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Fairy Tale Fest: The Best Adaptation of The Little Mermaid I’ve Ever Seen

2011 May 9

I think I first encountered the Little Mermaid story when Disney’s film dropped in 1989. Mermaid Mania quickly descended, and “mermaid!” began to trump “fireman!” when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve had a soft spot for mermaids and sea sirens ever since.

Cover for Ladybird edition of The Little Mermaid. Copyright Ladybird. A young blonde mermaid with a green tail floats with orange fishes in the sea and watches a distant ship.But I was in for a shock one day at school, when I settled myself down in the Book Corner with the Ladybird Well-Loved Tales version of Hans Christian Anderson‘s text. The Mermaid died at the end? She didn’t marry the prince? And then was turned into a “Daughter of the Air”, and wasn’t allowed a Christian soul unless a zillion children did good deeds and something-something-virtue? What a letdown. Expecting a straightforward happy ending, I was utterly bewildered. Prince or no prince, I hadn’t been prepared for quite so much all-out morbidity, and if you asked me, this Daughters of the Air business just sounded a bit suspicious.

It’s one hell of a leap from the all-out romance of Disney’s riff on the story to Anderson. Disney takes Anderson’s curious young mermaid princess and gives her a bit of sass, focusing the story on themes of adolescence and coming of age and adding a saleable happy ending into the mix. It’s a common refrain on feminist blogs to say that Disney “sanitised the originals” (whatever “original” means). Here, though, Disney at least allows Ariel her desires, even if they are chastely presented, and allows their fulfilment at the end. By contrast, Anderson focuses on the dangers of curiosity and makes the story arc a recognisably tragic one – and later, it seems, tacked on the stuff about the Daughters of the Air to add in a moral imperative for the reader: children, be good, else the mermaid will never earn her Christian soul!

Movie poster for Disney's The Little Mermaid. Framed by a yellow setting sun, a mermaid is sitting silhouetted on a rock, in a dark sea, against a night sky. In both stories, identity and self-knowledge is a key theme – and both mermaids are willing to give up their voices and identities for love and to gain access to the exciting, adult, otherworld of the land. There’s something problematic about both of them – with Anderson’s version, as Marina Warner puts it in From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales And Their Tellers, “the story’s chilling message is that cutting out your tongue is still not enough. To be saved, more is required: self-obliteration , dissolution.” With Disney, Warner ruminates that “the issue of female desire dominates the film… the verb ‘want’ falls from the lips of Ariel more often than any other – until her tongue is cut out”, concluding that – however much we want to cry “sanitised!” – it is more that in the film “romance constitutes the ultimate redemption, and romantic love, personified by the prince, the justification of desire”. So it’s a kind of sanitising, but it’s also a secularising.

All of which brings me to The Flight of the Mermaid, Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao‘s adaptation of the tale, a wonderful picture book, now recently reprinted by India-based publishing house Tara Books. This version re-energises Anderson’s original storyline and tells it in such a way that it becomes, devoid of its Victorian moralising, a genuinely life-affirming, feminist story. The real achievement, though, is that it keeps the Daughters of the Air stuff, and Anderson’s story structure, but tells the story in such a way that a happy ending is forged. And it’s an ending that retains the sense for wanderlust Disney gives its heroine, but doesn’t end in the mermaid trading selfhood or identity for marriage – at the same time neatly avoiding Anderson’s preachy, morbid shutdown of female desire or personal autonomy.

But let’s start with basic facts: the book is gorgeous. Check it out!

Front cover of Flight of the Mermaid with my hand demonstrating the cutaway fish feature. Dark turquoise book with white typefacing. Under the fish cutaway the mermaid can be seen peeping out - she has dark skin and long, flowing dark hair.Flight of the Mermaid – skipping out the diminuitive little from the title for a start – is a treat for the senses from start to finish. Beautifully letter-pressed on tactile, thick-grain paper, the cover has a press-out fish shape which doubles as a bookmark and reveals the mermaid herself underneath. The book is fully illustrated with acclaimed artist Bhajju Shyam‘s distinctive artwork in the Gond tribal style, and the results are a wonderful, fresh contrast to the European visualisations of this story I’ve become so used to. Look how colourful it is!

Inside front cover of Flight of the Mermaid - a blue background printed with crabs, and a page showing the mermaid in full, with a rainbow coloured tail.

The title of the book also describes the ending (skip to after the grey blockquotes if you don’t want the detail spoilered!) – the mermaid comes to the realisation that the prince, though he is fond of her, does not love her romantically. She is saddened, but will not kill him – the only way she can save her own life – and chooses to sacrifice herself instead: yes, familiar Anderson territory. And yet:

Slowly, the truth came over her – her plight had nothing to do with the prince at all… he knew nothing of her, and could not carry the weight of her dreams.

And at the point where, in Anderson, her tragic end is mitigated only by the Daughters of the Air announcing “welcome to the airy feminine purgatory party!”, Wolf, Rao and Shyam show the mermaid’s transition into the air as a change, not an ending:

“Who are you?” she asked, and found that her voice had returned.

