When I was pretty damned young I was treated to a visual delight. I can’t remember what movie it was that I was seeing at the movie theater but before the picture started they had trailers. One of which was for a musical extravaganza that involved princesses, princes, unfulfilled dreams, and Hans Christian Andersen.
I was unaware of Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid at the time. Which is not surprising given the fact that it’s pretty damn depressing and I was just a kid, but I knew I was up for a Disneyfied version of said tale. There was singing, and swimming, and a little talking crab, and the main character had red hair! I pretty much couldn’t wait for it to come out, and when it did I wasn’t disappointed.
We used to have this book with pictures in it from all over the world. It was probably some sort of Atlas, but I’m not entirely sure. I just know I liked to look through those pictures, and while I don’t remember most of them I always searched for one of The Little Mermaid, perched on her rock in Copenhagen. Throughout the years that poor statue, situated just off the shore sitting on a rock in the water, has been subjected to clothing changes, painting, and even decapitation. It’s one of those national landmarks there, this statue, but, to me, it was how I knew there was The Little Mermaid before Disney. It made the story more special. And it sort of confirmed for me that mermaids were definitely real.
Now, in case you’re unaware of Hans Christian Andersen’s original story about a little mermaid who falls in love with a human prince and longs to join him on land it goes a little something like this: She pines and aches and finally makes a bargain with the sea witch to give her legs. She must make the prince fall in love with her or else she forfeits her life. Every step she takes on her new legs feels like glass cutting into the soles of her feet, but she knows she must persevere. Still, her love for the prince remains from afar and so she watches as he meets and marries another, and when the little mermaid dissolves into the foam of the sea the reader gets the impression that she’s not as upset about it as one might think, that she’s rather die than live without love. It’s not really all that happy a story. Which is why it’s all that more impressive that Disney managed to fashion something so completely exciting, life affirming, and happy out of it. Not to mention the fact that it was somewhat expanded. Christian Andersen’s story was a short story and hardly the stuff of a full length animated feature, even with songs. But Hans Christian Andersen needs to do what Hans Christian Andersen does best, the rest we’ll leave to Disney.
In Disney’s version we are introduced to Ariel, daughter of King Triton of the merfolk. He also has six other daughters and they all have extraordinarily beautiful voices, though of course Ariel’s is the most enchanting. The trouble with Ariel is that she’s not satisfied with everything that’s been laid out before her. She’s not even satisfied with the sea. Ariel wants to be human. She collects human things, swims too close to the surface, and spies on human boats. At the time this was something I really related to. I always wanted a little more. I still do. But my longings never turned severely towards the even slightly out of reach. I wanted to be extraordinary, I definitely wanted to be a mermaid. So while I didn’t understand why Ariel would want to leave behind the beautiful palaces of the sea, I did understand why she wanted to be different. Why she wanted what she couldn’t quite have. Things are complicated, of course, when she falls in love with the human Prince Eric after saving him from drowning, and then she gets the choice I never could have. She goes to Ursula, the sea witch, and asks to be human. That’s where things start sounding a little like the book. Ursula grants this request, with a caveat; Ariel has three days to make Eric give her the kiss of true love before she turns back to a mermaid and belongs to the sea witch, who has a whole bunch of merfolk who’ve failed in a little garden of tiny moaning things. This doesn’t deter Ariel, though, she signs over her soul and hands over the payment, her voice. As it turns out, since nothing can be straightforward, Eric has heard Ariel singing and that’s the girl he loves. A fact that’s hard to bring across when you’ve given up your voice. Now, I don’t really think there are many people who don’t know the plot of The Little Mermaid, so all that plot summarizing was probably a moot point, but still. I’ll leave it off there, but suffice it to say Ariel does not dissolve into sea foam at the end.
I wanted to be Ariel. I’m sure a large portion of the population of girls at that time wanted to be Ariel, but even as I grew she was still the Disney “Princess” that I was the most drawn to. Whenever I used to go swimming I would hold my legs together, using them much like a fishtail and close my eyes and pretend. I was always a great one for pretending, and I think that in a lot of ways that was the crux of why I enjoyed her quite so much. Ariel was also a great one for pretending. The fact that she got what she pretended in the end didn’t make her any less a dreamer. She dreamed and she dreamed big. And if she got what she wanted then why couldn’t I? Now, obviously, I’m not honestly sitting here thinking that I could have become a mermaid or anything else I dreamed about, and I’m fairly sure I realized this at the time as well, but it was nice seeing it anyway. It’s why, I think, in things like Star Wars or Harry Potter the main characters grow up believing they aren’t anything more special than the person to their right, only to discover later that they’re more important that they could have possibly imagined. Because if Harry was important and didn’t know it, then why can’t I be? The Little Mermaid was something like that for me.
In the end, of course, nothing extraordinary happened to me other than the things that I made for myself. Which is the harsh reality every dreamer has to face at some point or another, but there’s always something new to hope for or dream about, and to me that’s sort of what Ariel stood for.