The story of "The Golden Mermaid" begins with a tree that bears golden apples. This tree grows in the garden of a King who looks forward to the harvest, but the apples begins to go missing just as they ripen. The King, in desperation, orders his two oldest sons to go out and search the world until they find the thief. His third and youngest son begs to be allowed to go too. The King tries to dissuade him, but the prince begs so much that the King relents and sends him off—although with only a lame old horse. On his way through the woods, the prince meets a starved-looking wolf and offers him his horse to eat. The wolf takes him up on the offer, and the prince then asks the wolf to carry him on his back since his horse is gone.
The wolf is actually a powerful, shapeshifting wizard and happens to know who the apple thief is: a golden bird that is the pet of a neighboring emperor and apparently really likes to escape and steal golden apples. He instructs the prince on how to sneak into the palace and steal the bird. However, the prince clumsily slips up and is caught and thrown into the dungeon. The wolf transforms into a king and goes to visit the emperor. He gets the conversation around to the imprisoned prince-thief and tells the emperor that hanging is too good for such a scoundrel; instead he should be sent off on an impossible task to steal a golden horse from the emperor in the next kingdom. At this point, things turn into a chain of fetch quests. The prince sets out weeping bitterly at his misfortune, only to run into the wolf, who encourages him to go in and steal the horse. Everything will be fine!
Everything is not fine, and the prince promptly finds himself beaten up and trapped in Emperor #2’s dungeon after getting caught with the golden horse. The wolf wheels out his same trick, and this time the prince is sent off to capture the golden mermaid. The prince reaches the sea, where the wolf helpfully turns into a boat full of silken merchandise to lure the mermaid in. Turns out she doesn’t really mind being captured once she falls in love with the prince. The Emperors, realizing that the prince has obviously had powerful magical help, quickly give up all claim to the golden mermaid, the golden horse, and the golden bird, and the Prince proceeds home with his whole golden entourage. On their way home, the wolf bids the prince farewell.
However, the Prince's two older brothers have heard of his success and are bitterly jealous. They ambush and murder their younger brother, and steal the golden horse and bird; however, the brokenhearted mermaid won't go with them and stays weeping over the Prince's dead body. An unspecified amount of time passes, with the mermaid still weeping over the corpse, before the wolf shows up and tells her to cover the body with leaves and flowers. The wolf breathes over the makeshift grave and restores the prince to life. The three return home, the wicked older brothers are banished, and the prince and the golden mermaid get married.
“The Golden Mermaid” is a typical example of the ATU tale type 550, “Bird, Horse and Princess.” Another famous example is the Russian story “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf.” Tales of other types can overlap; there’s ATU 301, known as “The Three Stolen Princesses,” and there are swan maiden-esque tales where the golden bird and the maiden are the same entity, as in “The Nine Peahens and the Golden Apples” (from Serbia).
The prince is the typical fairy-tale Fool: kind of dumb, but kind-hearted and lucky. We also have the memorable and mysterious wolf magician (helpers in other versions can be foxes, bears or snakes, or sometimes humans under a curse). He's a bit manipulative, but still coaching the clueless prince towards his ultimate success. This character does all the heavy lifting. Shapeshifting into people or inanimate objects? Raising the dead? He’s got it covered.
The titular mermaid is probably the most striking thing about this story, but she’s not exactly what modern Western audiences would imagine. She evidently has two legs - see the illustration at the top of this post. This is not so surprising as it might seem; our modern idea of the mermaid with a fish-tail is the result of many years of simplifying and syncretizing and Westernizing. For many cultures around the world, the concept of merpeople - literally, sea-people - could encompass various types of entities and even overlap. And many of those entities would have simply had legs and looked a lot like humans. Think of Greek sea nymphs, the Lady of the Lake and other fairies in Arthurian lore, the Irish tale of the Lady of Gollerus, or "Jullanar of the Sea” in the Thousand and One Nights. Any of these sea people lived in some kind of water realm and could be read as a type of mermaid, yet they don't necessarily have fish tails. This is not the only variant of ATU 550 to include a mermaid; a variant from Slovenia, “Zlata tica” [Golden Bird] features a similar mermaid ("morska deklica") and the trick of catching her attention by selling fine fabric (Janezic, p. 266).
The Golden Mermaid has some siren-like attributes, singing and trying to beckon the prince into the water, but fits a lot of feminine stereotypes such as being easily lured with pretty fabric. Still, bear in mind that she's stronger than she might seem to modern readers. In many versions of ATU 550, the heroines are easily carried off by the evil brothers. They continue to weep and can't be comforted, resisting in their own way, but they are as easily stolen as the horse and bird. The golden mermaid is unusual in that she manages to stay with the dead prince and watch over his body. We don't hear how exactly she pulls this off, but she withstands two murderers to do so, something that shouldn't be written off.
You may have noticed that in all this, I haven't explained where the story is from. The story appeared in Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book (1892), its most famous and widespread appearance. The Coloured Fairy Book series was published under Andrew Lang's name, but the real minds at work were his wife Nora and a team of mostly female writers and translators. In The Lilac Fairy Book, one of the last few in the long series, Andrew wrote in a preface: "The fairy books have been almost wholly the work of Mrs. Lang, who has translated and adapted them from the French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, and other languages." The problem is that, as sprawling and influential as these books are, the citations are frequently awful. Many sources are cut short or just plain missing. Remember “Hans the Mermaid’s Son,” simply noted as “From the Danish.” And “Prunella,” due to the title change and lack of any source, is cut off from its Italian roots. I had to go hunting to find these stories elsewhere.
For “The Golden Mermaid,” there is a single terse editor's note: "Grimm." But "The Golden Mermaid" isn't in the Grimms' collections. This may be one of the worst errors ever in the Colored Fairy Books. It looks like the editor mixed up “The Golden Mermaid” with the Grimms’ “The Golden Bird,” a different version of ATU 550. In “The Golden Bird,” the hero is not a prince but a gardener's son, although he does win the kingdom by the end. He’s a little feistier than The Golden Mermaid’s weepy prince, although still hapless (instead of getting caught through clumsiness or happenstance, he’s tripped up by greed or by being too sympathetic to his enemies). The love interest is not a golden mermaid, but the princess of a golden castle, and the wolf-wizard’s role is filled by a talking fox who is secretly the princess’s long-lost brother under a curse. Some scholars don't catch this and refer to the Grimms' Golden Mermaid anyway. The Penguin Book of Mermaids, published in 2019, notes the misleading source with some consternation and even suggests that Lang wrote “The Golden Mermaid" as a very loose adaptation of "The Golden Bird," placing the story with other literary fairy tales.
