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The Influence of Folklore on The Little Mermaid

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the same name, Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ tells the story of a young mermaid, who falls in love with a human and makes a bargain to attain legs, in order to be with him on land. The movie sold 7 million copies in its first month and made $211.3 million at the Box Office, enjoying an enduring popularity that continues to this day, with a live action remake scheduled for release in the next few years.

In the Disney version of the tale, the titular ‘little mermaid’ is Ariel, redheaded daughter of King Triton – the ruler of the underwater city of Atlantica. In Greek mythology, Triton is the name of Poseidon’s son and heir, and he is often depicted in traditional art and sculpture as a mermaid, often with two tails, although the Disney version only has one. The city of Atlantica is, of course, named for the legendary city of Atlantis, said to have disappeared beneath the waves many thousands of years ago.

Having fallen in love with a human, Ariel makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula in order to gain legs and travel to the surface. The conditions of the deal are that Ariel will have three days to obtain a kiss from her sweetheart, or she will belong to Ursula. As an extra precaution, Ursula claims Ariel’s voice as payment. When it looks like Ariel will be successful regardless, Ursula travels to the surface and enchants the prince herself. In the end, the humans and the mermaids team up to defeat Ursula, Arial’s voice is returned, and her father, Triton, allows her to live on the land and marry her human love.

With Disney’s habit of sanitising grimmer source material for a younger audience, it should come as no surprise that the original fairytale is much darker. Many aspects of the story remain the same – the little mermaid does fall in love with a prince and trade her voice for legs so that she can attempt to be with him. In Andersen’s version of the story, however, the mermaid desire is not fully prompted by a love for the prince, or even an interest in humanity, but partially based in self-preservation. Mermaids lack an immortal soul and so, when they die, they turn to sea foam. The little mermaid did not just want love, she wanted a place in heaven after she died. She was warned that she would only gain a human soul if he could convince the prince to marry her. If he did not, she would die the morning after he wedded another – turning into seafoam like all of her kind.

Ultimately, the little mermaid’s attempts to win the heart of the prince are unsuccessful, and he marries a princess from a neighbouring kingdom. The night of the wedding, the little mermaid’s sisters visit her, bringing with them a knife, and a new deal with the sea witch. If the little mermaid kills the prince and his bride, she will become a mermaid once more and re-join her sisters in the sea. The mermaid is tempted by the offer, but at the last moment cannot go through with the plot and throws herself into the ocean, just as the sun starts to rise.

As her body dissolves into sea foam, the little mermaid finds her spirit rising up to become a ‘daughter of air’ an ethereal spirit bound to the earth for three hundred years. If she spends those years helping humans, and doing good, she will gain a soul, and ascend to heaven.

Andersen admitted that the book was based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s, ‘Undine’ in an attempt to provide a more hopeful ending to the German novella. ‘Undine’ tells the story of a water spirit who marries a human knight in order to gain a soul. After many years, a careless word from her husband forces Undine to become a spirit once more, separated from her husband. Regretful and mourning, her husband is later killed, and poor Undine is left to forever mourn him.

While neither ‘Undine’ nor ‘The Little Mermaid’ are based on one specific myth, there are many elements of European folklore and legend woven throughout the stories.

The most obvious of these is the concept of a mythical being taking on a human form in order to be with a human – in some myths, like this fairy-tale, the transformation happens willingly, but in others that is not the case.

One famous example is the myth of selkies. In these tales a man (often a fisherman) comes across a group of seals shedding their skin to become beautiful humans, playing naked in the surf. When he appears, the selkies run for their seal skins to transform back and escape. They are all successful, but one, as the fisherman grabs the skin before she can. The selkie is then married to the man and bound to human form until years into their marriage, when one of their children accidentally comes across the hidden selkie skin. Reunited with her fur, the selkie disappears beneath the waves, never to be seen again.

While the poor selkie-woman is often portrayed as not having a choice in her sudden marriage, there are legends of mythical women who, like the little mermaid, chose to leave their home to marry a human. In the Welsh legend of the Lady of Lake Llyn y Fan Fach, a young lad named Gwyn falls in love with the Lady of the lake. She returns his affections, and with her father’s blessing leaves home to live on earth with her human love. Her father sets certain conditions on the marriage, that if her husband strikes three blows against her, the marriage will be dissolved. Though Gwyn never intends to hurt his wife, over the course of their marriage, these three blows are delivered (albeit more metaphorically than literally). Though the Lady loves her husband, the contract is broken, and she has no choice but to return to her otherworldly home.

There are also legends even more similar to that of Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ where the bride choses a human husband for the purposes of gaining a soul. Like the little mermaid, the Hulder (plural) from Scandinavian myths are sometimes said to kidnap or seduce human men, as marrying one will (depending on the legend) either transform a Huldra (singular) into a human or grant them a human soul. While Hulder have the appearance of a beautiful woman, they are often given away by bearing either an animal tail, or a hollow back.

Like with ‘The Little Mermaid’ these seductive women are not just marrying humans for their love of them – in many stories any man will do for the Huldra – but for the opportunity to escape their inhuman selves. This is something that the Disney movie underplays, choosing instead to focus on Ariel’s overwhelming love for the prince, rather than any ulterior motives that she might have for becoming human. The Disney version of the mermaid was ultimately successful, like in the legend of Llyn y Fan Fach, Ariel’s father allows her to leave his realm for the human one – though Triton does not place any stipulations on the marriage, and the two are wed ‘happily ever after.’

Overall, ‘The Little Mermaid’ is a stunning example of the enduring and adaptable nature of folkloric and legendary tales. The Disney film is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, which is inspired by an earlier novella. Even that novella, ‘Undine’ is thought to have been inspired by the French legend of the mermaid, Melusine. Traditionally these stories would have been told orally, being passed on and changing with each telling. Though ‘The Little Mermaid’ was first a book, then an animation, and soon to be a live action, its many retelling echo the early oral tales and give the story a genuineness that is impossible to manufacture.


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