Christian Values in H. C. Andersen's "The Little Mermaid"
The Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is best remembered for elevating the traditional fairy tales to literary status. Initially, his first published book only featured four stories, to which he later added another twenty-one that turned the collection into his most famous work. “The Little Mermaid” appeared in 1837 and is a tale where the core Christian values Andersen admired abound in the story’s events and motifs.
Spirituality is intrinsic to Andersen’s tale; he uses the story of the unnamed sea princess to illustrate “the beauty and goodness of God’s creation” (Altmann and de Vos, 143). As a Danish Catholic, Andersen also romanticized the notion of sacrifices for love and “the eternal,” entertaining the idea that life was “a road to heaven for the faithful” (Altmann and de Vos, 143). Thus, the mermaid risks everything she has—her home, family, and body—for the human prince’s love and an eternal soul: “He is certainly sailing above, he in … whose hands I should like to place the happiness of my life. I will venture all for him and to win an immortal soul.” (147). In a reenactment of Jesus Christ’s sufferings, the little mermaid endures many physical hardships for her innocent desire, including cutting off her tongue and trading her fishtail for human legs that feel like she was treading upon sharp knives with every step (151). These trials test the mermaid’s resolve and prove the purity of her wish. Another Christian connotation also comes from the scene when the mermaid meets with the witch: she has to drink the witch’s blood for the spell to work, mirroring the offering of the blood and body of Christ in churches. Although the little mermaid gives so much of herself for love, the human prince never falls in love with her; he only sees her as a sister and marries another. At the end of the story, the mermaid has to decide between saving herself or saving him, of which she selflessly chooses the latter.
Through the many hardships she silently endures, the story attests to the little mermaid’s good nature. She cannot commit to killing the one she loves because of her kind and pure soul. Accepting her tragic fate and unreciprocated love, the mermaid dies and turns into sea foam, ascending to “the daughters of the air” where she is awarded for her selflessness: “You have … raised yourself to the spirit world by your good deeds, and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul.” (168). While the mermaid did not receive the prince’s love, she obtained something more valuable: a place in ‘the eternal’ around her. Her gateway to immortality was always through the prince, which is why the little mermaid committed to him and her physical demise. The tragedy of him not falling in love with the mermaid is illusory; her suffering was instead an offering of self-sacrifice to the greater goal of achieving eternal life.
Hans Christian Andersen formed his fame around his stories with no traditional happy endings typical of fairy tales. Instead, he created stories that could become a vehicle for spiritual guidance, portraying elements instrumental to his religion. “The Little Mermaid” upholds Christian morality through its selfless protagonist, a common theme in Andersen’s tales that “have the virtues and defects of conscious literary art,” tending to be “a parable rather than a myth” (Altmann and de Vos 42). The message speaks to virtues ascribed to Christianity such as love, self-sacrifice, and kindness, all attributes available for people to lead a good and peaceful existence in life and beyond it.
Altmann, Anna E. and Gail de Vos. Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales as Literary Fictions For Young Adults. Libraries Unlimited, 2001.
Andersen, H. C. Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales Second Series: “The Little Mermaid.” Edited by J. H. Stickney and illustrated by Edna F. Hart, 1915. Project Gutenberg, gutenberg.org/cache/epub/32572/pg32572-images.html.