“We are the daughters of the air, they answered. “And now you are one of us.”

The mermaid was delighted. “I was born into water,” she said to them. “And I know the world on the shore too. Only the air is left to explore, and it seems to hold more freedom than sea or land.”

The air is, logically, her next destination on a continuous journey. Always on the move, the mermaid’s real aim is constant self-discovery and adventure. Visually, in each of her phases on land, sea, and air, she retains her flowing hair and colourful attributes, whether they are feathers or scales. Her identity is always hers, and is never relinquished.

It’s a wonderfully executed blend of the positive points of both Anderson’s text and the optimism the Disney generation have come to expect from the story, and for parents, schools and people who love beautifully made books, I just can’t recommend Tara Books highly enough.

We managed to grab five minutes of co-author Gita Wolf’s time, via email, to ask her a little about the book – why this story?

“We felt that the story had universal resonance,” says Gita. “It was both a coming-of-age tale as well as the story of a journey (both literal and spiritual). When we first told the story to Bhajju Shyam, he related to it right away. ‘That’s exactly it!’ he said, ‘That’s what it feels like to come into a completely new element – like when I traveled to another country for the first time. I lost my language, and it felt like I was [as Anderson’s mermaid experiences when she loses her voice] walking on knives.'”

How about the ending? “We wanted to give the tale a feminist twist, and not focus on the loss of the prince as an absolute tragic end of everything – nor did we want the Disney ending. In keeping with Anderson’s basic narrative, the Mermaid in a sense does go up in the air, but the air is here a new element to explore, and her journey will continue.”

All hail the flying mermaid!

Order your copy from Tara’s UK distributors or on Amazon.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Markgraf permalink
    May 9, 2011

    I ain’t gonna lie: I actually did a small cry (approximately 0.5ml) while reading this review, which… is a good thing! So I’ll be grabbing a copy of this book, hohyesz.

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 9, 2011

      It’s SO beautiful. It is worth every penny. It’s a real testament to the power we all have as voices, writers, storytellers, listeners, to tell stories in new ways.

      The feminist reorientation of the text is beautifully subtle. Other retellings might try to be more strident, but I just love the way the text deftly sticks to Anderson whilst drawing out, and claiming back, themes of self discovery and autonomy that the Victorian stuff about souls in Anderson’s text sort of veils.

      In a feminist context we often leap to the assumption that outdated oppressive female archetypes are sort of hanging over us via these stories. I think this probably has something to do with the “sticking power” of Grimm and Perrault, who collected so many tales together in *print* so expansively, and following on from that Disney’s obedient borrowing of so much of Grimm, adding in more romance and less piety. These interpretations have been hugely influential and have benefited from things like western capitalist globalisation; the reach of Disney is strong.

      But! I still say that fairy tales can and do evolve, that they always have, and that they can, in imaginative hands, still be truly timeless. Not everybody thinks that way – it’s a shame they don’t stock Flying Mermaid costumes in Tesco alongside the pink princess uniformity – but that’s why adaptations like this are important, and should be given attention :).

      Also my phone cam pics do not do the craftsmanship justice at all.

      And! Also! Tara Books just tweeted us to say that Sita’s Ramayana – a visual retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s POV – is almost ready for release! I am really excited.

      Oh my word what a frothy comment this is! I must stop now and have a cup of tea.

  2. Russell permalink
    May 9, 2011

    Regarding the Disney versions as “sanitised” or not, I think a lot of the time the point is that the Disney versions are so saccharine as to lack any of the “bite” tales told in the oral tradition, or even set down by Anderson, Perault, Grim and the like, had. The Disney versions just don’t seem to hold much weight whatsoever.

    That said, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. There’s a good deal of fun in Disney animated movies, even the really horrible ones. It’s just that it often comes from the villains. Think how much more awesome Jafar, Ursula, Scar, and especially Maleficent are than the “heroes” of their respective movies. Scar sings about Machiaveli. Ursula strikes Faustian pacts and turns people into sea urchins (more evil than stealing 40 cakes). Maleficent turns into an enormous dragon. The Disney villains are so much cooler and more fun.

  3. octopuslove permalink
    May 9, 2011

    Looks awesome. I’m very curious to see what Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao have done with the sea witch character? In my opinion the most disturbing thing about the Disney version is the portrayal of fat, dark-skinned Ursula as utterly evil and devious and jealous. In Andersen’s original the witch is portrayed as disgusting, but straightforward; she never tries to cheat anybody, in fact she tells the little mermaid she’s being stupid.

  4. May 14, 2011

    Thank you for introducing me to The Flight of the Mermaid.

    You are a fabulous writer; and I really enjoyed your post. Thanks,


    • Miranda permalink*
      May 15, 2011

      Gosh, thank you! It is a brilliant book – I encourage everyone who can do so to order a copy and support the great work Tara are doing in India.

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