Painting of the Little Mermaid and her prince, from the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

The Little Mermaid (Classic Fairy Tale)

The Little Mermaid is a classic fairy tale written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. Some of these old fairy tales are fever dreams with illogical plots and incomprehensible character motivations. Andersen’s stories aren’t like that. They aged incredibly well.

This is the story of a young mermaid willing to give up her identity to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince. It does not end how the Disney version ends. It is a darker tale from a harsher time.

It was inspired by Danish folklore, mythology, and Andersen’s own personal experiences. In the 200 years since it was published, it has become widely recognized for its exploration of sacrifice, transformation, and unrequited love.

The original story was written in Danish. This is my own translation in my own words. It is a retelling of sorts, as any good translation is, but it stays true to the spirit of the original fairy tale.

Painting of the stormy ocean from the Little Mermaid fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Chapter One: The Kingdom Beneath

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the loveliest cornflower and as clear as the purest glass, it is very deep. Deeper than any anchor rope can reach. Many steeples would have to be stacked on top of one another to reach from the bottom to the surface. This is where the Old Ones dwell.

There, in the deep, grow the most extraordinary trees and plants, with such gentle stalks and leaves that they stir at the slightest movement of the water, swaying as if they were alive. All the fish, small and large, dart among the branches, just as birds do in the jungle up here.

Far below these plants, where the sun can only just barely reach, there in the pale light lies the Old King’s castle. Its walls are made of stone, and the long, pointed windows are of the clearest crystal, but the roof is made of mussel shells that open and close as the water moves, breathing it in and out. Inside each of those muscles lies a glowing pearl, a single one of which would be the pride of any queen’s crown.

The Old King had been a widower for many years, and it was his ancient mother who took care of the house. She was an old creature and proud of her nobility, wearing twelve oysters on her tail—twice what the other dignitaries were allowed. She was kind as well, especially to the little sea princesses, her granddaughters. There were six of them, all of them beautiful, but the youngest was the fairest. Her skin was as pale and delicate as the petal of a white rose, and her eyes were as blue as the deepest sea, but like all the others, she had no feet. Her body ended in a fishtail.

All day long, they could play in the castle, in the grand halls, where living flowers grew out of the walls. The large crystal windows were opened, and then the fish swam into them, just as the quetzal flies in through our windows, its tail slithering behind it. These fish swam straight to the little princesses, ate from their hands, and allowed themselves to be petted.

Outside the castle was a large garden with fiery-red and dark-blue trees. Their fruits sparkled like gold, and the flowers like a burning flame, constantly moving their stalks and leaves. The soil itself was the finest sand, as blue as sulphur flames. A strange blue glow covered everything down there. In calm weather, one could look up and just barely see the sun, a purple flower from whose heart all light flowed.

Chapter Two: The Little Mermaids

Each of the little princesses had her own small spot in the garden where she could dig and plant as she wished. One made her flowerbed in the shape of a whale, and another thought it better for hers to resemble a little mermaid, but the youngest made hers round and reaching like the sun, with flowers that shone purple as it does.

This young one was a peculiar child, quiet and contemplative. While the other sisters adorned their spots with the most extraordinary things they had salvaged from shipwrecks, she only wanted, she cared only for her purple flowers and her marble statue. It was the statue of a lovely boy, carved from the white, clear stone of the surface, carried to the seabed by a shipwreck. She tended her flowers by the statue, and they grew splendidly, the bush growing up around the marble, flowers blooming beside it, tempting it to kiss them, but it never did.

This little mermaid’s greatest joy was to hear of the world of humans above. The Ancient Queen would tell her all she knew about the ships and cities, people and animals, and the flowers and the earth, and how they smelled. The Ancient Queen told her of how the jungles were green and the fish that flew between its trees could sing so loud and beautifully.

“When you turn fifteen years old,” said the grandmother, “you will be allowed to rise from the sea, sit in the moonlight on the rocks and see the large ships that sail by. You will see the forests and the cities!”

