Context of Literature Influencing Fairytales

Topics: Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid, Fairy tale Pages: 5 (1538 words) Published: June 22, 2013
Choose a single fairy-tale and find two or three variations. Compare and contrast the variations and attempt to account for some of the differences that you find. Discuss the universal significance of the tale and how the changes in context affect the meaning.

“The fairy tale genre is one which has evolved greatly since its conception, in both form and purpose. As an oral story to entertain adults, or a published cautionary tale warning children to behave” (Tartar) These adaptations have been a response to ever changing values, especially focusing on attitudes towards children. Not only has the genre adapted to the shifting contexts, but individual tales have also been altered to create various interpretations in their retellings. First published in 1837, Han Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is no exception to this, having been altered twice by Anderson himself, in addition to others including Disney in 1989.

Written with both children and adults as the intended audience, Andersen created the story of The Little Mermaid with very little outside inspiration, which is unusual for fairy tales that usually have their origins in oral stories passed through the generations. Instead, Andersen drew upon his knowledge of other mermaid stories and his own personal life to create an original tale. It is said that he based the character of the little mermaid, who “loved purely and in vain”, on himself, and the prince on a woman that he had loved. Andersen often incorporated personal experiences into his characters, as well as religious aspects into his writing. Therefore the perceptions towards childhood and discipline shown in Andersen’s tale reflect those of his time, and the alterations which have occurred since indicate that attitudes towards these social values have continued to change with time.

In short, Andersen’s tale involves a mermaid who desires to be human so she can be with the prince she loves and gain an immortal soul, as a mermaid simply dissolves into sea foam once their three hundred years are through. Sacrificing her life with her family and her tongue (which holds her ability to speak), she seeks the aid of a sea witch to become human. However, each step taken will cause immense pain, and if the prince marries another, she will dissolve into sea foam the very next day. Agreeing to these conditions, the mermaid joins the human world as almost an exotic pet for the prince, catering to him but never being loved in return. He marries another, and her sisters trade their long hair with the sea witch for a knife that the mermaid must use to kill the prince and his new bride in order to become a mermaid again and escape death. Unable to bring herself to kill the man she loves, she instead throws herself into the ocean.

It is here where Anderson’s first version of the cautionary tale ends; the mermaid dissolves into sea foam and dies. The little mermaid, having made a pact with the devil in the form of a sea witch, was curious and inquisitive, and consequently paid with her life as these are not behaviours to be encouraged in children.

However, a second version was written by Anderson soon after, in which upon throwing herself into the ocean the mermaid becomes a daughter of the air, who are able to earn an immortal soul through conducting good deeds for three hundred years. She is told that it is because of her earnest and pure attempts that she was not simply turned into sea foam. This is much more typical of Anderson; he himself spent his life attempting to improve his social status and move his way up through the social classes. Therefore this ending, stressing the religious importance of a soul, also continues the notion of upward movement; from under the sea, to land, to essentially heaven. This reflects not only Anderson’s values, but common values of society at this...
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