Tori Amos – Blood Roses
Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid
Before I learned to write, I told stories. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that on more than one occasion, and the “I write fairy tales” line in my bio remains, though I haven’t written one for over a year now.
As the heading should tell you, the above picture is from an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson‘s classic fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. I’ve had – and treasured – that book around 25 years; in part because of the stunning illustrations by Laszlo Gal, but more because of the story itself.
If you’re not familiar with the original version, when Disney turned it into an animated feature back in the late 80’s, in amongst some fairly prominent religious allegories¹ they took it upon themselves to remove (fair enough), they also removed some of the core plot points, and changed the ending entirely. In doing so, they removed one of the most important messages behind the story.
On the off-chance you require it, here now is a warning that henceforth, plot spoilers abound.
In Anderson’s original version, the key difference lies not just in the ending, but the extent of the sacrifices Ariel made to become human. The deal with the sea witch had further consequence than the removal of her voice – in fact, her voice was not magically captured in a glass bottle, the witch cut her tongue from her mouth.
She warns Ariel that once she is human, she can never again be a mermaid, and that if she fails in her endeavour to win the prince’s heart, her own heart will break, she will die and become sea foam.
The pain she suffered when her form changes from mermaid to human was merely the beginning. Throughout her time with the prince, every step she took felt as though knives were cutting into the soles of her feet, until they actually bled. Yet, of course, she uttered not a sound of complaint, nor even gave any indication whatsoever that she was constantly in an incredible amount of physical pain. What she did was dance for him, with a smile on her face.
In the Disney version, Ariel’s personality shines through her silence, the prince falls in love and they live happily ever after. In Anderson’s version, the prince’s heart belongs to the woman who saved his life. We all know that it was Ariel that brought him to shore, but she watched him from the sea until another woman found him.
While Ariel dances and smiles through her pain, the prince, who has grown fond of his silent little foundling, pines for the other woman. He declares, however, that she must never leave him, for she is so beautiful and dances unlike any other. Here’s the real testement to how the prince feels: he has a bed made up of velvet cushions outside his bedroom door, so there she sleeps, much like a faithful dog.
Ultimately, the other woman is found, and – wouldn’t you know it – she happens to be a beautiful princess. The prince, hopelessly in love, marries the princess and on their wedding night, Ariel dances for them both, knowing that she will cease to exist the following morning.
Her sisters, however, have each sacrificed their own treasures to the sea witch, and in the middle of the night they beseech Ariel to come home. She was implored to take a knife and plunge it into the prince’s heart, letting his blood wash over her feet so that she would once more be a mermaid.
She couldn’t do it, of course, so while the prince lies with his bride, the little mermaid resigns herself to her fate and dives into the sea.
What’s the point of that story?
I like stories.
Aside from the above being one of my favourite quotes from The Simpsons, I do have a point to all this.
Disney’s moral is overly simplistic and ultimately unrealistic – just be yourself, people will recognise you for the beauty you have on the inside and everything will be Ok. Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t even apply to the story they told. Why? Because Ariel wasn’t being herself, she had given away her core essence, her voice, which in this story is supposed to be something of an allegory.
This tale is about silence.
This is a tale about the consequences of sacrificing who you are for another person. The prince has no idea of the sacrifices Ariel made to be with him, he has no idea of the pain she endures. He has no idea who she is, so how can he love her?
I interpret Anderson’s moral as: if you compromise yourself, who you truly are, for another person, it’s not only going to be incredibly painful just to be with them, but they won’t be able to love you because they’ll never know who you are, they’ll love someone completely different and ultimately who you were will become nothing.
I’ll end discussion on the story with a quote from the book, which was re-told by Margeret Crawford Maloney:
“But if you take my voice, what will I have left?”
“Your beautiful body, your graceful movement, your eloquent eyes. Surely these can snare a human heart.”
Considering the original ending, I think those two lines incisively convey the importance of the message.
In that regard, the theme song I have chosen for The Little Mermaid is Tori Amos‘ Blood Roses. I do try to keep a little variety in my choices, and briefly thought I should find something else as this is the third nod to Tori in this series, but there really is no other song out there (that I know of) that drives the point home like this one.
Back in 2009, I sat next to someone who had not long before told me they didn’t have the energy to accommodate the weight of my thoughts – not my words, but the things he thought I wasn’t saying – while we watched Tori perform this song live. That concert was one of the most profound events I have ever attended. Maybe one day I’ll tell you about it.
The lyrics to this song can be read over at one of my favourite sites, Here In My Head, along with some quotes from Tori herself explaining the meaning behind certain phrases.
1: In the revised and published version of The Little Mermaid, we are told that while mermaids live for exactly 300 years, they do not have an immortal soul. When they die they become nothing but white horses (an older term for the white foam that forms on the sea). Ariel’s desire is not just for the prince, but for an immortal soul – to live forever, even in death. Ariel dies but is granted a soul for having sacrificed herself for her true love’s happiness.
This ‘reward’, for me, undoes a little of the work of the story, because in the first version Ariel merely dissolved. which is a much more natural resolution to the preceding narrative, as well as in keeping with the message as I have interpreted it. The religious reference is obvious and was tacked on, to the detriment of the story as far as I’m concerned. So it’s not just Disney that know how to ruin a good story, authors do it to their own work, too.