But “The Golden Mermaid” is actually a folktale. I was lucky to stumble across the real source through a tiny note buried in Wikipedia. It's from Wallachia, a historical region of Romania, and was first published in Walachische Maehrchen (1845) by the German brothers Arthur and Albert Schott with the title "das goldene meermädchen" (p. 253). In Romanian, the title translates to “Fata-de-aur-a-mării"; I'm not sure whether this is a back-formation by later scholars, or if the story has been collected in the original language. Arthur collected these stories during a six-year residency in Banat, and considered “The Golden Mermaid” not only the most beautiful story in the collection, but superior to the German “The Golden Bird.”
It’s funny reading both of these stories together, because they occasionally seem to fill in gaps of logic for each other, or you can see spots where a story started to stray from the standard plotline. “The Golden Bird” has a few odd fragments, like a random fourth quest tacked on (moving a mountain in order to win the princess). Overall, "The Golden Mermaid" has some interesting themes and characters to unpack, and I especially enjoyed seeing a mermaid in a tale type where they don't often appear.
Further reading: other fairytales left without sources by Lang
Hi everyone! I'm delighted to announce that my first academic article has been published in Shima Journal. It explores the history of Starbucks' iconic mermaid logo and why Melusine, a serpent-woman from medieval myth, has been identified in recent years with images of double-tailed mermaids. You can read it at 10.21463/shima.190
In my list of favorite mermaid books I mentioned A Comb of Wishes, a children's novel released in 2022. I was struck by the many less-popular mermaid motifs that the author, Lisa Stringfellow, wove into the story. There is one story in particular that the plot is built around. As Stringfellow explained, “I wanted my main character to have that trope of making a wish on a mermaid's comb.”
The book revolves around a young girl who finds a mermaid's comb and has the chance to make a wish, but discovers that there is a steep price and mermaids are dangerous, vengeful creatures. Around pages 37-39, she hears the story setting up the background:
"The seafolk have been round long before these islands were settled. Coming up out of the water at night, they sit on the rocks and twist their thick hair. Then, they tuck in their combs…
One time, an old fisherman came upon a sea woman sitting on a rock in the moonlight. Quick as a flash, she jumped back into the water. But she dropped her comb and the old man picked it up, because he knew it held powerful magic… The old man called out to the sea woman, ‘Mami Wata! Mami Wata!’ And up she come…
When the old man showed the sea woman her comb, she asked, ‘What you want from me?’ He said, ‘My wife is sick. I want the power to make her well.’ The sea woman nodded and said, ‘Rake me comb across the water. Then, you throw it back to me. You will have what you want.’
The old man walked into the sea and raked that comb across the water… When he threw it back, the sea woman sank beneath the waves and disappeared. He thought for sure that he had been taken for a fool… But lo and behold!... The old man woke up the next day with his brain full! He knew all types of herbs and healing spells and he was able to make his wife well.”
This story has its spark of inspiration in a well-known Cornish tale. "The Old Man of Cury" appeared in Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England (1865). An old man finds a mermaid trapped in a tidepool, having been distracted by admiring her reflection until the tie went out. She begs him for help and promises him three wishes, so he carries her on his back to the water. He wishes not for wealth, but for the ability to help people by breaking witches' spells, charming away diseases, and the ability to locate stolen goods so he can return them. She agrees and leaves him her comb; from then on, whenever he wants to see her, he can come to the shore and rake it through the water to summon her and she'll teach him the magic and charms he requested. She even offers to take him to her watery realm and make him young again, but he prefers to remain on land. He passes on his magical knowledge to his descendants.
A darker and more elaborate version of the story featured in William Bottrell's Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870). Bottrell was Hunt's contemporary and one of his most prolific contributors for Popular Romances, but wrote with a much different style, emulating the drolls or storytellers of Cornwall. Bottrell himself was a droll, and his stories are much longer and more detailed. Quite a few stories appear in both Hunt and Bottrell.
Bottrell begins the story of "The Mermaid and the Man of Cury" by introducing the storyteller, Uncle Anthony James. Bottrell explains that this was a favorite story and it was often altered "by adding to the story whatever struck his fancy at the moment." Bottrell's version has a similar start as Hunt's, and takes place at the same location. The old man is introduced as Lutey, a fisherman and smuggler. Walking on the shore one day, he hears a woman crying out for help, and discovers a mermaid trapped in a tidepool. Her name is Morvena, or sea-woman. She gives him her comb, which has the power to summon her, and begs him to take her to the sea; she needs to get home, since her abusive mer-husband may eat their children. As he carries her in his arms towards the water, she offers him three wishes. She is pleased by his unselfishness when, rather than requesting money, he asks instead for the ability to help others by breaking witches' spells, commanding spirits, and for these gifts to continue in his family. The mermaid gets flirty and entices him to come down into the ocean with her. He is almost under her siren-like spell when the sound of his dog barking distracts him, and he's able to break free. The mermaid swims away, while promising him that she will return in nine years. Returning home, Lutey discovers that he now has the abilities of healing and wisdom he asked for. Nine years later, while Lutey is fishing with a friend, Morvena returns. Lutey, accepting his fate, goes with her and is never seen again. From then on, every ninth year one of his descendants is always lost to the sea.
The story had some popularity. A version probably derived from Hunt's appeared in Arthur Hamilton Norway's Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall (1898), and a Bottrell-esque version in "The Sea Maid and the Fisherman" showed up in The Dublin University Magazine in 1871.
A version titled "Lutey and the Mermaid" appeared in Mabel Quiller Couch's Cornwall's Wonderland. Couch was specifically retelling Cornish folktales that she'd read, in a simpler style more appropriate for children. Although Couch's version is extremely close to Bottrell's to the point of near-identical descriptions, there are a few lines that make me think she also drew on Hunt.
