The ending of the original Little Mermaid is famously tragic. However, I was startled to discover that not everyone agrees on what that tragic ending was. There are even rumors that the author, Hans Christian Andersen, revised the story after publication and retconned the ending. What is the real ending of The Little Mermaid, and why did Andersen write it the way he did?
The Original Story
A mermaid princess rescues a human prince from drowning. Already fascinated by the world of humans, she becomes even more curious after this experience. She learns from her grandmother that although humans are shorter-lived than the mermaids, they have immortal souls; they will go to heaven, while merfolk merely dissolve into sea foam and cease to exist. The only way for a mermaid to get a soul is to marry a human. Enamored of the prince and longing for a soul, the mermaid goes to a sea witch to ask for legs so that she can go on land. The process will be torturous. The mermaid will have her tongue cut out. Although she’ll gain legs, it will be agony to walk. And if she fails and the prince marries someone else, it will mean instant death: “The first morning after he marries another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves.”
It's a dangerous gamble, but the mermaid goes through with it. She winds up at the prince’s palace, but he treats her like a small child and is oblivious to her pain. She cannot speak to tell him who she is, and he marries another woman. On the wedding night, the mermaid’s family gives her a knife; if she kills the prince, she can escape death and return to her old existence in the sea. Still no soul, but at least she’ll survive. However, the mermaid refuses. She leaps into the ocean to become sea foam, but unexpectedly, she is resurrected as one of the Daughters of the Air. Like merfolk, these spirits have three-hundred-year lifespans; unlike merfolk, they have the chance to earn souls and continue to Heaven. The tale ends with the explanation that children’s good behavior shortens the air-spirits’ time of wandering, and bad behavior lengthens it.
Behind the Story
Although The Little Mermaid is an original story, it was informed by older folktales and literature. In medieval stories like Melusine or traditional folktales like "The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach," a human man marries a water sprite. However, he breaks some taboo - spies on her, scolds her, or hits her. She then vanishes forever, leaving him and their children behind. In the 14th-century poem "Peter von Staufenberg," a man marries a fairy who bestows fortune on him - but when he breaks his vows and weds a human princess, the fairy causes his death.
These stories inspired the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus. He wrote about his cosmology of elemental beings, where water elementals were called nymphs, melusines, or undines. In Paracelsus' work, an undine who marries a human will gain a soul, and any children born of their union will also have souls. However, if the husband ever rebukes his wife while they're on water, she will vanish forever. And if he marries someone else, the undine will kill him. Paracelsus directly referenced Peter von Staufenberg.
Paracelsus' elementals were widely influential. Among other things, they inspired a novella published in 1811: Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. The titular Undine is a water spirit. When she marries a human knight, she immediately gains a soul and transforms from a capricious sprite to a docile, affectionate bride. However, her husband feels deeply disturbed when he learns of Undine’s origins. Falling for another woman, he rejects Undine and she vanishes back into the water. When he is about to be married, Undine returns and unwillingly bestows a kiss of death on him. She grieves at his funeral and fades away, leaving only a fountain in her place.
There were quite a few other stories about mermaids popular in the early 1800s. B. S. Ingemann's De Underjordiske (The Subterraneans, 1817) included a mermaid who would turn into sea foam if she didn’t marry a human man. Hans Christian Andersen was familiar with all of these, as well as the German story of Lorelei the siren.
These inspirations showed up in Andersen's work long before The Little Mermaid. His 1831 book Skyggebilleder (Shadow Pictures) mentions that "the legend says, that the mermaid alone can receive an immortal soul from man's true love and Christian baptism" (Wullschlager 111). Also in 1831, Andersen published a poem titled "Havfruen ved Samsøe," which features a three-hundred-year-old mermaid dissolving into foam. He worked on another poem called Agnete and the Merman, based on a ballad about a human woman who abandons her merman husband and children. (Wullschlager 124)
However, the Little Mermaid was a direct response to Undine in particular. Andersen wrote to a friend in a letter dated February 1837, "I have not, like de la Motte Fouquet in Undine, let the mermaid's gaining an immortal soul depend on a stranger, on the love of another person. It is definitely the wrong thing to do. It would make it a matter of chance and I'm not going to accept that in this world. I have let my mermaid take a more natural, divine path."
Ever since publication, some critics have skewered the ending. The most frequent description is “tacked-on"; also artificial, forced, or false. To these critics, The Little Mermaid is a tragedy of unrequited love. The happy ending doesn’t fit (especially since it serves up the entirely unforeshadowed Daughters of the Air and some pompous moralizing). Phyllis M. Pickard dismissed the salvation plotline as "a mist of mysticism utterly unsuitable for children". And a 1908 edition of Forum called Andersen’s ending a “compassionate lie.” Even though he was the author, they felt so strongly that his text was flawed, that they rejected it outright. Andersen had written the wrong ending. The mermaid needed to die.
