Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is a good fairy tale. It has a princess, and a prince, and it’s full of magic and wonder, transporting readers to an ocean world that is entirely unlike the dark forests where such stories commonly take place. Most importantly, it has a really good witch, who demands an almost impossible price for her wicked services. In theory, this should be one of my all-time favourite tales.
But it isn’t. The imagery may be iconic, but Anderson’s ending leaves a lot to be desired. So, in this post we’re going to be comparing the original 1837 fairy tale to the 1989 Disney film, so we can see how the story (and the witch) improved over time. Fun!
For the most part, the stories start the same way. The little mermaid swims up to the surface and spies a human prince; she rescues him from drowning, and quickly falls in love. She visits a sea witch, hoping to exchange her mermaid tail for legs; the witch demands her voice as payment, and warns the mermaid that if she cannot win the love of the prince, her life will be forfeit. The muted mermaid travels to the human kingdom, where it looks as if she will succeed in winning the prince’s heart… until another woman catches the prince’s eye.
Here, the two tellings diverge. In Anderson’s tale, the prince meets a princess who had helped care for him after his near-drowning, and plans to wed her at once: this is the deadline that will cause the mermaid’s death. But – and this part is actually really cool – the mermaid’s older sisters are determined to save her, and so make their own bargain with the sea witch: they cut off their long, beautiful hair, in exchange for a magic knife. If the little mermaid can kill the prince with the knife before the next morning, her life will be saved, and she will become a proper mermaid once more.
How progressive would this fairy tale have been if the mermaid princess had killed the man who spurned her? But that’s not how it goes, of course. The little mermaid throws the knife into the ocean (where it turns the sea blood red – again, really cool) and accepts her fate. But then instead of turning into sea foam (which is how mermaids die) she randomly turns into an air spirit, and then another air spirit tells her that she’s now going to have to spend the next 300 years doing good deeds, at which time she’ll earn an “immortal soul.” And that’s the end.
It’s a bit stupid.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid makes some smart changes to the original fairy tale. As voiced by Pat Carroll, Ursula the Sea Witch is a villain for the ages: a half-woman, half-octopus sorceress who brews potions of awesome power in her undersea cauldron. The entrance to her ocean lair is carpeted with a garden of polyps, the withered forms of those who failed to pay her price. Two enchanted eels act as her animal familiars, and she can look out through their weird, yellow eyes. She even gets a song!
In the Disney film, it is Ursula herself who steals the prince away from the mermaid (now named Ariel), captivating him with the mermaid’s stolen voice – a truly evil plot point, for which the writers deserve huge credit. Ariel’s animal friends manage to steal the voice back before the prince and the witch can be wed, but their intervention comes too late: Ariel was only given three days to win the prince’s affections, and the sun sets before he can kiss her. Ursula carries Ariel away, before striking a deal with her father, King Triton: in exchange for his daughter’s freedom, the King will take Ariel’s place amongst the polyps, surrendering his magic trident to the witch.
Now, this is an ending:
I’m honestly not sure how I managed to watch this film as a kid. The scene where Ariel sacrifices her voice is truly haunting: the moment when she signs the contract is so terrible, so final, that my poor little witch-fearing mind could barely cope. But the finale, which sees a titan-sized Ursula rising out of the sea, makes me flinch even as an adult. Ursula has the trident. She’s literally the queen of the ocean. The witch has won.
Mercifully, the film then cheats a bit. The final showdown is swiftly cut short; Prince Eric sails into the maelstrom and spears Ursula with the prow of a ship, which kills her immediately. It’s a tad anti-climactic, but given the absolute victory achieved by the witch, the writers really must have had their backs against the wall. At least the ship-spearing is appropriately nautical.
I’ve read criticisms of Disney where the company has been accused of homogenising fairy tales (which is to say, stripping them of their darkness and complexity), but based on my own experiences of watching Disney films, I reject those accusations pretty wholeheartedly. Sure, the original texts can sometimes be a bit blunter when it comes to descriptions of pain or death, but there are images in the Disney films that are much scarier than anything written by Anderson or the Grimms – Anderson may have invented the sea witch, but it was Disney that gave her those twisting, nightmarish tentacles. Ariel and Prince Eric may get a happy ending, but there are so many moments of body horror throughout that any claims of sanitisation simply don’t hold water.
Anyway, this post has been massive, so let’s finish up. Join me below for some final musings!
— The Little Mermaid kicked off the ten-year period known as the Disney Renaissance, during which Disney released a series of absolute animated classics. You’ve surely seen all these films already, but just in case you haven’t, be sure to check out Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Mulan (1998).
— In my opinion, Ursula is the second scariest Disney witch. Who do I think is the scariest? Well, I’m sure we’ll delve into that later in the year. Until then, feel free to speculate wildly!
— I really like witches who offer Faustian bargains, and Ursula may well be the ultimate example of this archetype. In the original tale the bargain is even worse for the poor mermaid: the witch tells her that, upon gaining her feet, every step she takes “will be as if [she] were treading upon sharp knives.” I like that Disney removed this extra condition, as it’s a bit ridiculous that the mermaid in the fairy tale so readily accepts this deal.
— It’s not very witchy, but I’ll take any excuse to post a link to “Under the Sea,” because it’s amazing:
— I wish more attention had been paid to the sea witch’s magic knife. My entire first book is about a magic knife! I really could have used some more details here.
— In other news, this blog has been getting a lot more views lately. Unfortunately, I know that most of those views have been from my parents, and they’re possibly the only people in the world who were going to buy my book anyway. Oh well – g’day mum and dad! Thanks for reading!
— Reflecting on this post, I think I may have been a little bit unfair on Anderson, who did originate some rather spooky imagery. We’ll close off this post with the most delightfully horrific passage from Anderson’s tale, set as the mermaid princess approaches the witch’s lair. Enjoy!
“[The princess] crossed her hands on her bosom, and then darted forward as a fish shoots through the water, between the supple arms and fingers of the ugly polyps, which were stretched out on each side of her. She saw that they all held in their grasp something they had seized with their numerous little arms, which were as strong as iron bands. Tightly grasped in their clinging arms were white skeletons of human beings who had perished at sea and had sunk down into the deep waters; skeletons of land animals; and oars, rudders, and chests, of ships. There was even a little mermaid whom they had caught and strangled, and this seemed the most shocking of all to the little princess.
She now came to a space of marshy ground in the wood, where large, fat water snakes were rolling in the mire and showing their ugly, drab-coloured bodies. In the midst of this spot stood a house, built of the bones of shipwrecked human beings. There sat the sea witch, allowing a toad to eat from her mouth just as people sometimes feed a canary with pieces of sugar. She called the ugly water snakes her little chickens and allowed them to crawl all over her bosom.”