I recently came across an article by Lauren and Alan Dundes stating that Hans Christian Andersen used two famous motifs in his fairytale “The Little Mermaid.” First is the motif of mermaids which, yeah. But second is ATU K1911, “The False Bride.” The authors state that "This second motif, though critical for an understanding of the plot of 'The Little Mermaid' has not received much attention” (56). This article gets more into Freudian analysis, which is not really my thing, but I was really intrigued by the connection from the False Bride motif to The Little Mermaid.
So, in the False Bride motif, the villain steals the heroine’s identity and marries her intended husband. The heroine lives in servitude, in exile, or under a curse. Eventually someone alerts the husband, usually the true bride herself. The false bride is disposed of – often executed in gruesome ways, for instance buried alive or dragged by horses in a barrel full of nails. The true bride then takes her rightful place.
This is one of those universal elements that can easily be attached to many wildly varying tales - for instance “The Goose Girl” (ATU 533), “The Three Citrons” (ATU 408) and “The White Bride and the Black One” (ATU 403). In these cases, the swap takes place en route to the wedding. There’s no physical resemblance, but the imposter gets away with it by claiming she’s been transformed, or more often, because it’s an arranged marriage where the betrothed parties have never met.
In “Little Brother and Little Sister” (ATU 450) the switch takes place after the wedding, but the impostor is physically transformed to resemble the heroine.
In “The Sleeping Prince” (ATU 437), the heroine saves her prince from a Snow White-esque sleeping death. But a villainous servant orchestrates things so that she’s the one present when the prince awakens, so she takes all the credit and marries him.
(Note that frequently these stories are inherently racist, ableist and/or classist. Imposter brides are black or Romani, disabled, or of a lower social status. I’m looking particularly at “The Three Citrons” and “The White Bride and the Black One” here.)
As I’ve previously discussed, “The Little Mermaid” was especially influenced by the Paracelsus-inspired novella “Undine.” In this 1811 German novella, the husband casts off his water-nymph wife because he's uncomfortable with her magic, and replaces her with a human lover. It's the difference between the two women that's most important to him.
But the two women were, in fact, swapped at one point – it’s just that it happened in childhood, not at the wedding. The nymph child Undine was sent to replace the fisherman’s daughter Bertalda, who ended up being raised by a duke and duchess.
Andersen has the same love triangle featuring mermaid and human girl, but the approach is very different. The prince has no idea the mermaid exists, or that she saved him from drowning; instead he gives the credit for his rescue to a human girl who found him on the shore.
“Yes, you are dear to me,” said the prince; “for you have the best heart, and you are the most devoted to me; you are like a young maiden whom I once saw, but whom I shall never meet again. I was in a ship that was wrecked, and the waves cast me ashore near a holy temple, where several young maidens performed the service. The youngest of them found me on the shore, and saved my life. I saw her but twice, and she is the only one in the world whom I could love; but you are like her."
Much like “The Sleeping Prince,” the prince’s mistaken belief is what draws him to this other girl. In this case, though, she’s innocent in this whole debacle.
The mermaid is unable to reveal the truth because she is mute. This forced silence resembles “The Goose Girl” or the gender-flipped “The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward,” where the main character is compelled to swear they will tell no one their true identity. It’s also reminiscent of the heroine’s transformation into an animal in “The White Bride and the Black One” or “The Three Citrons.”
But there’s no intentional swap going on in “The Little Mermaid,” as there is in “False Bride” tales. Although the physical resemblance between the two girls blurs the lines, the human girl did play a role in the rescue, and the prince’s love for her seems genuine, while he never really sees the mermaid romantically. (He’s still a cad, though.) Ultimately the mermaid chooses to let the prince and his bride live happily ever after, in a self-sacrificial act which shows the story’s moral.
However, the Disney adaptation added a happy ending and simplified the cast list by combining two characters – the sea witch who gives the mermaid legs, and the girl who marries the prince. In the process, they gave the story the full False Bride motif. Prince Eric longs for his mysterious rescuer, but doesn’t realize it’s Ariel. Ursula the sea witch takes advantage of this by magically disguising herself to look similar to Ariel. (Also, mind control.) The swap is an intentional act by the villain. Ariel is barred from speaking by the villain, but ultimately gets the opportunity to publicly reveal the truth. False bride Ursula gets a gruesome death, and Ariel regains her identity and marries Eric.
Dundes and Dundes make the case that The Little Mermaid, like many of Disney's movies, is unintentionally about the Electra complex, where a girl competes with her mother for her father's affection. I'm simplifying a lot here, but it's gender-swapped Oedipus. According to Dundes and Dundes, the False Bride motif is integral to the story because of the Electra complex, the sexual rivalry between the young Ariel and the older Ursula. You can make a case for Snow White, where the sexual rivalry between mother and daughter is explicit ("Who's the fairest of them all?"), but The Little Mermaid seems like a slim connection. You have to squint to see Ursula as any kind of mother figure to Ariel. Their rivalry is ultimately about political power. And if you go back to Andersen's story, there is no way you can view the mermaid's romantic rival as a mother figure. The False Bride motif itself isn't Electral anyway because it is not ultimately a rivalry between mother and daughter. It's between two peers, or sisters of similar age, or a princess and a servant.
So, did Disney insert the Electra complex into The Little Mermaid? I don't think so, because I feel like it's a stretch to identify it that way. This brand of psychoanalysis has been discredited for a long time but does hang around in literary analysis. However, identifying the False Bride motif in Disney's Little Mermaid was a stroke of genius.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.