(Hunt: "He thought the girl would drown herself . . . He looked into the water, and, sure enough, he could make out the head and shoulders of a woman, and long hair floating like fine sea-weeds all over the pond, hiding what appeared to him to be a fish's tail."
And Couch: "At first Lutey thought she had drowned herself, but when he looked closely into the pool, and contrived to peer through the cloud of hair which floated like fine seaweed all over the top of it, he managed to distinguish a woman's head and shoulders underneath, and looking closer he saw, he was sure, a fish's tail!")
In Hunt's version, there's a logic to the mermaid's comb that isn't quite as apparent in Bottrell's version. Hunt's fisherman uses the comb in the act of fulfilling his wish and keeps it as proof. In Bottrell's version, the comb is shown as proof after the encounter but otherwise isn't all that important. It's not clear if Lutey ever uses it to see the mermaid.
But all of this is very interwoven. Bottrell may have been the one who gave Hunt “The Old Man of Cury.” Not only do both of their collections feature the story type, but Bottrell notes that he heard many versions of the story from Uncle Anthony. Hunt, in his collection, quotes a letter about Uncle Anthony which may have been from Bottrell. The differences are easily explained by Bottrell’s mention of the way the story changed from telling to telling.
(Incidentally, Hunt’s other major contributor was Thomas Quiller-Couch - Mabel Quiller-Couch’s father.)
Stringfellow’s reimagining keeps the basics and the ominous sense surrounding mermaids, while weaving it with Caribbean folklore to make a new story. She makes the comb a main focus. The fisherman doesn't just want to help people in general, but has a specific goal of healing his wife - paralleling the main plot, where the protagonist Kela is trying to get her dead mother back.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been on the hunt for mermaid fiction. I’ve been through a lot of lists, and here's my own list of some favorites so far. There are many, many, MANY books on mermaids out there. The books here are ones that particularly stood out as both enjoyable and memorable for me this year.
Brine and Bone by Kate Stradling (2018): a retelling of The Little Mermaid. Stradling does something I've seen in a few other places by telling the story from the perspective of the other maiden - the human girl who steals the prince's heart. In this version, Magdalena is the prince's childhood friend and the girl he always really loved.
What this book does a little differently is that it treats mermaids as fae. This connection often gets lost in modern fiction, but old stories of mermaids and fairies really do overlap a lot. The "little mermaid" is eerie and alien, and the human characters are rightfully fearful of her. But Magdalena surprisingly finds some common ground with the mermaid. My only complaint is that it's pretty short and and I would have liked to see it go even more in depth.
Mermaid’s Song by Alida van Gores (1989): In an underwater society torn between two races, the mogs and the oppressed merra, a merra-maid named Elan learns to use her magic and competes for the coveted post of guardian to the Sea-Dragons. The competition will decide the fate of the entire ocean.
If you want to read an adult fantasy with a committed treatment of an underwater mermaid world, this is for you. Magic is kept fairly low-key, so the oceanic society feels refreshingly practical, with little details reinforcing that this is not our world - for instance, nobody sleeps in beds, and instead they essentially tie themselves to things. The entire story takes place underwater, which is surprisingly rare for a mermaid book! That said, there were a few uncomfortable themes that kept me from completely enjoying it. For instance, rather than the characters fighting for true equality, the merra are the rightful ruling class and the mogs need to get back to being subservient laborers.
All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter (2021): Mirin O’Malley is one of the last descendants of a formerly prosperous family, whose wealth came from regular human sacrifices to the merfolk. When Mirin’s grandmother plots to marry her off to her creepy cousin and start up the sacrifices again, she runs away to search for her missing parents.
Mermaids, rusalki, selkies and other mythical water creatures are more of a backdrop here, ominous figures who haunt Mirin. However, the main plot is interspersed with short, folktale-esque stories that I really enjoyed. I also liked the themes of healing and making amends, and was thoroughly rooting for Mirin by the end.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (2017): A marine research ship heads out into the ocean to investigate a mysterious disaster and prove whether or not it was caused by mermaids, as rumor has claimed. Turns out the mermaids are all too real - and the research expedition is about to turn into a bloodbath.
Despite an underwhelming ending, this B-movie horror in book form is compulsively readable. I just really loved the plot of scientists discovering mermaids. Grant’s faux-scientific patter about mermaids with mimicking abilities and bioluminescent tentacle-hair feels believable, at least to me as someone who knows nothing about marine biology. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, then this and its prequel, Rolling in the Deep, are both worth a read.
The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre (1997): A dark, dense, intricate historical fantasy where a captured mermaid is brought to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. (The mermaids or sea people here have two leg-like tails.) Naive young noblewoman Marie-Josephe learns to understand the "sea monster's" musical speech, sparking an ethical dilemma and a mission to free the imprisoned sea woman.
The novel is very much about personhood, touching on misogyny, slavery and treatment of people with disabilities, extending through the image of the sea woman whom authorities are ready to discount as a mindless animal that can be killed and eaten. There’s some good “mermaid” worldbuilding sprinkled in, too; the novel is an expansion of McIntyre's short story, “The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea.” It can be hard to follow at times; there's a huge cast and everyone in the French court has multiple names and titles.
(This book got an absolute travesty of a film adaptation, and I’m still mad about it. JUSTICE FOR COUNT LUCIEN!)
Emerge by Tobie Easton (2016): Another Little Mermaid retelling - sort of. In this universe, unbeknownst to humans, The Little Mermaid was based on a true story and the heroine’s actions left the undersea world of merfolk in turmoil. In modern times, a mermaid named Lia Nautilus lives in disguise as a human, shielded from the war going on in the deep. When she learns that her human crush is in danger, she turns to forbidden siren magic to save him.
This cheesy, fluffy teen romance, the first of a series, was a surprise favorite for me. I was initially put off by the cartoony worldbuilding and puns (in one early eyerolly moment, a hot guy is called a “total foxfish”). But Easton commits to it and clearly put a lot of thought into a world with shapeshifting mermaids, underwater architecture, and magic. Lia’s plight is compelling, and I found myself enjoying the trilogy even more as it went on.
