Category Archives: Mermaids

Preserving Canadian Culture and It’s Creatures of the Sea: Canadian Wonder Tales’ “The Mermaid of the Magdalenes”


Canadian Wonder Tales, First Edition. Bodley Head, NY 1918

MacMillan, Cyrus. ” The Mermaid of the Magdalenes.” Canadian Wonder Tales. Illus. George Sheringham. New York: Bodley Head, 1918. Print.

Copyright 2011 © Ellen Bateman, Stephanie Eiras


: Canadian Wonder Tales, A Cultural Artifact

This rare and wonderful book serves many purposes, acting as a cultural reference point, a book of children’s bedtime stories, and a celebration of art and story. It was released for the Christmas of 1918, primarily for children, but also for all of Canada, at any age, to enjoy and find connection with the country’s history. The book was published by the Bodley Head Company, renowned for the creation of lavish and beautiful volumes. The book binds together thirty two stories that have grown from vastly separate cultural roots, and could, potentially, have lacked a cohesiveness and harmonious through-line to the stories.

MacMillan overcomes the challenge of unifying Canadian oral culture by editing the stories in a style more like traditional European fairy tales. It is noted that in MacMillan’s retelling of some of the tales he puts a more distinct euro-centric twist on them, adding elements like wands and spells to induce magical transformation (Eagoff & Saltman, 189). With these changes he is attempting to cater to a wider audience, popularizing the book as a Christmas present – to be shared among children and parents, but also scholars. The book has a universal appeal, both in content as well as appearance, and was an important and necessary contribution to Canada’s cultural archive.

The book is also thematically bound together by the consistency of George Sheringham’s beautiful artwork. The images lend a necessary connection in a book of Canadian folktale and history, as MacMillan puts together stories from many different backgrounds.The style of Sheringham’s images are distinctly of the book’s time – the pre art-deco period of the early twentieth century – adding to the appeal for the masses by stylizing old tales with modern imagery. The stories are varied, drawing together elements of Native myths, European stories, French Canadian folklore and Maritime fables. Because of the diversity within the text the images are integral to the successful execution of the book as an anthology, as the stories would feel disconnected and isolated if they were not united by this common link.

From Canadian Wonder Tales, the story “The Northern Lights”. Native story with contemporary art deco illustration by George Sheringham.

The story “The Mermaid of the Magdalene’s” is one of the maritime folktales within the anthology. The story exhibits all that one might expect of a traditional Maritime tale – beauty, isolation, a gusting breeze and a tempestuous sea – realistic, yet with playful rhythmic poems. The mermaid of the story is an isolated and haunted creature, an object of desire, a haunting ghost on the rocks, ephemeral and fleeting. This would also describe MacMillan’s feeling about these timeless oral folktales when he first heard them – that they were ephemeral and fleeting and would soon be gone if they weren’t fix in print and published for history. As such, the mermaid herself is somewhat emblematic of all of the stories and folktales found in Canadian Wonder Tales, always on the verge of disappearing unless she is kept alive in the hearts and minds of the Canadian people.

Category: Mermaids of the Maritimes

Mermaids are commonly depicted as women above the hips and fish below (Lindahl, 270). However, is by no means the limit of mermaid representation. In the past, mermaids were called sirens and depicted as bird-women. Sometimes they were envisioned as having the feet of a falcon, tail of a fish, and upper body of a woman (270).  The mermaid’s image and moral signification came from religion, through bestiaries and church carvings, and their allegorical role was based on that of the sirens, whose voices were so irresistible that they would lure seafarers to their deaths (270).

In MacMilan’s Canadian Wonder Tales the title character of  “The Mermaid of the Magdalenes” is represented only through words, there are no images depicting her sensual form. This lack of visual representation reflects the idea that she, like Canadian folklore itself, is only present in the mind of the reader, or listener, of the story.  She is real in a way, existing in the stories of sailors; but she is also never really there at all, she is merely a phantom that haunts the shore. This mirrors the idea of Canadian folklore being lost, just as she is lost.  The mermaid is represented as an innocent yet naive and self-indulgent young woman, who is slowly being transformed into a fish as a result of her bad deeds: eating the sardines and depleting the number of small fish in the ocean. In the image of the meeting of all the fish of the sea, where they decide the fate of those who eat fish sardines, she is not shown. This stands in contrast to the other mythological women in the rest of the text, who are, by and large, depicted in the illustrations accompanying the stories. This is the only image that accompanies the story, and the choice to leave the mermaid out of it emphasizes her ghost-like nature.

Meeting of all the creatures in the sea, “The Mermaid of the Magdelanes”

She is further represented in the text as a prisoner and phantom of the islands who sits indolently preening herself in a mirror; combing her long hair full of pearls and luring men with her voice. The mermaid is forlorn, vain and perhaps even evil in that she uses her beauty and charms to tempt and trap men, and hold them as play things on her island. In this way, he mermaid in this story is portrayed as a villain of the sea. This stands in contrast to the mermaid often depicted in Maritimes culture, where they are portrayed as guards of boats and fishermen, and keep them safe (Easterlin, 254).

“The Mermaid of the Magdalenes” captures a number Maritime issues from the era stemming from modernity and urbanization such as over-fishing and the slow erosion of local folklore taking place in the early twentieth century. In order to better understand the story it is useful to first understand the setting: the islands of the Magdalenes.  The Magdalene Islands are a 12-island archipelago in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, about 130 miles east of the Quebec mainland.  They are a small and isolated chain, rising as mere sand banks from the swirling and often turbulent ocean (Soran, 2). They are individually quite small, the largest being slightly more than one mile wide and about two miles long.  The history of these Maritime islands is one of seafaring and shipwrecks, themes powerfully captured  in MacMillan’s version of the story as well.

Within maritime tradition, women were often found to have dockside occupations.  This tradition is often seen as excluding women and their voices by limiting female presence to the shore, except for when they are portrayed as villainous creatures of the sea (Persin, 239). The sea, in a sense, represents uncharted territory where the feminine can resist generic and metaphoric boundaries, no longer the passive object of the male gaze but instead a figure of power and control over the sea and the men that travel upon it (240).

In the early twentieth century, many issues in the Maritimes concerned themselves with the fishing industry and the over-fishing of sardines and salmon (Mighetto, 532).  Mermaids were often used in Canadian folklore during this time to bring attention to this issue.  For example in a trade journal called For example in a trade journal called The Pacific Fishermen, images of mermaids were used several times as a way to entice (presumably male) readers on environmental issues such as the decreasing population of salmon (533).

Mermaids were used to romanticize issues in early 20th century Maritimes fishing industries

The images of the beautiful sea creatures, as seen in the image above, therefore served to symbolize the difficulties that fishermen were experiencing in the early twentieth century.  Mermaid images also provided fishermen with a sense of hope and safety while risking their lives at sea, giving them something pleasant to look at while reading about the complex social, economic, and technological issues transforming the fishing industry and the Maritimes.  Just as in the story Mermaid of the Magdalenes, the mermaid in the story contributed to the scarcity of sardines. It is through stories such as this that light could be shed on important issues of the current fishing industry.

Context: Preserving Culture in Maritime Canada, before 1918

Canada has always found difficulty in defining it’s identity and identifying it’s roots. Even today we find it difficult to specify what exactly “Canadian culture” is, or to clearly describe it’s characteristics. Vast and challenging geography, variations of language, and important cultural differences mark some of the reasons it took us so long so form a strong cultural connection – and what constituted an idea of “Canadianism” was so difficult to perceive. Stories were the preserve of households and small communities, but the task of collecting cultural artifacts on a national scale was not a priority in Canada before 1918. It wasn’t until ethnologists and cultural anthropologists began pressing the issue of folk culture preservation and then conducting research to understand the taxonomy of folklore that the recording of cultural history was recognized as an important endeavor. MacMillan, in his investigative journey to uncover our historical Canadian roots, discovered a rich supply of distinctly Canadian stories that rounds out our understanding of Canadian heritage through the preservation of stories in Canadian Wonder Tales.

In 1918, the year “Canadian Wonder Tales” was published, the issue of ‘cultural promotion’ was high on the list of governmental shortcomings. Some felt that there wasn’t much history to record, but according to Barbeau, in his 1918 contribution to the Journal of American Folk-Lore titled “Canadian-English Folk-Lore,” this was a misconception due to ignorance and a lack of familiarity with the depth and breadth of Canadian folk tales in the public mind (Barbeau, 2). It wasn’t that Canada had weak traditions or was lacking in oral culture, and certainly it was not the quantity of material that was in low supply. It was simply a lack of successful endeavors to preserve and promote them. Preservation was critical, we began to see, as big city developments had started to pave over rural and heritage stories. MacMillan saw the importance of recording these folktales before they were lost amid the plethora of stories from the thousands of newly landed immigrants and the modern media structures growing rapidly in Canadian cities. MacMillan’s endeavor to record and re-tell the stories was much the same as that of the Grimm brothers in 18th century Germany. He understood that it was important to not only record these pieces of folk history, but also to publish them for mass consumption and contribute to the creation of a sense of national unity and shared identity.

Macmillan would have been exposed to the magic of folklore in his childhood as he was a native of Prince Edward Island, a province rich in folklore and strong with tradition. He would have known that many maritime stories, like “The Mermaid of the Magdalene’s,” were drifting away, disintegrating in history. That same pattern was occurring with some stories that had come originally from the Scottish Highlands, but had disappeared from their homeland and existed then only in certain maritime villages (Barbeau, 2). These modest and charming stories help form a distinctive culture did not always have staying power; they were antiquarian, fragmented, and fragile in nature. The Maritime provinces and particularly Prince Edward Island, attentive as they were to their oral traditions (a place where folklore has always flourished) (Barbeau, 2), ran the risk of losing their cultural artifacts to the fast growing fishing and shipping industries. As Canadian industry grew bigger, the threat to unfixed and undocumented tradition grew too.

While Macmillan was likely motivated by strong academic and anthropological interests, these were clearly driven by a sentimental motivation that comes from the preservation of cultural artifacts, standing guard for your mother country, and cherishing her past. Sentimentality, at the time the Grimm brothers, would have come forth in the height of Romanticism, at a time when beauty, culture and traditional values outshone rational and utilitarian ideals. Similarly, a century later, at the time of Canadian Wonder Tales publication, Canada was reacting to eighty years of Victorian repression and strict didactic tendencies in children’s literature.

It is often said that mass culture and children’s literature mirror one another, and the stories of a nation reveal something of a country’s values, preoccupations and beliefs (Ord, 3). The variation and sharp differences in Macmillan’s collection of folktales do in fact mirror the mosaic of Canadian culture and reflect the divisions between, for instance, Maritime and Prairie culture. “The Mermaid of the Magdalene’s” is one of the few tales collected from the Maritime Islands in this anthology, and it shows us that it is the distinct differences, as much as it is the similarities, that make up the characteristics of Canadian Culture.

Canadian children’s literature at this time, was notoriously realistic and moralizing. There was a trend in the first decade of the 20th century on which “practicality” was traded in for the romantic or heartwarming. While the story of the “Mermaid of the Magdalene’s” has many of the qualities that we would expect to see in Canadian children’s literature – it is instructive, moralistic, and exhibits a strong connection to the natural world ( Eagoff & Saltman, 8). The book also projects a romantic notion of Canada, it’s past inhabitants and the mystery of it’s natural world. This is the power of the folktale anthologized, to give us a treasured emotional connection to our home and homeland – a feeling that anthropology and academia comment on but never produce.

Conclusion: Strength and Fragility in Canadian Folktales

The mermaid, the central character of “The Mermaid of the Magdalenes,” is both an enticing figure of myth and danger but can also be seen as a symbol of the Maritime fishing industry itself. She brings attention to the problems affecting fishermen during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, serving as a positive tool for change. The value of collecting oral folktales and stories from the native tradition was not widely recognized in MacMillan’s time. Canadian Wonder Tales both preserves and promotes Canadian folklore by publishing stories of the native oral tradition, tales that would be lost if not recorded. Through this collection of stories, our nation is revealed to us and we are reminded of its core values, goals and beliefs. The centrality of these ideals to early Canadian society would perhaps have been lost to us today, had it not been for endeavors like MacMillan’s Canadian Wonder Tales.


