Many Little Mermaids: Hans Christian Andersen's Classic Fairy Tale

June 27, 2022 | Myrna

Comments (0)

For almost 200 years, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid has captured the imaginations of readers young and old. The mermaid's story has been told and retold by generations of writers, with each writer putting their own spin on the tale of a mermaid caught between her ocean home and adventures on land. 

Below is a short history of the tale, featuring items from our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books (located on 4th floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch).

Colourful illustration of young mermaid on rock by fishing boat
Illustration by Mabel Lucie Attwell from Hans Andersen's Fairy Stories (1901).

Hans Christian Andersen's original story 

First published in 1837, The Little Mermaid was written in Danish and titled Den lille havfrue. The Little Mermaid is a literary fairy tale. The plot is drawn from Hans Christian Andersen's imagination rather than a specific folktale. However, Andersen's writing was influenced by traditional folklore about merfolk and water nymphs. 

Hans Christian Andersen's original Little Mermaid story might surprise readers familiar with Disney's 1989 film adaptation. In Andersen’s story, the mermaid is motivated by her desire for an immortal soul, not a desire for love and life on land.

When the mermaid saves a drowning human prince, she learns that the love of a human might allow her an immortal soul. The mermaid decides to venture onto land, but her legs come at a price. Transformed by a sea witch, she must marry the prince or risk death. When the prince marries another, the mermaid sacrifices herself instead of harming the prince. As a reward for her good deed, the mermaid is given an immortal soul.

The first English translation

The first English translation of The Little Mermaid appeared in A Danish Story-book (1846), which was published in February 1846. Translator Charles Boner did not use Andersen's original Danish text as the basis for his English translation, instead he relied on the German translation. In 1846, the popularity of Hans Christian Andersen's tales among English readers exploded. Over a two year period beginning in 1846, six different translators published English versions of Andersen's fairy tales. 

Illustration of a mermaid looking at a castle on land
A Danish Story-book (1846) featured illustrations by Count Franz Graf von Pocci, a German writer, illustrator, puppeteer and courtier.

Oscar Wilde's mermaid tale

By the late 19th century, The Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales were well-known by English readers. Writer Oscar Wilde was an avid, but not uncritical reader of  Hans Christian Andersen. Wilde wrote The Fisherman and his Soul — from A House of Pomegranates (1891) — as a response to The Little Mermaid. The literary fairy tale takes a different approach to Andersen's mermaid narrative.

In a reversal of Andersen's story, The Fisherman and his Soul features a human fisherman who gives up his soul to marry a mermaid. Without his soul, the fisherman spends happy years living beneath the sea with his mermaid love. But his soul is not so easily discarded. The soul returns but cannot re-enter the fisherman's heart because it is too full of love for the mermaid. Only upon the mermaid and fisherman's death can the soul re-enter the fisherman's now broken heart. 

Illustration of a green skinned mermaid among sea creatures and coral reef
Illustration by Theodore Nadejen from The Fisherman and his Soul (1929) .


Disney's The Little Mermaid and a corporate renaissance

In Disney’s animated adaptation of The Little Mermaid (1989), the film ends with the mermaid Ariel and her prince defeating the sea witch. Instead of sacrificing herself and gaining an immortal soul, Ariel marries her prince and lives happily ever after on land. This romantic "happily ever after" proved popular. Disney’s The Little Mermaid was a huge success, grossing $235 million worldwide. The movie heralded the beginning of the “Disney Renaissance,” a period between 1989 and 1999 where Disney animated movies experienced massive commercial and critical success.

Black and white photography of a little girl surrounded by Disney merchandise
A young The Little Mermaid fan in 1992. Disney films experienced a wave of popularity following The Little Mermaid release in 1989. From Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

A friendlier Little Mermaid

Most versions of The Little Mermaid tell a tale of (often doomed) romantic love. Illustrator Jerry Pinkney's retelling of The Little Mermaid (2020) focuses instead on friendship and self-growth. Pinkney says he found The Little Mermaid "an intriguing yet a daunting story" to adapt because he "found the plot to be out of step with the times; today’s readers are seeking their own true paths, blazing new trails." 

Pinkney's adaptation tells the story of young mermaid Melody. Melody is curious about life on land and her explorations result in her befriending a human girl. The sea witch is still a threat, but Melody manages to defeat the witch by herself. The importance of Melody's regaining her voice is emphasized. The story ends with Melody resolving to "never give it up again for anyone or anything." 

Illustration of two little girls stand in the waves at a beach
Mermaid Melody befriends a human girl in The Little Mermaid (2020).

Further reading

Books and websites

Fairy tale blogs from TPL