A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow (2022): Kela, a young girl grieving her mother’s death, finds a mermaid’s comb. The mermaid offers her a wish in exchange for its return, and there’s only one real option for Kela: for her mother to be alive again. But there’s a steep price for wishes, and when the comb is stolen before Kela can return it, things quickly start to go wrong.
This middle-grade novel was a joy to read. Stringfellow blends the Caribbean setting with touches of mermaid stories from around the world (from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Old Man of Cury" and "The Soul Cages"). Mermaids are more of a mystical force here than in most of the other books on this list, but this book is firing on all cylinders with lyrical writing and a compelling, emotional plot.
Some of these books I honestly didn't expect to like so much - I originally ignored Emerge because of the punniness, A Comb of Wishes because it was a kids' book, All the Murmuring Bones because it sounded like the mermaids were barely in it. It was exciting to be able to add them to the list. Looking at this list, I realize that most of them are set primarily on land or have human main characters; this is a common theme. Writing an underwater setting can be a challenge because it rules out so much of society and technology that we take for granted.
I'll continue to read mermaid books as I find them - because I like mermaids, but it's also fun to observe the popular image of these beings from folk and fairy tales. The Little Mermaid is a very popular subject for retellings.
If you have a favorite mermaid book, drop it in the comments!
Today I want to talk about a little corner of overlapping folktales. These stories follow a young woman who, out of lust or greed or maybe just foolhardiness, is enticed to open a gate and allow enemy forces into her home. Her home is destroyed and she meets an ironic death. Also, there's a connection to myths of mermaids and flooded cities.
A basic traitorous-daughter story, without the floods and mermaids, is the legend of Tarpeia, the daughter of the Roman commander at a time when Rome was under siege by the Sabines. Tarpeia secretly offered the Sabine leader a deal - she'd let his soldiers inside in exchange for what they bore on their left arms. She thought she was making a deal for their precious golden bracelets. However, when she opened the gate and waited eagerly for her reward, the Sabine soldiers instead threw their left-handed shields onto her and she was crushed to death.
Arthur A. Wachsler made a connection from this and similar tales to Aarne-Thompson type 313, "The Girl as Helper in the Hero's Flight." In both cases we have a female character who betrays her father for the sake of a male outsider whom she helps on a mission. However, this doesn't quite work. The fairytale - and even mythical parallels such as Medea and Ariadne - are focused on the adventures of the hero, and the girl is at least initially a heroic figure who winds up abandoned and forgotten for her troubles. (The fairytale version gets her man back.) Tarpeia-style tales are harsher parables in which the girl is both villainous and foolish, and promptly gets herself killed.
A specific strand of these more moralizing tales include a theme of water and transformation. I have found three examples so far: Scylla of Megara, Dahut, and Lí Ban.
Scylla of Megara: from Ovid's Metamorphoses
The guarded city: The city of Alcathous, ruled by King Nisus, is under attack by King Minos. However, Nisus has a lock of purple hair that makes him invincible.
Opening the gate: Nisus's daughter, Scylla, sees Minos from afar and falls madly in love with him. That night, she sneaks into her father's bedroom and cuts off the purple lock, destroying his gift of invulnerability. She then sneaks out of the city and goes to Minos's war camp, where she presents him with the hair (and maybe even her father's head). Disturbed, Minos immediately leaves in his ship.
Immersion and transformation: Scylla leaps into the sea after Minos and tries to climb onto the ship. Her father, who has transformed into an eagle, attacks her. As she falls from the ship, she is transformed into a sea bird or ciris.
It's important that Scylla's flight and transformation take place on the sea. Also, although there's no direct connection between the characters, note that the most famous Scylla of classical mythology was a sea monster.
Dahut of Ys: from Brittany
The guarded city: King Gradlon rules the city of Ys. The city is shielded from floods by a dike, and Gradlon alone holds the key to the sluice gate.
Opening the gate: Gradlon’s daughter, Dahut or Ahes, is a wicked, unchaste young woman. One night, while meeting with her lover (who in some versions is the actual Devil), she steals her father's key and opens the sluice gate.
Immersion and transformation: Gradlon wakes up to find the city flooding. He and Dahut flee on his horse, but the waves are about to overtake them. Gradlon throws Dahut off his horse, and as soon as she falls into the water, the flood stops. The city of Ys is lost but can sometimes still be seen beneath the waves, and Dahut becomes a Mari-Morgan (Breton for mermaid) and people often hear her singing.
(Jean-Michel Le Bot points out that "mari-morgan" is also a term for monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) in some areas of Brittany.)
The earliest accounts of Ys do not mention Dahut, whose first known appearance was in 17th-century monk Albert Le Grand's Vies des Saints de la Bretagne Armorique. This first mention is pretty brief, with Dahut dying. Subsequent versions fleshed out more details, and the modern version of the tale is highly literary. Matthieu Boyd has a good rundown of the evolution of the story, including recent retellings which make Dahut a heroic figure. Amy Varin makes a shaky argument that Dahut was originally a sovereign goddess who bestowed kingship on her chosen consort (most of her evidence is unrelated legends of mermaids or otherworldly maidens who married humans).
Lí Ban: from Ireland
The guarded city: A man named Eochaid comes to a place with a spring well. He builds a house there, and sets a woman to tend the well so it doesn't overflow.
Opening the gate: One day, the woman fails to cover the well.
Immersion and transformation: This causes a flood which creates the lake known as Lough Neagh, drowning Eochaid and all of his children except for two sons and Lí Ban. Lí Ban survives in her chamber underwater and is transformed into a salmon or, in some versions, a mermaid. Centuries later, she encounters monks and tells them her story. She receives the name Muirghein.
The parallels from Lí Ban to Dahut are fainter, but there are indications that these stories share some root. The cognate name Morgan/Muirghein is particularly striking. Amy Varin suggests that - based on the parallels in story structure - Lí Ban herself is the woman who fails to cover the well.
Compare another variant of Lough Neagh's origin, recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis in the Topography of Ireland.
