A Tale of Two Mermaids: A Comparison of Hans Christian Andersen & Disney’s Protagonists

Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” and Disney’s 1989 film adaptation differ in a multitude of notable ways, from key elements of plot to those of character. Perhaps the most distinct difference, aside from the highly contrasting endings, is the characterization of the protagonists, the little mermaids themselves. Disney’s version presents to its viewers a wild, adventurous, 16-year-old girl named Ariel, while Andersen’s original story features a pensive and quiet 15-year-old who remains nameless throughout the entirety of the tale.

Due to her rebellious, outspoken nature, Ariel’s character may initially appear to viewers as a more positive, feminist role model for girls and young women. After all, the Disney film was released about 150 years after the first publication of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” during which the women’s rights movement made countless advancements in the western world and beyond–perhaps most notably, women in the United States gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. However, despite this vastly different cultural climate, Disney’s Ariel still ultimately proves to be under patriarchal reign, in some ways even more so than Andersen’s original little mermaid.

It is essential to note that each mermaid exists in an entirely different cultural landscape. Andersen’s well-known fairy tales were published during the Romantic period, during which a multitude of writers and other artists rejected the rational ideals of the Enlightenment in favor of the key principles of individualism, reverence for nature, and emotionality. Andersen’s little mermaid exemplifies these new ideals. She is repeatedly described as a “quiet and thoughtful” child who appreciates art and nature (150). Her personal garden, unlike those of her sisters, pays homage to natural elements rather than material ones; their gardens are “filled with all sorts of things that they had collected from shipwrecks” while hers contains only one non-natural object: “a marble statue” (150, emphasis added). This statue is not just a “thing” but a work of art, which the mermaid practically worships, even “embracing” it after noticing its resemblance to her beloved prince (157). Additionally, when she is finally allowed to ascend to the water’s surface, the first thing the little mermaid sees and admires is the sunset–a natural element rather than a man-made one, like the ship, which she notices only after viewing the sun.

So, Andersen’s little mermaid seems to be a true Romantic heroine, endowed with all the qualities that would have been considered ideal during Andersen’s time. Disney’s Ariel, on the other hand, represents an entirely new and different kind of woman. Like the older sisters of Andersen’s little mermaid, she has a vast collection of “things,” all of which are incredibly important to her. In this way, she is a true modern woman. Her dearest desire is to live within a capitalistic society where one’s ultimate goal is not to appreciate art and nature but only to acquire more and more things. Thus, Ariel and Andersen’s little mermaid contrast starkly due to the values of their respective societies.

Another key difference between the societies in which Ariel and Andersen’s little mermaid exist is their patriarchal and matriarchal natures, respectively. In both narratives, the little mermaid has several sisters and no brothers. But in Andersen’s tale, the little mermaid and her sisters are raised primarily by their paternal grandmother, who is portrayed as a distinctly feminine character, with her jewelry and stories for the mermaids. Interestingly, the girls’ father plays almost no role in the story. So, the little mermaid is raised surrounded by women, in a decidedly matriarchal society.

The Disney version, however, entirely eliminates the grandmother character, choosing instead to give Ariel’s father, King Triton, a substantial role in the plot. Indeed, it is his harsh and destructive actions, combined with her love for Prince Eric, that ultimately cause Ariel to visit Ursula the sea-witch, not her own desire for a soul, as in the original story. Therefore, female autonomy is diminished in this newer version; despite Ariel’s apparent spunkiness, her actions are largely reactive to those of men and thus less reflective of her own desires and inclinations.

Disney’s film also includes the addition of several other key male characters: Flounder, Ariel’s sidekick, Sebastian, her paternally-appointed babysitter, and Scuttle, the kooky seagull with supposed knowledge of the human world. Aside from Flounder, who can be assumed to be younger than Ariel due to his babyish voice, each of these characters is tasked with guiding Ariel in some way or another. Sebastian must provide the “constant supervision” that a girl her age supposedly must receive, and Scuttle gives his comical analysis of human objects and rituals. It is notable that Ariel’s first step when encountering these foreign objects is not to attempt to discern their uses for herself, but immediately seek the guidance of a male. She also does not in any way question Scuttle’s statements, no matter how strange they sound. In this way, Scuttle serves as the masculine replacement for the grandmother in the original tale in that he provides information about the human world, like the grandmother did, but filtered through a male perspective.

