The Forgotten Ballad to Unrequited Love: The Original Little Mermaid

“Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.”

Or so the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” begins.

I had always known that the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” was vastly different from the original. I had heard that the original was sad, heartbreaking, horrible. I had assumed it was some sort of twisted tale from the dark ages, unfit in its darkness for the children of today.

But oh, I was so surprised then, when I eventually did find my way to the original story. Yes, it’s sad – or has its sad elements. But it’s also so very beautiful.

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Now, the 1989 Disney adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” is great. It’s enchanting and funny and lovely– but the thing is, it seems very much to be its own story, and a different story from the story Hans Christian Andersen told. And we can’t forget that before the 1989 film, in fact before Disney was a company, before Walt Disney the man was even born, before his parents in fact were born, the story of “The Little Mermaid” had enchanted thousands of people (millions perhaps?) in its own right. First published in 1837, it has stood the test of time. Or at least, it seems to have, until we realize that “The Little Mermaid” story most of us know isn’t at all the one of Hans Christian Andersen.

Shall we start with how the real story ends? In Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, the little mermaid doesn’t get to marry her Prince. In fact, she dies, completely heartbroken. Sad and tragic? Yes. Beautiful? Just wait.

 

[The Real Story]

She doesn’t get the Prince. And yes, it is sad, but it has to be so. Because, as I’d like to explain, “The Little Mermaid” is a ballad for unrequited love, for the persistent, brave, foolhardy love that continues quietly even as it is unappreciated, unrecognized, and unseen.

And in this story and for the sake of her love, the little mermaid gives up so much. In addition to losing her voice and to forsaking her family and home, she endures great pain. Her transformation of tail to legs comes with tortuous agony, as if a sharp sword slashed through her. And although she is graceful and beautiful and lovely, each step she takes on human legs feels as if she is treading of a bed of knives that pierce her skin as she walks.

Bertall_ill_La_Petite_SirèneCoupled with the physical pain is the emotional. The Prince, foolish man, longs for the girl that saved him, for the voice and the song of the girl that saved him. Of course, we all know the Prince’s dream girl is in fact the little mermaid, but she cannot tell him. And so she suffers, as the Prince continues to see her only as an innocent child. His heart, he tells her, is saved for the girl that saved him. It is this girl and not the little mermaid that he desperately wants to find, to marry. But still the little mermaid hopes. The Prince spends time with her and cares for her and even speaks of the possibility of marrying her. Her hope must grow so large.

In the end, the Prince marries another, a girl he thinks is the girl that saved him, but of course, isn’t. And the little mermaid is given the opportunity to win back her life with her family, to return to life as a mermaid, if she can kill the Prince as he sleeps. But, she loves him, and so she can’t.

Instead as part of the bargain she made with the sea witch, she dies, turning into sea foam.

 

But here, Andersen is able to deliver the ultimate judgment. Instead of simply perishing as sea foam as other mermaids do (we are told earlier that, unlike humans, mermaids do not have afterlives), the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air. In exchange for her goodness, for her suffering, and her loyalty, she is given the chance to win immortality, to win an immortal soul.

 

“You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart… Your suffering and your loyalty have raised you up into the realm of airy spirits, and now in the course of three hundred years you may earn by your good deeds a soul that will never die.”

 

So you see? It’s sad, but it’s so much more complicated than that. She loves with an intensity and a passion that is unreturned and unappreciated, but that has worth in its own right, for what it is. And this love is ultimately recognized. In the story, recognition comes from the spiritual realm. But for those of us who are less spiritual, this redemption comes also a metaphor for simple truth. Goodness, although not recognized, is still goodness and evil, though it may go unnoticed, is still evil. Andersen gave the little mermaid spiritual redemption but he also gave her ultimate recognition for what she is and for what she has done.

And although fantastical, perhaps it’s closer to truth than the Disney version. In real life, much of love is unreturned. Real life and real love can be difficult, heartbreaking even. I am reminded of David Whyte’s description of heartbreak in his book Consolations,

 

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self.

 

And so, instead of only celebrating the successful kind of love that ends in marriage, perhaps we should also honor the more difficult types of love too. Perhaps we should honor the nobleness, the purity of the unrequited love in each other.

Leonard Cohen once said, we usually don’t deserve the love we expect. And I would add, neither do we receive the type of love we deserve. Instead, we love others with the type of love we deserve, hoping for something in return.

 

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For further reading (and viewing): Enjoy the full text of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. For film adaptations more true to the original text, see if you can find copies of Rusalochka (Russian), Anderusen Dōwa Ningyo Hime (Japanese), and The Little Mermaid by The Reader’s Digest.  More on David Whyte’s Consolations.