“Now there was a common proverb . . . in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying the whole population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she had heard crying at a spot not far from the spring where she had left him. But the voice of the people is the voice of God; and on her way back she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake. A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers . . . and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through these parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe.” (Spence, p. 188)
This type of flood myth is common and a few Celtic variants stand out as caused by a woman. In a Scottish story, the ancient witch known as the Cailleach had a well in Inverness which needed to be kept covered at night. She tasked her maid, Nessa, with caring for the well. But one evening, Nessa was late to cover it, and by the time she got there, water was flooding from the well. Nessa ran away, but the Cailleach - watching from a mountain - cursed her never to leave the water, and Nessa was transformed into the River Ness (connected to the Loch Ness). Every year on the anniversary, Nessa briefly appears in human form to sing sadly. (There is a similar tale of the River Boyne, where the flood is caused by an "attendant nymph" who foolishly walks withershins three times around the well.) (Hull, 249-250).
Sir John Rhys collected some stories of Glasfryn Lake, which he identifies as a Welsh "Undine or Liban story". A woman named Grassi, or Grace, committed the same misstep of leaving a well uncovered and causing a flood. Grassi either became a weeping ghost haunting the field by the newly made lake, or was transformed into a swan by fairies. Rhys also noted that the Glasfryn family had a mermaid on their coat of arms, and theorized that the well maiden was originally named Morgen or Morien, to fit with the Lí Ban model.
One of the oldest parallels is the Welsh story of the drowned city Cantre'r Gwaelod, dating to the 13th-century Black Book of Camarthen . . . maybe. The problem here is that the original poem has been translated in many contradictory ways. Some translations place the blame on Mererid, a well maiden who neglected her duties. Other translations state that the culprit was Seithennin, a male drunkard who failed to close the sluices. Or it was both Mererid and Seithennin. Or maybe neither of these are characters in the first place, and we’re looking at generic nouns which have been misread as names. We don't know! (Celtic Review, pp. 338-340)
Overall, in general there are two distinct stories.
You might even go back as far as the Assyrian myth of Derceto or Atargatis. In Diodorus Siculus’s rendition of the story, the goddess Derceto offended Aphrodite, who retaliated by making her fall for a certain young man. Derceto had sex with him and gave birth to a child, but was ashamed. To hide what she’d done, she murdered her lover and abandoned the baby. Finally, she flung herself into a lake, where she was transformed into a fish with a human head.
It doesn’t map onto the story exactly, but here we do have a woman who falls into lust (like Scylla and Dahut), commits a betrayal, and instead of drowning meets a watery transformation.
Dahut is a particularly interesting case. She may not have originally been part of the story of Ys. Was the well maiden motif added later to the story of King Gradlon and his flooded city? And could John Rhys be right that the original name of this figure was something like Morgan, "sea-born"?
“Ondine’s Curse” is the name of a rare form of apnea, a condition in which people stop breathing. According to various medical texts, it's based on an old Germanic legend - the story of Undine or Ondine, who cursed her faithless lover to stop breathing. Except . . . this doesn't sound anything like the story of Undine, which isn't even exactly a legend. What's going on here?
As I've described before on this blog, "undines" originally came from the writings of 16th-century philosopher Paracelsus. The word was evidently his original creation, referring to water elementals or nymphs. Combining the medieval legends of "Melusine," "Peter von Stauffenberg," and various folktales about fairy wives, Paracelsus wrote that undines could gain a soul by marrying a human. However, such relationships were fraught with danger; these water-wives could all too easily be lost to the realm they'd come from, and if the mortal husband took another wife, the water-wife would come back to murder him. This story was passed around and adapted by various authors.
Most famously, it found form in the 19th-century novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Undine is a nymph who marries the knight Huldbrand and gains a soul as a result. However, he ditches her for a human lover - which, by the rules of spirits and the otherworld, means he must die. Although Undine still loves him, she is forced to kill him on the night of his second wedding. She appears and embraces him, weeping.
"Tears rushed into the knight's eyes, and seemed to surge through his heaving breast, till at length his breathing ceased, and he fell softly back from the beautiful arms of Undine, upon the pillows of his couch—a corpse."
Undine then states mournfully, "I have wept him to death."
So where did things go off track?
This novella became extremely popular, inspiring many adaptations. There were plays, operas, ballets. Even Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid took inspiration from it.
One play adaptation, Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux, came out in 1938. In this version, the characters are named Ondine and Hans. Although Hans betrays Ondine with another woman, she still loves him and attempts to stop her people from executing him by running away. However, her efforts are of no avail, and Hans is condemned to death by the king of the water spirits.
The former lovers get the chance to say goodbye. The tormented Hans tells Ondine, “Since you went away, I've had to force my body to do things it should do automatically. I no longer see unless I order my eyes to see... I have to control five senses, thirty muscles, even my bones; it's an exhausting stewardship. A moment of inattention, and I will forget to hear, to breathe... He died, they will say, because he got tired of breathing..."
As the two share a final kiss, Hans dies and Ondine's memories of him are erased.
Losing the Way
In 1962, a California-based doctor named John Severinghaus and his colleague Robert Mitchell worked with three patients who all shared similar symptoms. After operations on the brain stem, these patients could not breathe automatically. They had to consciously decide to breathe, and they needed artificial respiration when asleep. Severinghaus and Mitchell wrote a paper about their studies, coining the term "Ondine's Curse" for the phenomenon. They stated briefly:
"The syndrome was first described in German legend. The water nymph, Ondine, having been jilted by her mortal husband, took from him all automatic functions, requiring him to remember to breathe. When he finally fell asleep, he died."
This is a garbled version of Giraudoux's play. They were clearly inspired by Hans's speech, and as pointed out by researcher Fernando Navarro, they use Giraudoux's spelling, "Ondine." But you can see the play being misunderstood and slanted here, misremembered just a little.
Their summary was soon picked up, gaining a life of its own as other medical professionals repeated and mangled it further. Many versions simply repeat some variation on Severinghaus and Mitchell, but we see an emerging image of Ondine as a forceful figure who delivers judgment on her traitorous husband. She, not the ruler of the water spirits, curses Hans. Across various versions, she is angry, a purveyor of revenge or punishment (Navarro 1997).