Chapter Three: Tales of the Kingdom Above

The following year, one of the older sisters turned fifteen, but the others, well, each was a year younger than the last, and so the littlest mermaid would have to wait a full five years before she could come up from the bottom of the sea. But her sisters were kind to her. They promised to tell her everything they learned of the surface.

Many a night, this young creature stood by the open window and looked up through the dark blue water, where the fish flicked their fins and tails. Moon and stars she could see, ever so faintly, ever so pale. Black shadows would pass across them, and she would shudder, for she had heard of the enormous, ravenous creatures who lived in the water above her kingdom. But sometimes, she would imagine those shadows as ships sailing through the waves, and she was not scared of those.

When the oldest mermaid returned from her trip to the surface, she had hundreds of tales to tell. The most delightful, she said, was how one could lie in the moonlight on a sandbank in the calm sea, gazing upon the Great City, with its high walls and soaring spires, where the lights twinkled like a thousand stars. From there, she could hear the music and the singing, and the bells ringing.

Oh! How the littlest mermaid fell under the spell of these fairy tales. When evening fell, she stood by the open window and looked up through the dark blue water. She thought of the great city with all its people and songs, and she thought she could hear the church bells.

The following year, the second sister went up through the water. She swam up just as the sun sank down, and that sight she saw was the most delightful. The whole sky had looked like gold, she said, with red and violet clouds sailing through it. A flock of wild swans flew just over the water, glowing in the last rays of the setting sun.

The year after that, the third sister took her turn. She was the bravest of them all, so she swam up a broad river that fed into the sea. She saw rolling green hills with vineyards, castles, and farmsteads. Strange creatures peeked out from the shadows of magnificent jungles. The sun shone so hot that she often had to dive underwater to cool her burning face.

In a small bay, she found a whole flock of small human children running and splashing in the water. They were so happy, and she wanted to play with them, but they ran away in fright when they saw what she was. The adults came with their swords, and she became scared and fled to the open sea.

The fourth sister was not as bold, she stayed in the middle of the wild sea, where no people came, where one could see many miles around oneself without any fear of being hunted. Ships she had seen, but so far away, they looked like seagulls. Soon it grew dark, and she grew fearful of what swam in the water beneath her, so she hurried back home.

Now it was the fifth sister’s turn. Her fifteenth birthday was in winter, so she saw what the others had not seen on their first visits. The sea appeared entirely green, and large icebergs were floating about, she said, like mountains made of ice. These icebergs came in the most peculiar shapes and glittered like diamonds. She had rested on the largest of them, and all the ships sailed by, the sailors pointing and shouting as they passed, turning their ships away.

In the evening, dark clouds filled the sky. Soon lightning flashed and thunder cracked while the black sea lifted the great icebergs high into the air, glistening in the red lightning. On all the ships, the sails were taken in. She could see the faces of the men, how their fear turned to dread. But she sat calmly on her drifting iceberg, watching the blue lightning strike the black sea.

Chapter Four: The Sirens of the Deep

Each time one of the sisters rose above the water for the first time, they were delighted by the strange and fascinating things they saw. But now, fully grown, they could go up whenever they wished, so they became indifferent to the marvels above. The thrill of excitement would decay into apprehension, and it didn’t take long for them to lose their spirit. Within a month, they would say it was most beautiful down below, much safer in their dark kingdom of the deep.

Some evenings, when they were feeling brave, the five sisters would link arms and rise together above the water. They had beautiful voices, much more beautiful than any human being. When a storm was brewing, and they could suppose that ships might be wrecked, they swam before the ships, singing enchantingly of how beautiful it was at the bottom of the sea, urging the sailors not to be afraid to come down. But the sailors never saw the splendour down below, for when the ship sank, they all drowned, and only their dead bodies reached the Old King’s palace.

When the sisters would go up, arm in arm, the youngest sister was left standing alone, looking after them. A human girl might weep, but a mermaid has no tears, so the suffering stays with her.

“Oh, if only I were fifteen years old,” she said. “I know that I shall love the world up there and all the people who live and move about in it.”

