What is the Little Mermaid?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale published in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen that became the basis for a Disney movie and a Broadway musical based on the film.

The Story

In the fairy tale, the mermaid family — the Sea King, the grandmother, and six mermaids, the youngest of whom is the Little Mermaid — live at the bottom of the sea. There is a tradition that when a mermaid turns 15, she gets the opportunity to view the world above the surface. The youngest hears her older sisters’ stories and longs for her turn. When it comes, she happens to spot a ship with a prince, whom she falls in love with, though she doesn’t approach him until a storm hits and she saves him from drowning. Taking him ashore to a spot near a temple, the mermaid stays with the prince until a girl comes from the temple and discovers the prince, who never sees the Little Mermaid.


Returning home, the Little Mermaid asks her grandmother about humans, and discovers that they have a much shorter life than merfolk, but have an immortal soul that dwells in Heaven, while merfolk cease to exist when they die. The mermaid trades her incredible singing voice to the Sea Witch for a potion that will give her legs so that she can join the prince and have a soul, which requires that the prince loves her and marries her, which would allow her to share his soul.

The Little Mermaid meets the prince, who finds her attractive, but she finds movement on her legs extremely painful. Then the prince’s father orders him to marry a neighboring princess, but he refuses, saying he can only love the girl from the temple, whom he believes saved him, but he tells the mermaid that she is beginning to replace the temple girl in his affections. But then he discovers that the princess is the temple girl and they marry, and the Little Mermaid is filled with despair. Her sisters, too, make a bargain with the Sea Witch: in exchange for their hair, they gain a knife, which they give their youngest sister, along with the information that if she kills the prince with it, she will restored to her mermaid origins. Unable to kill the prince, the Little Mermaid casts herself into the sea, but instead of ceasing to exist, she becomes a spirit.

The Disney Version

The Disney film of The Little Mermaid with lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken came out in 1989, and made changes to the Andersen story, some minor and some major. Among the more striking changes are the addition of a sidekick, Flounder and other sea creatures to the cast of characters, the elevation of the Sea Witch to a more typical villain role who threatens the Little Mermaid’s happiness by attempting to wed the prince herself, in disguise, and there is a happy ending in which the Sea Witch is defeated and the Little Mermaid becomes a human and marries the prince. The film is credited as the beginning of the so-called Disney Renaissance, and it won the Academy Awards and Golden Globes for Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Original Song, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television.

The Broadway musical of The Little Mermaid, which featured additional lyrics by Glenn Slater and some further plot changes opened in January 2008. The Sea Witch is the Mer King’s sister in the musical and shared the power of the sea until the King deposed his sister to quell her evil. Instead of the Sea Witch attempting to marry the prince, there is a singing contest, and the manner of the Sea Witch’s demise is different.


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