The story of the little Mermaid is nearly 200 years old, give or take a decade or two. The pioneers in the field of psychology or psychoanalysis; Freud and Jung both, used stories like this as case studies to illustrate and introduce their concepts of the conscious and the unconscious parts of our minds.
If you know the story, feel free to skip my synopsis in the next paragraph; and I don't mean the Disney version with all the horrible bits left out and the ending rewritten.
Anderson's original version, if you are unfamiliar with it, has a complicated animosity between the world below and the world above, involving a clash that causes the death of the Queen, the little Mermaids mother. The little Mermaids older sisters drown sailors for fun, more in tune with the traditional “siren” model of Mermaid behavior while the little Mermaid herself is fascinated rather than repelled by the world above, collecting a problematic amount of human artifacts from shipwrecks and falling in love with the Prince she watches from her watery world. When a storm sinks his ship, she saves him, taking him to a beach where he is found by a beautiful human Princess who the Prince believes to be his savior; having no recollection of the truth. The Mermaid contrives to become human so that she can win the affections of the Prince and be with him forever. She approaches the sea Witch for help. The Witch who takes the little Mermaid's voice in exchange for human legs, is also her Aunt, her Father's estranged sister. The Witch gives the Mermaid three days to to get the Prince to fall in love with her, failing which she will die and become seafoam; as Mermaids don't have immortal souls. Things are set up so that the Prince in turn “finds” the little Mermaid in her human form and adopts her into his inner circle. As she cannot speak, the Mermaid entertains and attempts to attract the Princes romantic interest by dancing for him, even though she experiences pain with each step on her new feet. The Prince however decides to marry the Princess who found him on the beach, spelling the Mermaids death according to the contract with the Witch. The little Mermaids sisters go to the Witch and get a dagger in exchange for their beautiful hair, a subplot here finds the Witch now in possession of the little Mermaids lovely voice and her sisters hair, making her beautiful for some diabolical plan against the sea King that we won't go into. The sisters give the dagger to the little Mermaid and tell her to kill the Prince on his wedding night in order to be returned to the sea as a Mermaid. However, the little Mermaid cannot bring herself to do this, she throws the dagger into the sea and dies. As she is becoming seafoam, angels appear and lift her spirit up with them, to spend 300 years bringing happy vibes to children in order to be granted an immortal soul and access to heaven. The Prince takes a moment to be sad about the disappearance of the Mermaid, still without any idea of the whole story but lives happily ever after. In a nutshell.
I am intrigued by this notion of using a made up fantastical story to analyse the human psyche. Indeed, long before the fairy tale writers we know and love, like Anderson and Grimm, stories have been the vehicle for sharing values, morals, the intricacies of human nature and the murky depths of what lies beneath the surface of the conscious; like greek mythology or the bible even. In fact there are common threads that weave their way through all of these stories.
Of course Jung and Freud had different takes on the psychoanalytical concepts of the unconscious. My understanding of it is that Jung believed there was not only a personal unconscious but also a collective unconscious, an inherited, instinctive mind process filled with alchemical symbolism and imagery, like fairy tales. Jung thought that one should seek to form a relationship with the unconscious or go kicking and screaming through what you cannot prevent experiencing anyway.
Freud on the other hand believed that the unconscious was unique to the individual; a bubbling cauldron of dangerous and primordial stuff that comes out one way or another, the result of tension between the Id, (the Id defined as wants, desires, impulse and instinct) the Ego (the sense of self) and the Superego (the Superego being responsible for our moral judgement). This tension caused by life experiences. Freud thought that the unconscious needs to be made conscious.
Between the two of them, if it's not one thing, it’s your mother, you know?
But back to the little Mermaid; this story has been used for psychoanalytic study since somewhere in the 1940's. Having written the story in the 1830’s, it's worth keeping in mind what the world the author lived in was like. A world where the most esteemed person in the land would be a King, with the majority of people living as farmers, cobblers, bakers, goatherds and such. A world with an emphasis on Christian morals and values, where your actions secured your place in heaven or damned you to hell for eternity. A world that also allowed for the notions of magical characters, good or evil, like Fairies, Witches and Wizards, Trolls and Angels.
I have a copy of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales illustrated by Jiri Trnka, published in 1959. I have loved this book since I was a small child, in particular the illustration of the Prince being saved by the Mermaid. What I loved about it was the way the waves are drawn, very graphic, hook- like and ominous. I liked the position of the Prince’s body that struck me as a natural position for a floating body, it feels right. I love the the way his hair seemed to be rooted in the water. What bothered me though, was how the body seems to be placed on top of the image of the ocean, more as if floating in the air than in the sea. I also always felt like the Mermaid in this image was rather superfluous, surely not doing very much in her action and angle.