Finally, she was fifteen.

Illustration of a fairy tale ship from the Little Mermaid.

Chapter Five: The Journey to the Surface

“Now we’re done with you,” said her grandmother, the Ancient Queen. “Come now, let me adorn you like your other sisters!” And she put a wreath of white lilies in her hair, but each petal of the flower was half of a pearl. And the Old One had eight large oysters fasten themselves to the princess’s tail to celebrate her quinceañera.

“It hurts so much!” said the little mermaid.

“Yes, one must endure some pain for the sake of splendour!” said the Old One.

Oh, how she would have liked to take off the heavy wreath and shake off all this splendour. The purple flowers in her garden suited her much better, but she didn’t dare change. “Farewell,” she said, and she swam up from the deep, glistening like a bubble.

The sun had just set when she raised her head above the water, but all the clouds still shone like roses and gold, and in the midst of the pale pink air, the evening star was shining clear and beautiful. The air was mild and fresh, and the sea calm. There she saw a large ship with three masts. Only one sail was set, for there was not a breath of wind, and around in the rigging and on the yards sat the sailors. There was music and singing, and as the evening grew darker, the men lit hundreds of red and gold lanterns.

The little mermaid swam right up to the cabin window, and every time the water lifted her up, she could see through the clear windows. Many handsome humans drank and danced and laughed, but the fairest of them all was the young prince with the large black eyes. He could not be much more than sixteen years old. It was his birthday, too, she thought. Perhaps that was why there was such a splendid celebration.

The sailors were dancing on the deck, and when the young prince came out, more than a hundred fireworks went up in the air, setting the night on fire. The little mermaid was so startled that she dived under the water. When she popped her head up again, it seemed as if all the stars in heaven were falling around her.

The ship itself was so brightly lit that one could see every little thing, every person, and every expression on their faces. Oh, how handsome the young prince was! He shook hands with all the humans, laughing and smiling broadly. The music echoed in the beautiful night, and all the sights were reflected in the clear water around her.

It grew late, but the little Mermaid could not take her eyes off the ship and the beautiful Prince. The coloured lanterns were extinguished, the rockets no longer soared into the air, and the cannon ceased to echo.

Then there came a wind, and the ship let down one sail after another, slowly taking speed. She swam on the surface of the water, swaying up and down with the waves, trying to peer into the cabin. The waves grew stronger, large clouds gathered, and lightning flashed in the distance. Oh, it would be a terrible storm!

Chapter Six: The Storm

The water rose like great black mountains that would topple over the mast, and the ship rolled between them only to be lifted again on the towering waters. The ship creaked and groaned, the thick planks bulging under the heavy blows. The sea broke over the ship, the mast cracking in half as if it were a reed, and the ship careened to the side, the water rushing into the hold.

Now the little Mermaid saw they were in danger. Beams and pieces of the ship fell into the water around her, forcing her to retreat below the surface. One moment it was so pitch dark that she could not see anything, but when the lightning flashed, she saw the great ship in front of her, much too low in the black water.

She surfaced and saw the men scrambling about the deck, grabbing at ropes, their sinewy muscles bulging. Some were not quick or strong enough, and they fell into the water, carried away by the waves, lost in the darkness.

She looked for the young Prince and saw him on the deck, holding tight to another who had slipped, pulling him back aboard. She felt a pang of sadness, for had he fallen, they could have been together. The ship rose up again, and her dark wish was granted. The ship split apart, sinking into the deep sea.

Her heart soared for a moment, but then she remembered that humans could not live beneath the water. He could not come down to her kingdom unless he were dead.

No, he must not die! She swam through beams and planks that drifted on the sea, forgetting that they could have crushed her. She dove deep under the water, rose high among the waves, and finally came to the young Prince, who was too frail for the stormy sea. His arms and legs began to weaken, his beautiful eyes closed, and he would have died if the little Mermaid had not come. She held his head above the waves and let the ocean carry the two of them wherever it wanted.

