishs tail: Mermaids are not always portrayed as having fish tails in folklore. Some mermaids are portrayed as appearing fully human although they live in the water, not on land. The little mermaid's tail is pivotal to Andersen's story, however. Return to place in story.
5. Red: Red is the other dominant color of the story, surpassed only by blue. Red represents the worlds above the water, describing the sun in the heavens and the world it shines upon. Red also appears in the little mermaid's things under the water, such as her flower garden, representing her hunger for the worlds above the water. Return to place in story.
6. Sun: The sun, often described as glowing red, could almost be considered a secondary character in the tale, it is so frequently mentioned and described. The sun represents the earth and the heavens, the two worlds above the mermaid's own and the ones she aspires to join. Return to place in story.
7.Strange child, quiet and thoughtful: One has the feeling that Andersen was also a strange child, quiet and thoughtful, especially when he was writing stories. The little mermaid represents Andersen in part. Return to place in story.
9.Fifteenth year: Fifteen and sixteen are often considered ages of ripening maturity and marriageable ages for young women in many cultures. Return to place in story.
10.Mermaid: Mermaids were popular during Andersen's time, appearing in story and song. Consequently, Andersen was very familiar with mermaid folklore when he wrote this tale. He uses many folkloric elements in the tale, but moves away from tradition when it suits his purpose to do so.
Mermaids have been part of folklore at least since medieval times, possibly developing from ancient mythology. Some scholars believe mermaid tales developed from the imagery of Aphrodite, the goddess of love who emerged from the sea. Another possible source is the Chadean sea god Oannes. "It has been suggested that glimpses of sea-dwelling mammals such as the dugong or manatee, which suckle their young above the water's surface, contributed to the credibility of the lore" (Jones 1995, 301). The male counterpart of a mermaid is a merman. Return to place in story.
11.City: Andersen lived in Copenhagen on Nyvahn Street, a street that "starts at the harbor and runs along both sides of a canal where fishing vessels were moored," when he wrote The Little Mermaid. (Frank 2003, 103). Return to place in story.
12.Wild swans: Andersen loved the transformative qualities of swans as they grow from awkward goslings to beautiful adults. Swans have primary roles in two of his other more popular tales, The Ugly Duckling and The Wild Swans. Here the swans symbolize the little mermaid's continuing transformations throughout the story. As the swans fly towards the sun and the heavens, they foreshadow the mermaid's own fate. Return to place in story.
13.Vines: While this translation only uses the word vines, the original Danish refererences grapevines. Grapevines are not common in Denmark, but are familiar in Italy. Andersen loved Italy's landscapes and often incorporated their elements into his settings (Frank 2003, 103). Return to place in story.
14.More beautiful voices than any human being could have: Mermaid folklore tells of mermaids luring sailors to their deaths with their beautiful singing. Seeing a mermaid on a voyage was considered bad luck and an omen of severe misfortune, perhaps even a shipwreck (Jones 1995, 300). When one considers the entire tale, the little mermaid's later appearance to the ship foreshadows tragedy. A shipwreck occurs, killing most of the sailors. The prince survives only through the care of the little mermaid. Return to place in story.
15.Begging the sailors not to fear if they sank to the bottom: "In some traditions they [mermaids] are eager to drag mortals, especially the young men who are most susceptible to their charms, under the sea with them, where they keep their souls trapped in cages" (Jones 1995, 300). Andersen does not use this part of mermaid folklore, instead portraying his mermaid sisters as innocently wanting to share their beautiful home, little thinking of the unavoidable death by drowning the sailors would face. Return to place in story.
16.I know that I shall love the world up there, and all the people who live in it: One of the most popular interpretations of The Little Mermaid concerns Andersen's desire to enter a higher social rank and be embraced by those in it. The mermaid's painful sacrifices are likened to Andersen's own suffering and failures as he fought for his desired place in the world, out of the lower class he was born into. This interpretation is also used for another popular Andersen tale, The Ugly Duckling. Andersen claimed that The Little Mermaid was the only one of this fairy tales which moved him as he wrote it. Return to place in story.
17.She could look in through clear glass window-panes: "Fascinated by what is above the surface, by the unknown, and by the forbidden, she [the little mermaid] shows an investigative curiosity lacking in many fairy-tale heroines" (Tatar 2002, 311). Return to place in story.
