I love fairy tales, both old ones and new versions. It’s fascinating how you can tell the same story twice and get two totally different meanings. You can see this with Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Both the original and the beloved Disney version are very much influenced by Christian moral frameworks, but in two totally different ways.
The original story goes something like this: There once was a sea king who lived far out in the ocean with his six daughters. The youngest princess, as we know, wanted to learn about the human world above the sea and when she was finally allowed to rise up out of the sea and take her first look at the human world, she sees a handsome Prince on a ship and falls madly in love. It begins to storm, and the mermaid saves the Prince from drowning. The more she observes him and his fellow humans, the more she wants to become one. More than anything else she wishes that she had an immortal soul like they do, so that she might go to Heaven when she dies. The mermaid takes her troubles to her grandmother, who tells her that the only way to get a soul is to get a man to totally fall in love with her and marry her. Then he will give you a soul, but all of that is impossible without legs. The mermaid sets out to visit the sea witch and procure for herself a pair of legs. The witch grants her legs, but tells her that while she will be the most graceful human legs ever, walking would feel like knives and glass are under her feet, and her feet would bleed. The mermaid pays for the legs with her voice, so the witch cuts off her tongue. The mermaid goes to the surface, meets the Prince, and lives with him. They have lots of fun together, but he falls in love with a princess from a neighboring kingdom. The mermaid’s sisters trade their hair to the witch for a special knife. If the mermaid stabs the Prince with the knife, his blood will allow her legs to become a tail again and she can return to the ocean. Otherwise, she will dissolve into seafoam the morning after the Prince’s wedding. The mermaid chooses to spare the Prince’s life and turns into seafoam. But as a reward for her virtue and suffering, the mermaid is turned into a daughter of the air, so she can earn a soul for herself with three hundred years of good deeds.
The old-school Christian theology is pretty strong in the original version. Hans Christian Andersen was certainly some kind of Christian, but we don’t really know what kind. He lived during a Danish Golden Age of creativity during the nineteenth century. Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian, was one of his contemporaries. Kierkegaard is one of the more important theologians of the nineteeth century. He was incredibly critical of state-enforced religion, promoted individualism and subjectivity, and felt the highest good was the soul reaching Heaven. He’s a totally fascinating figure, and his “Passionate Authenticity or GTFO” version of Christianity is something we all can admire. The state religion was the Church of Denmark, which at the time was a version of Lutheran Christianity. All of this serves to paint a picture of what kind of context we’re looking at for this fairy tale.
This original version is clearly a charming but heavy-handed morality tale. What’s most striking about this version is that the driving force of the story isn’t the search for true love, but the search for an immortal soul. The unnamed mermaid is praised for displaying popular Christian virtues, especially in how she readily (and happily) embraces suffering for a higher cause. The mermaid’s grandmother is criticized for wearing ostentatious oysters on her fins, even though they’re socially acceptable for her class and station in life as the Queen Mother. The mermaid is praised for disliking similar adornments. She is quiet and modest, demure yet beautiful and talented (with the most beautiful voice, after all). Once again we see how beauty is associated with goodness.
As strong of a morality tale as this story is, I’m surprised by a few of its elements. First, the sea witch is much more of a true neutral kind of character than one might expect in a Christian fairy tale. Christianity and Witchcraft have a long history of not getting along, so the fact she’s not a big scary evil woman is unexpected. Similarly, at the end of the story the mermaid has to earn her salvation through good deeds. She wafts through the air and every time she spies a child doing something good, she gets a year off her three-hundred years of good-deed-ing, and every time she sees a child doing something evil she cries, and gets a day added to her time for every tear she sheds. These two things are way closer to Catholic theology than Lutheran theology. Lutherans (of the time, and many still today) are very adamant about drawing the distinction between the good that we do and the fact that Jesus saves us from our sins without any merit from us. Anything that even smells like good works = salvation is frowned upon. Similarly, Catholicism teaches that Purgatory is a place of purification before Heaven, and used to be measured in units of time. The little mermaid’s fate sounds an awful lot like something a Catholic of Andersen’s era might write.
