Basic Plot Summary: A mermaid princess goes to the surface on her 15th birthday and falls in love with a prince she sees on a ship. The ship is capsized by a storm and she saves the prince’s life and then wants to be with him forever. She strikes a deal with the sea witch in which she is given legs (that are excruciatingly painful) and the hope of an immortal soul in exchange for giving up her family, her long life under the sea and her voice, but if the prince marries someone else, she will die and become sea foam. The mermaid and the prince become good friends, but he marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom. The mermaid’s sisters tell her that if she kills the prince, she can return to them and be a mermaid again, but she can’t bring herself to do it and she dies, but becomes a daughter of the air, where she can do good deeds for hundreds of years and earn an immortal soul.
With an original story like this, it’s no wonder I remember being a little concerned when I heard that Disney was making an animated musical version of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story, first published in 1837. Of course, that movie took big departures from the original story, but it was wildly successful and launched the Disney Renaissance era. And let’s face it, the story is ridiculously dark. I mean, the mermaid dances for the prince even though every step feels like she’s walking on knives, and she’s happy to do it just because he likes to see her dance. I try to keep things in perspective when reading older stories, but this bit makes my skin crawl. Yet the story is definitely beloved (and I remember loving it when I was little) and was the inspiration for the lovely mermaid statue that sits in Copenhagen harbor as a tribute to the author. The story has been adapted for ballet, opera, musical theater and many television and movie versions, including Disney’s, which proved that even the most depressing story is better with a singing crab.
The Little Mermaid – Anthea Bell translates the story from the original Danish version and it certainly retains all of the melancholy of the original. It’s also full of extraneous details, most of which were also part of the tale as it was originally told. Illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger provided the artwork for many fairy tales and won the Hans Christan Andersen Medal for lasting contribution to children’s literature. Her artwork here is lovely and manages to portray the sadness of the story without ever feeling maudlin. (Penguin Young Readers Group, 2004)
The Little Mermaid – This version also sticks very closely to the original tale, although it is pared down to a shorter length for an easier read. Rachel Isadora’s watercolor artwork is beautiful and colorful, with a truly terrifying sea witch. Her take on the story here seems to indicate that the little mermaid is just as interested in gaining an immortal soul as she is in winning the love of the prince. This actually allows the story to have a happy ending, when she discovers that she will have an opportunity to earn a soul as a child of the air. I enjoyed this version quite a bit. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998)
The Little Mermaid – You’re only going to want to pick this one up if you have plenty of time and really really like the story, which was adapted here by Jane S. Woodward. It goes into serious detail about every little facet of the story, including five pages dedicated just to telling us all the details of what each of the little mermaid’s older sisters saw on their trips to the water’s surface. There’s even the cringe-worthy concept that mermaids decorate their tails with oysters, which is painful but (as the mermaid’s grandmother tells her) ‘one must suffer to be beautiful.’ Michael Hague’s illustrations have a lovely classic feel to them and I couldn’t help noticing a few details that were similar to the Disney version (notice the prince’s outfit when he is rescued), which made me wonder if it was used as inspiration for the artists. Overall, though, it’s just way too long for my taste. (Henry Holt and Company, 1981)
And what did we learn? What I take away from The Little Mermaid is that you should carefully consider any deal that forces you to give up who you fundamentally are.