The Little Mermaid isn't the only Danish tale about mermaids. I first discovered the tale of "Hans the Mermaid’s Son" in Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book. Published 1897, this book gets sloppy with attributions. Some sources are given in detail, but other stories are simply labeled “From the Danish” or “From the Swedish.” A note in the foreword specifies that the Danish and Swedish tales were translated by MR. W. A. Craigie, but not where he got them.
This made tracking down the story a real pain, but I finally worked out that the Danish tales are from Svend Grundtvig’s series Danske Folkeaeventyr (1876-1884). It's possible the editors thought "the Danish" was enough for readers to understand what they meant.
This is Aarne-Thompson Type 650A, the Strong Boy. Way back in 2016, I analyzed a different version of this tale – “The Young Giant,” from the Brothers Grimm. The story is a comical tale of a super-strong laborer, who performs Herculean feats and makes fools out of his bosses and coworkers. It still strikes me as a gloomy tale when you think about the internal journey of the main character – from a tiny boy who just wants to help his father on the farm, to a strapping giant whose parents reject him out of fear, to a mean-spirited bully who uses his strength to hurt or humiliate others.
So how does Hans the Mermaid’s Son measure up?
Hans Havfruesøn was published in Danske Folkeæventyr volume II. Aside from Lang's translation, it appeared in German in 1878 as "Hans Meernixensohn," and in Gustav Hein's 1914 translation, it showed up as "Olaf the Mermaid's Son."
The story begins by introducing a man named Rasmus Madsen. Rasmus is a common Scandinavian men’s name, short for Erasmus, and Madsen is a common Danish surname. At least, that's what it was in the version I found online. In the German, it is “Rasmus Matzen.” In Hein’s version, it is “Rasmus Natzen.” And in the Andrew Lang version, it’s simply “Basmus" (sic). Rasmus lives in a town called Furreby, by the strait called the Skagerrak. (Lang cuts this description, but oddly still mentions Furreby at the end of the tale.)
Rasmus, a smith, struggles to earn enough to feed his wife and small children. He makes some money on the side by fishing. He goes out alone on a fishing expedition, but vanishes for several days and then turns up again mysteriously. What no one knows is that he was caught by a mermaid and spent several days with her.
Seven years later, a boy named Hans shows up and announces that he is the mermaid's son, here to visit his dad, Rasmus. He's six years old, but looks at least eighteen. Like many heroes of Type 650A, Hans comes into being in a mythical way. Other equivalents may be the son of a woman and a bear, or may hatch out of an egg. Hans does not seem visibly half-merman, and his amazing size and strength aren't obviously related to his origin. However, there is one later scene where he doesn't seem to mind doing battle beneath a lake - more on that later.
Hans has a massive appetite. After an entire loaf of bread doesn't fill him up, he declares that he must set out, for he won't have enough to eat here, and asks for the smith to make him an iron staff. It takes several tries before the smith crafts an iron rod that Hans cannot break. Hans thanks him and sets out. He winds up at a farm, where he offers to do the work of twelve men if he will also be fed the same amount as twelve men. However, the next day, Hans sleeps late into the morning and the gentleman (his boss) has to wake him. The men are threshing, and Hans has six threshing-floors to complete all by himself. Hans immediately smashes his flails by accident, so he makes his own flail so large that he must take the barn's roof off in order to use it. He threshes all of his work, but mixes up the different types of grain in the process. When told he must clean it up, he blows on the grain to filter all the chaff out.
After another meal, Hans then sleeps the rest of the afternoon. The gentleman, meanwhile, is not too pleased with Hans, and makes a plan with his wife and the steward. The next day, they send all the men to the forest for firewood with a bet that the last one back will be hanged--they bet on Hans oversleeping, which he does. When he finally rises, the others have taken all the equipment, so he cobbles together a makeshift cart and gets two old horses to draw it. He accidentally breaks the gate on his way out, so replaces it with a huge boulder seven ells across (fourteen feet or so). When he catches up with the other workers, they laugh at him, since they already have carts loaded and ready with trees. Hans begins cutting down trees, but immediately breaks his axe, so he begins tearing up trees by the roots. The other workers stand staring openmouthed until they realize it's time to get going, and hurry back. Hans, meanwhile, finds that his weak old horses can't move the cart. "He was annoyed with this," so naturally carries the cart and all the trees on his back. The other workers, of course, cannot get past the boulder. "What!" Hans says, "Can twelve men not move that stone?" He throws the boulder out of the way, and arrives at the farm first. The gentleman sees him coming and bars the courtyard door in terror. When Hans knocks and doesn't hear an answer, he decides to throw the trees and the cart into the courtyard instead. The gentleman hurriedly opens the door before Hans can do the same with the horses. When the workers gather for their meal, Hans asks who's going to be hanged, and everyone hastily says it was just a joke.
The gentleman, his wife and the farm's steward are now even more alarmed by Hans, and decide to send him to clean the well the next day, then drop stones on top of him. (This will also save them funeral expenses!) The workers are all in on this and drop heavy stones, but Hans calls up to them that gravel is landing on him. Finally they try the big millstone, but it lands on him like a collar instead. At this Hans comes out of the well complaining that the other workers are making fun of him, and shakes off the stone, which falls and crushes the gentleman's toe.
