Gnostic Semblances in Disney’s The Little Mermaid
At first glance, the suggestion that Disney’s The Little Mermaid portrays Gnostic themes and characters could seem comical. It is a movie from the early 90’s about a rebellious, love-struck mermaid that gets a happy ending. However, my first step towards seeing otherwise was recognizing the similarities between Ariel, the mermaid, and Sophia from the Apocryphon of John. Then I recognized a similar world structure: one above and one below but perhaps not exactly as the Apocryphon suggests. Then, there is the never-ending battle between good and evil, their representatives and their interactions. One other character from the Apocryphon seems to appear in the film as the human with which Ariel falls in love, Prince Eric. These parallels come together in the following essay to highlight the Gnostic qualities present in this film, however, these parallels do not go any deeper to represent the themes in Gnosticism we may consider ‘symptoms’ of the ‘Gnostic syndrome.’ Ariel has characteristics that make her similar to Sophia from the Apocryphon of John. Where Sophia was the last aeon created by the invisible spirit, Ariel maintains a similar position in her story by being the youngest daughter of king Triton (BJn p. 8, Layton 34). Throughout their stories, we see that both characters show a desire for an impossibility. Ariel wishes for a pair of legs that will enable her to live among humans while Sophia yearns to create (BJn p. 9, Layton 35). These two desires seem unrelated; however, they give both characters equally negative consequences once acquired. For both, it meant losing an ability to the villain. For both of these characters, that lost ability was related to light. As collateral for the legs the sea witch gave her, Ariel gave up her voice. As it was extracted from her, the film depicts it as a small ball of golden light. In the case of Sophia, it was her creation, Ialtabaoth that took her power. The text describes Sophia’s loss as “the radiation of her light diminished” (BJn p. 13, Layton 38). Here we can see a symptom of the Gnostic syndrome. Sophia’s representation in The Little Mermaid is not wise; rather she is rash and careless and gives little forethought to the consequences of her actions. The main difference between Ariel and Sophia is the nature of their transformations, otherwise, they continue to share parallel plots. Where Sophia created without a consort or the invisible spirit’s consent, Ariel changed her appearance in order to be with her consort but still without her father’s consent. Once these characters acquired what they desired, expulsion and concealment from the place of origin followed. For Ariel, the expulsion meant a rapid ascent to the human surface because she no longer had the ability to breathe underwater. The concealment came as her transformation was inadvertently kept from father. Expulsion for Sophia meant that she had to “cast [Ialtabaoth] outside of her, outside that place, so that none of the immortals might see it…” The concealment followed as Sophia “surrounded [Ialtabaoth] with a luminous cloud” (BJn p. 10, Layton 35). In both cases, the characters could not stay in the more perfect realm as a consequence of their disobedience. The Little Mermaid and the Apocryphon of John also share the distinction of having two-part worlds. The duality in the Apocryphon consists of the spiritual realm (i.e. the model) versus the material realm (i.e. the copy). Similarly, The Little Mermaid consists of two worlds: the underwater one pertaining to ‘merpeople’ and the land one pertaining to humans. Ariel’s guardian, Sebastian makes it clear which one is the preferable one. In his song “Under the Sea,” he tells Ariel that “up on the shore they work all day, out in the sun they slave away…” He points out that life underwater is without worries and hard labor whereas the surface is where suffering takes place. If we take the underwater realm in the...
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