Editor’s Note: For some time, Dr. Kalpakgian has been writing a series called The Art of Living. We hope soon make these Art of Living essays available in both ebook and print form. This article starts a new series of Favorite Characters in Literature. We offer this new series in the hope that it may inspire children and adults alike to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with some of the classics of English literature.
In Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales the youngest of the six mermaids makes a crucial life decision that none of her older sisters make. At the age of fifteen all of the princesses enjoy the privilege of leaving the beautiful clear blue water of their watery kingdom to explore the human world above.
While all of the older sisters visit the realm above the water, they have no urge to dwell on earth. Though they marvel at the lights glowing in a large city and the ships at sea, the splendor of a sunny day or the glory of the stars and moon, the graceful flight of swans and the hills teeming with vineyards and farms, and the sight of children playing in the water, none of the older mermaids considers the thought leaving the palace of their father to exchange the life of mermaids to occupy the human world and have an immortal soul.
Only the Little Mermaid experiences the great longing to transcend the kingdom of the sea and enter the human world. When she turns fifteen and visits the human city, she wonders at the sight of a ship and the handsome prince celebrating a birthday party. Beholding the beauty of a calm sea and the brilliance of the fireworks at night, “the little mermaid could not turn her eyes away from the ship and the handsome prince.”
When a furious storm erupts on the ocean and the ship overturns, she dives into the water to rescue the handsome prince and then returns to the sea after her brief visit to earth. But the deepest desires of her heart have awakened.
A Far Greater Thing
The Little Mermaid cannot erase the image of the handsome prince from her mind and returns to the human realm often to see the prince in his palace or sailing on the water. She soon concludes that the world above is “far greater than her own” and learns from her grandmother that human beings, unlike mermaids who live three hundred years and then dissolve into foam, have an immortal soul and rise above to a heavenly world just as the mermaids leave a lower world in the sea to ascend to the kingdom of man.
The thought of an immortal soul and marriage to the prince surpasses all the pleasures she enjoys in the sea—the tranquil life of family love in a luxurious palace, the blue glow of the beautiful water, the delight of her sisters, and a long lifespan that ends without the shock of an early death.
Thinking always of the prince and an immortal soul, the Little Mermaid reflects, “him I hold dearer than father or mother, him my thoughts cling to, and into whose hands I would put my life’s happiness. I would risk everything to win him and an immortal soul!”
She goes to the sea-witch to learn of the magic that will change a mermaid into a human form. First, the Little Mermaid must drink of a bitter potion the witch will offer only in exchange for the mermaid’s bewitching voice which the mermaid must lose. Then, after the tail of the mermaid divides into human legs, the Little Mermaid must suffer the pain of walking –“treading on a sharp knife that cuts you and makes your blood flow.”
The Little Mermaid consents to all the conditions proposed by the sea-witch: the loss of her musical voice, the pain of walking, the knowledge that she will turn to foam if she does not win the love of a prince, and the end of her life as a mermaid in the ocean: “The first morning he weds another, you heart will break, and you will become foam upon the water.”
The Little Mermaid accepts all the costs and risks of a human life. To be a human being instead of a mermaid she will take chances, undergo suffering, and make sacrifices, all without the advantages of her haunting voice and without any guarantee that the prince will marry her: “and she was the most beautiful girl in the palace, but she was dumb and could neither speak nor sing.”
Even though the prince cherishes the Little Mermaid as “the one I am most fond of” because she reminds him of the maiden who saved him from drowning, he never learns that the girl who cannot speak or sing is the one who rescued him from the waves.
When the prince marries another bride while the Little Mermaid watches as “she thought she felt her heart breaking,” she knows her human life has come to an end, she will not gain an immortal soul, and she cannot return to the bottom of the sea again as a mermaid.
To save her, the sisters of the Little Mermaid cut their lustrous hair as payment to the witch. If the Little Mermaid plunges a knife into the heart of the prince, the blood that falls on to her feet will change her human legs into a mermaid’s again. According to the pact made with the sea-witch, “Either he or you must die before sunset.” The Little Mermaid’s sisters urge, “Kill the prince and come back to us!” But the Little Mermaid hurls the knife into the sea and lets herself be dissolved into foam.
Her adventure failed. Her love was unrequited. Her good deeds went unacknowledged and unrewarded. While she suffered injustice, she never returned evil for evil. Her love for the prince was too great to stoop to the temptation of the sea-witch.
Quiet, Anonymous Good
To her great surprise she learns from the daughters of the air, who also have no eternal souls, that they can earn one without fulfilling the conditions of the sea-witch. The mermaid, like the daughters of the air, can win an immortal soul by good deeds and acts of love: “When we have striven to do what good we can for three hundred years, we gain our immortal soul and are given a share in the eternal happiness of mankind.”
Although, in one sense, the Little Mermaid failed in her first quest to live a human life and qualify for eternal happiness, she achieved her goal in a secondary way. As the daughters of the air reassure her, her kind deeds and loving heart do not go unnoticed: “You have suffered and endured, and raised yourself into the world of spirits in the air. And now you, too, through your good deeds can create an immortal soul for yourself in three hundred years.”
The Little Mermaid saved the prince from drowning but never received his love. She defied the sea-witch and saved the life of the prince a second time by sacrificing her life to save his. The Little Mermaid’s life and example illuminate the fullness of love’s meaning—unconditional giving.
Love does good quietly and anonymously like the Mermaid’s works of mercy performed without a voice. Love gladly sacrifices and suffers for the beloved like the mermaid’s willingness to drink a bitter cup and walk with pain. Love never returns evil for evil but conquers evil with good as the Little Mermaid demonstrates when she throws the witch’s knife far out to sea.
Love is never embittered or resentful when frustrated or rejected but abides in hope as the Little Mermaid earns an immortal soul and enters into eternal life by a lifetime of humble, small deeds rather than by one spectacular action of saving a drowning prince from the ocean.
Ocean © Dmytro Tolokonov / Dollar Photo Club