18.A young prince, the most beautiful of all: Andersen keeps to fairy tale tradition by giving the mermaid, herself a sea princess, a handsome prince to love. Royal main characters are common in romantic fairy tales. Note that in Andersen's world view the land prince is still of a higher station than the sea-princess who dwells in the world under the sea. Return to place in story.
19.He would have died had not the little mermaid come to his assistance: The mermaid, while perhaps portending the wreck through her presence, saves the prince from drowning instead of leading him to his doom as more traditional mermaids would. Return to place in story.
20. Wished: In some mermaid folklore, mermaids have the ability to grant wishes, usually three. The little mermaid is not blessed with this ability by Andersen. Return to place in story.
21.We have not immortal souls, we shall never live again: Andersen was devoted to conveying Christian themes in his writing. In many Christian traditions, supernatural creatures do not have a soul or the chance of eternal salvation. Andersen expressed his belief in the importance of eternal salvation by giving his little mermaid a strong desire for immortality and providing a way for her to obtain it. Return to place in story.
22.Soul: About 50 years after The Little Mermaid was published, Oscar Wilde published his own mermaid story, The Fisherman and His Soul. In this tale, a fisherman falls in love with a mermaid and seeks to give up his soul so she will accept him as a lover. Wilde's story incorporates mermaid lore and also appears to be somewhat of a reaction to Andersen's tale. Return to place in story.
23.Unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you: According to the undine legends, an undine could only gain an immortal soul by marrying a mortal and bearing him a child. One of the most famous undine stories is Undine, by Friedrich de La Motte Fouque.
In Disney's film version of the tale, the little mermaid is not seeking immortality, only earthly love. Her curse of death will be lifted if she is kissed by the prince within a certain time frame; he doesn't have to marry her. Although in a Disney film, it is implied that kissing equals love and that love equals a marriage proposal. Return to place in story.
24. Legs: Traditional mermaid folklore provides different accounts of the mermaids' ability to live out of the water. In some traditions, the mermaid cannot live long out of the water. In other traditions, mermaids have the ability to take on human form--including transforming a tale into two legs--to live on land. The desire to return to the water is strong, often resulting in the mermaid leaving forever even if a lover and/or family has been created in the time she has spent on land (Jones 1995, 300). Return to place in story.
25.Voice: The little mermaid's voice is her means of artistic expression, just as Andersen's writing was his. Scholars often correlate Andersen's fear of losing his talent, or at least not having it recognized, with the mermaid's loss of her voice. When the mermaid loses her voice, she loses the opportunity for the prince to recognize and love her. She sacrifices the very thing she needs to help the prince fall in love with her. Andersen hoped his writing would help people love and accept him. Fortunately, it did.
Critic Christine Fell states that the little mermaid's loss of voice conveys her aloneness in both worlds. "When she had her voice she could not communicate with her own people because her ways of thinking were remote from theirs. Now that she has lost the means of communication she finds the prince, and it is indicated that he had the degree of understanding to share and respond to the little mermaid's thoughts and hopes, if the machinery of communication were not absent" (Fell 1967, 85). Return to place in story.
26.Sea witch: While the sea witch is made terrifying through Andersen's description of her habitat, the Disney version makes the hag a much greater villain and nemesis to the little mermaid. Ursula, as she is named in the movie, is large and ugly, with the tentacles of an octopus. She actively battles to keep Disney's mermaid, Ariel, from winning her prize. Andersen's witch appears to already know the future and doesn't feel the need to manipulate it any more after her initial meeting with the little mermaid. She is a facilitator, not a villain in the traditional sense. Return to place in story.
27. Built with the bones of shipwrecked human beings: The sea witch's home provides opposition to the story's theme of eternal life. "The marsh in which she [the sea witch] resides and the bones of the human folk supporting her house all point to a regime that emphatically displays human mortality and bodily decay" (Tatar 2002, 303). Baba Yaga, a witch in Russian folklore, dwells in a house made of bones. Return to place in story.
28.Weeping of a crocodile: "European travellers reported back to the Old World that the crocodile moaned and sighed as though in pain to lure its victims and even wept over their carcasses as it devoured them; hence the phrase 'crocodile tears,' denoting insincere grief" (Jones 1995, 127). Return to place in story.
29.Slaves: While Denmark did participate in the African slave trade, it never had slaves in the country itself, only serfs. Denmark's role in the slave trade had been outlawed in 1803 before Andersen's time (Frank 2003, 104). Return to place in story.
