Friday, 22 June 2012

"The Little Mermaid"

The Little Mermaid - Edmund  Dulac

 A guest post by Cassandra Golds

Once upon a time, when I was a very little girl, my father bought me and my younger sister a record.

It was one of the Tale Spinners for Children series — a collection of records so fondly remembered by some adults that there is a (very handy) website devoted to them. Tale Spinners for Children was a series of fully dramatised British adaptations of classic fairytales and stories — everything from “The Sleeping Beauty” to The Count of Monte Christo. They were lavishly produced in the manner of BBC radio drama, with appropriate classical music and British actors who were rarely credited on the sleeves, although they included such luminaries as Maggie Smith and Donald Pleasance — and who had voices to die for. They made some fifty of them altogether, throughout the sixties, and incidentally the brilliant producers and adaptors were not credited either. We as a family had several of them, but one of these had the dread hand of fate on it. It was the Tale Spinners adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. They used Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor as incidental music, and used it so masterfully, you would swear the work was written for the story. From the moment I first heard it — a moment some time before I could read — I was in love, with both the story and the concerto.

The first time I listened to it I remember sitting on the lounge in front of the big record player in my childhood home with  an aching throat and tears streaming down my face. The Tale Spinners version — which, although dramatised, stuck closely to the Andersen original — was about unrequited love, self-sacrifice and the hope of ultimate transcendence. In other words, it was not the Disney version. And yet, at the age of five or so, none of it seemed foreign to me. Not only did I think this was the most beautiful story I had ever heard — immediately I conceived a passionate allegiance to it. From this point on, for me, “The Little Mermaid” was what a good story should be — sad, noble, uplifting, passionate, desperate, extreme and big, opera-big. And it had to make you cry. It was the first time I was ever moved to tears by a work of art, and I have never fully lost the conviction that that is art’s first duty: the gift of tears.

And the dread hand of fate? Well, from the moment I first heard that record, I was destined to be a children’s author. It changed the course of my life. Or set me on it.

“The Little Mermaid” is not a traditional fairy tale or folk tale, but an original story by an author who is a legend in himself. What’s more, we know a good deal about the biography of the author, and like many of his stories, this one has strong autobiographical overtones. We are often told that folktales were not originally told specifically to children — that they were meant for an audience of all ages.  Original fairytales, on the other hand, such as Andersen’s and Oscar Wilde’s, are probably more truly children’s literature in the modern sense. And yet ever since I was an adult myself it has struck me that “The Little Mermaid” is a very adult story. Or at least, that it is an adult story told in the form of a children’s fairytale. Because it takes as its subject, not (for example) every child’s two greatest fears, as Adele Geras says so perceptively of “Hansel and Gretel”, but unrequited love, terrible self-sacrifice, and eventual transcendence, I have spent a good deal of time wondering what it was that I saw in it at that age. Why did I identify with it so strongly?

The Little Mermaid - Arthur Rackham

There are a number of possible answers to that question. One thing I believe with all my heart is that there is nothing trivial about childhood emotion. Children may be small, but their emotions are big, as big if not bigger than the emotions of adults. You will never be more passionate than you are at five. Things will never matter to you more, and you will never be capable of more suffering. It is also perfectly possible that you have already had your heart broken. I am the eldest of two sisters; my younger sister was born when I was eighteen months old. It is a family anecdote that, when my beloved grandfather came to see my baby sister for the first time, he walked past me and went first to her in her bassinet, the new baby. I’ve been told that I ignored him  completely for the duration of the visit which followed that betrayal and indeed that our relationship never recovered. I hope you are not shocked — in fact I think this is a fairly ordinary family story; one adult or another   must have made that kind of crucial false step every time a new baby has been born into this world. But I think, in common with many children, that must have been my first experience of losing a beloved to another, and that that was one of the things I was recognising in “The Little Mermaid”. You learn all the basics of romantic love before you hit kindergarten; I’m quite certain of that.

But romantic love is not the only subject of “The Little Mermaid”. It is also, crucially, about the longing for another state of existence; and about dignity and even triumph in humiliation in suffering. In a way, the Little Mermaid’s falling in love is just the trigger for a drama about personal identity; she doesn’t just love the prince, she wants to be him, that is, human, with an immortal soul, which in Andersen’s tale is the exclusive preserve of human beings. And — according to the Sea Witch — she can only truly become a human being, with a human being’s immortal privileges, if she wins the love of the prince. The Sea Witch can give her legs — at a dreadful price. Only the prince can give her a soul.

The Little Mermaid, Jiru Trnka

Many people seem to think that this story of Andersen’s is deeply anti-feminist. I think that is a profound misreading. I’m not arguing that he was a feminist in our terms or that he was anything other than a man of his time. But it astonishes me that such people haven’t noticed that he has identified himself completely with his female hero — she’s not the Other (as women continue to be for so many male authors), she is himself.  Furthermore, she is doing something completely atypical of traditional fairy tale heroines (or at least those belonging to the canon of the best known) — she is the lover, not the beloved, the active, not the passive one. Indeed, it is she who saves the prince from drowning in a feat that would take almost impossible strength and stamina, even for a mermaid. She’s only a fifteen-year-old girl with a fishtail, after all, and yet she holds the insensible prince above the waves during the entirety of a terrible storm at sea, which has wrecked his ship, and which rages all night. Then, as the story develops, she pursues him — but, lacking the voice she has given in payment to the Sea Witch for the magic that will split her fishtail into legs (and less obviously but just as importantly, being a foundling with no family or earthly breeding) — she is unable to win his love. (And incidentally, what an unforgettable character the Sea Witch is — laughing in scorn at romantic love, and cutting, with the Little Mermaid, one of the most chilling devil’s bargains in literature. And the Little Mermaid’s grandmother — what a marvelous creation! — with all her wise counsel against reaching too high, and being discontent with what she believes to be the pretty good wicket of mermaid-hood.) It is also crucial to note, not only that the Little Mermaid makes her own independent choices, creates her own destiny, throughout the story, but also that in the overwhelmingly powerful denouement, which is to some extent a twist, the Little Mermaid beats the Sea Witch and even the strictures of the story itself, at their own game. Two possible endings have been laid out for her by others; instead — by staying utterly true to her self, her principles and her conception of genuine love — she invents her own.