As for Flounder, the fact that Ariel actively chooses the company of a male than her sisters clearly illustrates her entrenchment in patriarchal society. Though Flounder is shown as cowardly and meek, often holding her back on her daring adventures, his company is still preferable to that of another woman. Also, although he is a rather two-dimensional character, he is still given much more of a personality than Ariel’s sisters, between which there are no distinctions other than their names. In Andersen’s story, each mermaid is shown to be different through their first interactions with the human world; for example, one is too meek to venture close to human life, while another is so bold that she swims right up a river into a highly populated area. The addition of each of these male characters and deletion or neglect of the female ones causes Disney’s Ariel to exist in an utterly patriarchal world.

Overall, though Ariel may at first seem like a more progressive representation of femininity than some other fairy-tale women, including Andersen’s original little mermaid, closer analysis reveals her true lack of any meaningful sense of autonomy. In the end, she is simply and clearly transferred from her father’s authority to that of Eric, her husband. Alternatively, Andersen’s tale, shows that women, too, can be active participants in the intellectual discourse of the time by featuring a female character who truly embodies the ideals of Romanticism.

Works Cited

Andersen, H. C. “The Little Mermaid.” Hans Andersen: His Classic Fairy Tales. Trans. Erik Christian. Haugaard. London: Victor Gollancz, 1985. Print.

The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Perf. Jodi Benson and Christopher Barnes. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989. DVD.

A Search for Destiny: Applying Campbell’s Model to “Snow White” and “The Little Mermaid”

For over 27,000 years, ever since the first cave paintings were uncovered, telling tales has been one of our most underlying methods of communication. Various compelling legends and tales originate from culturally diverse regions from all around the world, which exemplify the elemental basis of imagination and provides a life changing morality lesson. These captivating stories about the protagonist’s exhilarating adventure to discover their true potential, may greatly relate to our own individual journey in revealing our place in the world and uncovering our fate. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, conveys the monomyth from his book Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation in the chapter “The Self as Hero”, he explores the main idea that as the single protagonist undergoes a life changing experience. The hero reveals their true destiny and achieve enlightenment by becoming more knowledgeable, thus contributing to society by utilizing their expertise gained from their journey. One can test Campbell’s monomyth theory by analyzing two fairy tales “The Little Mermaid” and the “Little Snow White”, and ascertain whether it connects to Campbell’s assertion or requires modification.