However, a growing number of critics have pushed back, arguing that the ending of The Little Mermaid is an organic part of the story. It isn't just about unrequited love; it's a story about salvation and spirituality. Again, this was Andersen's direct response to a longer tradition of soulless mermaids. The Little Mermaid is fascinated by the surface world and feels out-of-place among merfolk before she ever sets eyes on the prince. She is deeply distressed to learn that she will one day cease to exist, while humans will continue on to eternal life. Yes, she loves the prince, but her quest for a soul is also an inextricable part of the story. At the climax, her two motivations clash. She must choose between her love for the prince and her fear of death. Her selfless choice earns her a third option: the Daughters of the Air. It is a bittersweet ending; she doesn't marry the man she loves, and she still faces a long road to Heaven, but her death is not final.
You can see a similar ending in Andersen's 1858 tale "The Marsh King's Daughter," which also has the main character dissolve and die - it may seem sudden, except that the character's longing for Heaven has been foreshadowed.
The Little Mermaid was clearly very meaningful to Andersen. He once wrote, "it's the only one of my works that moved me as I wrote it." Many scholars have connected the plot to Andersen’s pining for his friend Edvard Collin, whose wedding took place the same year that Andersen wrote this story. Biographer Jackie Wullschlager suggested that The Little Mermaid symbolized Andersen’s way of coping. Although he could not be with Collin, he could focus on building an enduring legacy through his writing. The mermaid will never gain a soul from the prince or have children with him, but she will find another way to immortality. (Wullschlager 174-175)
An Alternate Ending?
A commenter to this blog mentioned hearing about Andersen writing an alternate ending. This sounded vaguely familiar. When I looked into this, I found a few mentions around the Internet indicating that Andersen had revised the story after publication. According to the rumor, the story was originally even bleaker, ending with the mermaid melting into sea foam. Only later were the Daughters of the Air added, in order to soften the story for children.
This rumor is false. Of course, we don’t have every single draft that Andersen worked on during development. However, plenty of scholars have studied Andersen’s work, and there’s nothing to support the retconned-ending rumor. Here’s what we know:
Andersen began planning "The Little Mermaid" by at least 1836. The first known working title was "Luftens Døttre" - The Daughters of the Air. Andersen later called the story "Havets Døttre," The Daughters of the Sea. Although the title seems to have changed multiple times, the air spirits were part of the story from very early on. The manuscript was completed on 23 January 1837. Andersen's letter about his mermaid earning her own soul was dated 11 February 1837, less than a month later.
"The Little Mermaid" first appeared in print in April 1837, in the first collection of Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales Told for Children). In the preface, Andersen wrote that The Little Mermaid's "deeper meaning" might appeal best to adults - but "I dare presume, however, that the child will also enjoy it and that the denouement itself... will grip the child" (Johansen p. 239)
The story soon appeared in additional collections: Eventyr (Fairy Tales) in 1850, and Eventyr og Historier (Fairy Tales and Stories) in 1862. All of these versions have the same ending with the Daughters of the Air. There is no retconned "original ending."
In fact, the original ending from the manuscript was shortened. The draft featured more dialogue from the mermaid: "I myself shall strive to win an immortal soul . . . that in the world beyond I may be reunited with him to whom I gave my whole heart." (Wullschlager 174-175) I wonder if the original, longer section might have made the Daughters of the Air ending feel less abrupt to critics.
But to complicate matters, some people do remember reading versions where the mermaid simply dies.
One such version appears in the 1973 book Disney's Wonderful World of Knowledge, Volume 14 – translated from the Italian Enciclopedia Disney by Elisa Penna. It is a very short, almost summarized version, but the ending has significant changes. In Penna's version, the mermaid is about to kill the prince when he wakes up and innocently asks her what's going on. At his words, she repents. The whole interaction is transformed, making the mermaid morally ambiguous and giving the prince more agency.
It ends like so:
She fled from the room, knowing that she must soon die. By dawn, she felt the change coming on. Just as the witch had threatened, she was turning into foam--the beautiful white foam that caps the waves as they roll over the endless blue sea.
(This means that Disney went darker than Andersen. Try that one on for size.)
And another, Lucy Kinkaid's The Little Mermaid (1994) for beginning readers:
The little mermaid looks at the sleeping prince. She cannot harm him. She would rather die herself. The little mermaid throws the knife into the sea. Then she throws herself into the sea. She changes into sparkling foam and is never seen again.
There were also summaries which focused on the tragedy, and left out the more convoluted bittersweet ending. In the 1923 book Nobody's Island, a character remarks that the little mermaid "didn't marry the Prince, and... on the night of his marriage with another she faded away and passed into the foam of the sea."
I knew that many storybook retellings softened the ending in a Disney-like way, but I hadn’t realized that some went the other direction and killed off the mermaid permanently. As already noted, many critics disliked Andersen’s ending. It seems that some storytellers also felt the need to leave the story as a tragedy.
The rumor that Andersen rewrote his ending may have arisen for a number of reasons.
The rumor is easily debunked, but I would also argue that the ending of The Little Mermaid is not tacked on either literally or metaphorically. It is a natural part of the story. It was not added after the fact. This should be clear from Andersen's life, his inspirations, and his spirituality. It's also fascinating how The Little Mermaid was a response to Undine. Later stories, like Oscar Wilde's "The Fisherman and His Soul" and Disney's Little Mermaid, responded in turn with different spins on the subject. It's an evolving conversation.