Works Cited
Barbeau, C.M.. “Canadian – English Folk-Lore.” The Journal of American Folklore, 31.119  (1918): 1-3. JSTOR. Web. 11 Oct. 2011

Eagoff, Sheila, and Judith Saltman. The New Republic of Childhood. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Easterlin, Nancy. “Hans Christian Andersen’s Fish Out of Water.”  Philosophy and Literature.   25.2 (2001): 251-277.  Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

Lindahl, Carl., John McNamara, and John Lindow. “Medieval Folklore: a guide to myths,   legends, tales, beliefs, and customs.”  Oxford University Press, 2000.

MacMillan, Cyrus. ” The Mermaid of the Magdalenes.” Canadian Wonder Tales. Illus. George Sheringham. New York: Bodley Head, 1918. Print.

Mighetto, Lisa. “Lisa Mighetto on Mermaids, the Pacific Fisherman, and the “Romance of   Salmon.”  Environmental History. 10.3 (2005): 532-7.  ProQuest Research Library. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Ord, Pricilla. “Canadian Children’s Literature: A Cultural Mirror”. Children’s Literature   Association Quarterly, 2. 3 (1977): 3 – 6. Project Muse. Web. 14. Oct. 2011.

Persin, Margaret. “Mermaids, Pirates, Women And The Sea In Recent Spanish Poetry By   Women.”  Bulletin of Spanish Studies 84.2 (2007): 239-254.  Academic Search             Premier.  Web. 13 Nov. 2011.

Soran, Patrick. “A Canvas of Canada the Magdalene Islands.” Pittsburgh Post – Gazette: F.1. (1998). Web.             20 Nov. 2011.

* Introduction and Context by Ellen Bateman, Category and Conclusion by Stephanie Eiras

Legends of Mermaids: Sexual Temptresses in *The Story of Peter Pan*

The Story of Peter Pan (cover)
© 2011, Alicia Chirrey, Mamta Patel
O’Connor, Daniel. The Story of Peter Pan. Illustrated by Alice Woodward. London: G Bell, 1923. Print.

Introduction – By: Alicia Chirrey

Mermaids have been an iconic symbol in folklore ever since their origination in 1000 BC Greece. The representation of this fictitious creature in literature and pop culture has evolved in meaning and appearance. This evolution is based on their early legends and myths of being sexual symbols. Daniel O’Connor’s 1923 version of The Story of Peter Pan, found in the Children’s Literature Archive,utilizes mermaids in a very interesting way. O’Connor uses a combination of mythological representation and symbolic physical features in order to portray their meaning to Never-Never-Never Land. Alice Woodward, a famous British illustrator of books, is best known for her illustrations in The Story of Peter Pan. These works are considered to be very early in her career. In this exhibit, we identify mermaids as illusory creatures that use their sexuality to lure humans into dangerous situations. Alicia Chirrey examines why mermaids are sexualized as temptresses in The Story of Peter Pan and Mamta Patel analyzes the evolution of sexuality in mermaids, demonstrated in featured legends.

The Representation of Mermaids in The Story of Peter Pan – By: Alicia Chirrey

The Meaning of Mermaids to Neverland
The Story of Peter Pan is a narrative about an adventure to a place called Never-Never-Never Land (abbreviated to Never Land in this Exhibit). This is a magical land that represents the unconscious fantasy that lies within the children’s reality. Never Land comforts the crisis of having to eventually accept the responsibilities of adulthood. Time and space do not exist there. The children who live in Never Land are able to live forever in their state of childhood. The transition from childhood into adulthood has key turning points. As Peter Hollindale expresses in A Hundred Years of Peter Pan, one of these important developments that help acknowledge the transformation is the passage into active sexuality (Hollindale 212). Through written description and illustration, Daniel O’Connor and Alice B. Woodward sexualize mermaids as temptresses in The Story of Peter Pan. This portrayal supports the theme of the eternal child by hindering the sexual maturity of the children in Never Land.
About the Illustrator

Alice Woodward is recognized as a well-established, inventive and talented illustrator of books, as Geoffrey Beare describes. Woodward’s illustrations can be found in a variety of books for a vast range of ages. Her work however, has been considered most appropriate for adults, as her usual style has been identified as detailed and macabre. Her work is therefore, very human-like. She is also known for her ability to economically illustrate (Beare 2006). Perhaps these reasons provide explanation for why O’Connor selected Woodward as the illustrator to visually capture the essence of his appropriated story in just 19 images.

Visual and Textual Symbolism

Daniel O’Connor describes the mermaids of Never Land as beautiful, charming, carefree creatures. They spend all day in their Lagoon combing their hair, singing and swimming. From the very beginning, even before the children fly to Never Land, the discussion of mermaids arises. Peter Pan uses the idea of them to tempt Wendy and ultimately, convince her into venturing off to the mystical land.

The way Woodward draws the mermaid carefully encompasses sexual allure while maintaining a degree of appropriateness. The Story of Peter Pan only allocates two images in the book to mermaids.  The very first image of the mermaid is seen below:

As O’Connor describes, the boys are immediately drawn to the beauty of the mermaid and her charming melody. The mermaid’s long glorious hair is the only thing takes the focus off of her half naked body. This meticulous collectivity contributes to the theme of enticing mystery. The mermaid is a creature the children have never seen before. From the children’s perspective, they can only see the portion of the mermaid the familiar, human half of the mermaid that is above water. The foreign, amphibious portion is mostly immersed in the dark depths of the water.

This unfamiliar creature lures the natural curiosity of the children. The tempting hidden half of the mermaid is what the children lust to see and interact with. The mystery of the unexplored is exemplified by the physical sexuality of the mermaid. The boys even try to catch one as Wendy carefully observes. The action of trying to catch the mermaid for their own objectifies the mermaid, making her less than human. Capturing her would fulfill their sensual desires.

When the mermaid sees the children approaching, she is offended by them and cries out the word: mortals. This outcry of fear and displeasure suggests that mermaids and humans are not allies in this story. In the second picture “She slipped out of his grasp” the children’s hands are only inches away from the mermaid tail as she dives into the water.

O’Connor compares the mermaid’s escape from the boys to be eel-like. This slithery animalistic comparison indicates that the mermaids are like snakes of the sea. The mermaid does not allow the children to fulfill their desires of interacting and acquainting themselves with the mermaid, thus through her escape, keep the children in Never Land.

According to most religions, water represents the unconscious and rebirth (Hallman 67). It holds a great amount of mystery through depth and potentiality, therefore, undiscovered knowledge. In this case, through the use of sexuality, undiscovered knowledge is synonymous with adulthood. In each picture, the mermaid symbolizes the tempting passageway from a world that the children understand to a place that holds mystery of experience. The mermaid is sexualized in order to tempt the children to follow her into the water. Instead, the children hold tightly onto the stable rock. They do not dare follow her for fear of the unknown.

The Historical Context of Mermaids – By: Mamta Patel

Mermaids are mysterious creatures that have been around for many centuries. Most of their myths have derived from Europe. Many of the mermaid’s myths originate from what sailors claim to see. Many Greeks, medieval sailors, and also Christopher Columbus have claimed to have seen mermaids (Ramano et al. 253). Throughout history, mermaids have been portrayed holding a mirror admiring their beauty and combing their hair, this is the exact way they are depicted in The Story of Peter Pan as well. Mermaid’s upper body is made up of a woman and the lower body is fish, however legends describe that they did not always consist of women parts. All legends depict mermaids as singing creatures that lure sailors and then enchant them to death.  In historical literature, mermaids are usually portrayed sitting on rocks holding a mirror and combing their long blonde hair. This depiction of mermaids has remained the same in literature; they are also depicted sitting on a rock looking into a mirror in The Story of Peter Pan.   

The first legends of mermaids were told by the Greeks in 1000 BC. The first mermaid tale was about a mermaid named Atargatis who was the goddess of love and beauty. She fell in love with a mortal shepherd who she accidentally killed.  She was consumed by guilt for losing her loved one that in shame she wanted to punish herself by jumping into the deep waters and turning into a fish. However, her transformation was incomplete because her beauty was so divine. Instead Atargatis formed into a mermaid she was half woman from the upper body and fish from waist below (Adams 56).

The Greeks believed that mermaids were sirens. Sirens are hybrid legendary creatures that had a women’s head, a feathery bird body and large scaly feet. Overtime, the sirens were represented as half woman and half fish. Although the body composition of the sirens changed, they always lured sailors with their charming voices.  Sirens used their voices to seduce the sailors, they acted as seductresses and caused the sailors to walk off of their ships and drown.  As you can see, sirens and mermaids have many similarities; therefore they are used interchangeably (Ramano et al. 254).

Another legend suggests that the idea of mermaids derived from manatees, which are sea cows. Manatees are linked to folklore with mermaids. Initially mermaids were made of monkey’s body attached to shark tale (Kokai 68). Originally, they were hideous creatures, contrasting how their beautiful and charming features as depicted in literature.  It is believed that in 1493, Christopher Columbus misunderstood manatees for mermaids.  He announced that mermaids were not half as beautiful as they are painted. This leads us to the myth about mermaids that they are elegant and charming creatures (Ramano et al. 253). Overtime, the physical appearance of the mermaid has changed drastically.

All legends reveal the myth about mermaids being beautiful in cartoons and in fairy tales, along with The Story of Peter Pan. Mermaids are portrayed as beautiful because they are exposed to children through the use of fairy tales. The representations of mermaids are portrayed as role models for young girls, thus, the image of mermaids must be appealing. In reality, all legends about mermaids depict their appearances in various ways, but none are depicted as beautiful. Legends suggest that mermaids originated from “sea cows”, also called manatees. These are giant whale-like creatures. For many centuries, sailors have also mistaken manatees for mermaids. Christopher Columbus, who was the first expeditionary, saw manatees and proclaimed that mermaids are not half as beautiful as they have been painted.

Conclusion – By: Mamta Patel

Daniel O’Connor utilizes the imagery of mermaids by Alice Woodward to represent them as temptresses in Never Land. The mermaids are initially introduced as mysterious creatures that the children of Never Land are curious to know about, however their representations are shown to be alluring for all ages. They are displayed as extremely beautiful, charming, and attractive creatures in The Story of Peter Pan.  Focusing on the origin of mermaids, various works have revealed that mermaids have evolved from legendary creatures called ‘sirens’ that had a woman’s head, a feathery bird body, and large scaly feet. Various other sources reveal that mermaids have evolved from whale-like creatures known as “sea cows”, which were generally seen to be unpleasant in appearance. Their appearances had been mistaken, leading to the belief of the existence of mermaids as half-fish and half-woman. This representation of mermaids has led to the portrayal of mermaids as being seductresses who live in the sea. They lure sailors with their enchanting songs and beauty. These creatures have since been used in folklore, such as The Story of Peter Pan, as symbols of temptation in order to create conflict.

Works Cited

Beare, Geoffrey. “Woodward, Alice B.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature.                     Ed. Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press, 2006. 14 October 2011. Web

Hallman, Ralph J. “The Archetypes in Peter Pan.” Journal of Analytical Psychology                       14.1(1969): 65-73. Academic Search Premier. 13 Oct 2011. Web.

Hollindale, Peter. “A Hundred Years of Peter Pan.” Children’s Literature in Education 36.               (2005): 197-215. Academic Search Premier. 16 Oct. 2011. Web.

Adam, Amanda. A Mermaid’s Tale: A Personal Search for Love and Lore. Vancouver                     [BC]:Greystone Books , 2009. Print.