The Books We Never Finish

Words of comfort from Henry Miller on all those books we never finish

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In reading the various lists of books people have read and recommended for 2016, I thought about what would be on my list. And as much as I was able to enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and what had moved me, I also felt guilt. There were so many books I started and never finished or bought but never even started. This second list, my graveyard of unfinished books, was fairly long and I was surprised by what was on it. There were books by favorite authors, books that from what I had read so far I really liked, books that were the primary sources for some of my favorite quotes, even books I had recommended to others. So why hadn’t I finished them? And should I finish them?

There are many reasons we may want to finish what we’re started – For books that are bought, there is the dollar value of the book that shouldn’t be squandered, if the book seems uninteresting – well maybe it’ll get better in a few chapters, and for the educational/informative book, the thought – even if I’m not enjoying this book, perhaps it’s good for me. And today, when I don’t finish books, I feel all these pressures. The books nag at me, like unvacuumed floors or dry-cleaning waiting to be picked up,  egging me on from my bedside table and their prolonged stay on my “Currently Reading” Goodreads list.

So what stops me from finishing books? My initial list of reasons, looking at the books that remain unfinished this year, reads like this: 1) The book is repetitive and I feel like I’ve already gotten “the point” (applies typically to nonfiction), 2) I want to start reading something else, 3) The book isn’t interesting (anymore) , 4) I get busy, 5) Who knows? I forgot.

What I think it comes down to though is: I stop reading a book because I want to use my time differently, whether I want to start reading something else or perhaps not read at all. The quality of the book and how I connect with the book ultimately impacts this feeling/decision, but not entirely. As alluded to before, I really like and admire many of the books I’ve stopped reading. Some of my favorite quotes come from Angle of Repose (from the portion of the book I actually read) and based on what I’ve read so far of Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, I’ve recommended it to a few friends.

Is the excuse “I want to stop reading this book so I can spend my time doing something else” good enough? Does it depend perhaps on what the “something else” is? What if it’s reading, but just a different book? That sounds like an apples to apples, zero loss/zero gain transaction.

I want to put this thought on pause for a moment and draw upon Henry Miller’s thoughts on reading. In his book, The Books In My Life, he describes the primary reasons for reading,

We read now, as I see it, primarily for these reasons:

one, to get away from ourselves;
two, to arm ourselves against real or imaginary dangers;
three, to “keep up” with our neighbors, or to impress them, one and the same thing ;
four, to know what is going on in the world;
five, to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater, higher activity and richer being.

Other reasons might be added, but these five appear to me to be the principal ones—and I have given them in the order of their current importance, if I know my fellow man. It does not take much reflection to conclude that, if one were right with himself and all was well with the world, only the last reason, the one which holds least sway at present, would be valid. The others would fade away, because there would be no reason for their existence.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Reasons one to four don’t really matter – or they shouldn’t (although Miller thinks we presently act as if the first four reasons matter more). And if the fifth reason Miller lists is truly the “correct” reason to read, that we should read “to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater,  higher activity and richer being” – then perhaps it’s a question of measuring the activity of reading the particular book in question (the one we’re considering abandoning) versus the competing activity (whether it’s a different book or something else) against the standard of this question. Which of these activities would bring greater enjoyment/stimulation? If we’re going to enjoy the other book or other activity more, then perhaps it’s okay to stop reading whatever it is we’re currently reading.

Of course, this forces us to ignore quite a few influences that may exist – namely some of the first four reasons for reading: the parents, teacher or friend or Oprah that told us to read such and such book as well as that nagging part of the mind that says we’ll be a better person if we just finish this book on how to persuade others. But Miller is saying that reading should be about enjoyment and enjoyment in the purest sense, what we ourselves find enjoyable, without pressures from elsewhere. And so if midway through a book, another book or activity seems to be more enjoyable – shouldn’t we be entitled to leave a book unfinished? Whether it’s a pause for a day, a week, years…or forever, I would say yes. Perhaps we’ll return to it, perhaps we won’t.

And if we are abandoning a book not for another book, but to spend that same time doing something…else? Returning to Henry Miller,

One of the results of this self-examination—for that is what the writing of this book amounts to—is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more. As a glance at the Appendix will reveal, I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ” well-educated ” man—yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of”books.” But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

and

Here an irrepressible impulse seizes me to offer a piece of gratuitous advice. It is this : read as little as possible, not as much as possible! Oh, do not doubt that I have envied those who drowned themselves in books. I, too, would secretly like to wade through all those books I have so long toyed with in my mind. But I know it is not important. I know now that I did not need to read even a tenth of what I have read. The most difficult thing in life is to learn to do only what is strictly advantageous to one’s welfare, strictly vital.

as well as

If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself—direct experience of life.

So there you go. Perhaps you really should stop reading that book then.