Regarding Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey, his claim requires to be extended in order to include every element and consider every possible way of portraying these substages, throughout the various stages demonstrated in the hero’s voyage. Campbell methodically devised his argument that every individual contains the opportunity to become lionhearted, by responding to that “call of adventure” and beginning a thrilling escapade off into searching for one’s true destiny. He divides this ultimate hero’s journey into four stages, and identifies the first stage as gaining the courage to depart from the accustomed environment; impelled to embark upon the exhilarating journey regardless of the uncertainty and risk included. Campbell contends that the “call to adventure” is able to take the form of departing from a repressive environment, an alluring temptation, or a quest. He claims, “The first stage is leaving where you are, whatever the environment. You may leave because the environment is too repressive and you are consciously uneasy and eager to leave. Or it may be that a call to adventure, an alluring temptation, comes and draws you out.” (Campbell 113). Although, he argues that a certain form of motivation would need to be present, in order for the hero to decide to leave their usual environment. For instance, “The Little Mermaid” fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, epitomized Campbell’s claim that an alluring temptation can result in a start to a magnificent new voyage of unveiling your potent self. “The Little Mermaid” fairytale serves as an exceptional example; since the little mermaid desired the most out of her elder sisters to gain the sensational experience of viewing the whole new world outside her realm, and her most extreme admiration and enthusiasm for the human world. On her fifteenth birthday, she swam above the ocean to view the whole new beautiful and breathtaking world she always dreamed of seeing, to only be captivated by the big black eyes of a handsome prince celebrating his birthday on an imposing ship. A fierce storm began to create the violent clashing waves which caused the ship to begin to sink into the ocean’s deep abyss, and the little mermaid managed to save her lovely prince as he was drowning and becoming unconscious. The little mermaid, “grew more and more fond of human beings, and wished more and more to be able to wander about with those whose world seemed to be so much larger than her own. They could fly over the sea in ships, and mount the high hills which were far above the clouds; and the lands they possessed, their woods and their fields, stretched far away beyond the reach of her sight.” (Andersen). The enchanting prince and the possibility of gaining a human soul, became the alluring temptation for the little mermaid to embark her journey into the marvelous human world and sacrificing her life at sea, all in order to confess her underlying love for her prince. The beginning stage of the little mermaid’s journey effectively supports Campbell’s assertion that the “call to adventure” is able to take the form of an alluring temptation. The “Little Snow White” fairy tale, by The Brothers Grimm, also serves as an example to support Campbell’s claim about the first phase of the ultimate hero’s journey, which was inspired to occur for Snow White as a means to vacate a repressive environment. Snow White was suppressed to leave her home because of the malicious queen who desperately desired to become the “fairest of them all”, and would not be able to achieve that with the stunning Snow White still being alive. The malevolent queen ordered a huntsman to lead Snow White into the dark woods and rip out her lungs and liver, however the huntsman was impotent in completing this gruesome act and urged Snow White to escape and never return, otherwise the queen will undoubtedly banish her from existence completely. The huntsman “took out his hunting knife and was about to stab it into her innocent heart when she began to cry, saying, “Oh, dear huntsman, let me live. I will run into the wild woods and never come back.” Because she was so beautiful the huntsman took pity on her, and he said, “Run away, you poor child.” He thought, “The wild animals will soon devour you anyway.” (Grimm). Snow White’s oppressive home environment leads her to an unfortunate situation where it is necessary for her to elude from the malignant queen, indicating the beginning of an extraordinary adventure. Regarding Campbell’s claim about the beginning of the hero’s journey, resulting from leaving a repressive environment, he intended that it was certainly the hero’s choice. However, in the story of Snow White she was compelled to abandon her home, rather than being given the option. Therefore, Campbell should add to his claim the possibility that the “call to adventure” may remain the hero’s choice, or they may be forced to leave their home and begin their fascinating journey. Campbell addresses the second stage of the hero’s journey as “crossing the threshold”, the stage where the hero begins to face difficult challenges, and commence the path that leads into the great unknown. The hero’s journey crossing the threshold, is an opportunity for the them to test their physical and mental endurance, as they go beyond the notion of good and evil. He recalls, “It’s always a dangerous adventure because you’re moving out of the familiar sphere of your community. In myths, this is represented as moving out of the known sphere altogether into the great beyond. I call this crossing the threshold.” (Campbell 114). Campbell claims that the challenges faced, while crossing from the conscious into the unconscious, are able to acquire many forms; including the crossing from the known to the unknown, presence of threshold guardians or magical aid. Campbell argues that the hero only faces one of these challenges and receives magical aid only after crossing the threshold, however in “The Little Mermaid” the hero tends to face challenges and receive magical aid before crossing from the known to the unknown. For example, the little mermaid visited the deep sea witch in order to gain a human soul to be with her beloved prince, and was able to receive a new pair of legs which was a form of magical aid. However, the little mermaid was obliged to pay a price, she had to give up her beautiful voice in exchange for a pair of legs. The little mermaid was no longer allowed to return to her father and sisters, and if the mermaid did not win the prince’s love and instead he married another, her heart will break and she shall turn into the foam of the sea. The little mermaid saw as “the slaves next performed some pretty fairy-like dances, to the sound of beautiful music. Then the little mermaid raised her lovely white arms, stood on the tips of her toes, and glided over the floor, and danced as no one yet had been able to dance. At each moment her beauty became more revealed, and her expressive eyes appealed more directly to the heart than the songs of the slaves. Everyone was enchanted, especially the prince, who called her his little foundling; and she danced again quite readily, to please him, though each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives.”