Kokai, Jennifer . “Weeki Wachee Girls and Buccaneer Boys: The Evolution of Mermaids,              Gender, and “Man versus Nature” Tourism.” Theatre history studies 31 (2011): 67-               89,177. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.

Romano, Stefania , Vincenzo Esposito, Claudio Fonda, Anna Russo, and Roberto                          Grassi.”Beyond the myth: The mermaid syndrome from Homerus to Andersen’s                   bicentennial of birth.” European Journal of Radiology 58.2006 (2005): 252-259.                   Print.

The Demise of Mermen in Folklore; as Depicted in “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”

© 2011, Hye Eun Kim and Victoria Rose Regan 

Anon. "Hans, the Mermaid's Son." The Pink Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. 112-25.

Over the years mermaids have been shown as graceful, majestic, but conniving creatures. Books have shown that they live in the sea and swim like fish. We have also been shown the darker side of mermaids, with sirens leading sailors to their demise. But there is a certain void in our minds when we think of mermaids, and that is, where are all the men? We are skeptical as to if they existed in literature at all. It is a common misconception to assume that mermaids have a more prominent position in literature then mermen. When you think of mermaids, what comes to mind instantly: Little Mermaid or sirens? Do you ever think of the male gender of merfolk? Odds are not, because mermen took a back seat to mermaids as literature progressed. In Hans, the Mermaid’s Son from Andrew Lang’s The Pink Fairy Book the merman is portrayed as less mystical and less admirable in comparison to the mermaid. In order to determine what this means, let us explore the gender roles among merfolk related to mermen’s progression from strong, respected figures such as Poseidon, to less popular and disliked figures like Hans.

Through rigorous research it was exciting to find that mermen were not always understated. One of the earliest forms of stories is myths, “It seems probable that the mermaid folklore developed from ancient mythology…or the Chaldean sea god Oannes” (Waugh 73). This is proof that a sea god was a strong figure in stories and a prominent figure in history dating back to the late 6th century.



Oannes, a sea-god, is the first merman recorded in history of literature (Waugh 73). One of the first descriptions of the merman from the Babylonian tale is as follows: “The whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tale” (Waugh 73). The description makes the reader imagine a disfigured combination of a man and a fish.


The Vase 

Late 6th Century (BC) Etruscan vase, depicting a merman. Painted by Exekias.

This image of a vase dates back to the late 6th century. This vase depicts the myth where Dionysus turns a fleet of pirates into dolphins. Although the story doesn’t directly involve mermaids the artist, Exekias, chooses to incorporate an image of a half man half fish. This image is given a powerful body and a prominent location in the center of the vase. Exekias portrays this creature as strong, powerful, and more important than the other images. He is above the waves showing his super natural abilities. Not all sea creatures can go out of the water. He is also holding a large fish or dolphin emphasizes his size and strength seeing as he can list the large creatures as if they were small. This again gives him a certain amount of power over the other creatures showing his rank.



Poseidon was the god of the sea, and one of the most powerful gods in Greek mythology (Buxton 69). He was a very strong image associated with water and those that lived in it like the mermaids. Poseidon’s son, Triton was a merman, human above the waist and fish below (Buxton 72). Poseidon’s staple symbol is his trident, a signature of power and strength (Buxton 69). It holds all of his power and allows him to control the sea and its creatures. Most associations with the trident are associated with Poseidon and his power.

Poseidon with his trident. His trident holds all of his powers. Notice that he doesn't have fins.


As defined in the Dictionary of World Folklore “Mermaids are generally portrayed as beautiful women from the waist up” (Jones 300). This is evidence that while we are familiar with mermaids, we are not well acquainted with mermen. This is because mermaids appear more prominently in folktales over mermen. The dictionary as a medium is audience driven in the sense that there are various types created for specific audiences. It is easy to understand and useable by almost everyone. Because it is audience driven, the lack of a specific merman definition may imply that elaborate information on mermen is not in demand to the general public.

Mermaids became the more powerful and well-known gender. Arthur Waugh quotes in his article, “The central figure of the merfolk is, of course, the mermaid. There are so many attractive legends and folktales about her that I must perforce be brief in dealing with other merfolk” (Waugh 73). This shows that even an author, who is expected to touch on all aspects of merfolk, inevitable says there’s simply no space or event prominent enough to discuss about mermen. It seems as though mermen have fallen into the background, a footnote in the mermaid’s tale.

Mermaids have taken a spot at the forefront of merfolk legend, until Andrew Lang published his Pink Fairy Book, which included a translated Danish tale called Hans, the Mermaid’s Son.


The Tale

The story Hans, the Mermaid’s Son from The Pink Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang, is a translated Danish folktale. A smith goes out to sea one day and is invited by a mermaid to stay a couple of days as her guest. Afterwards, the smith is always in lucky in finding fish and treasures along the sea and his wealth grows. Another outcome of this encounter is their son, Hans. When Hans turns six, the mermaid sends him ashore to find his father and to live among the humans. His father cannot satisfy Hans’ unusually large appetite so Hans decides to leave. He asks his father to make the significance of the staff, which will be discussed further later on.

Hans sets off to find a place to stay where he’ll find plenty of food to eat. The haven he finds is at the home of a squire. Here, Hans is expected to do the work of twelve men.  He still is not well liked because his strength intimidates the others, including the squire. As a remedy, the squire plans to have Hans killed, but fails. Oblivious to the murder plot against him, Hans thinks that he is taken as a joke. Hans decides that he will go back to live at sea with his mother.

This story suggests that certain strengths are powerful over humans, while others are ridiculed and seen as a threat.


The Illustration

“Basmus and the Mermaid” illustrated by H. J. Ford. The mermaid is leading the Basmus into her world where they will spend three days together.

In the illustration of Basmus, Hans’s father, and the mermaid in The Pink Fairy Book, Basmus is entering the sea world as the mermaid’s guest. Basmus looks confused and almost bedazzled while the other sea creatures belittle him with their eyes. The octopus hovering over Basmus with a side-glance emphasizes the sea creatures’ hostility. This shows the discomfort the humans and the mystical world experience upon close encounter thereby foreshadowing the unease Hans would bring to the humans.

The illustration gives an insight to the dominant power the mermaid possesses over Basmus. The mermaid is oblivious to the surroundings and is leading Basmus by the hand. She is in control and does not seem to be hindered by the intimidation Basmus feels. This reveals the dominance the mermaid has in the relationship, which empowers her.

By being placed in the middle, the mermaid becomes the central focus of the illustration. There is limited detail and shading on her upper body, which makes her stand out from the rest of the drawing. It also gives her an air of mystery as she is in contrast to the other creatures.


Male versus Female

Hans is born to a mermaid and a man. This makes Hans three-quarters human. But how does he survive under water? This question is left to us to decide. Another lingering question is, whether or not he had a tail when his mother, a mermaid, did.

An illustration included in the story shows that Hans had the appearance of a man. Though the drawing shows Hans from the back, it shows that he has two hands, two legs, and two separate feet. He does not have fins or gills and does not have any physical deformities. His mother, however, has an upper body that looks human and her lower body like a fish. Placed above her ears are what seem to be gills to help her breath underwater. This gives the mermaid tangible proof of being supernatural. Hans, on the other hand looks like an average, mortal human. On the surface the mermaid is more powerful then Hans.

“Old Erik Catches Hans” Illustrated by H.J. Ford. Old Erik is a demonic creature Hans defeats while working for the squire. Notice how he doesn’t have fins.

Why is it that the mermaid is portrayed differently from the merman? Historical evidence shows that Oannes and Poseidon were illustrated with hands and feet. It is only with Triton, Poseidon’s son when the fish tale appears on a merman. One similarity Hans and Poseidon have is their staff. Poseidon is said to have ruled with the trident and it symbolized his power and Hans asks his father, the smith to make him an iron rod that is stronger than any metal. While Hans’ iron rod does not play a significant role in depicting Hans’ mystical image, it is nevertheless an important connection to his supernatural ancestors. It draws parallels between Poseidon’s power and Hans’.

The humans accept Hans and the mermaid differently. Hans is portrayed as a burden to the humans, but his mother has power over them. Fish and treasures washed ashore for Basmus to discover after his visit with the mermaid, but Hans ate all of Basmus’ food and left him hungry after Hans’ visit. The mermaid has complete power over Basmus, controlling his every move, whereas the squire takes Hans advantage of. We as readers acknowledge the mermaid’s power and see that Hans’ presence on land causes unease.


Final Thoughts

Mermen, in folktale were once familiar creatures. However, they have lost their popularity throughout time and have been replaced by mermaids. There is still evidence of the mermen’s power through the significance of the staff, which associates Hans with Poseidon, and his strength. Since the fishermen were the tellers of tales out at sea, it would suit them to tell stories of the beautiful yet supernatural mermaids as opposed to mermen who may be more powerful then themselves.  Mermen have lost their place the world of folk- and fairytales and their demise occurred as the popularity of their female counterparts increased.



Select Bibliography

  • Anon. “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son.” The Pink Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. 112-25. Print.
  • Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004. Print.
  • Green, Roger Lancelyn. “Andrew Lang and the Fairy Tale.” The Review of English Studies Vol 20. No 79 (1944): 227-231. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.
  •  Jones, Alison. Dictionary of World Folklore. New York, N.Y.: Larousse pcl, 1995: 300-301, 379-380, 430, 475. Print.
  •  Robinson, Margaret. “Some Fabulous Beasts.” Folklore Vol. 76 No. 4 (1965): 273-87. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.
  •  Waugh, Arthur. “The Folklore of the Merfolk.” Folklore Vol. 71 No. 2 (1960): 73-84. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.


Gender Dichotomy in Grimms “The Golden Mermaid”

Andrew Lang’s ‘The Green Fairy Book’ (1892)

(c) 2011 Neil Austen and Erin Graham

Andrew Lang, ed. The Green Fairy Book. Illustrated by H.J. Ford. New York: Hurst and co., 1892

A German Folktale:

The tale The Golden Mermaid by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, edited by Andrew Lang and illustrated by H. J. Ford, describes a young prince’s journey with the initial goal to retrieve a magic bird for his father, the King. Although the prince encounters many challenges along the way, he is ultimately successful in completing his goals with the support of a magic helper and the faithfulness of the golden mermaid. The mermaid plays a significant role in the tale considering she is the final task for the prince, yet the golden mermaid also demonstrates characteristics that emphasize those that are valued by the culture and time period in which the story was originally written.

Gender Roles in Fairy Tales

The representation of the mermaid reflects the expectations of a desirable woman and mirrors society’s view of gender roles during this time period, including those of a man through the qualities of the prince. Within this tale, the prince’s character is a brave and compassionate, and perhaps unlikely, hero and the mermaid plays the role of the attractive, strong and faithful woman. The characteristics that the mermaid and the prince display mirrors the expectations and beliefs of German culture and the 19th century in which this tale was intended.

Throughout this paper, we will discuss how the mermaid is represented in the tale, the effect J. J. Ford’s illustrations may have on the audience’s perception, and how both the story and illustrations reflect the authors’ time period, culture and their beliefs, particularly in regards to gender roles.

Fundamental Characteristics 

Within the tale The Golden Mermaid, the female character is described to the audience as a mermaid. She is introduced into the story as the prince’s final task that he must complete in order to regain his freedom from an emperor he previously tried to steal from. Following the prince’s failed attempts at retrieving the magic bird and the golden horse, the second and last emperor he encounters demands that he find the mermaid and bring her back to him. It is made apparent to the reader that this task has been impossible for any man to fulfill in the past, presenting how difficult it will be for the prince to achieve

Through the illustrations of the mermaid by H. J. Ford and the description of her provided by the author, the reader is able gain a relatively accurate image of this character. Through the reader may assume that as a mermaid, she is half women and half fish, the illustrator has a different picture in mind. The illustrations of the mermaid emphasize the possible comparison being made between her and women in 19th century Germany through the removal of her fishlike tail, rather than depicting her in a traditional manner.

