Fairy-Tale Files: Mermaid Millennium

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


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Part human and part fish, mermaids have existed throughout the centuries, appearing in various media including print, film, television, and comics. While variations of the mermaid myth flourish the world over, the first tales of these aquatic beings date back to Assyria, circa 1000, B.C. Atargatis, a goddess, loved a mortal shepherd. One day, she unintentionally killed him. Ashamed, she took the form of a fish and jumped into the lake. However, the waters could not conceal Atargatis’ divine beauty, the trade-off being her retention of a female upper torso.

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Arguably the most famous mermaid work is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Unlike the Disney adaptation, this story does not end on a happy note. The Sea Witch warns our protagonist that she must gain the Prince’s love. Only then will she acquire a human soul and be allowed to live forever (mermaids turn into seafoam upon death, a fate she wishes to avoid). Unfortunately, the Prince falls in love with another woman who he believes rescued him on the waves, when it was actually the Little Mermaid. Her sisters strike a deal with the Sea Witch, allowing her to regain her fishtail and live, as long as she kills the Prince. The Little Mermaid refuses, too in love to kill him. The story ends with her turning into seafoam, but not before gaining an immortal soul for her sacrifice.

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Mermaids also appear in J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, where they are portrayed as not being altogether friendly with anyone in Neverland (especially Wendy), except for Peter Pan. He has long chats with them, and Wendy tries to watch from the shadows, because anytime she draws near, the mermaids leave. This dynamic is further explored in Disney’s Peter Pan. Here the mermaids so dislike Wendy they attempt to drag her into the water to ‘play.’ Wendy calls for Peter’s assistance, but the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up merely laughs. As Wendy prepares to defend herself using a seashell, Peter intervenes and tells her the mermaids were just having a little fun, to which they say, “We were only trying to drown her…”

Certainly a far cry from the lovable Little Mermaid.


This edition of Fairy-Tale Files is brought to you by editorial assistant Jared Hughes and poetry editor Jon Riccio.