At dawn, the storm had passed. Every trace of the ship had disappeared beneath the ocean as if it had never been. The sun rose so red out of the water, giving the Prince’s cheeks the illusion of life, but his eyes remained closed.

The Mermaid kissed his high, beautiful forehead and stroked his wet hair back. She thought he looked like the marble statue in her little garden. She kissed him again and wished that he might live.

Now she saw the firm land in front of her: high blue mountains, on whose tops the white snow rested like so many swans; down by the coast was the old primeval jungle, and in front was a temple made of white stone, and lemon and orange trees grew in the garden, and in front of the gate stood tall palm trees. The sea formed a small bay here; it was calm but deep, right down to the rock where the fine white sand was washed up. Here she swam with the handsome Prince and laid him in the soft sand, in the warm sunshine.

Now bells rang in the large white temple, and many young girls came through the garden and past the palms. The Little Mermaid swam behind some high rocks that jutted from the water. She laid sea foam on her hair and chest so none would see her pale skin. Then she watched.

It was not long before a young girl came to the young prince. She seemed quite frightened, but only for a moment. The Prince came to life and smiled at the girl.

But he did not smile at the Little Mermaid. He did not know that she had saved him. She felt so sad, and when the Prince was taken into the large building, she dived sorrowfully into the water and went home to her father’s palace.

Painting of the temple from the Little Mermaid fairy tale.

Chapter Seven: The Castle Above the Sea

The Little Mermaid had always been quiet, but now she became more so. Her sisters asked her what she had seen on her first trip above, but she did not tell them.

Many an evening, she went to where she had left the Prince. She saw how the garden’s fruits ripened and were picked, and she saw how the snow melted on the high mountains, but she did not see the Prince, and so she always returned even more saddened.

It was her only consolation to sit in her little garden and wrap her arms around the beautiful marble statue that looked like the Prince. But she did not tend her flowers; they grew over the paths, their long stalks and leaves intertwining with the branches of the trees until the pale light of the sun could no longer reach the statue.

Eventually, she could bear the quiet darkness no longer. She confided in one of her sisters, and shortly after, all the others knew as well. One of them knew who the Prince was. She had also seen the festivities on the ship, knew where he was from, and where his kingdom was.

“Come, little sister!” said the other princesses, and arm in arm, they rose from the deep and swam through the shallows to where they knew the Prince’s castle was.

The castle was built of a bright yellow, gleaming stone, with large marble staircases, one leading straight down to an old wing of the castle the sea had swallowed. They swam through the sunken chambers, past marble columns and great stone statues that looked as if they were still alive. They gazed through the sunken windows at the castle above.

Now the Little Mermaid knew where her Prince lived, and many evenings and nights, she returned. She swam much closer than any of the others had dared; indeed, she explored every sunken room and went right up the narrow canal under the magnificent marble balcony, which cast a long shadow over the water. Here she floated in the clear moonlight, just beneath the surface, watching the young Prince who thought he was alone.

Many a night, she heard the fishermen, with their lights on the sea, telling many good things about the young Prince, and it pleased her that she had saved his life. She remembered how his head had rested on her chest and how passionately she had then kissed him, but he knew nothing of this. He could not even dream of her.

More and more, she came to love human beings, and more and more, she longed to live among them. Their world seemed so much larger than hers. They could glide over the sea on their grand ships, ride over the hills on their magnificent horses, and ascend the mountains that rose higher even than the clouds. And the lands they owned extended further than she could see, through the Old Jungles where long-tailed birds slithered through the sky.

Chapter Eight: The Eternal Human Soul

There was so much she wished to know. Her sisters knew much, but not everything, so she asked the Ancient Queen what she knew of the lands above the sea.

“If humans do not drown,” asked the little Mermaid, “can they live forever?”

“No,” said the old woman, “they too must die. Their bodies are so much more fragile than ours, lucky to survive a hundred years. But each man and woman has a soul. After the body has become earth, it rises through the night air, up to all the shining stars!”

“Why weren’t we given souls?” lamented the little Mermaid, “I would give all my three hundred years to be a human for just one day, to feel a soul inside me, to be with the Prince once more!”