Mermaid Sexuality in Fairytales

Mermaids’ sexuality has typically been viewed as “incomplete”, similar to that of a mannequin, yet the golden mermaid retains her complete sexual appeal due to her physical attributes and her lack of a fin (Brown, 1977). As Brown describes a mermaid in his article, the fish tail acts like a chastity belt (1977, p. 8), preventing sexual corruption. Rather than being part fish and part woman, her connection to the traditional mermaid seems to be that she lives in the sea and her ability to attract male attention.

In The Golden Mermaid, the author emphasizes the fact that no one has been able to get close to her. This also reflects a desired quality within a woman since it appears as though she is waiting for one man and maintaining her purity rather than giving herself to anyone else. Additionally, it demonstrates her autonomous behaviour, since even though she does not have a tail to prevent her from being with a man, she is still waiting, perhaps for the prince.

Representation of the Ideal Woman

The mermaid in “The Golden Mermaid”, as previously mentioned, appears to be the representation of the ideal women, who is supportive of the male character and stays by his side, even after death. The faithfulness of the mermaid is shown through the way she cries over him for weeks after he is killed by his elder brothers. Even after they tried to convince her to leave him, she refused.

As she is presented in the illustration, laying over his body, her feet are visible, allowing the reader to create a greater connection with the ideal female and the expectations placed on her. Yet even though she is compassionate, similar to other female characters in Grimms’ stories (Tatar, 1985), she is not submissive, rather she makes her own decisions. This is apparent through the failed attempts of other males when they have tried to approach her. It wasn’t until the prince approached her, that she came to land and was immediately “quite happy in her new life” (Lang, 1892, p. 320). As a result, it appears that the mermaid was responsible for making choices about who she ended up with, instead of portraying a submissive character to the hero. This is also emphasized through the contrast of other fairy tales, where very often it is solely the hero who receives attention, yet as remarked by Tatar in her article, the Grimms quite often focus on more than one character, in this case, attention is given to the mermaid as well (1985, p. 37). In doing so, her importance to the story is emphasizes and she is given more of an equal role to her male counterpart, with the opportunity to advance in society as well.

In this tale, the prince’s final goal was to capture the mermaid and bring her back to land. Though this was not his initial task, the mermaid becomes the main focus towards the end of the story. The significance of her role within the story is once again shown through her dedication to the prince, since, without it, it is unclear if he would have lived again. Due to various qualities that she possesses, she is the ultimate women since she is kind, protective of the prince, loyal and beautiful. Her loyalty was also apparent through her actions as she obeyed what the wolf directed her to do in order to bring the prince back to life. This is represented in the illustration below.

The Mermaid Is Illustrated With Human Legs

The Original Tale and the Issue of Editorial Critique

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhem Grimm (1786-1859), were German philologists and folklorists that sought to transcribe and conserve oral folk tales. At the beginning of the twentieth century, academic publications began to appear that critically discussed the editorial process of Jacob and Wilhem Grimm. Jack Zipes argued that it was “generally assumed that the Brothers Grimm collected their oral folk tales mainly from peasants and day laborers and that they merely altered and refined the tales while remaining true to their perspective and meaning. Both assumptions proved to be false” (Subversion 61).  There are a considerable number of articles that focus on the issue of whether the Brothers Grimm simply cultivate the oral versions they had collected or whether they consciously manipulated them in favor of their own ideology and literary taste. While Zipes asserts that the Grimms did indeed the change the meaning of the oral folktales, he emphasizes that their “intentions were honorable” (61) and “the Grimms were totally conscious and open about their endeavors to make their material more suitable for children and to incorporate their notion of the family…and their political ideas in the tales” (112). Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm adopted a unique form of prose writing in The Golden Mermaid that supports an intertextual relationship between fictional and nonfictional discourse.

Traditional Patriarchal Systems

During this time period, Germany was simply seen as a prime representative of a system of society and government that was controlled primarily by men. Historical records demonstrate the disadvantageous position for women, and above all for wives, in a denial of legal personhood, which meant that women were unable to appear in court, to own or manage property, or to retain one’s earnings from labor (Vick 557). In all these ways women were reportedly reduced to a lesser status and therefore subject to the guardianship of their husbands. This point of view is evident in The Golden Mermaid when the young prince seizes the mermaid in his arms and declares that she would be his forever. As the boat transforms back into the magic-helper, the mermaid predictably clings to the prince for protection. These actions emphasize the seemingly vulnerability of women and the need for a man to defend and protect them. Despite this apparent discrimination against women, the Grimm Brothers did not wholly support this notion of sexism.

At this time, Germany was experiencing a shift towards a liberal nationalist movement with an aim to separate away from the traditional patriarchal system and embrace a stance that would promote German solidarity among all people. It is argued that gender difference was then transformed and expressed in the realm of nature. Marriage was increasingly defined as a natural rather than a contractual relationship. Women were viewed as destined by love to make a choice of their marriage partner before renouncing that power of choice altogether (Vick 548).

Image represents the natural and harmonious relationship between the prince and the mermaid

In The Golden Mermaid, it was said that no mortal had ever dared approach the mermaid and yet when the prince called out to her to follow his ship back to shore, she obliged and did not regret her choice.

Character Traits and Wildlife

In Tests, Tasks, and Trials in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Tatar argues that character traits demonstrate a remarkable lack of stability, shifting into contrasting positions as the fairy tale develops.  Despite the failure to meet certain standards, the youngest prince typically possesses one character trait that sets him apart from his fraternal antagonists: compassion. Tatar argues that before the youngest son can journey to foreign kingdoms, he must prove himself worthy of assistance from a supernatural helper by displaying his compassion for wildlife. In The Golden Mermaid, the young prince demonstrates sympathetic pity towards the wolf and is entitled to receiving assistance throughout the tale.  His capacity for compassion towards wildlife and nature can also refer to the changing norms occurring in Germany at that time. Women were gradually becoming recognized as “Free, independent members of the state…not just a caregiver or a housekeeper, [but] also a free comrade of the husband” (Vick 572). Spousal relations were at one time rigid and discriminatory, however, The Golden Mermaid demonstrates an evolving perception where both men and women were seen as complimentary halves that formed the true representation of a unified country.

In The Golden Mermaid, both character attributes and social conditions dramatically change from one extreme to the other. The young prince was initially considered a simpleton by both his father and brothers, however, as the tale progressed, he struggled through the trials set before him. In the end, it was the prince’s compassion for nature that enabled him to receive the assistance of a magic-helper and it also allowed him to gain the favor of the golden mermaid, whom all mortal men had avoided. On the surface the fairytale appears to be a typical folk story, however, it is now possible to see that it is an interaction between an oral story and the shifting political discourse that was evident during the 19th century.


Works Cited

Andrew Lang, ed. The Green Fairy Book. Illustrated by H.J. Ford. New York: Hurst and co., 1892

Brown, Lloyd W. Mannequins and Mermaid- The Contemporary Writer and Sexual Images in the Consumer Culture. Women’s Studies 5 (1977) 1-12.

Joosen, Vanessa. Back to Olenberg: An Intertextual Dialogue between Fairy-Tale Retellings and the Sociohistorical Study of the Grimm Tales. Marvels & Tales. Volume 24. Wayne State University Preses, 2010, p99-115

Vick, Brian. Liberalism, Nationalism, and Gender Dicotomy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Contested Case of German Civil Law.  The Journal of Modern History, Vol.82, No.3, pp.546-584. Web. .

Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Rev. ed.Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2002.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Methuen, 1983.

Andersen’s The Mermaid: A Tale of Female Sacrifice

Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Mermaid.” The Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. (Cover)

© Copyright 2011, Alison Haberstroh, Victoria Macdonald

Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Mermaid.” The Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Illus. Maxwell Armfield. Trans. Mrs. Edgar Lucas. Ed. F. D. Tilney. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1910. 9-35.







Mermaids have been a part of popular culture dating back to their date of origin in 1000 BC in Assyria. For centuries they have been interpreted in many different mediums (including folklore and film) and portrayed in different societal roles. This exhibit examines by example the way in which their roles and moral representation in pop culture have morphed through the ages. Specifically this presentation focuses on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Mermaid (1837), and Disney’s film, The Little Mermaid (1989), to demonstrate how evolving time and an ever-changing societal moral code have defined these two distinct interpretations of mermaids.


Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was knowledgeable on mermaids as they appeared frequently in popular culture during the period in which he lived. Andersen used elements of traditional mermaid characteristics, but still created his own personal version that is original in its story.

Since the time of early mythology, fantastical creatures of the sea have had a place in the oral traditions of folklore. Merfolk exist in stories from all the world over, and are represented in a multitude of forms. Their top halves are human-like, while their bottom halves are fish-like. This combination of sea and land forms appears time and time again in real life accounts and in fictional tales of mermaids in contact with humans. Living in the ocean, the merfolk may rest on the waves or a rock in the water and be often disguised by the water or as a fish.

In Andersen’s story, the Mermaid holds a fascination with humans. She begs her grandmother and older sisters for information about the wildlife, the greenery, and the scents. From the time that she was young, she was desperate to find out as much as she could. When she turned the age of fifteen, she was allowed to approach the surface of the water to view the world from above the waves. Her adoration of mankind grew until she could no longer sustain the thought of being a mermaid. Despite her Grandmother’s clear warning to steer away from thoughts of life above water, and her insistence that she honour her commitments as a mermaid, the Mermaid pays no heed and determines the land is where she wishes to be. She must be loved by the Prince as though she is a family member, yet she dares to risk everything to take advantage of the opportunity to win his love and affection. She approaches the Sea Witch to help her in reaching her goal.

The natural ability to entrance men with her loveliness and siren-like voice is a key characteristic of a mermaid. With her enchanting voice, she sings to fishermen. Traditionally, mermaids offered these men safe harbour from harm. Andersen’s mermaids have beautiful voices, which he describes as being clearer than any mortal voice (Andersen). During storms on the sea, they sing to the fisherman, bidding them no ill will. It is this lovely voice which the Mermaid sacrifices in order to be in touch with the Prince to discover love and happiness on land. Essential to her character, her voice defined one of the key features of mermaids and their purpose to living in the sea. On land, her ability to prove her love and dedication to the Prince relied only on her physical beauty. That which made her unique was no longer an option for her, and the Mermaid was punished for her unfortunate lack of understanding of reality and the human world. Without her voice, she is able neither to convince the Prince of how she saved his life, nor seduce him with her voice. The Sea Witch has bargained with the Mermaid for her sexuality and it has not paid off for the Mermaid.

In some versions of stories involving merfolk, the merfolk make actual contact with human life. These tales have been passed on through the ages, allowing mermaids to maintain a certain reputation of both trickery and safety. In some stories, the mermaids are the thought to have carried men out to sea and to not have allowed them back (Waugh). In others, she is merely a flash on the ocean, and a good story at the local pub as fisherman regale one another with tall tales. Andersen’s Mermaid has the opportunity to have the Prince perish at her hand, but she chooses instead to release herself from the promise of love.

There are many instances of sexual undertones in Andersen’s story. Although the Mermaid has made many sacrifices, she is not emotionally mature enough to engage in a relationship with the Prince. This story is meant to be a warning to girls to wait for what will naturally come to them, as Andersen intended. The Mermaid’s fascination with mankind, and the initial motivation to approach the Sea Witch, in the end undid the Mermaid and her contact with her family.


Maxwell Armfield (1881-1972), a British artist, illustrated the collection of Andersen’s stories. The book is bound and decorated intricately with gold leaf. It features an illustration from one of Andersen’s stories, and is enticing to the viewer. One is able to see keen detail in Armfield’s work inside the book, especially. The graphics are printed in colour, and display a wide range of shades and tones. Armfield has exercised extreme care in imagining life for merfolk. The Mermaid’s long, flowing hair masks her body partially and adds to the allure of the mermaid. The clothing of the Prince, and the structure of the ships, are intricately illustrated. They demonstrate the grandeur and exoticism of human life to which the Mermaid is attracted.