(Andersen). The little mermaid is crossing from her familiar oceanic realm into the unknown world of humans which was her ultimate desire. The deep sea sorceress serves the role of a threshold guardian, and provides magical aid that came with a price, before she was able to transition into the world of mortals. Therefore, Campbell’s claim regarding the presence of magical aid would need to be extended, by including the aspect that magic tends to always come with a price, rather than generously granted. The second stage of the little mermaid’s journey contains all three elements of the fundamental stage of crossing the threshold, which signifies that Campbell would need to expand his claim; regarding that only one of the elements are present in a story in order to indicate the stage of “crossing the threshold”. The “Little Snow White” fairy tale also serves as an example that Campbell’s claim should undergo certain adjustments regarding the second stage of the hero’s journey, dubbed as “crossing the threshold”. In view of the fact that Snow White was suppressed to leave her familiar environment. She had nowhere else to go and out of fear and disarray. she got lost in a dark and eerie forest. This event symbolizes Campbell’s element of the second stage of the hero’s journey, indicated as the crossing from the known into the unknown. Snow White has left her accustomed environment and experienced a difficult transition into a frightening forest and state of isolation. Little Snow White “was now all alone in the great forest, and she was so afraid that she just looked at all the leaves on the trees and did not know what to do. Then she began to run. She ran over sharp stones and through thorns, and wild animals jumped at her, but they did her no harm. She ran as far as her feet could carry her, and just as evening was about to fall she saw a little house and went inside in order to rest.” (Grimm). The second stage of Snow White’s journey not only included the crossing from the known into the unknown, it also incorporated the presence of magical aid. Snow White was able to recover from her frightening experience in the dark forest, and capable of finding a new home by being welcomed by friendly dwarves who provided shelter from the spiteful queen. Similarly to “The Little Mermaid” fairy tale, magical aid was provided only for something in return. The dwarves only permitted Snow White to stay in their cottage, sheltered from the malicious queen, if she were willing to always take care of the cottage and the dwarves. Therefore, Campbell’s claim would require to be expanded regarding the element of magical aid, in order to receive magical aid it often times requires something in exchange. The second stage of Snow White’s journey contains two elements of the principal stage of crossing from the conscious into the unconscious, which indicates that Campbell would be obligated to extend his argument; regarding his claim that all three components of the “crossing the threshold” stage are able to be present in the hero’s journey.Campbell asserts that the third stage of the hero’s journey is when the protagonist is obliged to overcome certain difficulties and trials, which symbolizes the fulfillment of the hero’s great potential. He claims that the third stage is able to take on many forms including: the erotic encounter, meeting with the less benign goddess, atonement with the father, apotheosis, or seizing the prize. Campbell recalls, “after you have received the magical aid, you will have a series of increasingly threatening tests and trials to pass. The deeper you get into this gauntlet, the heavier the resistance. You are coming into areas of the unconscious that have been repressed: the shadow, the anima/animus, and the rest of the unintegrated self; it is the repression system that you have to pass through.” (Campbell 116). Once the hero crosses the threshold, the journey becomes applicable to the intense spiritual necessity required for the hero to achieve readiness, and will receive magical aid to prepare for the trial that will determine their ultimate success. However, in “The Little Mermaid” fairytale, she receives magical aid before she crosses the threshold in order to physically be able to transition into the unknown, where the ultimate trial determining her destiny would take place. Therefore, Campbell would need to extend his claim regarding the various instances where magical aid is able to take place, during the second and third stage of the hero’s journey. The third phase of the little mermaid’s journey, embodied Campbell’s assertion that apotheosis is able to serve as a successful outcome, resulting from a certain trial that the hero faced during their challenging journey. The little mermaid strived to win over the prince’s love by staying completely devoted to him, however he was destined to marry another beautiful lady from a neighboring kingdom, which would mean that the little mermaid’s heart would soon be shattered into little pieces. The little mermaid’s sisters were able to give up their luscious hair to the deep sea sorceress; in exchange for a piercing dagger that she would need to plunge into the prince’s heart before sunrise, in order to save herself from turning into the foam of the sea. The little mermaid “glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood. She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam.” (Andersen). The little mermaid was given a difficult decision to make of whether she is able to murder the man she loved unconditionally, as a means to return to her life as a mermaid once again. She undergoes an epiphany as