“You must not think about that!” said the Old One, “We are much happier and better off than the humans up there!”

“Here in the sea, where my body will die and drift as foam on the water, never again to hear the music of the waves or see the purple flowers and the red sun! Can I do nothing to gain an eternal soul!”

“No!” said the Ancient Queen. “Only if a human loved you more than his own father and mother; only if he promised you faithfulness now and for all eternity; only if you lived and died with him; only then would his soul flow into your body. But that can never happen! They do not understand us. They would find your fishtail hideous and your appetites terrifying. What is beautiful here in the sea is a horror to those above.”

At this, the little mermaid sighed and looked sorrowfully at her serpentine body.

“Let us be content,” said the Old Creature. “Before we rest forever, we will leap and frolic for the three hundred years we have. Tonight we will have a ball!”

Chapter Nine: The Ball

The ball was more splendid than anything man has ever seen. The walls and ceiling of the dance hall were made of thick but clear glass. Hundreds of colossal mussel shells, rose-red and grass-green, stood in rows on each side with a blue burning witchfire, illuminating the entire hall and shining out through the walls. Countless fish, big and small, swam toward the glass wall. Some fish had scales that shone purplish red in the strange light. Others were silver, gold, blue, or black.

An underwater stream flowed through the middle of the hall, and mermen and mermaids danced and sang in the current. The people who live above have never heard voices so beautiful, and the little mermaid sang most beautifully of them all. For a moment, she felt joy in her heart, for she knew she had the most beautiful voice on earth and in the sea. But soon she could not forget the handsome prince with his immortal soul.

While the creatures inside were singing and rejoicing, the little mermaid snuck away to sit sorrowfully in her little garden in the darkness. Then she heard faint horns sounding down through the water, and she thought, “Now he’s probably sailing up there, he whom I love more than father and mother, he whom my thoughts hang on and in whose hand I would lay my life’s happiness. I would give anything to win him and an immortal soul! I will go to the sea witch.”

Chapter Ten: The Sea Witch

Now the little mermaid went out of her garden towards the roaring whirlpools behind which the witch lived. She had never gone this way before. No flowers grew there, no sea grass, only the bare black sandy bottom stretched out towards the whirlpools, where the water dragged everything it caught down into the deepest depths of the ocean.

The little mermaid swam carefully through these grasping currents, then through the hot and fetid water of an underwater swamp. Behind this rot was a house in the shade of a strange ocean forest.

All the trees and bushes were polyps, half animal and half plant. They looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the ground, with fingers like supple worms. People who had died at sea and fallen into the ocean peered like white skeletons from their arms.

The little mermaid stopped, her heart beating with fear, and she almost turned around. Then she thought of the prince and his human soul, and her yearning gave her courage.

She tied her long fluttering hair tightly around her head so that the polyps couldn’t grab it, put both hands over her chest, and then darted into the forest, in among the disgusting polyps. Joint by joint they moved from the root to the outermost tip, grabbing at her body, but there was nothing to grasp onto.

Now she came to a large slimy place in the forest, where large, fat water-snakes were frolicking and showing their swollen yellow bellies. In the middle of the square there was a hut made of human bones, and there lay the sea witch, her hips wide and fertile, her skin smooth and pale, and her breasts large and bare. She was letting a crab pick at something in her mouth, just like people let little canary birds eat sugar from theirs.

“I know what you want!” said the Alluring Witch. “You want to exchange your slender tail for two stumps to walk upon. It’s a foolish thing for you to do! It will only bring you sadness, my pretty princess.” At that, the Witch laughed so loudly and horribly that the crab fell onto the ground and scuttered away into a crevice.

“I am growing old,” said the Witch, gazing down upon her gentle curves. “Tomorrow I will fall into a deep slumber, resting until this body is young again. But you came just in time. I will make you a drink. You must swim to the surface, drag your body upon the shore, and drink it there. If you do that, then your tail will separate and shrivel into what humans call beautiful legs. It will feel like a sharp sword cleaving you in twain. Even when you heal, each step you take will be like stepping on a sharp knife. But all who see you will say you are the most beautiful human woman they have ever seen!”

