Summary of the Original "Little Mermaid"

by Nathaniel Williams
Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote

Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote "The Little Mermaid" in 1837. Images

Most people are familiar with the tale of "The Little Mermaid" through Disney's successful animated film. The classic Hans Christian Andersen tale differs in many ways from this cinematic retelling and stands on its own as a gripping story. Because of its darker themes and bitter ending, it might be more appropriate for somewhat older children.

The Setting

Like the Disney version, the Little Mermaid lives with her father and five older sisters. The Mermaid is never named in Andersen's story, nor is her father or sisters. Each of the sisters keeps a small private garden on the ocean's floor. The Little Mermaid alone longs to see the world above the waves but is forbidden since she is too young.

The Prince

When the Little Mermaid turns 15 she is allowed to swim to the surface of the water and gaze upon a totally new world. She sees a handsome prince on a ship and saves the prince from drowning in a great storm. Risking her own life, she swims the unconscious prince to the shore and leaves him by a temple. When the prince awakens he sees a girl from the temple whom he believes has saved him.

The Sea Witch

The Little Mermaid falls in love with the prince and longs to join him on land. She swims to the Sea Witch and asks for help in transforming into a human. The Sea Witch offers her a potion that will turn her into a human permanently but with several side effects: she will lose the ability to speak, she will dance beautifully but in horrendous pain, and she will only truly have a human soul if the prince loves her and marries her. The Little Mermaid agrees.

On Land

The Little Mermaid becomes a human and entrances the prince, despite her inability to speak. She is very beautiful and dances like no one else. The prince, however, chooses to marry the temple girl -- a princess, it turns out -- who he believes saved him from drowning. The prince and the princess marry as the Little Mermaid's heart breaks. She has lost her love and her only chance to truly have a soul.

Ending: Spoilers

As the Little Mermaid despairs, her sisters come to her with a knife they have obtained from the Sea Witch. They tell her that if she murders the prince with this magical knife and his blood touches her legs she will be restored as a mermaid. She takes the knife and visits the sleeping prince and princess but cannot bring herself to kill the one she loves. Instead she throws herself into the ocean and dissolves into sea foam. However, she finds that she does not remain foam but transcends into a "daughter of the air," a breed of spirit that lives in the sky.


  • "The Little Mermaid"; Hans Christian Andersen; 1837

Photo Credits

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