Usually the husband or lover is unnamed, but Hans remains a common moniker (as in Naughton 2006). Some retellings get much more elaborate, with their own mythology. A popular variant explains that if a nymph ever falls in love with a mortal and gives birth to his child, then she will become an ordinary mortal, subject to aging. Nevertheless, the nymph Ondine falls in love with a human, and he with her. One version names him Lawrence (Coren 1997); another calls him Palemon, borrowing from Frederick Ashton's 1958 ballet adaptation Ondine (Mawer 2009).
Lawrence/Palemon/whoever swears to her that “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you." However, after she bears his son, Ondine begins to age, and her beauty fades. Her shallow husband dallies with other women. When Ondine catches him in bed with a mistress, she is enraged. With the last of her magic, she calls down a curse which mocks her husband's broken vow: as soon as he falls asleep, he'll stop breathing. Her husband inevitably falls asleep from exhaustion and dies.
This variant upends the original worldbuilding. In Fouque’s novel, marriage grants Undine a soul, but she remains otherworldly and powerful. Huldbrand rejects her out of fear and resentment. However, in this variant, marriage transforms Ondine into an ordinary woman, and that's why her husband strays.
Some of the shorter retellings are so clumsily phrased that they mix up vital information. One skips over the husband's infidelity:
"[T]he beautiful water nymph . . . punished her mortal husband by depriving him of the ability to breathe automatically. Without the benefit of tracheostomy, the poor wretch, having forgotten how to breathe, died in his sleep." (Vaisrub 1978)
Another makes Ondine the cheater in the situation!
"Ondine, a German water nymph, invoked a curse upon her jilted husband so that he would forget to breathe (and die) when he fell asleep." (Swift 1976, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Or was Ondine the one who was cursed?
"[T]he water nymph Ondine was punished by the gods after falling in love with a knight by being condemned to stay awake in order to breathe." (BBC 2003)
In some versions, Ondine is a succubus-like serial killer:
"...a water-spirit of German mythology called Ondine who could cause the death of her victims by stopping their respiration." (Taitz et al 1971, as cited in Navarro 1997)
"Ondine was a mythological water nymph who exhausted her human lovers." This author quotes Giraudoux's play, but labels Hans as just "one victim"! (Sege 1992)
And sometimes the nature of the curse itself changes to a perpetual sleep, as in one dictionary where Ondine is "A water nymph who caused a human male who loved her to sleep forever." (Firkin 1996)
The story goes completely off the rails in one article on spine surgery:
"Ondine, a shepherd in Greek mythology, was cursed for his misdeeds by being put into a sleep from which there was no awakening." (Fielding et al, 1975, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Critics were rightfully outraged at this summary, which manages to get every single detail wrong. The writers were following blindly in the footsteps of a very confused 1968 article which evidently mixed up Undine with the Greek myth of Endymion. The mistake is so wildly far off that I'm honestly impressed.
This is what happens when a bunch of people start retelling a story they've never read. The heart of the modern character Undine – carrying through to her spiritual successor, the Little Mermaid – is that she loves her husband. Her love is self-sacrificing and all-forgiving. The medical myth around “Ondine’s Curse” inverts this, making her a vindictive wife, a vampiric seductress, or a sheep-tending Greek man.
One article examines the history but concludes lackadaisically, "Whether Ondine kissed or clasped her husband to death depends on the version of the tale, and one can never know who cursed whom" (Tamarin et al, 1989). That's not true, though! This isn't like traditional oral folktales where there really are multiple unique variants and no one can determine an original. This is more like saying that we can never really know whether Dorothy's slippers were silver or ruby in The Wizard of Oz.
At what point does urban legend or commonly-repeated misconception become folklore? Can Ondine be considered a myth or legend, as it is often called? Perhaps it has become something of an oral folktale in the medical community. But given that it came specifically from literature, I hesitate to call it that.
This is part of a larger issue surrounding the story of Undine. It left its stamp on Western culture, but the work itself has become pretty obscure. For instance, many readers take jabs at Hans Christian Andersen for the theme of souls and salvation in The Little Mermaid, calling it tacked-on or a case of preachy Christian moralizing. But that plotline wasn’t original to Andersen – it was his response to Undine.
Scholars such as Oscar Sugar, Ravindra Nannapaneni, and Fernando Navarro have put significant work into tracing the fragmented and confused medical legend of Ondine's Curse. Many of them have argued against using the name at all, calling it a misnomer. From the other side, psychology professor Stanley Coren complained that the term was losing favor because of political correctness and "language sensitivity, where labeling people as suffering from some form of curse is seen as being insensitive rather than colorful." However, Coren says this right after weaving an elaborate summary which bears almost no resemblance to the real story. He also incorrectly attributes the coining of the term to the 1950s. And the vast majority of critics don't complain that it's mean to call a medical syndrome a curse; instead they focus on the fact that the name is fundamentally a bad fit.
On the literary level, Ondine neither causes the "curse" nor experiences it, and Hans's experience goes way beyond apnea. You could get pedantic and say "Well, it's named after the play, not the character" but clearly it has not been taken that way.
On the medical level, the shifting definitions lead to inconsistency on what the medical condition is. As Nannapaneni et al point out, the name "Ondine's Curse" has come to be used inconsistently for all sorts of conditions related to respiration. Not ideal for a medical term. They suggest that “this wide and nonspecific usage reflects a lack of awareness of the origins of this eponymous term.”
These days, the condition is typically known as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS); however, the name "Ondine's Curse" is still around in casual language, and is apparently here to stay.
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"Swan Lake" and "The Little Mermaid" are the same story.
But wait, you may say. The Little Mermaid is a Danish fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen about a mermaid. Swan Lake is a Russian ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, about a princess turned into a swan by a curse. In fact, both stories take inspiration from the Fairy Bride or “Quest for the Lost Bride” tale, categorized as Aarne-Thompson-Uther 400.
