Tag Archives: Mermaids

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.

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. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294970>.

“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. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25120207>.

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.                              <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1261926>.