The most photographed of Copenhagen’s inhabitants (5 million snaps per year) has been in residence for over 100 years. The Little Mermaid, the heroine of the story by Hans Christian Anderson, is famous.
In 1989, Disney released an animated all-singing, all-dancing version of the story. The Little Mermaid became the feisty red-headed Ariel, and the seabed throbbed with catchy songs and high-stepping dances. The usual Disney tropes of the wicked witch (Ursula), the funny friend (Flounder), the conscience (Sebastian), and the handsome prince, are very familiar even in this watery world. Ariel is transformed, for and by love, and it all ends happily ever after.
But the film came out a little late for it to have any impact on me – by then, I was too old for Disney animations, and the redhead heroine had no resonance for me, seeming a silly, bubble-head.
For me, the Little Mermaid originated in written from. My Mum’s copy of Fairy Tales by Hans Anderson is a hardback, with beautiful (if eerie) coloured plates, published in 1953. I was perhaps 10 years old when I first read this story, and sobbed when I read the ending. It is still one of the most painful stories to read. My Little Mermaid is not the excitable teenager Ariel, although she is no less curious about the other world which the prince inhabits. This mermaid is a more sombre, reflective and introspective girl. She too lives happily ‘under the sea’ with her sisters, and she does save the handsome prince’s life in a shipwreck, falling in love with his looks and his ‘otherness’ as she does so. But he literally belongs to different world, and isn’t even aware of her existence. The Little Mermaid becomes like any other love-struck teenage girl – she stalks him, dreams of him, and weaves a fantasy of their life together, of him falling just as deeply love with her as she is with him.
We’ve all been there.
But this Little Mermaid takes a step beyond mooning after her beloved. She strikes a terrible deal with the Sea Witch. She gives her voice – her beautiful singing voice, her ability to articulate her thoughts and feelings – by giving up her physical tongue for the potion. She exchanges her strong flexible tail for a pair of legs – where she is warned that each step with be ‘as if you were treading on sharp knives, and make you think your life blood must be pouring out’. Her price to be close to the prince, to be a part of his world, is to be struck dumb and to be in constant physical agony. In some ways, she becomes a pure elemental communication, using only the emotion in her eyes, and through her elegant gestures. The pain in each step she takes is a reminder of what she has sacrificed, and the heartache of being separated from her beloved sisters.
This story carries a strange resonance because if we don’t recognise our teenage (or perhaps older) self in these actions, we can recognise them as being part of the larger picture of the world. Men and women fall in love. They fall in love with people who are not ‘their’ people, who are other – from a different country, a different culture. Their family disapproves, or is fearful for the outcome. Sacrificing their previous life, they embark on a new one, knowing pain and sacrifice to live in the different world of their beloved, where they themselves are always viewed as a stranger, never fully understood.
This level of self-sacrifice is all well and good if you achieve your goal, and can live in love with your chosen partner. But for the Little Mermaid, there is no such outcome. Although the prince searches far and wide for the beautiful woman who saved him from drowning, he cannot see her right under his nose. And she cannot tell him that it is she whom he is seeking. Instead, his head is turned by another woman, no less worthy, and they marry.
Heartbroken, humiliated and cast out, the Little Mermaid cannot even return home to be comforted by her family. The final part of her dark bargain with the Sea Witch comes to pass, and the Little Mermaid returns to the sea – but not as herself: instead she turns into ‘foam upon the water’, dissolving into the vastness of the sea.
When I visited Copenhagen last year, on one of my many long walks through and around the city, I visited Edvard Eriksen’s statue of the Little Mermaid at Langelinie Premenada, by Copenhagen Harbour.
Sited there in 1913, this mermaid is in bronze which has been both polished and weathered by the climate. She sits on a smooth rock with her back to the harbour, gazing down and to her right. Although she is sitting with her legs curled round her, the vestige of her tail can just be seen. She looks demure and lonely, and desperately sad. Perhaps she is having second thoughts.
On that day, there were bus loads of tourists swarming around her, each taking their turn to stand beside her for their photo to be taken. It took patience and timing to get an angled shot without them in it.
But even as I looked at her pensive face, her modest eyes cast down, her back turned to the water, she still wasn’t ‘my’ Little Mermaid. Somehow, she was an Edwardian man’s version of what a virtuous young woman should be (minus her clothes and with a tail, even). I didn’t feel that I had found the essence or spirit of Hans Christian Anderson’s creation.
Later in my perambulations (Copenhagen really is a great city to walk in), I found myself at the Royal Library at the Black Diamond (Den Sorte Diamant), that fabulous glass building by the side of the water which houses the library.
As I walked around it, marvelling, I stumbled across another mermaid. Here there were no crowds, no bus tours. Here there was simply the Little Mermaid by herself, her eyes wide with amazement, her mouth gasping in the alien environment. Smaller that the famous statue, she is depicted in a kinetic curving S shape, propped up by her hands and tail, sitting up, looking up and into the city.
Her features, though beautiful, are slightly alien, just slightly off-kilter. And why should a mermaid look human? Much smaller than the Eriksen statue and in a verdigris bronze, she is less imposing, less with the big gesture. But she is fully alive and interacting with her surroundings. Her presence is so immediate that I even talked to her as I walked around her and took her photograph, so much I felt that I was intruding. She is no simpering modest maiden, or no bubble headed teen, but a young woman with her eyes fixed clearly on her goal, no matter what the cost to her.
She was designed by Anna Marie Carl-Nielsen in 1921. The original bronze has been on display in the Danish National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst) since 1922. However, in 2009, this version was cast and placed outside the Black Diamond which sits, poetically, on the part of the river called the Mermaid Bank. I wondered if one of the differences between the two statues, between the two tales, was that she had been created by a woman. A woman artist making her way in the notoriously macho world of 20th Century art? The sculptor understood her subject, understood what the dizzying emotions of first love can bring. She also understood the physical pain and transformation of a girl’s body becoming a woman.
The mermaid is fifteen years old – a dangerous age, be you a girl or a mermaid, hovering on the illicit brink between childhood and womanhood. Stealing glances back to the safety of youth, but straining your eyes to catch a glimpse of the future unknown.
Invulnerable, immortal and fearless – the quintessential teenage girl. I like to think that this is the first time she has surfaced, the first time she has seen the ‘world above’. She looks amazed, scared, excited and ready for adventure.
But I also think that she understood what it was to be a traveller stepping into a new country for the first time, with wide-eyed excitement. Trying to take in and understand all that is new and different. The fear that you will never understand and will always yourself be different. But with the determination to succeed.
In the first statue, I find the Little Mermaid too placid. I cannot believe that she has taken such a risk, at such a cost, yet sits there patiently waiting. The second mermaid, full of wonder and adventure, is the one I understand. The drive to travel, in spite of what it may cost.
This Little Mermaid, for me, embodies both Hans Christian Anderson’s tragic heroine, but also the wide-eyed adventurer, her eyes set determinedly on the future horizon, ready for whatever her new destination can throw at her. Go and visit her next time you are in Copenhagen. You won’t be disappointed.