In the Fairy Bride tale, a man takes an otherworldly creature as a wife. They live together for a while, possibly having children, but one day she leaves him and returns to her own world. This is similar to stories with a mortal woman and supernatural husband, like "Cupid and Psyche" or "East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon." However, while human brides usually get their supernatural husbands back, in ATU 400 - despite the title of "The Quest for the Lost Bride" - it’s less certain that a mortal husband will succeed. Many versions end with him never seeing his fairy wife again. The earliest known example is the Hindu story of Urvasi, found in the Rig Veda (c. 1200 B.C.E.).
There are different types of the Fairy Bride story:
A) It’s a story of spousal abduction. A man discovers a beautiful maiden - a selkie or swan maiden with a removable animal skin, or a mermaid with a magic cap. He hides the magical garment, trapping her in human form. She inevitably regains the garment and escapes as fast as she can.
B) The marriage is consensual, but there is some taboo the husband must not violate (never strike his wife, never spy on her while she’s bathing, etc.). He invariably violates it, and she leaves.
The most famous example is Melusine, first appearing in the Roman de Melusine by Jean d'Arras (1393). She marries a man and their union is happy at first; she builds castles for him and bears many sons. But she makes him promise never to look in at her while she's bathing. Inevitably he does so, and sees her as a half-serpent or a mermaid. When he publicly calls her a serpent, she turns into a dragon and flies away. In many versions the idea is that if he had kept his promise, she would have been freed from her curse.
There's a related folktale where a young man encounters a woman who's been turned into a serpent or half-serpent by a curse. If he can kiss her three times, she will be freed and he will receive riches and her hand in marriage. Before he can kiss her a third time, he is overcome by fear and runs away. He soon regrets his cowardice, but is never able to find her again. In fact, in some versions this woman is Melusine. The maiden-turned-serpent freed by a kiss appears in many medieval sources. The story gets a tragic, inconclusive ending in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (14th century) but a happy ending in the French romance Le Bel Inconnu (12th century) and Italian Carduino (14th century). The gender-swapped version would be the medieval story of The Knight of the Swan (tragic ending).
In a further variant of B, the taboo is taking another wife. This appeared most prominently in the medieval poem of Peter von Staufenberg (c.1310). Peter's nymph mistress showers him with good fortune but gives him one condition: he must never marry anyone else, or he'll die three days after the wedding. However, other people put pressure on Peter to marry a human woman, with many telling him the nymph is a demon, and he eventually gives in. At his wedding feast, the nymph's leg appears through the ceiling. Three days later, Peter dies.
The later story "Melusine im Stollenwald" combines this with Melusine and the Serpent Maiden tales; a man named Sebald promises to kiss Melusine three times to break her curse, but she becomes progressively more serpentine and dragon-like, and his courage fails him. Years later, at his wedding feast to another woman, the ceiling cracks and a drop of poison falls unseen onto Sebald's food. He eats it and dies. A snake tail is seen through the ceiling, implying that the poison is Melusine's venom.
Paracelsus, a Swiss philosopher, worked both Melusine's and Peter von Staufenberg's tales into his descriptions of elemental beings in A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits (published in 1566). He dubbed the water elementals "undines."
German author Friedrich de la Motte Fouque spun this into a novella, Undine, published in 1811. There's another work that probably inspired Fouque: the successful Viennese play Das Donauweibchen (1798), which follows a knight named Albrecht torn between his mortal wife Bertha and water nymph lover Hulda. The plot is very different from Undine, but the love triangle, setting, and names are similar.
Fouque's plot runs as follows:
Boy meets water-fairy. A knight named Huldbrand goes traveling through the woods, where he meets and falls in love with the mysterious Undine. It turns out that she’s a water-spirit, and she gains a human soul by marrying him.
The fidelity test. Fouque uses two taboos, straight from Paracelsus: first, the husband must never scold his nymph wife near the water or she’ll return to her own world, and second, if he ever takes another wife, the nymph will return and kill him.
The doppelganger. Huldbrand reconnects with his first love Bertalda. Bertalda is, in a way, Undine's sister; she’s the long-lost daughter of Undine’s human foster parents.
The tragic ending. Huldbrand breaks the first taboo by bringing up Undine's inhuman origins and berating her, causing her to disappear. He then breaks the second taboo by marrying Bertalda. Undine appears after the wedding and drowns him with her tears. When he is buried, she becomes a fountain flowing around his grave.
Now we come back to "The Little Mermaid" and "Swan Lake." These stories map onto the same points as Undine.
The Little Mermaid
We know from Hans Christian Andersen’s letters that he was inspired by Undine when he developed the concept for “The Little Mermaid” (1837). Like Undine, the mermaid is motivated by her desire for a soul. It hits generally the same beats as Fouque's novel:
Boy meets water-fairy. The mermaid saves a prince's life and falls for him.
The fidelity test. The mermaid can earn a soul by marrying the prince, but if he marries someone else, she will die.
The doppelganger. The prince mistakenly attributes his rescue to a human girl who physically resembles the mermaid.
The tragic ending. The prince marries the other girl. On the wedding night, the mermaid is given the option to escape death by killing him. She refuses and melts into sea foam, but is resurrected as an air spirit.
Around 1870, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked on an unsuccessful opera version of Undine. He destroyed most of the score, but recycled part of Undine and Huldbrand’s duet for the music of "Swan Lake," which debuted in 1877. It didn't initially do well, but in 1895 it was brought back and reworked with a simpler plot. Tchaikovsky died shortly before the new version could be completed.
Boy meets water-fairy. In the 1877 version, Prince Siegfried hunts some swans until they reach a lake. There he discovers that they are fairy maidens in disguise. Odette, the leader, is the daughter of a knight and a fairy, and is in hiding from her murderous stepmother. Her grandfather, a sorcerer, gave her a magic crown to protect her, and allows her to fly freely in swan form at night.
(In the updated 1895 version, Odette and her companions are humans transformed into swans by the evil genie Rothbart - a minor character in the original.)
The fidelity test. Marriage will permanently protect Odette from her stepmother. Siegfried promises to marry her.
(1895: Siegfried’s oath of love to Odette will break the curse, but if he marries someone else, he dooms her to remain a swan forever.)
