The Original ‘Little Mermaid’ Fairy Tale Was a Heartbreaking Allegory for Unrequited Queer Love
We’ve all heard by now that the origins of Disney’s classics are far darker than the animated films we grew up with. In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter kills his Lost Boys; in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, the hunchback sees Esmerelda hanged in public; and in The Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella, the wicked stepsisters’ eyes are plucked out by birds. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is no exception, as we’ll explain, but there’s also a Little Mermaid queer backstory that few are familiar with.
In the original Little Mermaid story, when the mermaid trades in her fin for legs, she is in constant pain, with every step she takes feeling like knives are slicing her skin. She is forced to dance for the prince in this condition, and she cannot speak. At the end of the story, the prince falls in love with another woman, and the mermaid, heartbroken in her grief, throws herself into the sea and dissolves into seafoam.
While Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is undoubtedly grim, there’s also a Little Mermaid queer backstory that is poignant.
In fact, many scholars agree that Andersen was biromantic, and the object of his affection was Edvard Collin, the son of Andersen’s patron, Jonas Collin. Collin never seemed to reciprocate Andersen’s love for him, and thus this story about the ultimate unrequited love and sacrifice was written.
Rictor Norton, literary and cultural history critic, wrote:
In letters written to his beloved young friend Edvard Collin in 1835–6 Andersen said “Our friendship is like ‘The Mysteries’, it should not be analyzed,” and “I long for you as though you were a beautiful Calabrian girl.” In the fairy tale [The Little Mermaid], written when Collin decided to get married, Andersen displays himself as the sexual outsider who lost his prince to another.
Andersen’s decision to represent himself, with his queer desires, as a fairy tale creature — and as someone who lives in an unknowable depth below the water — can be no coincidence.
His story starts out with the line “Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it.”
He conflates his sexuality with a nebulous other-world, unreachable and not yet discovered. It becomes something he can never fully explore because the man he longs for does not return his feelings.
Collin acknowledged Andersen’s love for him much later in life, in his own memoirs, writing, “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.”
You can read the original The Little Mermaid here.