Mermaid drawingPhoto: Bertall (1820-1882)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Disney isn’t the gold standard

In an article misleadingly entitled “Macabre Mermaid Tales Pulled From The Darkest Depths Of The Sea”, the authors commit the cardinal sin of putting the Disney version before all else,.
Don’t believe the Disney hype about mermaids being sweet fish-women seeking their soulmates,” they say sternly in their opening paragraph.
Oh, sweet things. Mermaids are so much older than Disney. They existed before and they will exist after and with a little luck they might even survive being dipped in Disney’s usual saccharine bath to make them nice and tasty and acceptable to “small children”.
It’s a listicle, so they start with “The Little Mermaid” – and this is the opening salvo:
“’The Little Mermaid’ is a sinister morality tale by 19th century Danish author Hans Chrisian  Andersen. Like the beloved Disney film, it follows a mermaid’s quest to win the heart of the handsome prince she saved from drowning. Unlike the beloved Disney film, the original story takes a dark turn when the mermaid is unable to win the prince’s heart.
Mute and alone, she is doomed to be transformed into sea foam because fish girls have no souls and cannot go to heaven. Her sisters sell their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a dagger that the mermaid must use to stab the prince in his sleep. If she lets his blood wash over her feet, she will regrow her tail and return to the ocean.
The heroine stands over the sleeping prince with the dagger for a long time, but cannot follow through with the dreadful act. Because she resisted murder, angels appear and let her know she can work for several hundred years doing good deeds, and then perhaps she may obtain an immortal soul and go to heaven. And they all lived happily ever after?
I had a problem with “happily ever after” right from the start, right from the time when I was very young and of an age to be kept fed with fairy tales. Whose “happily ever after”? I wanted to know. I understood even then that it can’t possibly be true that EVERYONE lived that way forever more. I wanted to know what was the price of it?
You might say I was a precocious little cynic, but I had thought about this and it never made sense. To me, even then, stories had to have meaning. “Happily Ever After” endings ripped the meaning away and replaced it with platitude. Even as a child, I was not happy with that.
So yeah, authors of this particular article, here’s the thing. Several things, actually.
Andersen’s  “Little Mermaid” is not a “sinister morality tale”. It is one of the stories – and Andersen is one of the storytellers – from which I learned empathy and compassion. Don’t knock it. If all you see in that story is something sinister and a looming ghost of “morality”, that’s in you, not the story.

  1. What do you mean by “like/unlike the beloved Disney film”? How dare you compare Andersen to Disney – as if it were something that came AFTER? It was Disney that took the powerful original story and added a singing crab with a Caribbean accent, a couple of catchy tunes, a pretty red-haired heroine with absolutely no real personality other than “Disney Princess”, and an icing of saccharine sweetness so cloying that it completely destroyed any remaining reminder of what the original tale ‘tasted’ like.  Disney wrecked “The Little Mermaid” on the shoals of making it so syrupy that it is hard to swallow – and here you are, comparing Andersen to THAT? It’s like listening to pompous ignoramuses talking about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings being SUCH a rip-off of The Sword of Shannara. Seriously. Just don’t.
  1. “The Little Mermaid Involves a Literal Blood Bath”? Seriously?!? *So do all the original fairy tales.* Have you ever read the original Cinderella? Her sisters cut off their heels and their toes to fit into the glass slipper. Have you ever read the original Sleeping Beauty? It isn’t the prince’s chaste kiss that wakes her – neither does his actually raping her sleeping and unresisting body – it’s the attempts of her newborn twins to suckle at her breasts.
  2. Fairy tale worlds are harsh, yo. Unlike all the “beloved Disney movie” versions of any of it. The world was the better for that. Children were told fairy tales not as “light entertainment” – or at least not only that – but also as teaching stories, as a way of letting the kidlets know that the world could be a hard and unfair place. The stories gave them hope, perhaps, that such a world was survivable. But it didn’t just consist of a pretty girl finding a spare single prince and getting a ring on her finger. That isn’t a fairy tale. That’s a Danielle Steel novel.

This could go on – but further sins were committed in the making of this listicle.
They talk of mermaids – they hang the article on MERMAIDS – and indeed some of the things they talk about certainly are. But they also talk about “merzombies” where (referencing the original “The Little Mermaid again, a story the authors of this article clearly loathe) they speak of the sea king’s daughters telling tales about corpses of dead sailors which sink down to the bottom of the sea – and then mention that in “some mermaid mythology” the corpses are brought back to life in the form of merfolk. These merzombies retain no memories of their life on land.”
Couldn’t this also be interpreted as the merfolk resurrecting something dead, and letting it live again? Couldn’t it be reinterpreted as a mercy that such creatures know only the sea and don’t spend the rest of their days bitter and angry and resentful and forever regretting where they WERE and missing where they could never be again? “Zombies” is such a loaded word. Used here with cold deliberation. They were LOOKING for monsters, and if they had to dig deep to find them, they would.
They also talk here – in the same breath as everything else – of Selkies, and of Rusalki. Selkies (according to this article) are “Seal-women”, who can shift between their seal  and human forms by shedding the seal skin or donning it again. No mention of the rich tradition of this folklore, no mention that there are male seal-folk as well, no mention of the fact that these aren’t mermaids at all.
Rusalki were the vengeful spirits of women who died by drowning (either self-inflicted by suicide or delivered by other hands by straightforward murder). Yes, some of these deaths might have been “due to unwanted pregnancies” – but seriously – do they really think that Russian women ran around in sufficient numbers with unwanted buns in ovens for this to have become a FOLK TALE? Russian winters may be long and cold but that doesn’t mean everyone does nothing all winter but rut like rabbits and come springtime everyone  doesn’t run around finding newly pregnant woman and stuffing them into the nearest body of water. And no, they aren’t mermaids either. They’re water spirits, in this form. They’re closer to a naiad than a mermaid if you want to split hairs.
I wrote about both of these latter mythological creatures in “Wings of Fire”, a recent novel of mine. I know about both, and neither of them are “mermaids”, or monsters – not by definition. It seems as though the authors of this article were desperate enough to go, eh, water, women, it’ll do, stuff ‘em in the bag.
Well, it won’t do. It won’t DO.
Don’t hold up Disney as the authority on what mermaids “ought” to be. Nothing is pure sweetness and light in the worlds of fairy tale and mythology, and if you wade into those waters with only Disney as your armor, well, you *deserve* to be eaten.
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