I googled what a drowning person would look like and found an article on this body position exactly, where the air in the lungs causes the body to hinge and hang off of the upper center of the back. Im convinced that the illustrator had witnessed a body in this position for real.
So how is the story analysed? I'm going to give it a bash and probably make both good doctors turn in their graves! Apologies in advance.
I like to think that both Jung and Freud can agree at the very least that the sea can represent the unconscious. Then let's imagine that the Prince himself represents the conscious or the Ego.
The little Mermaid could represent an aspect of the unconscious that is destined, according to the story, to become conscious, once she is fully embraced and integrated. A fishy female energy that comes from the deepest depths to be made part of the upper reality of the world if all conditions are properly met. One could consider her a representation of the Id from a Freudian perspective. So in the original story, the Id is therefore rescuing the ego, or the self from the tumultuous sea of the emotional unconscious. However, to remain a permanent part of the Prince's life, the Id must get the Ego to fall in love with and “marry” it in 3 days. Impossibly, it must do so with no voice and in excruciating pain caused by the feet that replace the tail.
To the Mermaid Jung might say, there is never enough time and love is always painful, and as for the Prince, his male centered world benefits from the female attentions of both the little Mermaid and the Princess on the beach, leading to a happy result for him.
Of course, in the story these caveats laid out by the Witch that made this magic happen are insurmountable obstacles and even though the Prince is ultimately very fond of the little Mermaid, she remains voiceless and never truly known by him.
If the Mermaid represents an aspect of the unconscious that can save him, then by humanising her BUT without an identity; voiceless, helpless, virginal, she can never completely be an equal, or a sexual partner. As she is from the unconscious and instinctive, the conscious cannot access her genuine qualities and purity of being.
She pays the price of eternal silence and dies while he lives happily ever after, oblivious that he got it all wrong with her! He gets to do this because the Mermaids heroic act of saving him leads the Prince to meeting another that he marries instead. For shame! Or perhaps, when the Prince marries someone else, he let go of his Id and the Mermaid?
I must add that an analysis of the little Mermaid herself presents this question; is she that loyal part of ourselves that is so intent on reconciliation, on getting the “orphans of our consciousness” to meet and marry (but not always successfully) Or is she a complete doormat suffering from a hoarding disorder and daddy issues? Freud would suggest that she presents with a case of penis envy (powerlessness, for us ordinary folk) acted out as risky and rebellious behavior, due to a struggle with her Superego, aspects of which are represented in the story by both her authoritarian Father and the scheming Witch. Or something like that anyway.
So if the Mermaid saves this sorry ego from drowning in his unconsciousness by momentarily making him aware of this aspect of his Id, then what happens if the Id does not reveal itself to him at all? well what happens is that he is just another soul, drowning in an emotional sea of unmet desires, pressures of external expectations and overwhelming life issues with no desire to live. End of story. No Mermaids, no beautiful Princesses on the beach, no magical wedding on a ship, just another overwhelmed human man out of his element.
Now, maybe that is more like the reality of life but let's take it just a little bit further and follow Anderson's inclination to shine a little light at the end of the tale with a dash of moral lesson. What if this half-human/ half-fish plays the same role in this story as the half-human/ half-god in others? This story character that can never be properly loved and appreciated by the mere humans they take care of, characters that always end up sacrificed for the greater good in some way. Would you call this faith?
I decided to re-imagine the image, leaving the Mermaid out of it and just look at the situation the Prince is in. I emphasised the patterns of the water in the original but laid them over the drowning Prince transparently, suspending him in the water, not the air and at the mercy of the pull of the black waves in the distance. It is clear that he, a being of air is in a life threatening situation in the water, setting up the scene for the fact that a Mermaid, a being of water, is in equal danger if living in the air on land.
I had to wonder how you would analyse the story from either school of thought, if no Mermaid came to rescue the Prince. Well of course, without the Mermaid there really isn't any story at all; Prince falls overboard, drowns, the end.
But, what if the Mermaid /Id is a metaphor for an innate desire to survive, a basic impulse to make it through? what if that was what could save the drowning man? Can he save himself? Is there still a tale without the fairy?
What if this version of the illustration does have a Mermaid in it, just not one you can see? After all the story is not over in this image one way or another. He may yet survive or he may not, we don't know. His fate is up to whatever comes up from below, or above, or from within. This is life. This is the story.
Maybe the moral of the tale is that we should all get in touch with our inner little Mermaid, try to make it to shore and find our happily ever after.
Painter and Sculptor