First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2018
Mermaids and mermen — let’s call them merfolk — live for approximately 300 years, after which they turn into sea foam. Who can say for sure what happens to humans when they die, but I doubt it involves much sea foam. This disparity is just one of the great melancholies that hang over The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who makes an ill-fated deal with a sea witch. The mermaid gives up her identity — tongue cut out, tail lost — for the love of a human prince. He hardly even notices her sacrifice. It’s a hopeless love, a feminist tragedy. His soul will live on after death (or not) while she’ll be foam.
Andersen was a complicated character himself. Born into poverty in Denmark in 1805, he was bisexual but he died a virgin. He wrote plucky female characters who head out on bold quests, and his handsome princes have flaws and sensitive sides. He published his works as plain Fairy Tales, soon abandoning the label “for children” because he realised his disturbing, wondrous imaginary realms belong to everyone. Some of his stories, like The Shadow, are so dark that I doubt many parents would risk reading them at their own bedtimes, let alone their children’s. Disney still cashes in on Andersen’s legacy — think of recent hits like Frozen, a rehash of Snedronningen (The Snow Queen). Except that in Disney, the most haunting details are glossed over and prettied up.