This is a guest post fromLeah von Essen. Leah is a novelist and blogger who reads while walking and believes in magic. Follow her on Twitter @reading_while.
There have been a lot of articles recently about the queer-coding of the original animated The Beauty and the Beast, but they’re for some reason ignoring the other Disney film the late, great Howard Ashman worked on: The Little Mermaid.
Which is puzzling, because the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen is one of the saddest (gay) love letters of all time.
Scholars agree that Andersen was biromantic, and possibly asexual. He wrote many intimate letters to his friend Collin, but sent only a few of them. One reads: “I long for you, yes, this moment I long for you as if you were a lovely girl…No one have I wanted to thrash as much as you…but neither has anyone been loved so much by me as you.”
Collin admitted in his own writings that he was unable to return Andersen’s feelings. In 1836, under some pressure from his family, Collin married. Andersen escaped to the island of Fyn at the time of the wedding, where he wrote the tale he would later send to Collin: a fairytale about a mermaid who didn’t belong.
Doomed love is the subject of many of Andersen’s tales—think “The Brave Tin Soldier”—but none more than “The Little Mermaid.”
When the mermaid becomes human in Andersen’s tale, every step on land feels like knives are stabbing her feet. She also can’t speak. She dances and walks with the prince at the cost of constant pain, her feet “bleeding” and “burning” throughout the tale.
Meanwhile, the prince treats her more like a pet. Their relationship never translates into romantic love. He ends up getting married to another woman, but unlike the Disney adaptation, it isn’t the sea witch disguised and hypnotizing him. It’s just the wrong woman, and he’s just chosen wrong.
On their wedding night, the sea witch and the mermaid’s sisters tell her that she can still come back to be a mermaid, rather than turn to sea foam, if she stabs the prince and his wife in their bed. But she can’t do it. Earlier, the mermaid’s grandmother explained to her that humans have souls, while mermaids only turn to foam. Her cautiously bittersweet ending is that because of her good act, she is granted limbo and has a chance to someday enter heaven with an immortal soul.
It’s a story about the yearning and ultimate failure to belong. Andersen was an ungainly and skinny person, and he felt often awkward in the higher class social circles he had gained access to only through patrons when he was young. He never seemed to gain success in love, and Collin’s rejection caused Andersen considerable pain. His sexuality and spirituality both haunt many of his fairy tales.
The mermaid goes through tremendous pain to be by the side of the man she loves, but is rejected nonetheless, and still only has a chance at heaven. She can never speak her feelings aloud. Andersen felt mocked and isolated for most of his life.
In the dedication to Ashman before The Beauty and the Beast begins, Disney writes that Ashman “gave a mermaid her voice.”
He also gave her a happy ending.
Think of the mermaid longing to belong, her silence, the wedding. But in the film, she regains her voice. The prince jumps into the sea after her. She is saved, and they are happily married in the end.
In the end, the mermaid belongs.