The doppelganger. Rothbart's daughter Odile, a girl who looks physically identical to Odette (played by the same ballerina).
The tragic ending. Siegfried is tricked into proposing to Odile, betraying Odette in the process. Realizing his mistake, he runs back to the lake, where he tears off Odette's crown in an attempt to keep her with him. She dies in his arms and the lake swallows them both.
(1895: Instead of the crown scene, Siegfried and Odette drown themselves rather than live without each other. This breaks Rothbart's power.)
Inspirations and Themes
Swan Lake and The Little Mermaid are not adaptations of the Undine story. They are unique works by modern authors, and Undine was just one of many inspirations behind them.
Andersen was familiar with many mermaid stories. "The Little Mermaid" is unusual among the tales listed in this post, because it's entirely from the "fairy bride's" point of view. Her backstory, her feelings about immortal souls, her journey. Unlike Undine or Odette, who depend on their men to complete a test, she bears the knowledge of her test alone; her prince never has any idea what's really going on. The ending of her story, where she refuses to kill the prince, is an intentional reversal of Undine (and, in turn, "Peter von Staufenberg"). Undine easily gains an immortal soul but is still forced to obey her deadly otherworldly nature. The Little Mermaid earns a soul by rejecting that side of herself no matter the cost.
"Swan Lake," on the other hand, combines Undine with the traditional swan wife folktale. There are plenty of theories about Tchaikovsky's inspirations, and plenty of European swan-shifter myths. There's the Irish story of the Children of Lir, where the main characters are transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother, and similarly "The Knight of the Swan" which, as already mentioned, has its own similarities to Melusine. (When I first started working on this blog post, the Wikipedia page for Swan Lake claimed that a fairytale called "The White Duck" could have inspired the ballet; however, the stories have nothing in common. I'm not sure where this claim came from and it's been removed anyway at this point, but I wanted to document it for posterity.)
A likely influence is Johann Karl August Musäus's 1782 novella "Der geraubte Schleier" or "The Stolen Veil," itself a retelling of the swan maiden folktale. The main character, Friedbert, encounters a hermit named Benno. (“Benno” is the name of Siegfried’s best friend in Swan Lake.) The dying hermit shows him a magical pool, visited occasionally by fairies or nymphs in swan form. The nymphs gain their powers of transformation from golden crowns with attached veils. If a nymph’s crown/veil is stolen, she’ll be trapped in human form. Benno the creepy stalker hermit failed, but Friedbert succeeds in stealing one of the veils. He gives shelter to the stranded swan maiden, Callista, and convinces her to marry him. But when his mother unwittingly exposes his lies and returns the veil, Callista is furious and immediately takes off in swan form. Friedbert searches across the world until he finds her again. Despite her initial anger, she still loves him, and is so impressed by his tireless search for her that she forgives everything.
So this is why Siegfried rips off Odette's crown in the original ballet - he is trying to invoke the trope that you can capture a swan maiden by taking her garment. However, Odette's crown was actually protecting both of them. Although it was later edited out, Tchaikovky's twist feels almost like a rebuttal of the way "The Stolen Veil" rewards Friedbert's selfishness.
Tchaikovsky was probably also familiar with Russian fairy tales about swans. A different tale type, ATU 313 or "Girl Helps the Hero Flee," often has overlap with swan maiden tales. One example that Tchaikovsky could have encountered was "The Sea Tsar and Vasilissa the Wise" in Alexander Afanasyev's collection of Russian tales, published in the 1850s and 1860s. In this story, a prince spots the Sea Tsar's daughters as they transform from spoonbills into women. He steals the clothing of one princess, Vasilissa; however, unlike the typical fairy bride story, he relents and returns it to her, letting her fly away. Vasilissa later aids him with various magical tasks when he is imprisoned by her father. The Sea Tsar finally allows the prince to choose a bride from among his twelve identical daughters, and Vasilissa leaves clues for the prince to recognize her. Reunited, the prince and Vasilissa return to his kingdom together. In some versions, the prince then breaks a taboo and gets amnesia, and Vasilissa must crash his wedding to another woman so she can trigger his memories.
The plot is very different, but notice the (double!) threat of the prince mistakenly marrying a doppelganger.
Abduction variants of the Fairy Bride tale are about control. Marriages are thinly disguised kidnappings; wives are captives who will take any opportunity to escape. On the other hand, consensual variants are about a test of trust, commitment, or courage. If the male partner passes this test, he can lift the fairy bride to a higher state of existence. Freedom from a curse for Odette, Melusine or the serpent-maiden; a human soul for Undine and the Little Mermaid. It's not a one-and-done test, either; it is long-term. The serpent maiden needs repeated kisses. Undine gets her soul early on, but Huldbrand still needs to continuously honor their vows and be a good husband.
Researcher and professor Serinity Young found that the earliest recorded fairy bride stories are of divine women who lift their mortal husbands to a higher state of existence. For instance, the celestial maiden Urvasi promises her husband immortality in heaven. Young proposes that the fairy bride story in its oldest form was about marriage by abduction; Urvasi tells her mortal husband that she was miserable in their marriage, and other early versions similarly focus on the fairy bride's unhappiness and feelings of being trapped. Young suggests that as women lost social status, fairy bride stories were recast in more romantic terms. I wonder if they also blended with a separate story tradition of a cursed beast-bride or snake maiden. In addition to making the male character more sympathetic, the romantic versions also reverse the power dynamic. The mortal man is now the one holding redemptive, transformative power. This culminates in the extreme of "The Little Mermaid," written in a modern Christian European context. The Mermaid is the pursuer in her relationship, going through incredible suffering on her quest, while the prince rejects her as a romantic partner. She is the one seeking both marriage and immortality.
However, despite these changes, the mortal man’s fallible nature remains from the older stories. The love rival twist is especially interesting to me. Peter von Staufenberg and Huldbrand bend to societal pressure by marrying human women, taking the easy way out. Swan Lake's Siegfried and the Little Mermaid's prince have a different dilemma. Despite good intentions, they look only at the surface, failing to truly perceive the women they love.
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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.
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.
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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 168) 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.
(Edited 7/14/23 with page number correction)
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.