“‘Why have not we an immortal soul?’ asked the little mermaid mournfully; ‘I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars.’”
Some scholars (especially those who delve into the psychology of tales) associate the Little Mermaid with lust. From what we’ve seen of the story so far, I would agree. But knowing the rest of the story, it’s absolute hogwash.
You should not listen to such ignorant people. In fact, you should be downright insulted. Yes, the Little Mermaid idolizes the prince inappropriately. But it is not lust that makes her go to the Sea Witch.
No. It is something far more wonderful…
One day, the Little Mermaid talks to her grandmother about humans. Her grandmother tells her something that changes the entire course of her life: humans have souls. Mermaids do not have souls, and live hundreds of years; but when dead, they turn into foam on the sea.
Her grandmother tells her that “human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to dust. It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars. As we rise out of the water, and behold all the land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see.’”
She learns, however, that there is only one way she can obtain a soul, and see the glittering heavens. Her grandmother tells her that if “a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother, and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.’”
She is quick to dissuade her granddaughter on that count, however. She tells her it “can never happen. Your fish’s tail, which amongst us is considered beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome.’”
The Idol Dethroned
From now on throughout the story, the Little Mermaid’s love for the prince is always mentioned alongside her desire for a soul. It is only her longing for a soul that drives her to take the harrowing journey to the Sea Witch. It is only her longing for a soul that drives her to exchange her tongue – so she cannot speak or sing – for the witch’s potion (yes, her tongue, which the witch cuts out…Disney certainly cleaned that one up!).
It is only her longing for a soul that gives her courage to drink the potion, knowing she “will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through” her body, and then every step she takes on land “will feel as if [she] were treading upon sharp knives.”
All this, for the chance at an “immortal soul.”
One Idol for Another?
I suppose you could argue that her idolatry of the prince has been supplanted by the idol of a soul. But when has the desire for salvation – which surely the soul stands for – ever been considered an “idol”?
Rather, the Little Mermaid’s bravery at seeking out a soul – something “forbidden” to her people – should humble us. It symbolizes the trials the Enemy puts in our way when pursuing Christ. Granted, the allegory breaks down quickly, as all allegories do. But the fact remains that those who long to follow Christ are often forced to make difficult decisions while following Him – decisions that non-believers would consider insane. Like having your tongue cut out rather than give up salvation.
The Glory of Salvation
I firmly believe that the Little Mermaid’s love for the prince is secondary now. Certainly, the idol still tugs at her heart, as all idols do. But she would not have willingly gone through such pain for the prince; she only did so because she wanted a soul. She was brave – braver than I would have been – in pursuing salvation.
But there is an important piece missing here. Like Undine, the Little Mermaid has no guarantee of a soul. No guarantee of salvation. Rather, she is simply longing for the chance to obtain one.
All that pain, and it’s not even a guarantee.
I think we’d do well to mirror the Little Mermaid’s longing for Heaven. Her purity puts us to shame, much as a converted Undine’s purity put Bertalda and Huldbrand to shame. And it’s not even a guarantee!
How grateful I am for the truth, which is so different! Once we seek Christ and long for him, our salvation is guaranteed (Jer. 29:13)! God wants all to come to him, wants all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). Yes, He even desires the salvation of those “worldly mermaids” in our lives, those who love the world and life too much to think of heaven, like the other mer-folk in the story.
But the greatest glory of salvation – the greatest comfort of all – is that once in Christ, we have no risk of losing our salvation – or our souls! No one is able to snatch us from His hand (John 10:29).
In our world, the Little Mermaid would have already had her desire for a soul and salvation; in fairy-land, however, it’s quite a different story…
 The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011) 429.
 Sheldon Cashdan, The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales (New York: Basic Books, 1999) 163-171.
 The Little Mermaid, 429.
 The Little Mermaid, 431-433.
 Ibid., 431.