Monday, February 08, 2016

About That Sea Foam...

I had completely forgotten that part in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" about mermaids turning into sea foam after 300 years if they don't get souls, until Retriever and bsking referenced it.  I mostly remembered the ending as a muddle, with everything pointing toward tragedy, but somehow ending up vaguely positive at the end.  For no reason I could remember.  I looked it up today, and apparently I'm not the only one.  P.L. Travers, who wrote Mary Poppins, found the ending deeply upsetting.  Digging deeper, she is described as a folklorist as well as an author, which I had not heard.

I can't put myself into the minds of people hundreds of years ago, but it seems that these sorts of elements, of sentient creatures living on as natural phenomenon recur frequently.  Myths and legends recount how the sun came to be in the sky or the leopard got his spots. If you follow this stuff often enough, Indian maidens are always looking into pools for their lovers or mothers or children forever at the end of the story; European maidens are turned into trees or blackbirds, Asians into bears or fish.  For some reason, women get turned into stuff more often than men.  Perhaps it is because at hearthside, women were more often telling the stories.

This became much more intentional in Europe, as in Hans Christian Andersen, Rudyard Kipling, . Fanciful explanations popped up everywhere for everything.  We even call those back-impositions of our fancies onto the actual phenomena "just-so stories" now, after Kipling.  Tolkien uses it in fiction, and Lewis slightly.  It seems to have been in the air for those interested in older stories. If there were water falling or an animal with an unusual feature, someone was sure to invent a tale for how that came to be.

If we view the mermaid turning into sea-foam from the other direction, of an imaginative person standing by the shore and thinking how the foam seemed to have it's own personality, and a delicate, feminine one, it may look a touch less strange.  But to our eyes, it still seems to be some weird consolation-prize.  You didn't get the prince, but at least you get to exist in some interesting form rather than passing immediately into oblivion.  Perhaps in eras when people died young, oblivion was closer to the truth, and more folks were out experiencing natural phenomenon it all seemed rather romantic. Maybe.  It still seems creepy to me.

Interesting addition: When reading up on this, I saw a good deal of commentary about Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and other sleeping princesses being descended from stories teaching that if you loved someone strongly enough, you could bring them back from the dead, which was a newer idea not found before 1700 or so.  Less frequently it would be a male figure who could be brought back by his true love, though she usually had a harder time of it than just kissing him. 

Prior to that there were myths of many lands which recounted fascinating stories of people trying to rescue their loved ones from the clutches of death and the underworld.  But in those, the message usually was You can't. They're dead. Some sort of moderate optimism began to overtake Europeans in the Middle Ages, and now we can't tolerate stories where the hero(ine) does not revive.

It put's a different spin on Disney, doesn't it?


Earl Wajenberg said...

As I remember the original Anderson version of "The Little Mermaid," she is told she will dissolve into sea foam, but wound up not doing so.

She sold her tongue to the Sea Witch in return for human form and a chance to win the prince (and be in severe chronic pain). She failed. Her sisters then show up and give her a knife. (They sold their hair to the Sea Witch for it.) If she stabs the prince with it, his blood will turn her legs back into a fish tail and she can go back to the sea.

But the prince has fallen in love with a human princess, and both of them are very kind to the ex-mermaid (never having a clue what she's about). So she can't bring herself to stab the prince. But, because of her selflessness, instead of turning into sea foam, she turns into a sylph, an invisible air fairy. The other sylphs tell her she can win her way to heaven by doing good deeds.

It's all in Wikipedia.

As far as I was concerned, the best part of the Disney movie was the singing crab, but I'd much rather they used their altered ending than the original Anderson one. Or do you fancy toy stores carrying blister packs with rubber transformation daggers?...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, the (male) singing crab made the movie. Only perverts like me noticed that when Ariel shows up she's got bigger boobs than all her sisters, but that did allow her to capture the trollop demographic of the Disney Princesses - because they couldn't find a way to squeeze Tinkerbell into the "princess" category. I never liked Ariel much, but the music was great.

james said...

Yes, very different. Sometimes it feels like the story ended because the story time was over.

Retriever said...

I'm thinking of all those dreary (to me boring) lieder, and the Germanic sighings and dyings over love. Wagner at least has cut scenes! As a former classical dancer, also all those silly but danceable and visually stunning myths about dead maidens jilted and making faithless men pay. Or a princess under a spell entrancing a live prince. The point of all of them is that love is dangerous, can lead to death. Betrayal certainly does. Giselle literally goes mad and dances to death. But beautifully. What all these stories may represent, however, is not simply the old folk tales but rather a new romantic sensibility. Because all of these characters are choosing their beloved, often defying family, community to do so. They die for love rather than pull the plow w Horst whom they grew up w, who smells of onions but who is good w pigs.

I wonder if the fairy tales being written down from the 17th century on didn't capture the change in people's sense of the possibilities of life. Even if one was poor. Nowadays every bank teller expects to have a Disney Princess wedding dress should she succeed in finding a husband. Modern myths and film images express and shape people's hopes and dreams.

I agree about the foam perhaps being less awful to contemplate than oblivion. Most country dwellers are left cold by sappy bs about Heaven and are pantheists at heart. Witness all those rural Saints' shrines that appropriate old pagan holy sites/springs, etc