30.Clapped his hands: Andersen loved the sound of applause in his honor. In The Fairy Tale of My Life, his autobiography, he described his joy when one of his first plays, Love at St. Nicholas' Tower, was applauded in the theatre. He explains that he ran from the theatre in joy and tears when the audience applauded him and shouted "Long Live!" (Frank 2003, 103). Return to place in story.
31.Performed some pretty fairy-like dances: Andersen yearned to be part of the theatrical world after his first trip to the theatre at the age of seven. Interestingly enough, that first visit was to a performance of Das Donauweibschen, a comic opera about a water nymph. Andersen later wrote: "From the day I say my first play my entire soul was burning for this art. I still remember how I could sit for days completely alone in front of the mirror, with an apron over my shoulders instead of a knight's cloak, playing Das Donauweibschen ...I soon learned Danish plays by heart...and I also began to write plays" (Frank 2003, 103).
In his teens, Andersen worked as an extra with the Royal Theatre ballet in his attempts to be on the stage in some form.
The Little Mermaid was interpreted as a ballet in 1913, years after Andersen's death. The main role was danced by the great-granddaughter of one of Andersen's greatest patrons, Jonas Collins. Return to place in story.
32. Each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives: The little mermaid is not the only one of Andersen's characters to experience pain when walking or dancing. The main character in The Red Shoes is cursed to dance herself to death while wearing red dancing shoes. Some scholars believe Andersen adapted this curse from the punishment the wicked stepmother receives in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Andersen's interest in feet and footwear might be more than folkloric since he was the son of a cobbler. Nevertheless, footwear is often important in fairy tales, such as many Cinderella stories and the Shoemaker and the Elves. Return to place in story.
33. Sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion: The little mermaid has become the prince's pet, sleeping on a velvet cushion at his door. This does not bode well for her desire to be his passionate love. She has his affection only as a cherished plaything and companion. Return to place in story.
34.He had a pages dress made for her, that she might accompany him on horseback: While Mrs. Paull chose the word dress to describe the page's costume, the outfit is really a uniform for a male page. The little mermaid is crossing gender lines by wearing men's clothing and going horseback riding with him (Tatar 2002, 302). Return to place in story.
35.He loved her as he would love a little child, but it never came into his head to make her his wife: Author Rosellen Brown explains the prince's inability to love the little mermaid: She "is deprived of her voice, of her personality, her self, left only with her looks, which are captiviating but (to the prince's eternal credit) insufficient compared to the pleasure of a complete speaking woman. The mermaid is a beautiful and loving husk and her longing is forever unrequited" (Brown 1998, 62). Return to place in story.
36.She dreamed of human happiness and an immortal soul: Andersen, too, dreamed of happiness in his life and ultimate immortality. While happiness in his own life was fleeting, often due to his own insecurities and failures in love, it is safe to say he has achieved immortality in our world through his popular fairy tales. Return to place in story.
37.The knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves: The little mermaid is not a violent being, unlike some mermaids in folklore, and cannot cause the death of another, especially the man she loves. She has also saved his life once before and cannot bring herself to now end it. Return to place in story.
38.She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam: Marina Warner criticizes the tale as a negative message about feminine love and duty. The tale shows that as a woman being voluntarily silenced, "cutting out your tongue is still not enough. To be saved, more is required: self-obliteration, dissolution" (Warner 1994, 398). Return to place in story.
40.But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves: Andersen wrote in a letter to a friend: "I have not, like de la Motte Fouquet in Undine, let the mermaid's gaining an immortal soul depend on a stranger, on the love of another person. It is definitely the wrong thing to do. It would make it a matter of chance and I'm not going to accept that in this world. I have let my mermaid take a more natural, divine path" (Frank 2003, 104). Return to place in story.
41.Three hundred years: Note that the waiting period for obtaining an immortal soul is the same as the normal life expectancy of a mermaid as described earlier in the story. Return to place in story.
42. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!: This ending has upset many critics of the tale. They believe that this final message is more frightening than any other presented in the tale. The story unfortunately descends into the Victorian moral tales written for children to scare them into good behavior. P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and noted folklore commentator, perhaps said it best:
"But--a year taken off when a child behaves; 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" (Travers 1979, 93). Return to place in story.