Hans Christian Andersen's tale of "The Marsh King's Daughter" (1858) follows Helga, the daughter of a monster and a kidnapped princess. During the day she is beautiful like her mother but violent and cruel; during the night, she is hideous like her father but sad and gentle. There are heavy Christian themes, with Helga meeting a noble missionary priest and breaking free of her curse through the power of God. At the end, Helga and her mother return to Egypt. Helga is about to be married to a prince, but seems distracted from her impending wedding. She has spent a lot of time meditating on Christianity and the now-dead priest who saved her. She prays for a glimpse of Heaven and is allowed to see its glory for three minutes. When she returns, however, she learns that "many hundred years" have passed since she vanished on her wedding day. Upon hearing this, her body crumbles to dust, freeing her to return to Heaven.
This story always pulled me in at the beginning with its concept and descriptions, but the ending was just depressing. Yes, Helga’s greatest desire is to go to heaven, but I still found the ending dissatisfying and discomfiting. There's just something freaky about your heroine going all Infinity War at the end. And I say this as someone who grew up loving stories of martyrs and saints.
Andersen, as usual, pulled in a lot of fairy tale concepts. The beginning is very familiar, with a group of swan maidens taking off their feathery cloaks to bathe, and a man who captures and forcibly marries one of them. However, this trope usually features a human man winning a supernatural bride. In this case, the swan maidens are human princesses and the man is a literal swamp monster.
And the ending of Helga's story is a popular medieval legend. In fact, that legend is a fairy motif repackaged by Christian storytellers. This motif has been incredibly widespread from ancient times up to modern literary tales like Rip Van Winkle.
Urashima Tarō, a Japanese tale dating back to the 8th century, centers around a fisherman named Urashima who catches a turtle which turns out to be a princess of the sea. She takes him away to her blissful underwater kingdom, where he has eternal life and everything he could ever want. What he wants, though, is to visit his old home on land. He arrives only to find that centuries have passed and everything he knew is gone. The ending varies, but generally all of his years come upon him at once and he is left an old man, his immortality gone. And in The Voyage of Bran from Ireland, also from around the 8th century, much the same thing happens. After seeing a beautiful silver branch, Bran sets out for the Land of Women, the utopian island where the branch grew. He and his men live there for what seems like a year, feasting and totally happy, but one of them feels homesick. The band returns to Ireland briefly, and learns that centuries have passed and they are remembered only as legends. The homesick man steps onto dry land and turns to dust, and his companions decide they'd better book it back to the Land of Women.
King Herla, an English character from the 12th century, had the same experience after dealing with a dwarf king. And in a 12th- or 13th-century lai, the knight Guingamor (just like Urashima and Bran) immediately regrets leaving his supernatural sweetheart.
The moral in Urashima and Bran's tales is to not break taboos. In both cases, a man ignores the commands of his lover (who is basically a goddess) and dooms himself to a terrible punishment. King Herla's post-Christian story has the moral that the supernatural creatures of older religions are treacherous and evil. Herla is punished for having anything to do with the fae.
In medieval times, the story got repurposed. The land of joy and immortality was replaced by a Christian Paradise. Often, the hero of this story was a monk or bishop. The story was used to illustrate the idea that Heaven is so wonderful that a thousand years there are like three minutes, and earthly life is nothing compared to it. The main character would return long enough for people to confirm his identity and be amazed by the miracle, before he disintegrates and joyfully returns to Heaven for good. The main idea of the story is that eternity will not be boring, an issue which has apparently nagged at people for a long time.
Versions appeared in English, Spanish, Slovenian, you name it. A fourteenth-century Italian legend featured four monks who, like Bran, went off seeking Paradise after finding a wondrous tree branch from that location (MacCulloch, Medieval Faith and Fable, p. 199). The most widespread version, where a bishop is entranced by the song of an angelic bird, appeared in a homily by the 12th-century French bishop Jacques de Vitry.
At the same time, interestingly, the story has survived with fairy roots intact. For instance, a Welsh story of a farmboy who sits under a tree listening to a bird’s entrancing music parallels the story of the bishop. Despite the similarities, it's clear that the bird in the Welsh fairytale is from a very different otherworld than Heaven. (Howells, Cambrian Superstitions)
Hans Christian Andersen may have been particularly inspired by something close to home: the Danish tale of "The Aged Bride." Published in Benjamin Thorpe's Northern Mythology (1851), it follows a bride who steps out of a dance at her wedding and notices elves celebrating in a nearby field. When she approaches, they offer her wine and invite her to join in their dance. Completing the dance, she remembers her husband and hurries home. There, however, she finds herself in a situation identical to Helga's, Urashima's, and Rip Van Winkle's. The wedding party has vanished and the town looks completely different. No one recognizes her except as an old story from a hundred years ago. Upon hearing this, she falls down dead. Compared to this story illustrating the dangers of the fairy world, "The Marsh King's Daughter" is positively cheery.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.