Writers are reminded to write what we know. And we really can’t avoid that. Even in the most fantastical tale, who we are ekes through.
Hans Christian Andersen’s faith was ingrained in him, and therefore, his writing. References of Christianity is sprinkled throughout his emotional tales. His version of The Little Mermaid has numerous religious references.
Andersen begins The Little Mermaid by measuring the distance to the bottom of the ocean with countless church steeples. He later recounts the mermaid’s oldest sister’s description of the world above the sea with church towers and spires and the sounds of their bells ringing. His main character illustrates the Christian values of love and self-sacrifice. The setting of The Little Mermaid is in water, a highly symbolic element of our faith.
However, the most intriguing Christian reference is the little mermaid’s quest for a soul and eternal life. After rescuing a handsome prince from a shipwreck, the little mermaid fell in love with the man and she dreams of becoming human so he may love her too.
The little mermaid asks her grandmother abut the difference between them and humans. The older woman explained that a mermaid may live three hundred years, but when they cease to exist, they turn into foam on the sea. There is no grave, no afterlife.
Humans on the other hand have souls that live forever, even after their bodies turn to dust. The soul rises up beyond the stars to beautiful, unknown regions.
From that point on, the little mermaid longs for an immortal soul. She says, “I would give all three hundred years of my life in return for becoming human for just one day and having a share in that heavenly world.” Although she loves the prince and wishes to become human so she can be with him, her fear of death outweighs her love in her motivation to being immortal.
The little mermaid’s path to humanity comes with great pain and sacrifice. She must convince the prince to love her more than anyone else dear to him and commit to remaining faithful and true forever in order to gain a soul through him.
She also must consume a potion from the sea witch that will transform her tail to legs. Not only does the transition cause great pain, every step will be excruciating. Once she goes through the process, she may never be a mermaid again. Nor can she return to her father’s palace under the sea.
In payment for the potion, the witch takes the mermaid’s beautiful voice by removing her tongue. Not only can the little mermaid no longer sing, she cannot talk or tell the prince she was the one who rescued him.
Unfortunately, the prince comes to love the little mermaid like a child. He longs for the women who saved him, never realizing it was her. He marries a princess which eliminates the little mermaid’s opportunity to gain a soul through him.
The little mermaid’s sisters plea with the sea witch for another option. The sea witch agrees on the conditions that the sisters cut their beautiful hair and the little princess kills the prince. But the little mermaid could not take the prince’s life. Instead, she flung herself into the water for a quick death. She joined the daughters of the air where she learned she could become immortal after 300 years if she spends that time doing good.
The story ends with the little mermaid also learning that for every day a child is good, God shortens the daughters of the air’s time of trial. But a naughty child will make them shed tears of sorrow and add another day to their time.
The original manuscript also contained a commentary from Andersen that was deleted before publication. It read, “I myself shall strive to win an immortal soul…that in the world beyond I may be reunited with him to whom I gave my whole heart.”
(Artwork by Edmund Dulac)