"A big three-masted ship lay close by."
Just in front of her stood the handsome young Prince


In the time period between the first publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Mermaid in 1873 and Disney’s interpretation, The Little Mermaid in 1989, much has changed in the way of moral structure between the two stories.

At face value, the moral seems to be that with great sacrifice and change comes great reward. The issue is whether that moral is even universally realistic. And this begs the question of whether Andersen’s interpretation has a deeper meaning.

In Andersen’s version, the Mermaid experiences monumental sacrifice before she is rewarded. The Mermaid rescues the Prince from drowning and immediately falls in love with him. The unfortunate issue in this scenario, however, is that the human Prince could never fall in love with a woman of the sea. Being infatuated with the Prince, the Mermaid desperately tries to change herself to accommodate and gain the Prince’s affection. The Mermaid sacrifices her impeccable singing voice in exchange for a potion to convert her mermaid tail into a pair of legs. Although it brings the Mermaid excruciating pain at every step, she sets forth to find the Prince. While he is attracted to the Mermaid it is not enough to terminate his arranged marriage and despite the Mermaid having sacrificed the fundamental aspects of herself is to entice the Prince, it is inevitably not enough.

It is at this point in the story that the mermaid suffers a broken heart. Through all the trouble and turmoil through which she has gone in order experience freedom and love, it is clear that she made her sacrifices in vain. She can’t bring herself to kill the Prince and return to being a mermaid, so she instead kills herself, ending her life after rejection.

In order for the Mermaid to be rewarded for her personal sacrifices, she must first live through the pain and torment, and also be forced to make impactful decisions. Only after she has experienced all that she had in her life under the guide of humanity is she given the opportunity to return to the world as sea foam in the afterlife. She becomes a daughter of the air and by performing good deeds, she will one day gain access into the Kingdom of God.

At first look, it seems that Andersen leaves the reader with a similar moral to that which Disney presents. By sacrificing the key aspects of yourself to conform to society’s picturesque standards, you will eventually be rewarded with acceptance. The Mermaid went through extreme pain and upheaval to gain this acceptance and eventually it paid off—but only in the afterlife. It is this key detail of the reward in afterlife that makes Andersen’s moral appear deeper than originally interpreted.

Upon closer analysis, Andersen’s imparted moral is in fact suggesting the opposite message to that of Disney’s film version. The Mermaid is rewarded for her sacrifice but not during her lifetime. She may find fulfillment only in the afterlife. This underlying meaning comments on the fact that not in reality is such an accepted transformation possible. While eventually the Mermaid was rewarded, she does not find happiness as a result of her actions during her own life in the real world.

Andersen’s moral can be interpreted as one which is darker and more realistic. In reality, despite how great of a sacrifice or outward change is made, one can never fundamentally change the essence of who one is, and can therefore never find true acceptance and happiness in the altered form.

Disney’s version interprets Andersen’s moral at face value, however. To begin with, the protagonist Ariel has to go through no great lengths to gain the love and acceptance of the Prince, unlike Andersen’s mermaid. While Ariel is forced to change to accommodate the love of the rescued Prince, her mild-by-comparison sacrifice pays off.

In this interpretation, the protagonist also makes a deal with a sea witch, Ursula, sacrificing her beautiful singing voice to gain human legs, though without any physical pain. Ursula tries to gain the Prince’s affection herself, not because of love, but to gain power of the sea. She attempts to trick the Prince out of marrying Ariel. Ursula’s trickery is short lived and although there is much chaos and excitement, no real suffering is experienced by Ariel. Ursula is eventually killed, and Ariel and the Prince live happily ever after.

In the end, Ariel is granted the human life that she wished for from the start without having to experience the traumatic pain, rejection, and even death, that Andersen’s mermaid underwent. The significant changes Ariel makes to be accepted by the Prince cause her to be successful, and she is rewarded with human love and life.

Stereotypically, Disney’s messages are known for being positive and seemingly morally right, thus making Andersen’s moral seems quite grim by comparison. However, if one were to really look at the morals presented in each of these interpretations, one would find that the roles in this particular story are reversed.

Andersen presents the more realistic message: one cannot achieve true acceptance by falsifying one’s genuine identity. No matter how much suffering and sacrifice one undergoes, there is no real reward in fundamental change.

Disney’s version portrays a more censored moral: one is able to achieve true happiness and acceptance by undergoing extreme change for the one they love. Through minor sacrifice and patience during said change, eventually they will gain the love and respect of those they changed for.

While Andersen’s moral seems more negative and dark than Disney’s, the truth and realism behind it make it a much more valuable lesson than Disney’s. The moral presented in The Little Mermaid is deceptively false and packaged as morally positive despite its true nature.


The Mermaid in Andersen’s tale is a sexualized, symbolic figure of female sacrifice, following the desire of her heart and making choices which suit her want for love and human form. Flouting social conventions of the sea, she makes a decision to pursue a different life despite the clear risks involved. Ever seductive, mermaids throughout history have proven to have a grip over humans. By delving under the surface and exploring the deeper meanings behind the morals presented in these two interpretations of mermaid’s tales, one gains a greater understanding of the way in which the ethical message of a decades-old tale changes through the process of “Disneyfication.” Upon making this analysis, one is able to determine which moral is more poignant and realistic past face-value.


Selected Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.

Cashdan, Sheldon. The Witch Must Die. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Print.

The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Perf. Jodi Benson. Disney, 1989. Videocassette.

Meyers, Robert W. “The Little Mermaid: Hans Christian Andersenʼs Feminine Identification.” Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 3.2 (2001): 149-59. Scholars Portal. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.

Mortensen, Finn. “The Little Mermaid: Icon and Disneyfication.” Scandinavian Studies 80 (2008): 437-54. ProQuest. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.

Triste, Roberta. “Disney’s Sub/version of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.” Journal of Popular Film & Television (1991): 145. ProQuest Library Search. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.

Waugh, Arthur. “The Folklore of the Merfolk.” Folklore 71.2 (1960): 73-84. JSTOR Arts and Sciences 3. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.



Female Maturation in Andersen and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”


(c) 2011 Brandon Kates and Antonia Wales

Hans Christian Andersen. “The Mermaid.” The Mermaid and Other Tales. Trans. Edgar Lucas. Illus. Maxwell Armfield. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.; New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1914.


               Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Mermaid”, is a literary work whose plot focuses on a mythical archetype (a mermaid) and her desire to attain the love of a mortal prince. The text we will focus on for this exhibit is The Mermaid and Other Tales, a collection of Andersen’s fairy tales edited by F.C Tilney, illustrated by Maxwell Armfield and translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas. It was published in 1914 as part of a series called “Tales for Children from Many Lands”, which implies it was intended for a child audience. We compare this to Disney’s adaptation of this fairy tale, entitled The Little Mermaid, which incorporates the original version in terms of the plot, but sanitizes and commercializes it in a way to appeal to the contemporary child. The portrayal of female maturation through this fairy tale differs between variants. The first section, focusing on the The Mermaid and Other Tales text is written by Brandon Kates and deals with female coming on age in Andersen’s “The Mermaid”. The following section is written by Antonia Wales and compares the differences between the Disney and Andersen versions.

Andersen’s “The Mermaid”

               The Mermaid and Other Tales is a collection of stories that was part of a series called Tales for Children from the Many Lands and was written by Hans Christian Anderson and illustrated by Maxwell Armfield. Hans Christian Anderson was a Danish writer and poet from the 19th Century, well-known for his children’s literature and his works have has influenced much of postmodern pop culture. Although this work contains many tales such as, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swinehead”, “The Mermaid” is the only one mentioned in the title indicating significance to the author.  Earlier in his life Andersen wrote both Agnete and Merman and The Little Sea Maid, demonstrating a fascination with mermaids. Perhaps one reason was his apparent struggle with his own sexuality and that he had a history of falling in love with women who he knew he could never have (Nikolajeva). He may have considered himself an outsider (like the Mermaid) who could never really fit into a world he perceived to be outside of them.

Depiction of Mermaids through Maxwell Armfield’s Illustrations

Armfield’s depiction of the mermaid seeing the prince’s ship

               The illustrator of The Mermaid and Other Tales, Maxwell Armfield, chose only to do two illustrations for “The Mermaid”. In the first illustration is located in the frontispiece and depicts the mermaid seeing the ship for the first time. The flag on the approaching boat is Swedish, while Hans Christian Anderson is from Denmark.  They are both Scandinavian countries with body of water between them, perhaps furthering the notion of having one’s desire obstructed. His fascination with the sea is apparent in both his work and choice of subject so much so that a statue of The Little Mermaid has been placed in the Copenhagen Harbour in his honour (Mortensen 438).

The mermaid meets the prince as a human.

               The second illustration done by Armfield depicts the mermaid meeting the prince after she has been transformed into a mermaid. An interesting thing to note is that the prince is shown to be Asian through the use of stereotypically Asian features like his clothing or shoes. The ships are not Scandinavian like in the frontispiece, but instead are Asian-insipred like the prince. The Little Mermaid is shown as being completely naked aside from her long hair.

               In The Mermaid, mermaids are described as beings possessing fish tails for legs and having the upper body of a naked human. One could think of the mermaid as adolescent in her desire for experience, but she has an inability to follow through due to her body and soul’s limitations. For example, the mermaid desires the prince, but is unable to attain the prince’s requited love and the immortal soul that becomes possible from being a human.

               Being underwater like the mermaids may be a metaphor for not facing reality. The mermaids experience a life of innocence under the sea. The mermaids are allowed to “play all day in the great hall of the castle” (Andersen 17), which shows they are very childlike. Mermaids also experience of a long life with no soul or afterlife, which also implies an easy, hardship-free life. The Little Mermaid’s quest for a human soul that allows her to go above the simple life of mermaids may be related to Andersen’s strong religious background. He may have made the mermaid’s world so childlike and out-of-reality because the alternatives of human life, hardship and having a soul, reflect a very Christian morality

Female Coming of Age in “The Mermaid”

               A Bildungsroman, or a coming of age story, is a story or novel that focuses on an adolescent’s experiences that focuses on a young character and their experiences that lead to self-discovery and maturity (Pettigrew). The mermaid in “The Mermaid” is an adolescent character who begins the fairy tale at fifteen years old. Through the story, the mermaid faces many personal and physical challenges that cause her to become more mature and adult-like.

               At the beginning of the tale, the mermaid is very child-like, but through her struggles, she becomes more mature. While living underwater, the mermaid was fascinated with the human world and her sense of curiosity interfered with her sense of reasoning (Cravens 638-639). Once the Mermaid experienced life above the sea, she began to experience a sense of love and lust toward the Prince. At first, she hides from and becomes timid every chance she has to reveal herself to him (Dahlerup 418), which is indicator of her child-like reaction to her new feelings. When she realizes that she cannot stay in the human world, she reacts in another adolescent manner by running off and bargaining with the sea witch. By not carefully considering the consequences of the deal, she agrees to exchange her voice for becoming human and would not be allowed to go back home.

               The maturation of the Little Mermaid developed through the pain that she endured.  She saves the Prince from drowning at her own risk and then must listen to him speak of his desire for another woman. He treats her more like a child or pet that he permits to sleep outside his door (Dahlerup 422).  Upon seeing her sisters, she realizes what she has done to her life.  In the story, her sisters then beg the witch to allow the youngest to return, but only if she killed the Prince, but The Little Mermaid endures watching the Prince marry another.  She knows that she will die, but out of a sense of morality she allows another to live happily ever after, while accepting her own terrible fate.  Despite not getting the Prince to marry her, she is rewarded with immortality for good behaviour, which is a common theme among fairy tales (Mortenson 439-440). She has evolved from a selfish, naïve and inquisitive mermaid into a self-sacrificing, wiser and moral soul.