In the Disney version, Princess Ariel is the youngest of seven mermaid princesses. She’s fascinated by the human world (“Part of Your World”), though her father warns her against it because of their greed and destruction. Like in the original fairy tale, Ariel also meets Prince Eric, falls in love with him, and saves him from drowning. Ariel confesses her love for Eric to her father, who explodes in a rage and destroys her collection of human artifacts. Ariel then goes to visit Ursula the sea witch, who gives Ariel a pair of human legs in exchange for her voice. She has three days in which to receive True Love’s Kiss from Eric (and remain human permanently), otherwise she’ll become Ursula’s slave. On the second day, with a little help from Ariel’s friends, Ariel and Eric almost kiss (“Kiss the Girl”) but they’re interrupted by Ursula’s cronies. Seeing that her plan is going to fail, Ursula transforms herself into a gorgeous woman with Ariel’s voice. She hypnotizes Prince Eric and attempts to marry him. Ariel’s friends discover the truth and everyone attempts to break up the wedding. In the scuffle, Ursula’s necklace breaks, restoring Ariel’s voice back to her and breaking her magical hold over Eric. Eric realizes that Ariel was the one who saved his life and goes to kiss her, but it’s too late. Ariel transforms back into a mermaid and belongs to Ursula. In order to ransom his daughter, her father agrees to take her place, giving up his power as King of the Seven Seas. Before Ursula can wield her new power, Eric impales her with a ship. This breaks all of Ursula’s curses, and the happy king turns Ariel into a human and gives her and Erica his blessing, with a rainbow.
This one isn’t nearly as obvious in its religious themes as the original. While Disney does tend to have a lot of biases (including pro-Christian ones) in its productions, it’s still a secular company. Yet this version is almost line-for-line a Christian salvation narrative. Ariel represents humanity, her father represents God, and Ursula represents Satan. Ariel keeps getting into trouble until things come to a head and she has a major blowout with her father. He’s concerned about her obsession with human artifacts and worried that she’d get caught up in all of the human evils. He wishes she could just be happy with her family and her life as it is. Materialism, greed, gluttony—all sorts of vices are sins in Christianity, while simplicity of life and love of one another are virtues. He destroys her collection when Ariel confesses her love of a human to him because he’s worried about her safety, about what’s good for her. It’s not a perfect metaphor to the way Christians understand how the loving God works (mostly because of the fundamental miscommunication that’s equally both of their faults), but there are a lot of parallels. Even the fact that he gets angry when Ariel disobeys him could be straight out of the Old Testament.
After the fight, Ariel runs away from him to the Devil allegory of the story (the fact that Ursula is meant to be an ugly evil woman modeled after Divine, a famous drag queen, is just icing on the nasty stereotype cake). She makes a deal with Ursula that has disastrous and deadly consequences, because there’s no way Ursula is going to play fair. In order for Ariel to be saved, she must be ransomed by her father (our God character) taking her place. This is basic satisfaction theology, the idea that human sin creates a debt that must be paid in order to reconcile us with God, and God chooses to pay it through Christ (who is both human and God). God takes the place of the sinner, just as King Triton takes the place of his daughter Ariel. At the end of the story, he creates a rainbow over the happy newlyweds. A rainbow is a classic symbol of God’s promise and fidelity and love, from the story of Noah’s Ark in the Book of Genesis.
While each version of the story has the same major elements (minus the total ending rewrite that Disney gave the original), they tell us different things about the way Christianity shaped each storyteller’s worldview. The original reads like a bedtime story, warning kids to be good, otherwise the good little mermaid will never get to Heaven. It makes use of language that’s charged with a Christian context (Heaven, soul, etc). The theology behind this story is so strong that we can even start to pick apart the different influences of particular Christian denominations. It shows us just how large and explicit an influence Christianity had on the regular people in Andersen’s time.
On the other hand, you don’t get anything nearly that explicit in the Disney version. There’s no way you’d be able to pick apart which Christian denominations influenced which elements of the modern version. All the Christian symbolism is buried deep; the story is secularized. But this also shows us just how our seemingly-secular society is just teeming with Christian influence. Every culture has stories about good versus evil, fathers and daughters, true love and magic. But the kinds of symbols and the way the modern story plays out are hallmarks of a society raised on Christian mythology.
These two versions of the same story show us just how religion touches our lives in ways that are impossible to escape. Would Andersen’s version have felt just as “normal” to his audience as the Disney version feels to us? Would it have felt especially religious? Maybe, but maybe not. The fact that certain beliefs and myths and symbols have permeated our society so strongly while others haven’t is why we need to be extra conscious of what goes into our media. We have to ask ourselves, what’s going into our culture? And is that something we want? Sometimes that’s yes, sometimes that’s no. Knowing the Christian history of the fairy tale, what might it look like from a truly secular perspective, or a Muslim perspective, or a Wiccan perspective? We can’t just assume that everyone is a Christian, or is familiar with Christian mythology. Disney’s secularized version of the story certainly makes it more accessible than the original, but that doesn’t have to be the only solution.