The Little Mermaid: A Christian Fairy Tale
Updated: May 11, 2020
The Little Mermaid is a metaphor about Eve, the Fall, and being tested.
The character by Hans Christian Anderson is very different from Ariel in the Disney version of the story, and the story itself is very different. The Disney version kept many of the same characters and elements, but there are very big differences between the two (read more on the Disney versions vs. the classic versions of fairy tales here).
In Anderson’s version, the little mermaid’s greatest desire is to make the prince love her so that his soul will combine with hers, and then she will share in his nature.
Yes, that does present a lot of philosophical problems. No, I'm not writing this post about philosophy, but I will definitely post a link here if I do tackle that issue in more depth.
For now, the best way to understand it is just that she wants to be united with the prince.
Her father is the king in the sea-kingdom, so she was created as the daughter of the king by nature, but she rejects that and wants something more: she wants to be like the Prince.
In fairy tales, royalty is always a symbol for God
Sometimes they show the goodness of God, but when they're evil, they show how they fail in that role.
The Little Mermaid doesn't just not want to be a mermaid, she wants to have the same nature as the prince.
She's not happy with who she is, and she's willing to do anything to change it, no matter what it takes. At the beginning of the story, she doesn't seem to care about what's truly good and she's willing to commit an evil act to get what she wants.
This is the same temptation that Eve experienced in Genesis 2
The mermaid’s greatest desire is to make the Prince love her so that his soul will combine with hers, and then she will share in his nature. In the Disney version, Ariel wants to be human so she can marry Prince Eric, but in that version she's not trying to take him over or merge with him (that kind of philosophical issue would be difficult to explain in a Disney story).
In her pursuit of this goal, she rejects her own royal nature as well as those who love her, and she doesn’t even care that she has to choose to align herself with the devil in order to attain her goal.
When she visits the witch, she’s fully aware that the witch is evil and that she is facing death, but she’s willing to embrace that in order to get what she wants. In this story, she doesn’t gain the wisdom that should come from an encounter with something that symbolizes death in stories the way that Snow White does when she faces death.
Aligning with Evil
Instead, the Little Mermaid aligns herself with the evil of death itself, and sacrifices her ability to speak. Unlike in the Disney story, the witch doesn't just magically take her voice away. In Andersen's story she voluntarily gives up her ability to speak by allowing the witch to cut out her tongue!
That’s really important, because when she takes the potion brewed by the witch and her tail turns into human legs, she gains the outer form of a human being, but she’s denied the ability to speak. Only human beings have the ability to use words to communicate, which is what speech is.
Speech is something that requires the ability to think abstractly, and that ability requires an immortal soul.
Animals like parrots can make noises that sound like human speech, but it’s only an imitation of the sound. Words are symbols of ideas; animals can be taught to associate a specific word with an object or action, but they can’t understand the meaning of the word.
If you have a dog that barks at when the doorbell is rung, he’ll respond the same way anytime he hears that sound, even if he hears it during a movie.
And good luck trying to explain the difference between the two sounds to him!
Understanding that difference, or even that doorbells that have different sounds are still doorbells, requires the ability to think abstractly, and animals aren’t capable of this.
So the Little Mermaid's willingness to give up her ability to speak by cutting out her own tongue is a symbol that the mermaid has rejected her own nature as the daughter of the king of mermaids—a true princess—and is grasping at taking over a higher nature: humans have immortal souls, but mermaids do not. They live for hundreds of years, but her grandmother tells her that they no longer exist when they die because they don't have immortal souls.
This is Very Similar to the Sin of Adam and Eve
They also wanted to grasp at something that was higher than their own nature, in wanting to become gods.
In contrast with this, we have the humility of Jesus, who—in His humanity—did not see a divine nature as something to grasp.
The mermaid’s grandmother reminds her that the vices of pride and envy require pain and sacrifice to overcome them. And she tells her this while the oysters are attaching themselves to the mermaid by clamping—painfully!—onto her tail.
It’s a warning that pride and envy are the sins that the mermaid struggles with the most.
In contrast, the princess who eventually marries the prince is widely known for her virtue, which is also why she is so beautiful.
Her beauty is a manifestation of the state of her soul, and that is obvious to all who see her
That’s why the prince falls instantly in love with her (after his own death and resurrection).
His virtue is shown in his refusal to even try to make her forsake the vows that he believes she has taken, which is why he is also handsome (or beautiful).
The Little Mermaid’s final test lies in once again facing death: her own, or the prince’s
If she kills him, the witch has promised her that she will join her family as a mermaid once again and live until her natural death when she’s 300 years old.
A False Promise
By killing the prince, she will once again choose to align herself with evil.
Instead, she sacrifices her own life rather than choose evil because she has come to truly love the prince. In the end, the mermaid chooses to die rather than commit that final sin, after trying to be something that she couldn’t be by nature.
It’s because of her rejection of evil in the end that she ends up in the air as one of the spirits. She has been "elevated" because she chose goodness in the end.
Her “life after death” is also symbolic: she’s elevated, but as a gift, not by her own efforts or ability. She spends 300 years up in the air—the same number of years that she would have lived naturally as the daughter of the king—doing good for others to atone for the evil she sought out and willingly chose.
In the end, she repented and chose good over evil, and chose to sacrifice her own life rather than to commit murder as her final act. This is why her sins are forgiven and she now has the chance to go to heaven: eternal life instead of eternal death.
I hope you enjoyed this short summary of the Christianity in Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Little Mermaid.
Original post: 9/5/19
List of Posts in the Fairy Tale Fridays series:
Little Mermaid: A Christian Fairy Tale (this post)