she was able to sacrifice her own life instead of the prince’s, and through selflessness she achieved eternal serenity and contentment. The third stage of the little mermaid’s voyage to spiritual realization effectively supported Campbell’s claim, whereas the hero surpasses a certain difficult trial, which is able to remain in a form of apotheosis. The “Little Snow White” is also able to exemplify and support Campbell’s argument about the third phase of the hero’s journey to enlightenment and unraveling their true potential, that the hero is able to be tested by encountering a less benign goddess. The malicious queen was infuriated when she discovered that Snow White was still alive and well, and decided to disguise herself as an old peasant woman. She attempted to lure Snow White into trying on venomous and life-threatening objects, all in effect to get rid of Snow White and become the fairest of them all. However, the dwarves were able to rescue Snow White, until she took a bite from the poisonous red apple and succumbed into a deadly sleep. The beautiful Snow White “lay there in the coffin a long, long time, and she did not decay, but looked like she was asleep, for she was still as white as snow and as red as blood, and as black-haired as ebony wood. Now it came to pass that a prince entered these woods…and saw the coffin on the mountain with beautiful Snow-White in it, and he read what was written on it with golden letters.” (Grimm). Snow White’s encounter with the envious queen symbolized the test that she was striving to overcome, the result of the trial was deemed unsuccessful since Snow White was not able to be saved by the dwarves. However, if she were not to fail the trial against the less benign goddess, she would have not been able to meet her beloved prince who saved her precious life. Since the evil queen was not able to successfully eliminate Snow White, she is able to fit Campbell’s assertion of the presence of a less benign goddess in the third stage of the hero’s journey. On the other hand, Campbell claims that “in myths of the man’s adventure, the sacred marriage is union with the world goddess or with some minor secondary representation of her power.” Campbell fails to mention how the meeting with a goddess does not always occur in a man’s adventure, it could also occur during a heroine’s journey. The “Little Snow White” fairy tale effectively exemplifies that a woman is able to encounter a powerful or less benign goddess, therefore he should expand his claim and consider both gender roles regarding the ultimate hero’s journey. Campbell formulated his argument about the final stage of the hero’s journey, which he identifies as “the return across the threshold”, and includes how the return tends to be troublesome for the hero. Therefore, according to Campbell, the hero is left with one of these three options: refusal of the return, return in terms of society, or enforce a pedagogical attitude. He recalls, that “the whole idea is that you’ve got to bring out again that which you went to recover, the unrealized, unutilized potential in yourself. The whole point of this journey is the reintroduction of this potential into the world; that is to say, to you living in the world…It goes without saying, this is very difficult.” (Campbell 119). According to Campbell, once the hero returns from crossing the threshold, they will have to be able to transition back into their familiar environment or may even refuse to return. In “The Little Mermaid” fairy tale, she was able to refuse from returning to her home environment, and was also able to bring what was gained from her adventure and contribute it to society. The little mermaid has given up her home in the ocean, and all of her purest dreams and the ultimate desire of gaining a human soul. She was not able to return home, and nor was she able to win the prince’s unconditional love, resulting in her transition to a brand new world. The little mermaid became one of the daughters of the air, “although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind.” (Andersen). The little mermaid refused to return to her home, because she decided to sacrifice her own life instead of the prince’s, resulting in her transformation into the daughter of air. As a daughter of the air, she is able to contribute to the happiness of mankind and perform good actions to contribute to the world. Therefore, Campbell needs to expand his claim regarding that the hero’s journey only contains one of the three different forms of the “return across the threshold”. The “Little Snow White” fairy tale is also able to serve as an example for Campbell’s claim regarding the protagonist’s final stage of the hero’s journey, the stage of the “return across the threshold”. The final stage of Snow White’s journey, resulted in her returning to the terms of society once again, however she also refused to return to her once familiar environment where the malicious queen lived. After the poisonous apple dislodged from Snow White’s throat, “she opened her eyes, lifted the lid from her coffin, sat up, and was alive again.”Good heavens, where am I?” she cried out. The prince said joyfully, “You are with me.” He told her what had happened, and then said, “I love you more than anything else in the world. Come with me to my father’s castle. You shall become my wife.” Snow-White loved him, and she went with him.” (Grimm). Snow White was able to return to society with the help of her beloved prince whom she ended up marrying, and was able to refuse from returning to her original home because of the presence of the malevolent queen. Therefore, Campbell will need to expand his claim regarding the presence of more than one element in the protagonist’s final stage of the ultimate hero’s journey.

Indeed, it is possible to test Campbell’s theory about the hero’s journey by applying it to two different fairy tales, “The Little Mermaid” and the “Little Snow White”. Campbell’s main assertion revolved around the ultimate idea of an individual finding their own destiny, by responding to the call of adventure in order to embark on the hero’s journey. Campbell was able to divide the hero’s journey into four dominant stages, and argued that one of the elements illustrating the certain stage would need to be present throughout the hero’s voyage. However, Campbell would need to expand his assertion regarding the four stages of the hero’s journey, and its important substages.