Transformations in Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Disney’s film depiction of The Little Mermaid

               Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was adapted from a literary fairy tale into an animated film of the same name by Walt Disney in 1989. The film, although maintaining many of the same characters and plot, diverges from the Andersen original through the portrayal of its characters and the values it promotes. The key change between variants is the ending, where, in the Andersen tale, the mermaid dies and becomes a daughter of air. Ariel, the protagonist in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, however, marries the prince and lives happily ever after.

               Many Disney films, such as Snow White, Bambi or numerous others, focus on the coming of age story trope, where the hero faces a challenge and overcomes it, thereby leaving childhood and entering adulthood. While Andersen’s literary fairy tale does not focus on female maturation (Trites 152), it portrays a very different message than the Disney film. As fairy tales change over time, place and medium, the representation of mermaids, the story of The Little Mermaid and the depiction of female maturation all reflect cultural ideologies from when the variant was created.

Transformation from Mermaid to Human: The Transition from Child to Adult

               In both the Andersen and Disney versions of The Little Mermaid, the protagonist want to transform herself from a mermaid into a human to transcend from her world into another. The motivations for this transformation are different. The mermaid wants to become human to gain a chance at an immortal soul, while Ariel wants to transform because of her materialistic obsession with human culture and, later, the prince.

               In the Andersen tale, going to the surface is a right of passage at the age of fifteen, which implies that his tale is in part a coming-of-age story for the mermaid. In contrast, Ariel and her sisters are banned from going to the surface by their father, which feeds Ariel’s obsession with human culture and interprets this as being forbidden from falling in love (Trites 146). The transformation between mermaid and human requires the sacrifice of a voice from both mermaids, but it is depicted as being an extremely painful existence for Andersen’s mermaid, while being much simpler for Ariel. The mermaid endures the suffering to gain an immortal soul, while Ariel does it so she can be attractive to the prince (Trities 148).

               The protagonists go from being a child in the family, the discovery of humans to reaching adulthood in some form of self-actualization, which characterizes a coming of age story (Mortensen 445). By shifting between sea, land and later air, Andersen’s mermaid’s journey into adulthood is shown as she takes responsibility for her actions (Mortensen 445) and actively shapes her own identity by choosing to die rather than kill the prince (Trites 148). Ariel’s journey, on the other hand, culminates with the prince destroying the witch and her father allowing her to become human. There is a scene where Ariel emerges from the water as a human, which implies rebirth as an adult. Disney attempts to show this through a separation between Ariel and her father, but she is not truly self-actualized, as she does not earn her independence, but is instead transferred to the prince (Trites 151).

The Roles of  Adult Figures and Love in Maturity

               There are a lack of female role models for Ariel in The Little Mermaid. This is contrasted with Andersen’s original which contained the grandmother, sisters, daughters of air and even the sea-witch as positive feminine characters (Bendix 285; Trites 152). Instead, the film focuses on the relationship between Ariel and her father Triton. While the original tale had some form of matriarchy, Disney’s version is a more overt patriarchy, with Triton being controlling over all aspects of Ariel’s life and displaying this in rages towards her (Bendix 286).

               Both of the mermaids see the prince as a way to transcend from their lives in the sea, but their perspectives towards love and their purpose for loving the prince differ. The mermaid in Andersen’s tale sees her love for the prince as a way to gain eternal identity through mortal love (Trites 146). The Disney mermaid, on the other hand, equates love with marriage and sees marriage as her goal as she is incomplete without a man’s love (Trites, 146). The Disney version portrays Ariel as having matured because she experienced love, while Andersen’s variant depicts love as coming after maturity (Trites 148).

Reflecting Cultural Ideologies of Female Maturation

               The main aspirations and eventual fates of the mermaid and Ariel reflect some of the goals of womanhood or adulthood at the time and place they were created. Andersen’s mermaid sacrifices her body to earn the reward of the immortal soul, which reflects both upon Christian morality, as well as a reflection of Andersen’s life circumstances (Bendix 283). The delayed gratification of gaining an immortal soul after 300 years with the children of air is also indicative of the values during Andersen’s lifetime (Mortensen 447).

               Similarly, Ariel’s materialism, marriage of the prince and happy ending are all indicative of Disney’s corporate culture and the idea of female maturation in the modern day. While releasing The Little Mermaid, Disney also sold various merchandise related to the movie (Bendix 280; Mortensen 448) and this continues with the Disney Princess line of merchandise, which is reflected in Ariel’s obsession with human “thingymabobbers”. In the end, Ariel gets a happy ending, which reflects the American dream and Disney’s wishes come true slogan (Bendix 289). By having Ariel’s goal as marrying the prince, Disney offers marriage as the ultimate goal of womanhood and as being compulsory for a happy ending (Trites 151).

Differences in depiction between Armfield’s illustrations of the mermaid in “The Mermaid” and Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”

               The physical depiction of the mermaid’s attire also varies between mediums, which implies a difference in how the adolescent female form is depicted. In the two images of the mermaid in The Mermaid and Other Tales, the top of the mermaid’s body is naked, covered only by her long hair. On the other hand, Ariel in the Disney film wears a seashell bra to cover her chest, which simultaneously censors her body, but also further sexualizes it by having the bra resemble a bikini. Despite Disney deeming the naked mermaid as inappropriate for children, Ariel is still sexualized (Trites 151). This reflects a strange dissonance in Disney’s approach towards sexuality and it’s appropriateness for children.


                The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale that has been through many adaptations since it was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1836 in his native Danish (Nikolajeva). The children’s anthology of Andersen fairy tales, The Mermaid and Other Tales, provides an English translated and illustrated version of  the story aimed towards American and British children in 1914. The Disney film also is also reflective of the culture it was created in, with the changing of the ending and the depiction of characters. We have compared the depiction of mermaids in both of these variants, as well as how female maturation is depicted in each version.

               Because The Little Mermaid is a tale that shows a character maturing from a child to an adult, it is enjoyed by many children. Society should understand and be aware of the messages and images portrayed to children, especially girls, about female maturation and life goals. By better understanding that the time, place and medium of a work can influence how it is shown and interpreted, readers and children can be more aware that what is shown in a text is not necessarily what they should strive for.

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Mermaid.” The Mermaid and Other Tales. Trans. Edgar Lucas. Illus. Maxwell Armfield. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.; New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1914. 9-35. Print.

Bendix, Regina. “Seashell Bra and Happy Ending: Disney’s transformations of ‘The Little Mermaid’.” Fabula 34 (1993): 280-290. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Cravens, Gwyneth. “Review of ‘The Little Mermaid’” Nation 254.18 (1992): 638-640. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.

Dahlerup, Pil. “’Little Mermaid’ Deconstructed.” Scandinavian Studies 62.4. (1990): 418-428. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Dulcie Pettigrew “Bildungsroman or Novel of Education”  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Ed. Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press, 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.

Mortensen, Finn Hauberg. “’The Little Mermaid’: Icon and Disneyfication.” Scandinavian Studies 80.4 (2008): 437-454. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Nikolajeva, Maria. “Andersen, Hans Christian.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Ed. Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press, 2006. Web. 16 Oct. 2011.

Trites, Roberta. “Disney’s Sub/version of Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid”.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 18.4 (1991): 145-152. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

The Contemporary Mermaid vs. the Historical Mermaid

Wilde, Oscar. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. New York: Hart Publishing Company INC., 1975. 129-180.

© 2011, Danica Nelson, Veronica Porfilio

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was an incredibly talented author that produced multiple famous bodies of writing during his lifetime. He came from a family of unconventional, well-educated parents that were both established writers. Wilde faced a difficult time in his life when he began to recognize his own sexual nature at a time when homosexuality was just beginning to be whispered about (Young). Although he was married with two children, he was involved with many young men, one of which was publisher’s office boy (Young). Homosexuality was illegal in this period of time and Wilde was tried twice for homosexual offences, and imprisoned for two years of hard labor (Young). His wife left him, his children were taken away, and upon release from jail his writings were banned and he had no choice but to exile in France where he died a few years later due to multiple health issues (Young).

 Origin of mermaids

Mermaids have evolved from many Ancient stories all merging the relationship between gods and men (Gilbert, 20). The Ancient Greek ancestors to mermaids are called Sirens. Sirens were portrayed as being seductresses who lured sailors in with their captivating voices (Giesecke). They were also viewed as being exceptionally beautiful beings. These ideologies were passed on to mermaids. In Oscar Wilde’s story The Fisherman and His Soul the main mermaid in the story is described as “So beautiful was she that when the young Fisherman saw her he was filled with wonder, and he put out his hand and drew the net close to him, and leaning over the side he clasped her in his arms.” She has gold hair and her tail is silver and pearl (Wilde). She is described in a very sensual nature when Wilde describes the mermaid’s bare chest, “cold waves dashed over her cold breasts” (Wilde).  This is in keeping with the ancient ways of viewing mermaids as seductresses because Wilde is describing the Fisherman’s very carnal first response to the half naked mermaid.

In this image illustrated by Paul Bacon the mermaid is depicted as a whimsical and feminine creature with her long, flowing hair and naked bosom. This image solidifies the readers’ understanding of the mermaid as a seductress and captivating as she has all the fish surrounding her.


Mermaids find solid literary roots in Ancient Greek mythology, which Wilde uses in his story to enhance the credibility of his mermaid character. She is very traditionally depicted through her captivating voice, which is what causes the Fisherman to fall deeply in love with her. The Fisherman wanted nothing more than to spend eternity with the mermaid but was unable to do to because the mermaid had no soul, which is a direct influence of early Christian literature.

Christian View of mermaids

Early Christians held fish as a sacred symbol for Christ. The fish became a commonly known archetype symbolizing God as the savior for man (Gilbert, 30). During the first millennium, when astrological signs were first created, two fish represented the sign for Pisces. The lower fish was known to be a mermaid or “devil fish” (Gilbert, 30). The battle between Christianity and mermaids was apparent in literature including Wilde’s work The Fisherman and His Soul. The mermaids in this work are depicted as having no souls. The Fisherman must wish his soul away in order to live eternally with the mermaid. The priest in the story will not help the Fisherman in wishing his soul away because he suggests that the sea folk are unable to differentiate between good and evil seeing as they have no souls. The priest tries to stop the Fisherman from associating with the sea folk.  This is a direct influence of early Christian literature, which cursed mermaids to eternal damnation because they have no souls (Gilbert, 30). Early Christian literature has a strong influence in how mermaids are portrayed in Wilde’s story and even in Disney’s story.

Early Christian literature then had an account of a mermaid named Liban, who was baptized in the Church and provided with the opportunity to die and go directly to heaven (Gilbert, 30). This was a pivotal point in the telling of mermaids because it allowed for a different type of story to be told of mermaids, rather than simply being soul-less creatures unable to find redemption. This crucial change is evident in Wilde’s story The Fisherman and His Soul. At the end of the story the Fisherman’s soul had tried to become one with him again, but was unable to do so because the Fisherman’s heart was filled with the love he had for the mermaid. This shows that love is more powerful than anything, even if it be between two beings not born of the same nature. The priest would not bless the sea because he believed the Fisherman and the mermaid were “accursed in their lives” and did not deserve to be rectified in their death. Three years later when flowers mystically provided by the late Fisherman showed up in the Church and the priest felt overwhelmed by love, which causes him to realize he had been wrong in attempting to stop the love of these two beings and went back to the sea to bless it. This symbolizes Christian literature’s eventual acceptance of sea folk as being capable of redemption.

The Critical Connection Between Wilde’s Life and The Fisherman and his Soul:

Wilde faced a trial in 1898 for committing the “crime” of homosexuality (Russell). Are the connections between the storyline in The Fisherman and His Soul and Wilde’s real life occurrences somehow intertwined? A critical connection between the controversy of one man being sexually involved with another and going against religious commandments and a Fisherman falling in love with the forbidden life of the sea can be viewed in multiple ways. An interesting way of close reading of The Fisherman and His Soul is looking at Wilde as being the Fisherman. He was willing to give up the approval of those supreme advisors to him to stand up for what he truly believed in and to be with his love. Christopher Nassaar, a well-known Oscar Wilde scholar and English professor at the American University of Beirut said that Wilde’s emerging consciousness of himself as a homosexual in turn introduced him into a “demon universe” of sin, guilt, and atonement, one which required a series of masks to escape public scrutiny. (Russell). In the conclusion of the story, where the priest eventually accepts the unity of the two could be a hidden belief that maybe one way the church will accept homosexuality. He could have possibly masked his feelings into his work as he was affected by the scrutiny of the Victorian public.