The Little Mermaid - Edmund Dulac

When I was twelve, because of the Robert Redford film, which I adored, I read "The Great Gatsby" for the first time. It had the same effect on me as “The Little Mermaid”, and when I was in my twenties and more capable of analysis it dawned on me that it is exactly the same story. Gatsby is the Little Mermaid. He, a poor boy, falls in love with a rich girl, Daisy. He cannot win her in the state of existence into which he was born — that is, poverty — and so he devotes his life, spectacularly, to transforming himself into a rich boy. He gets the mansion and the money, just like the Little Mermaid gets the legs. But he cannot win Daisy from the husband she has chosen from her own kind, just as the Little Mermaid cannot win the prince from his intended. For both of them, tragedy, and a strange kind of transcendence, results.

Unrequited love makes you question your entire existence. It is as if your whole self is worthless, because that self is worthless, or not worth enough, to the beloved. If you experience unrequited love profoundly, it will have a profound effect on your personality. You will be inclined to define yourself by it, as if it is the single most important aspect of your personality. And it will force you to find a means of transcendence — a sense of worth, even of personal destiny, that makes the indifference of the beloved bearable and even creatively and spiritually lucrative.

Here is something I will never know, but will wonder about all my life. When I first heard “The Little Mermaid”, was I already, at five or six, that kind of personality who would spend much of her life loving unrequitedly? Or could it be true — though, as a children’s author, I hope with all my heart that it is not — that the story affected me so deeply that it turned me into such a person?

I’m sure you already know why I hope that’s not true. It’s because I don’t want to have that much power. I don’t want any story to have that much power.
Cassandra Golds, Friday 19th November, 2010

Update Friday 22 June 2012: Cassandra writes:

P.P.S. Now here, gentle reader, is a post script which I feel bound in honour to add, for life is nothing if not surprising, and we would all do well to remember this -- especially those of us who are authors! The very week that I wrote this piece in late 2010 -- the very week -- I met the man who has become the love of my life. It took until well into my forties, but I have finally experienced a love that is not unrequited. And so you see, “The Little Mermaid” notwithstanding, my life has turned out quite unexpectedly. I seem almost to have gone from being a Hans Andersen heroine to a Jane Austen one. And as Emma discovered, we are not entirely the authors of our own biographies. For that matter, as Catherine Morland discovered, we are not characters in our favourite books, either! In the infinitely complex, utterly unpredictable stories that are our lives, we never know what plot twists we will encounter -- perhaps on the very next page.

Cassandra Golds is an Australian writer of children's and YA fantasy: she and I seem to have much in common, not least that we are both big fans of the wonderful, currently-neglected-and-out-of-print Scots author Nicholas Stuart Gray, whose wildly imaginative yet down-to-earth fantasies we both grew up on and both love.

Cassandra says, “I was born in Sydney and grew up reading Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis and Nicholas Stuart Gray over and over again.” She always knew she wanted to write for young people and had her first book accepted for publication when she was nineteen. Her beautifully-written novels, Clair-de-Lune, The Museum of Mary Child, The Three Loves of Persimmon and Pureheart (2013) are deeply influenced by the worlds of fairytale and 19th century literature. 


  1. Wonderful to read this again and to see that your love is still going strong, Cassandra. I'm so pleased...excellent to be in a Jane Austen type scenario. And nice to be name checked. Thanks!

  2. So glad you won your prince, Cassandra! - and what a beautiful and perceptive piece.
    Anderson's stories also had a huge impact on me - though I don't think they turned me into an unrequited lover! - I do agree that a sad story is often more powerful and more loved by children, and that adults do wrong to try and shield them from sad stories.
    It's interesting that the heroine of the seven swans spends most of her story mute too.

  3. Lovely post, Cassandra! I'm afraid this story is too sad for me, as are most of Anderson's stories. But it is exquisite. There is a short story by Phyllis Ann Karr in which Andersen's Little Robber Girl helps a singer who has lost her vouch by getting her the Little Mermaid's voice. Win-win!;)

  4. I'm really sorry to bring the newst, but mermaids are not real. The NOAA has officially said it.

  5. I just bought Dinu Lipati's most exquisite version of Grieg's 'Little Mermaid' concerto.....I too grew up listening to the tale spinner's records, of which this was my absolute favorite....I cannot listen to it even now..or the music alone, without shedding those soul-filled tears on cue! So lovely to read your reflections on it here, Thank You!

  6. Thank you Cassandra Goulds ! I was a 6 year old in outer suburban Brisbane when my mother gave me Tale Spinners, The Little Mermaid. I often wondered if I was a little weird about the impact it had on me - The music and story etched in my heart to this day, (perhaps even scarred...) But I now see I was not alone ! Oh the velvety voices! Yes, I was sure Griegs's Piano Concerto in A minor was written for that story - so dynamic & evocative; A story full of delight, yet profoundly tragic, full of beauty yet portraying the depths of depravity, causing a deep, deep sadness, triumphed by the heights of grace and sacrifice. "Tell me dear sister, is the country where men live a beautiful one?" kind regards, Cosette