“I will do it,” said the little mermaid in a trembling voice. “I will do anything!”

“But remember,” said the Witch, “once you have become human, you can never be a mermaid again! You can never descend through the water to see your sisters or your father. And if you do not win the love of the prince, so that he forgets his father and mother, clings to you with his whole being, and marries you for now and forever, you will die. If the prince ever lies with another woman, your heart will burst, and you will become foam on the water.”

“I will do it!” said the little mermaid, and she was pale as death.

“You must also pay me,” said the Witch. “I do not ask for much. You have the most beautiful voice in all the sea and all the world. Perhaps you believe you will enchant him with it. But you must give that voice to me.”

“But if you take my voice,” said the little mermaid, “what do I keep then?”

“Your beautiful figure,” said the Witch, “your floating gait, and your expressive eyes. With them, you can surely steal a human heart.”

Doubt crept into the little mermaid’s heart, and she said nothing.

“Well, have you lost your courage? Put forth your little tongue, so I can cut it off as payment.”

“So be it!” said the little mermaid.

The Witch put her cauldron on to brew the magic potion. She tied the yellow-bellied snakes into a knot and used them to scrub the grim from the pot. Then she scratched herself on the chest and let her black blood drip into it. The fluid swirled and bubbled as it boiled, forming into nightmare shapes. The witch threw every vile thing into it, until the little mermaid grew queasy and had to turn away. When she turned back, the drink looked like the clearest spring water.

“There it is!” said the Witch.

She grabbed the little mermaid by the neck and cut off her tongue.

“If the polyps should catch you when you go back through my forest,” said the Witch, “just throw a single drop of this drink on them. They will split in two, as you will, and the pain will scare them.” But the polyps had heard the witch, and they were already afraid. They recoiled in fear as the little mermaid swam between them.

She could see her father’s castle. The torches were extinguished in the large ballroom. Everyone was probably sleeping, and she dared not wake them. It felt as if her heart was breaking from sorrow. She snuck into the garden, took one flower from each of her sisters’ flower beds, threw a thousand kisses towards the castle with her fingers, and ascended through the dark blue sea.

Painting of the fairy tale palace from the Little Mermaid.

Chapter Eleven: The Palace

The sun had not yet risen when the little mermaid saw the prince’s castle. She swam through the underwater ruins and dragged herself up the magnificent marble staircase into the castle proper. The moon shone beautifully clear.

She drank the potion. It burned as she swallowed it, and then the sensation became sharp. It felt as if a two-edged sword was slicing through her delicate body. She fainted from the pain.

She awoke in pain, but the sun was warm, and the prince was there beside her. She looked down at where her tail had been. Her legs were long, smooth, and human, and she was completely naked. She wrapped herself in her long, thick hair.

The prince asked her who she was and how she had come to be there, and she looked sadly at him with her dark blue eyes. She could not speak.

He took her by the hand and led her into the castle. Every step she took was as if she was treading on sharp needles and knives, but she endured it. By the prince’s hand, she floated as lightly as a bubble, and he and everyone else marvelled at her lovely, floating gait.

In the castle, she was the most beautiful of all, but she was mute, unable to sing or speak. She was given exquisite clothes of silk and muslin. Lovely slave girls dressed in silk and gold came forward and sang to the prince and her. One sang more beautifully than all the others, and the prince clapped his hands and smiled at her. This saddened the little mermaid. She thought, “Oh, if he only knew that I have given away my voice to be with him.”

Now the slave girls danced in lovely, floating dances to the most delightful music. Then the little mermaid lifted her beautiful white arms, rose on her tiptoes, and twirled across the floor, dancing as no one had danced before.

All were enchanted, and the Prince most of all. He called her his little foundling and said she would always be with him. She was allowed to sleep outside his door on a velvet cushion.

