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.

How the types of stories we tell define who we are

The way we remember the events in our lives, and in particular, the traumas in our lives, can shape us as much or more than the events themselves.

 

unknown-1769656_1280Stories have the ability to take the events of our lives – big, small, grand or trifling – and from these establish cause and effect, impart and distribute importance, tie together the disparate, cast details aside, hint at symbolism and meaning, moralize, criminalize, and summarize.

How many hundreds, thousands of stories can you tell from a day, an hour, a relationship, an encounter? How many different stories can we tell from the same memories, from the same life? I am good and you are bad – or perhaps, it’s the other way round.

The stories we tell and believe define who we are.

 

Stories Help Us Make Sense of Ourselves

In an excellent article on “life stories” and how the narratives we construct from the events in our lives define who we are and how we perceive the world, Julie Beck explores the links between personality and memory, the self and our stories.

We remember our lives not as lists of facts but in narrative arcs. In order to hold onto the multitudes of memories we create, we turn these memories into narrative. Whether or not we write them down, in our minds, we pick and choose what is important, establishing connections and creating meaning as memories are turned into stories.

A hypothetical – We may remember the painful breakup as the impetus to study abroad. The decision to study abroad may be labeled as the life changing experience that sparked a desire to move later to Asia, where we met our spouse. The bullying in high school led to a stronger sense of empathy and compassion. We establish links. Consciously or not, these narratives become a form of identity. The things we choose to remember and how we choose to remember them can reflect and shape who we are.

These can change. We can rewrite. The fondly remembered, whirlwind first few months of a romance that we hoped would last, might, after a breakup, suddenly be remembered differently – perhaps there were hints of the end lying underneath all along. Perhaps these darker memories take on a greater or at least a different importance than they did before.

And while there isn’t a right or a wrong way to remember, how we remember can significantly impact who we are and how we learn from our experiences.

 

How the Types of Stories we Tell Matter

Beck tells us of the power of the redemption story. A redemption story starts off bad but ends better and having redemption themes in one’s life is generally associated with greater well-being.

Writer Andrew Solomon has a fascinating TED Talk called, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He speaks of childhood trauma, in his case being bullied at school:

I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.

Solomon was able to turn his trauma into a story of triumph, a redemption story. He says that, “while we don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities…we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” Sometimes by going through suffering and through difficulty, we are able to learn so much more than we perhaps otherwise would if life had been easier. Solomon is careful not to glamorize suffering. “Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.”

And Solomon isn’t the first to draw these conclusions. In James Baldwin’s beautiful, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” where he speaks of the oppression that Blacks have suffered in history in America, he writes,

This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, learns something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable.

The ability to find truth and redemption from our tragedies, and the ability to internalize this meaning into our own personal stories, can strengthen our identities and our experience of the world.

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James Baldwin

There is an important distinction to make however, that Beck, Solomon, and Baldwin all allude to. We have to be able to turn these traumas into triumphs, into redemption stories in order to obtain these lessons and meaning. Solomon tells us, “We cannot bear a pointless torment.”

Sometimes however, we never create the redemption story. Sometimes, the story isn’t told. It’s repressed. This might come from shame or fear. If a story isn’t created and told, “your memory for that event may be less flexible and give you less chance for growth.”

There can be a darker side to our stories. The alternative to the story of redemption can be one where the individual positions oneself as the victim. This is especially dangerous when a group of traumatized individuals identify themselves as victims of a group of villainized “Others.” A story of victimhood can turn into what author Amin Maalouf characterizes as the propensity of persons to turn to violence when they suspect they are being threatened. James Baldwin warned against the same as he saw the rise of militant black groups in response to their oppression.

And a possible key towards preventing victim thinking? Philosopher Jonathan Sacks in his book on violence recommends empathy. “To be cured of potential violence toward the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.”

Truth is multifaceted. And almost as important as how the action played out, is how the action is told after the fact, whether it as a part of our own personal story, or in a story of something bigger than ourselves. We can teach and we can also hurt each other depending on the types of stories we tell. In life and in history, the stories outlive the actions.

“The story of things done outlives the act” and “a thing said walks in immortality if it has been said well.” The bards also, Homer-like, “straightened the story . .  . in . .  . magic words to charm all men thereafter.” They did not merely report, they also set it right — Aias had slain himself from shame, but Homer had known better and “honored him above all men.” (from The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt)