It is these new tales that gained him the recognition he so keenly desired. His stories began to move away from traditional ‘happy endings’ (seen in tales such as The Tinderbox where the protagonist marries the Princess), and started to delve into moral and religious tales of life. More often than not his new tales saw his protagonists go on a journey of the soul with the ending being a moral or religious enlightenment. This reflected Andersen’s religious beliefs as a devout Lutheran and are best portrayed in tales such as The Story of a Mother, The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid.
Of these tales The Little Mermaid is perhaps the most commonly remembered in society today. The themes that Andersen expressed in this tale, namely love, yearning and sacrifice are themes that have a universal appeal that are still relevant more than 100 years after he first began to write. The tale of The Little Mermaid proved to be a turning point in Andersen’s work as an author of fairy tales, and has in some way become a symbol of his legacy. In 1909, a statue of the little mermaid was gifted to the city of Copenhagen by the founder of Carlsberg Brewery who had been enchanted by a ballet performance of the tale. This statue still sits in Copenhagen today and attracts thousands of tourists every year. And in 1989, Walt Disney adapted the story into an animated film which was a huge box office success and still captivates viewers today. These are just two prime examples of how Hans Christian Andersen’s legacy has extended beyond his writing.
The enduring success of The Little Mermaid comes down to the likability of the tale’s protagonist and its possibility to be read and enjoyed by adults as well as children. When the tale was first published, Andersen included a special preface at the beginning of the collection to “the older readers” where he explained that The Little Mermaid contained a profound meaning which they alone would understand. Through this tale Andersen confessed to a friend that “I suffer with my characters, I share their moods, whether good or bad, and I can be nice or nasty according to the scene on which I happen to be working.” It is this connection that Andersen had with his protagonist that makes her so appealing and endears her to readers.
In the story, the little mermaid (who unlike Disney’s version is given no name) lives a carefree and idyllic life as a Princess under the sea, but this life is not enough for her. She yearns for a life on land and for an immortal soul, “’Why were we never given an immortal soul?’ Said the little mermaid in distress. ‘I would give all the three hundred years I have to live, just to be a human being for a single day and then have my share of the heavenly world.’” This yearning for an immortal soul is soon intensified when she learns that the love of a human can give her what she desires, “Only if he clung to you with all his heart and all his mind, and married you with his right hand in yours with a promise of faithfulness now and to all eternity. Then his soul would flow into you, and then you, too, could have your share of human happiness.”
In Andersen’s time, this question of immortal souls and gaining access to heaven would have been widely accepted themes in popular text. Parents would have been happy for the tale to have a strong moral message and after his first works were once dismissed as lacking morals, Andersen clearly came back with a vengeance in The Little Mermaid. The text carries a strong Christian theme, but the ending is a little ambiguous in its meaning. Having not managed to win the love of the Prince, the little mermaid faces a test in which she must plunge a knife into the heart of Prince in order to win back her fish tail and return home. The good character of the little mermaid and her love for the Prince prevents her from doing this and she sacrifices her life. Her reward is to join ‘the children of the sky’ which could be a metaphor for heaven. But is it a happy ending? The little mermaid doesn’t win the love of the Prince and doesn’t get to live as a human on earth, instead she gets a chance to strive for three hundred years with the children of the sky to gain an “immortal soul and eternal bliss”.
It’s not hard to see why this theme doesn’t feature at all in Disney’s retelling of the story. Aside from the fact that religious and moral tales rarely featured in stories any more in the 1980s (when Disney became prominent), it was a theme that was no longer popular with the masses- and Disney was making a movie for the masses. Instead, Disney gave the little mermaid (called Ariel in their retelling), the ability for her to triumph over the evil of the sea witch and to win the love of her Prince. Disney gave the story the classic fairy tale ending that Andersen had shied away from.
The Disney retelling of the story was my first knowledge of the tale of The Little Mermaid. As a child I was enchanted by the possibility of mermaids in the sea, and of the romance of the little mermaid winning the heart of the handsome Prince. I don’t think that I would have liked the story as much if I had been introduced to Andersen’s original tale as a child. The ending would have been confusing and wholly unsatisfactory to me at such a young age. Even though Disney cut out Andersen’s moral and spiritual message within the tale, I think he has them to thank in some part for the continuation of his legacy. Disney introduced Andersen’s little mermaid to masses of people that may not have been familiar with his work. Annoyingly, some of these masses probably still don’t know that Andersen was the original creator of their favourite Disney character, but they have nonetheless been exposed to his work. Disney made The Little Mermaid a household name for a new generation of fans and helped to ensure that Andersen’s tales go on to enchant and inspire further generations, even if their retellings prove more popular than his original.
However, it is not just Disney that strives to continue Andersen’s legacy. Along with the little mermaid statue in the harbour, Copenhagen also has a statue of the author at its City Hall, and there is a statue of Andersen and The Ugly Duckling in New York’s Central Park. In the world of literature, there is an annual prize called the Hans Christian Andersen Medal which aims to celebrate the very best in children’s literature, and Andersen’s birthday (the 2nd of April) is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day. Add to that the many plays, films, operas, picture books and merchandise that have been based on his tales, and the many authors who have been inspired to write their own novels because of his tales- and you cannot deny that this ‘swamp plant’ has gone on to be a defining figure in children’s literature.
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