We’re stepping away from the Brothers Grimm to go play with Hans Christian Andersen and his tale of The Little Mermaid.
Magic Has a Price
Unlike Cinderella where the fairy Godmother’s gift has an expiration date, the Little Mermaid must pay a price for the magic. Not only must she give up her voice (and tongue), she must endure pain throughout the rest of her life as she will feel as if she’s walking on knives with each step. This is not some inherent punishment that the sorceress is inflicting on the Little Mermaid, simply a fact that nothing is for free. The same is true for the knife. The sisters sacrificed their hair, but the Little Mermaid must plunge it into the Prince in order to regain her form. Clearly, magic has a price in addition to a payment in the form of physical or emotional harm.
Speech, Not Beauty
The underlying message in this is that beauty alone is not enough to win someone over. Had the Mermaid been able to speak to the Prince, she would have certainly won his heart with the truth that she was the rescuer. Moreover, her singing would have surpassed that of anyone else. Language and conversation give substance to a relationship, give it an emotional permanence that beauty and seduction cannot outlast.
Sea Witch Isn’t Evil
Though the story goes to great lengths to describe the horrors of the Sea Witch’s domain, and the Sea Witch exacts a horrible price from the Mermaid and her sisters, the witch isn’t inherently evil. She clearly does not serve as the antagonist of the story. She goes to great lengths to describe what the Mermaid will give up, warns her that it will end badly, and the pain involved in this choice the Mermaid will make.
Obsession Ends Badly
The Mermaid is obsessed, not only with the surface, but with the Prince. And this obsession came from being denied for so long. Year after year she was tormented by her sisters (though it was not deliberate) of stories of the surface. The Mermaid fixated on the surface world as the only thing she ever wanted, and that she could not be complete without it. She never truly attempted to give the sea a chance to be the place for her happiness. The beauty below didn’t interest her, nor did singing or spending time with her family. Her fixation drove her to make terrible choices that resulted in her own death (despite the addition of a happily-ever-after ending) and brought sorrow to her family and even the prince. Everyone would have been better off if she had been well-adjusted like her sisters in getting over the phase of mooning over the surface world.