He had a man’s outfit sewn for her so she could accompany him on horseback. They rode through the fragrant forests, where the green branches brushed her shoulders, and the little birds sang behind the fresh leaves. She climbed with the prince up high mountains, hiding the pain in every step, until they saw the clouds gliding beneath them like a flock of birds.

At the prince’s castle, when the others slept at night, she would go out to the shore, where she could slip her legs beneath the water. The water soothed her burning feet.

Painting of the little mermaid dipping her toes into the ocean.

One night her sisters came, singing so mournfully as they swam over the water, and she beckoned to them. They recognized her and told her how much sorrow she had caused them all. After that, they visited her every night. One night she saw, far out, her old grandmother, who had not been above the sea for many years, and the Sea King with his crown on his head. They stretched their hands towards her but dared not come closer.

Day by day, the foundling became dearer to the prince. He loved her as one might love a good, dear child. However, he did not think of making her his queen, and if chose another, the poor foundling would turn into foam on the sea.

“Do you not love me the most among them all?” the little mermaid’s eyes seemed to ask when he took her in his arms and kissed her beautiful forehead.

“You have a kind heart,” said the prince, “but I cannot love you. You resemble a young maiden I once saw. I was on a ship that wrecked; the waves cast me ashore near a sacred temple, where several young maidens served. The youngest of them found me on the shore and saved my life. I saw her only twice. She was the only one I could love in this world. You resemble her. You almost displace her image from my soul.”

The mermaid sighed deeply; she could not cry. I am with him, she thought. I see him every day, care for him, and love him. That other woman is far from here, hidden away in her temple, and he will never see her again.”

Chapter Twelve: The Journey

“Now the prince is to be married to the beautiful daughter of the neighboring king!” it was said. “That’s why he is outfitting such a splendid ship.” But the little mermaid shook her head and laughed. She knew the prince’s thoughts much better than any of the others.

“I have to go,” he had told her. “I have to see the princess. My parents demand it, but they would not force me to bring her home as my bride. I cannot love her! She does not resemble the beautiful maiden in the temple, as you do.” And he kissed her red mouth, played with her long hair, and laid his head on her heart, which dreamt of human happiness and an immortal soul.

They stood on the magnificent ship that was to take him to the neighbouring king’s lands, and he told her about the storms, the depths, and the strange creatures who lived there. She smiled at his stories. She knew the bottom of the sea better than anyone else.

In the gentle moonlight, when all but the helmsman were asleep, she sat on the ship’s railing and stared down through the clear water. She thought she could see her father’s palace. At the top, her old grandmother stood with the silver crown on her head, staring up through the strong currents towards the ship’s keel.

Then her sisters rose above the water. They stared at her and wrung their white hands. She waved at them, smiled, and wished she could tell them she was happy. But the ship’s boy approached her, and her sisters dove down.

The next morning the ship sailed into the harbour of the neighbouring king’s magnificent city. Bells rang in the temples, trumpets sang from the towers, and the heralds waved their banners.

Each day brought a new festivity. Balls and banquets followed one after another, but the princess was nowhere to be seen. She was travelling from a holy temple in a distant land, they said, where she was learning all the sacred virtues.

At last, she arrived.

Chapter Thirteen: The Princess

The little mermaid stared as the princess made her entrance. She had never seen a more beautiful figure. Her skin was so delicate and pure, and behind the long dark eyelashes smiled a pair of dark blue faithful eyes.

“It’s you,” said the prince, “you who saved me when I lay like a corpse on the coast!” And he wrapped the princess in his arms. “Oh, I am too happy!” he said to the little mermaid. “All that I had never dared to hope for has been fulfilled!”

The little mermaid kissed his hand, and she felt as if her heart was already breaking. His wedding morning would bring her death. At sunrise, she would be nothing more than foam on the sea.

The temple bells rang once more, banners flew, and heralds rode through the streets singing the news of the betrothal. On every altar burned fragrant oil in silver lamps. The clerics swung censers, and the bride and groom gave each other their hands and received the bishop’s blessing.