This image illustrated by Paul Bacon depicts the mermaid caught in the Fisherman’s net. This may be a representation of Wilde feeling trapped by his Victorian society in being unable to be open with his homosexuality.


Mermaids Today

The contemporary mermaid as depicted in Disney’s The Little Mermaid follows much the same pattern as Wilde’s The Fisherman and His Soul. The Little Mermaid falls in love with a human, must sacrifice a part of herself in order to be with him and in the end the sea folk and humans are joined through the unity of two people (Clements). The Little Mermaid follows the same structure as Christian literature in describing the story of the mermaid. The mermaids in both Wilde’s The Fisherman and His Soul and Disney’s The Little Mermaid are most directly and profoundly influenced by early Christian literature. On both counts interaction between the two worlds is strictly forbidden on the grounds that is it not traditional for two people of different species to marry. In both Wilde’s The Fisherman and His Soul and Disney’s The Little Mermaid love proves to be stronger than any force in the world and conquers all. This may have been Wilde’s way of writing about his own homosexual love as it was not only unconventional in his time, but also it was illegal (Young).  Wilde even had himself thrown in jail because of his sexuality.  The end of his story is a utopian representation of the world accepting that love is greater than all obstacles in hopes that homosexuality would no longer be illegal.

Final Notes

The Fisherman and his Soul revisits Christian literature’s story of the mermaid, which directly influenced Disney’s work The Little Mermaid. Though the appearance of the mermaid has been altered over time, the main ideas and customs of the mermaid remain.  On all occasions, mermaids and humans are meant to live in separation from one another to avoid havoc within the world and keep traditions alive. However, Wilde’s work suggests that at times traditions must be broken in order for love to conquer all. Disney’s astonishingly similar storyline demonstrates the profound influence Wilde’s work has in fairytales; historical and modern.

Works Cited

Clements, Ron, Dir. The Little Mermaid. Dir. John Musker. Disney, 1989. Film.

Giesecke, Annette Lucia. “Mapping Utopia: Homer’s Politics and the Birth of the Polis.” College Literature. (2007): 194-215. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Gilbert, Krista Lauren. “The Mermaid Archetype.” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (2006): 1-218. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Jackson, Russell, and Ian Small. “Oscar Wilde: A “Writerly” Life.” Modern Drama 37.1 (1994): 3-11. ProQuest. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.

Wilde, Oscar. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. New York: Hart Publishing Company INC., 1975. 129-180.

Young, Ian. “Who Framed Oscar Wilde?.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 7.3 (2000): 24. LGBT Life with Full Text. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.

The Transformation of The Little Mermaid

© Copyright 2011, Emilia Turano and Larissa Fitzsimons

Andersen, Christian Hans. “The Little Mermaid.” Fourteen Classic Tales. Ed. Stephan Corrin, Illus. Edward Ardizzone. London: Andre Deutsch, 1978. Pages 23-53. Print.

The story of “The Little Mermaid” was written by Hans Christian Andersen, and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. This story was written in 1836 and remains a common fairy tale heard today. The mermaid is mainly a feminine character made of both fish and human. Mermaids have fish bodies below the waist and human bodies above, forcing them to live under the sea. The introduction Andersen gave to mermaids in 1836 is extremely different then how we view them to be now. Through pictures and content the reader learns that Andersen’s ideology about mermaids is very grave. The main mermaid is represented poorly and has to endure great pain for love. In current pop culture however the mermaid is depicted as a beautiful, seductive figure that always gets what she wants. The differences from Andersen’s views of the mermaid versus popular culture will be explored in greater detail.

In the story of “The Little Mermaid”, Hans Andersen uses an antifeminist approach when depicting the little mermaid. He does this by making her seem like a weak, unfortunate and pathetic character. After saving a prince the little mermaid falls in love with him. Andersen uses the mermaid’s vulnerable love for the prince to humiliate her throughout the story. Before the little mermaid can be reunited with the prince she has to go through a series of events in hopes of achieving an immortal soul. First, the sorcerer tells the mermaid that pure rejection will break her heart and she will die. This suggests that women are weak on there own and require a man’s love to survive. The little mermaid accepts the risk of having her heart broken and therefore puts herself in a vulnerable position for a man. The witch continues by cutting out the mermaids tongue, thus muting the little mermaid for the rest of her life. This suggests that women do not have the right to free speech and shouldn’t be heard. The little mermaid was also subjected to endure great physical pain with her new human legs. Andersen notes that the feeling of sharp knives cutting through her is something she will experience with every step she takes. During all the pain and hardship the mermaid remains hopeful that she will win the prince’s heart. This makes it seem normal for women to grave these circumstances in means of finding love. This suggests that women in this time period were viewed with the same antifeminist approach.

Rejection is a common theme in the story and the little mermaid is faced with it multiple times.  After her transformation into a human she is finally put in the prince’s presence. Unfortunately the little mermaid finds herself unable to express how she is feeling because she has lost her tongue. The reader empathizes with the frustration of the little mermaid falling within a hands reach of the prince’s love only to have lost it to another girl who becomes his mistress. The mermaid however never turns her back on the prince even when he makes plans to wed to someone thus leaving the little mermaid for dead. In the end the little mermaid’s sisters sacrifice their hair to the witch in hopes of saving their sisters life which will end on the king’s wedding night. The only way for the mermaid to live is by killing the prince. Although the little mermaid takes the knife she does not have the courage to kill him when she finds the new couple happily asleep in each other’s arms. This action makes her seem pathetic and stupid. The little mermaid saved the prince from drowning and endured great physical and emotional pain to be with him. Even after this he still does not decide to be with her. This could cause the mermaid to be angry and upset yet she does not seek revenge on the prince. When presented with a second chance to be a mermaid she lacks the strength to follow through. However the little mermaid’s selfless decision grants her a chance at life in another world otherwise known as heaven. Andersen’s mention of this Godly world suggests that he as well as the mermaid maintains religious views and outlooks. Not only does it reflect Andersen’s values but it poses the idea that religion, mainly Christianity, was popular in the early eighteen hundreds.

In the photo presented below the mermaid is admiring the prince. When doing an analysis it appears evident that the mermaid is held to a lower standard then the prince simply because of her placement below him in the photo. The little mermaid is looking up to the prince as if to put him on a pedestal. The mermaid is also painted in the buff and lacks clothing. Perhaps Ardizzone did this to depict the mermaid as maintaining a lower class or peasant status. When viewing this illustration from a feminist approach one could argue that the nudity of the mermaid is a major form of disrespect. The nude illustrations also devalue the worth of the mermaid and force her to be vulnerable to men.

The little mermaid admiring the prince.

The story of “The Little Mermaid” has a very antifeminist approach to women in the early eighteen hundreds. The way the mermaid is depicted in Andersen’s story is far from how a mermaid is depicted in the modern world. Through the acts of Disney and other pop culture, the mermaid has taken an extremely valued position in modern day society.

Pop Culture’s Contemporary Mermaid

For thousands of years the mermaid has been a permanent symbol in mythologies and in many different cultures.  They continue to play an evident role in pop culture and contemporary society though advertisements, movies, music videos and the mass media in general.  The fascination with mermaid’s dates back to Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.  What is this attraction to mermaids that is so compelling and lingers from the past to present pop culture?  The mermaid is seen as a supernatural creature that is half human and half fish and coexists in the same body.  There was always something beautiful, mysterious and intriguing about them dating back to Andersen’s little mermaid.  How have they evolved and how has their representation varied from the original classic tale to existing pop culture?

Unquestionably the most popular mermaid in contemporary pop culture is Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Ariel plays the lead mermaid in Walt Disney’s movie inspired by Andersen’s story and possess’ similar qualities as the protagonist in the original tale.  Andersen’s mermaid in comparison to Disney’s endures more painful and real life drama but both are depicted as beautiful, independent young ladies filled with curiosity and drive.  In today’s pop culture most media images of mermaids ascribe a sexual motive or activity (Mortensen 439).  Disney adapted the story of The Little Mermaid and submerged it with its popular children’s brand.  Although Ariel posses the same strong feminine, alluring features as Andersen’s mermaid her character differs in a major way. As we see in the original story love slips away from the hands of the mermaid, her true love is no longer attainable and her story ends more tragically then Disney’s character.  Ariel’s fascination with the outside world leads her to make many trips to the sea shore where she admires the human world from a distance.  One night while watching a party that was happening on a ship, Ariel instantly fell in love with the Prince who she gazed at from afar.  Upon the drowning of the ship Ariel rescues the prince and brings him but vanishes before he has a chance to see who she is.  In the end, love prevails over all obstacles and evil in true Disney fashion and Ariel has her happy ending with the Prince.  The way women are represented through Ariel’s character can be viewed positively and negatively.  It is arguable that her adolescent curiosity as well as her attitude towards her father’s beliefs can be represented in a rebellious way, but this can be interpreted as her way of showing independence and drive.  The mermaid in this movie shows that women who are beautiful, driven and independent will capture the attention of the handsome man who will then ask for her hand in marriage.  This may send out a message that women can only be complete through marriage and need to conform to certain norms within society to achieve it.  We can see that Ariel transforms herself to be with the prince, this is demonstrated by her transition of fins to legs, in hopes of adapting to the human norms.

The transformation of the little mermaid into Disney’s Ariel.

In the 1984 film Splash, actress Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid who comes in contact with humans on land.   Her character also rescues a man but when he meets her she is naked with human legs that only transforms to fins when she comes in contact with water.  She is curious, beautiful and has a seductive mysterious demeanour.  This film is another example that the beautiful and alluring mermaid conquers true love and in the end we see both characters swim in the sea but we don’t know exactly what becomes of their relationship. It is far fair for the reader to conclude that the mermaid finds her mate.  Within the music industry the image of the mermaid has also been used as a form of art. British singer Sade plays a mermaid in her 90’s music video No Ordinary Love that depicts a love story between a women and a man. Again we can see that the mermaid devoted through pop culture is tied to the image of sexualized beautiful women who find love.  The CEO of the largest coffee house in the world, Starbucks also shares a fascination with mermaids.  Howard Schultz chose the image of a two tailed mermaid to be the face of one of the most famous logos in the western world.  Starbucks connects the mermaid to strength and power, they believe they have the power to seduce and enchant, and felt that this was a message they wanted to convey to their consumers (Phillips and Ann 489).  Starbucks original logo has a topless mermaid holding two fins, but, since then has been changed to showing less of her body and her breast’s have been covered with her hair.  Howard believed that the mermaid encompassed a female who seduced and pulled people one away from their normal duties in life. He wanted his coffee house to be just as seductive and therefore encouraging people to escape from their everyday lives when entering a Starbucks (Phillips and Ann 485).  What is different about the Starbucks mermaid is that she has successfully used her power to seduce coffee lovers around the world where as Andersen’s mermaid fell short and couldn’t win over the Prince.

Ariel finds true love and marries the prince.

We have come a long way since the first story of The Little Mermaid by Christian Andersen. The mermaid has been immortalized in many forms of pop culture.  From Disney’s movie The Little Mermaid to other Hollywood blockbusters, music videos and magazine advertisement, the mermaid continues to capture the attention of contemporary society.  Her seductive body language, mystery and beauty have become a masculine idealization of women in our society.  Unlike Andersen’s mermaid, the contemporary mermaid without question can grasp any man within her reach.  The representation of women through the image of a mermaid can be both positive and negative.  Some may argue that the mermaid represents powerful women, where as others can view this representation as demeaning and sexist. Whether one associate’s mermaids with either of these views, it is undeniable that they have connected with audiences throughout history.  From Andersen’s classic fairy tale to pop cultures most lovable mermaid Ariel, mermaids are here to stay.