The steward comes up with a final plan: sending Hans to fish by night in Djævlemose - which is a real place name. Lang renders it as "Devilmoss Lake"; Hein calls it "the devil's pool." There Hans will surely be captured by Gammel Erik, or Old Erik. This is a Norwegian folk-name for the Devil, equivalent to the English “Old Nick.” The Norwegian folklorists Asbjornsen and Moe collected a tale titled “Skipperen og Gamle-Erik,” or “The Skipper and Old Erik,” in which a sea-captain makes a bargain with the devil and outwits him. This story, like Hans Havfrueson's, is set on the water.
Hans agrees to go fishing as long as he has a good meal, and rows out onto the lake. He decides to begin his snack before doing any fishing, but as he's eating, Old Erik drags him out of the boat and to the bottom of the lake. Hans happens to have his iron walking-stick, and beats Old Erik until the devil promises to bring all the lake's fish to the gentleman's courtyard. Hans then finishes his meal and goes home to bed. The next morning, the entire courtyard is filled with a mountain of fish. This time, the gentleman's wife suggests sending Hans to Hell to demand three years tribute, and tells her husband at random to send Hans south. (Lang changes this to Purgatory, presumably to censor it for children, even though it ruins the tale's theological consistency. Hein glosses it as "the infernal regions.")
With a good supply of food, Hans sets out (and discovers that he has forgotten his butter-knife, but fortunately finds a plow to use instead). He meets a man riding by who says he's from Hell, and accompanies him. No one will let him in at the gate, so he smashes through it and beats up the demons who try to attack him. They run to Old Erik, who's still recovering in bed and who yells for them to give Hans whatever he wants. Hans returns to his master with a treasure trove of gold and silver coins, but is now "tired of living on shore among mortal men." He gives half of the treasure to the gentleman, takes the other half to his father, and then goes home to his mother.
This tale strikes me oddly as softer than "The Young Giant." There is still the conflict between the uncontrollably strong youth and the complacent villagers who are all terrified of him and try to get rid of him by any means. The sequence of events is almost the same. Both heroes have legendary origins and go through parallel challenges. The iron walking stick and the millstone-around-the-neck scenes are near-identical.
However, Hans doesn't seem to have the Young Giant's mean streak. Thumbling the Giant's masters fear him because he wants to beat them rather than getting paid in money. Hans' master also wants to get rid of him, but it's because Hans is unpredictable and unwittingly destructive. You can read Hans' dialogue as either clueless or slyly knowing - I'd lean towards clueless - but Thumbling speaks "coarsely and sarcastically." Hans blocks the way home with a boulder because he's accidentally broken the gate, but Thumbling stops and blocks the path purely to spite his coworkers. And though the gentleman and his wife plot multiple times to kill Hans, he leaves them with a massive pile of treasure. Thumbling kicks his boss into the sky, and kicks his wife after him even though she has done nothing that we know of.
Overall, Hans feels like a more heroic character. When he gets into fights, it's with people who attack him first. Despite being lazy, gluttonous and oblivious, he seems good-natured (aside from not objecting to the idea that someone will get hanged for returning home last). Even with that, I do think it's relevant that he's really just six years old.
Although both stories use the hero's physical strength for comedy, "Hans" leans harder on the parodic aspects (such as casually taking the roof off the barn to work, and Hans' meals getting progressively larger as the story goes on).
There is still a sense of loneliness to a story where no one wants the hero around. However, I was better able to enjoy this version as a comedy. And with Hans disappearing into the boundless ocean at the end, it's possible to imagine him eventually finding a home where he fits in better, and maybe maturing a little.
Other Blog Posts
Ever heard of the theory that Shakespeare was a hoax? The idea is that William Shakespeare of Stratford - the man the plays were originally attributed to - didn't actually write them. In a twisting and secretive conspiracy, the books were actually penned by Francis Bacon. Or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Or Christopher Marlowe. Or one of a whole slew of other people (including possibly Queen Elizabeth herself). Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro, is a book concerned not just with the truth behind the matter, but with with why the conspiracy theories began and why they’ve gone almost mainstream.
The book begins by examining how Shakespeare's image developed over the centuries after his death. First he became a revered, even deified figure, built up into a perfect literary genius. But when researchers finally dug up the first long-desired scraps of information on his personal life, the real Shakespeare was disappointingly mundane. The legal and monetary records that survived made him look like a moneygrubbing Shylock type. This Shakespeare did not fit the mold that had been constructed for him.
Eventually, people began to suggest that Shakespeare was a hoax. The real author (and there would be many suggestions for the real author) was someone erudite, learned, well-traveled, and high-born (because, of course, some middle-class businessman wouldn’t have the noble breeding necessary to produce such works of pure artistry). Shapiro focuses on the two most popular candidates, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere. Over the course of the book, he goes into the motives of the theorists and their followers (including such figures as Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Sigmund Freud). For instance, the writer who popularized Edward de Vere as a potential Real Shakespeare, believed that democracy should be demolished in favor of monarchy.
The last section of the book deals with what we do know about William Shakespeare of Stratford. There is surviving contemporary evidence that has surfaced over the centuries. Details lend interesting context to how Shakespeare worked. Those supposedly penny-penching business records may actually have been his wife, since as a married woman her business would all be under her husband's name. Shakespeare wrote many parts for specific actors. And during a late part of his career, he was frequently cowriting with other playwrights. This was particularly fascinating for me because Shakespeare left such an enduring influence in how British fairies evolved in the popular imagination – Oberon, Titania, Puck, and Mab are all here to stay, but we are still guessing at some of the particulars of where he got names (Mab, for instance).
Shapiro's writing is accessible and engaging, and paints a vivid picture of Shakespeare and the fans and critics who followed.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.