The little mermaid, dressed in silk and gold, held the bride’s train, but her ears did not hear the festive music, and her eyes did not see the holy ceremony. Instead, she thought of all she had sacrificed, only to die alone.

That evening, the bride and groom boarded the ship. Cannons roared, flags fluttered in the gentle breeze, and in the middle of the ship, a splendid tent of gold and purple had been erected with the most splendid cushions, where the bridal couple was to sleep in the cool, calm night.

The sails swelled in the wind, and the ship glided smoothly over the clear sea.

Chapter Fourteen: The Honeymoon

When darkness fell, colourful lamps were lit, and the sailors danced merry dances on deck. It reminded the little mermaid of the first time she emerged from the sea and saw the same splendour and joy.

She whirled herself into the dance, light as a swallow, and everyone applauded her admiringly. Never had she danced so wonderfully. It cut like sharp knives into her delicate feet, but she did not feel it. She only felt her heart breaking.

She pushed those dark thoughts away. She knew this was her last evening. She had so few moments left, and each was too precious to squander. It was the last night she would breathe the same air as the prince, see the deep sea, and gaze up at the night sky, where nothing awaited her, for she had no soul.

She pushed the darkness away once more, laughed and danced, and tried to keep the thought of death away from her heart.

The prince kissed his beautiful bride, and she played with his black hair, and he led her to the magnificent tent to rest.

The ship became quiet and still. Only the helmsman stood at the helm. The little mermaid laid her white arms on the railing and looked east for the dawn. The first sunbeam, she knew, would kill her.

Then she saw her sisters rise from the sea. They were as pale as her. Their long beautiful hair no longer fluttered in the wind. It was cut off.

“We gave it to the witch, to get you help so you won’t die this night! She has given us a knife, here it is! See how sharp it is? Before the sun rises, you must stab it into the prince’s heart. When his warm blood splatters on your feet, they will reform into a fish tail, and you will become a mermaid again. You can come home with us and live your three hundred years, before you turn into the dead, salty sea foam. Hurry! Kill the prince and come back! Hurry, do you see the red stripe in the sky? In a few minutes the sun will rise, and then you will die!”

Chapter Fifteen: The End

The little mermaid pulled the purple curtain aside from the tent. The lovely bride lay sleeping with her head upon her handsome prince’s chest.

The little mermaid leaned down and kissed the prince on his beautiful forehead. She looked at the sky, where the sliver of red was growing wider. She fastened her eyes again on the prince, and the knife trembled in her slender hand.

She threw that knife far out into the ocean, and the waves shone red where it fell, as if droplets of blood were bubbling up from the water. Once more, she looked with half-broken eyes at the prince, threw herself from the ship into the sea, and felt her body dissolving into foam.

Now the sun rose from the sea. The rays fell so softly and warmly on that cold sea foam.

The little mermaid had not felt her death. She only saw the red sky, and the hundreds of transparent, beautiful creatures floating through it. They were singing with voices so ethereal that no living ear could hear it, just as no earthly eye could see their bodies.

The little mermaid saw that she had a body just like theirs. She was floating with them.

“To whom do I come!” she said, and her voice sounded like the other beings, so delicate that no mortal being could hear it.

“The mermaid has no immortal soul,” the others answered. “She can never get one unless she wins a man’s love! And so you are trapped here with us. We fly to the warm countries, where the muggy pestilential air kills all who breathe it. There we will sing like a gentle wind, spreading the fragrance of flowers through the air. Perhaps then we will be granted an immortal soul. Perhaps then we can ascend into the night sky. You can come with us.”

On the ship there was noise and life again. The ghost that had been the little mermaid saw the prince with his beautiful bride. They were looking for her, staring over the side of the ship at the frothing foam, as if they knew her body lay there. The ghost kissed the bride’s forehead, smiled once last time at the prince, and faded into the morning.

Painting of the little mermaid aboard a ship.

Similar Fairy Tales

If you liked this story, I’ve also translated and retold the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. It, too, is dramatically different from the Disney version.

Or, if you want something else by Hans Christian Andersen, I recommend The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s full of interesting moral lessons.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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