Select Bibliography

Andersen, Christian Hans. “The Little Mermaid.” Fourteen Classic Tales. Ed. Stephan Corrin, Illus. Edward Ardizzone. London: Andre Deutsch, 1978. Pages 23-53. Print.

Dahlerup, Pil. “Splash! Six Views of Little Mermaid.” Scandinavian Studies 62.4 (1990): 403-429. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

Jilly Paver. “Ardizzone, Edward.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Jack Zipes. OxfordUniversity Press 2006: 1-3. RyersonUniversity. 8 November 2011

Maria Nikolajeva. “Andersen, Hans Christian.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006: 4-6. RyersonUniversity. Web. 8 November 2011

Mortensen, Finn Hauberg.  “The Little Mermaid: Icon and Disneyfication.” Scandinavian Studies 80.4 (2008): 437-454. Web. 13 Oct. 2011

Philips, Mary, and Ann Rippin.  “Howard and the mermaid: abjection and the Starbucks’ Foundation memoir.” Organization 17 (2010): 481-499. Web. 15 Oct. 2011. 

Splash.  Dir. Ron Howard. Touchstone Pictures, 1984. Film.

The Little Mermaid.  Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989. Film.

Harrison, Juliette.  “Pop Classics.”  The Little Mermaid.  June 2011.  Web. 11 November 2011.

Miller, Donald. “Pirate Pup.”  The Little Mermaid.  January 2010.  Web.  11 November 2011.

Mermaids: Exploring Gender Inequality in “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”

The cover page of The Pink Fairy Book, edited and compiled by Andrew Lang

©Copyright 2011, Katherine Smyk, Mark Moliterni

Andrew Lang, ed. Hans, the Mermaid’s Son. The Pink Fairy Book. Ill. Ford, H. J. New York: Dover, 1967. 112-125. Print.

Andrew Lang as a Patriarchal Storyteller

Andrew Lang’s The Pink Fairy Book, originally published in 1897, was part of a lucrative series of ‘coloured’ fairy tale anthologies.  With 41 stories in this volume alone, Lang covered a vast array of folk and fairy tales over the course of his career. The series was enormously popular and a new book was released each Christmas to much fan fervour (“Andrew Lang”). Lang, who was considered conservative even in his time, championed fairy tales as a storytelling medium mainly for children (“Andrew Lang”). Accordingly, he used his stories to reinforce the patriarchal beliefs of his time, rather than subverting them. H.J. Ford, his long time partner, illustrated the text with sixty-nine classically drawn, black and white images, further emphasizing the book’s conservatism. Tucked away in this version of the Fairy Books is a little known Danish story called “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” which demonstrates the masculine bias in Lang’s work and its place in the greater historical trend of patriarchal folk and fairy tales. In this story, the mermaid takes a role behind the scenes of the narrative, obscuring her as a subject.

Mark Moliterni will be analyzing the myth of the mermaid by contrasting Lang’s characterization of the mermaid with the characterization of her son. Historically, mermaids have been used in literature and folk tales as a representation of femininity in a condescending manner, depicting them as little more than objects of sex and beauty. In her study of the story’s context Katherine Smyk will be focusing on the origins of “Hans” by analyzing it in the context of Greek mythological figures Hercules and the Sirens. Essentially, this exhibit will explore the inherent gender inequality of the mermaid myth, as has been seen throughout folk and fairy tale history.

The Mermaid as an Object of Sexuality and Beauty

“Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” follows the life of the titular half-merman on his journey of maturation. The plot begins with a human blacksmith named Basmus who goes missing at sea. Three days after his disappearance, Basmus mysteriously returns back to town with a boat full of fish and a life’s supply of treasures. Six years later, when Hans arrives at Basmus’s home, it is revealed that the blacksmith was rescued by a mermaid during his three days at sea and together they conceived a son. Though only six, Hans has the physique and stature of an eighteen year old man and his mother can no longer handle him, thus bringing him to his father’s house.

The story deemphasizes the significance of the mermaid, never going beyond her role as a mythical wish-fulfilling creature and mother. She receives no name, no dialogue, and little agency over the plot. Her main purpose is to serve as a tool for Basmus’ survival and to facilitate a sort of mythical sexual fantasy, sleeping with him during their time together and conceiving his son. Although she receives no descriptive characterization in the text, there is an illustration devoted to her, which further accentuates her position as an object of desire and sex. In a rather beautiful image, the naked mermaid with long, luscious hair guides the fully clothed Basmus by the hand through her magical world under the sea.

H.J. Ford illustrates the mermaid's and Basmus' first meeting

Besides providing Basmus with sexual fulfilment, there is little else that can be concluded about the mermaid other than her inadequacy as a mother. She takes on a subordinate role as a woman who cannot manage her own son, sending him off to his father because he is much too strong for her. This strength manifests itself physically but, in actuality, works as a metaphor for man’s overall power over woman. The mermaid’s lack of characterization, especially in contrast to her son and Basmus, says more than anything else. By deciding not to focus on the mermaid, Lang implicitly suggests that her story is not worth telling and her character lacks significance, despite her importance as a plot-device.

Hans as the Idealized Masculine Figure

In contrast, Hans is characterized as being unstoppably powerful, with no apparent qualities from his mother’s “race,” other than super strength. With the body of a human man, Hans is unrecognizable as a mer-person and little is said of his physical appearance (as opposed to the emphasis placed upon his mother’s beauty). The attribution of supernatural strength for Hans is not particularly inspired; a cliché ability for a male character to be endowed with. Perceived as a metaphorical extension of man’s mental and intellectual power, super strength has defined many male characters throughout literary history from Hercules to the Hulk.

Old Eric attacks Hans, as illustrated by H.J. Ford

Hans is also characterized as intellectually superior to everyone he encounters. Many of the characters Hans meets on his journey attempt to outsmart him by assigning him with seemingly impossible tasks, which he always completes in the end. The story’s only other illustration depicts the sea creature, Old Eric, attempting to drown Hans by sneakily attacking from behind. Hans, of course, lives; he is, after all, the almighty hero of the story.

Instead of carving a new archetype for the mermaid in his story, Lang only perpetuates the myth of the mermaid and many of the misogynistic beliefs which helped define it. In fact, nearly all of the classic tropes of the mermaid myth are played upon here: her elusiveness as a character, her role as a sex symbol and seductress, and the mysteriousness of the mermaid child rearing and birthing process (Banse; Jewitt). After all, she seduces Basmus, a father of many young children (and so, presumably, married), symbolizing sexual temptation and “deviations from the righteous path” (Banse 150). The reader never gets to know the mermaid; she vanishes from the plot after the second page and even then, everything we know of her comes second hand. Due to Lang’s conservatism and his decision to direct his fairy tales at children, there is no explanation as to how she gave birth to Hans (or how, anatomically, she and Basmus were even able to conceive). Furthermore, there is no detail into her relationship with her son or how she raised him to be so out of control that she had to send him away in the end.

The portrayal of the mermaid in Lang’s text only perpetuates the patriarchal views of gender in society and the inherent misogyny in the myth of the mermaid. Where the mermaid could have been more than just an object of affection and an actual character with definitive personality traits, she amounts to little more than a plot device.

Mermaids in Greek Mythology

By analyzing the mermaid from the contextual perspective of Greek Mythology, the earlier qualities conceived of the female archetype as a seductive mythological creature can be examined. By looking at the Sirens as well as the elusive quality of the ocean itself, the influence that the Greeks had upon Andrew Lang’s depiction of the mermaid become apparent. The inequality inherent to the power relations of the male and female can be seen as the female resorts to manipulation and abduction. The development of the mermaid within the lore of the British Isles as well as Denmark drew inspiration from the Sirens of Greek Mythology. Most notably appearing within Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens assailed Odysseus and his crew. The half-woman, half-eagle creatures accosted these men with their enticing singing, both vicious and mysterious in their beauty (Vredeveld 846). The Greeks, a seafaring people, viewed the sea as a world of its own, parallel to that of earth. The unexpected appearance of the Sirens is a testament to the mystery that the sea possesses (Greene 427-428).

Odysseus is assailed by the Sirens in this Greek vase painting.

Aesthetically, mermaids have been characterized in similar ways to the Sirens. Each feminine creature embodies notions of sexuality, violence, and intrigue. Both the Sirens and the mermaids belong to a single element – air in the case of the Siren, and water in the case of the mermaid (Aggard). The tale of “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son,” offers a story that is also focused upon the luring of a male to sea, as well as the consequences of the man’s vulnerability to the mermaid’s temptation. The intention of the mermaid is similar to that of the Sirens within The Odyssey. Both The Odyssey and “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” acknowledge the seductive influence of an archetypical female figure, as well as the naivety of man. The mermaid’s son represents the unification between the mermaid’s power and human mortality. The son is sent to live with his father among mortals, where he encounters hostility as a result of this unification. This echoes the trials and tribulations faced by Hercules within Greek Mythology. Hercules, a demigod, cannot truly be comfortable within the company of mortals (Aggard). He is constantly being challenged, mocked, and questioned. The same is true of Hans, who is resented and opposed by the mortals that he comes to live among. Andrew Lang, a Scottish folklorist, historian, and editor, depicted the son of the mermaid as a Herculean figure who overcomes his obstacles, ultimately departing from the land of the mortals for the sea. Once again, the juxtaposition of water and air can be identified as Hercules departs for Olympus, a kingdom elevated above the mortal world.

Perpetuating Patriarchy through the Mermaid Myth 

In summation, Hans, the Mermaid’s Son depicts a literary female archetype that is manipulative and seductive while being mysterious and elusive. During her brief appearance at the beginning of the narrative, she lures a naïve man into her clutches and conceives his child who grows up to be a problem for them both. Later returned to land, the man has been dumbfounded by the mermaid and cannot recall being ensnared by her overt display of feminine power (Greene 430). The man must then deal with the consequences of his naivety when eventually faced with his son. The son, who unites characteristics of his influential mother with those of his credulous father, is a representational bond of the analogous genders as well as that of two races – the mermaid and the mortal. This outcome is a demonstration of female persuasion and coercion. From the contextual perspective of Greek Mythology, this characterization of the mermaid was used as a literary tool, converting femininity into an archetype. This, initially done with the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, first offered a female archetype utilizing her sexual appeal as a leveraging tool. Later drawn upon by “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”, the female harnesses the water as an elemental power within a new narrative. The power struggle displayed between the male and the female ultimately leaves the woman as the antagonist of the story. This depiction is a testament to the gender inequality within literary characterizations. With only a brief appearance within the narrative, the story largely omits the importance of the mermaid for anything other than her use to man, perpetuating a patriarchal ideal.

Works Cited

Aggard, Walter R. “Greek Prototypes of American Myths.” Classical Journal of the Middle           West and South. 54.8 (1959): 338-343. Print. <>.

“Andrew Lang.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resource               Center. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.

Banse, Karl. “Mermaids- Their Biology, Culture, and Demise.” Limnology and                               Oceanography 35.1 (1990): 148-53. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Greene, William Chase. “The Sea in the Greek Poets.” North American Review. 199.700             (1914): 427-443. Print. <>.

Jewitt, Llewellynn. “The Mermaid of Legend and of Art.” The Art Journal 6 (1880): 117-               20. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Rosenstein, Roy. “Andrew Lang.” Nineteenth-Century British Book Collectors and                       Bibliographers. Ed. William Baker and Kenneth Womack. Detroit: Gale Research,              1997. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 184. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4            Oct. 2011.

Vredeveld, Harry. “”Deaf as Ulysses to the Siren’s Song”: The Story of a Forgotten Topos.”        Renaissance Quarterly. 54. The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.                              <>.