The other day, I came across an old Hans Christian Andersen book in a charity shop. I vaguely remembered reading his original Little Mermaid story and being horrified, so morbid curiosity got the better of me and I re-read Ariel’s dark tale (or tail, see what I did there?! No? Never mind, then.) It got me thinking: how many other Disney tales have macabre origins? So, I began exploring, and it spawned this. Welcome to a new blog series- Grisly Disney!
Let’s start with a classic Disney favourite.
How did Disney paint Ariel’s story?
The sinister story is near enough the Disney version we’ve all seen, but with a few grisly additions. In Disney’s adaptation, Ariel sees Prince Eric and falls in love. During a storm, she rescues Eric, lays him out on the shore and sings to him.
Ariel realises she’s in love with Eric, so despite her father’s hatred of humans, she goes to see Ursula the Sea Witch and exchanges her beautiful singing voice for human legs so she can go after Eric. Her sea king dad’s not best pleased, as you may have guessed. He probably felt roughly the same as my Catholic mother did when I brought home my long-haired, pierced, leather-clad boyfriend. Ah, well.
Ariel has three days to charm her (voiceless) way to Eric’s heart, and if she doesn’t receive the “kiss of true love” before the end of the last day, she’ll be turned into one of Ursula’s creepy little khaki creatures. You know the things I mean, right?
There’s a bit of palaver because the Sea Witch is a sly devil, and in disguise as a woman called Vanessa, hypnotises Eric with Ariel’s voice (she keeps it in a snail shell round her neck – what a weirdo). Eric kisses her, mistakenly thinking she is the woman who rescued him. However, Scuttle the seagull (ah yes – Ariel has a posse of aquatic and earth chums that I forgot to mention) realises Vanessa is Ursula and tells Ariel.
Ariel the wedding crasher
Ariel rushes to the wedding boat to prevent the wedding, and in the ruckus, Vanessa’s necklace containing Ariel’s voice smashes, returning its contents to its original owner. Eric realises that Ariel is his true love and rushes to kiss her, but the sun sets and Ariel turns into a mermaid. Cue Ursula’s evil laugh and dramatic exit into the sea with a struggling Ariel beneath her chubby, lilac arm.
King Triton tries to reason with the Sea Witch, but there’s only one way out of the contract – to sign himself and his crown over in Ariel’s place. Despite many shrieks of “Daddy, no!”, King Triton signs the contract and turns into one of the dreaded khaki creatures.
(I thought they were cute in a creepy way – reminded me of my miniature Yorkshire terrier when we gave him a bath. He, too, looked as though he was having as much fun as a guy trying to convince a witch not to imprison his daughter for all eternity).
Ursula then declares herself ruler of the Seven Seas, and gets a bit carried away zapping things with her new trident, accidentally killing Flotsam and Jetsam – you know, those evil little moray eel minions she has. Then, in her rage, she uses the trident to grow to an absolutely monstrous size, which would have worked quite well, had she not damaged Eric’s ship. The prince then uses the broken prow of the ship to stab her in the stomach, killing her. Good one, Ursula.
Anyway, since the old witch is dead, Ariel’s father regains his power and body, turns Ariel into a human and makes a rainbow in the sky. Happiness and sunshine and rainbows and love!
The Little Sea Lady
Or not. In the original tale, the Little Mermaid doesn’t seem to have a name, other than “den lille havrue” in its original Danish, which literally translates to “the little sea lady”. Hmm, not quite as catchy, Hans.
Anyway, she spies on a prince, falls in love with him and rescues him after a storm. However, she drags him ashore and runs away (well, flops away, I guess, being a mermaid on the shore n’all) when another girl else finds him. The prince never sees his real rescuer.
The little sea lady goes to her grandmother and asks if humans could live forever if they could breathe under water. Her grandmother tells her that humans have a much shorter lifespan than the 300 years mermaids usually live to see, but when humans die, their soul lives on eternally in heaven. When mermaids die, they turn to sea foam and simply cease to exist.
The little sea lady is romanced by the idea of her soul living on in heaven, so she goes to the Sea Witch and buys a potion that gives her legs, in exchange for her tongue. A slightly more extreme way of stopping her lovely singing voice, I think you’ll agree.
I’m walking on sunshine – oh wait, no
Anyway, the magical potion gives her legs – at a price. Just drinking the stuff makes her feel as though she has swallowed a sword, and although she’s told she’ll be able to dance unlike no other human before, walking makes her feel as though she’s walking on glass hard enough to cut through her feet.
On top of that minor distraction (ahem), the little sea lady must find true love’s first kiss, make the prince love her in return, and marry him. Then, a part of the prince’s soul will flow into her and she will obtain a soul. If she doesn’t accomplish this and the prince marries another woman, she will die young and broken-hearted, and disintegrate into sea foam like all of the other merfolk.
So, given that slightly ominous task, she sets out to meet the prince. He is mesmerised by her beauty and grace, and particularly likes to watch her dance. Desperate to please him, the little sea lady dances and dances, even though it causes her excruciating pain.
The king tells the prince he must marry the neighbouring king’s daughter, but the prince tells the mute mermaid that he won’t, because he doesn’t love this mystery woman. However, it turns out that the mystery woman is the girl who was at the temple when he awoke, so the prince decides he does love her after all. (Arse).
The prince and princess marry, and the poor little mermaid’s heart breaks. She thinks of all the pain she has suffered for the prince, and how much she has given up to be with him. However, her sisters come to the surface, carrying a knife the Sea Witch had given them in exchange for their hair. If the little sea lady kills the prince with it and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid again, her suffering will cease, and she will live her 300 year life span with family in the ocean.
Well, this definitely didn’t happen in the Disney version!
The poor girl can’t bring herself to kill the prince, even after the hurt he has caused her. So, in the depths of despair, the tortured mermaid throws herself into the sea. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the sun. Through striving with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul, she has become a “daughter of the air”, she is told, and she can earn her soul by doing good deeds. Eventually, she will live in the kingdom of God.
So, I guess that’s a happy ending? Though it sure doesn’t feel like one. If I’d have had dear old Hans’ version on video back in the nineties, I don’t think Ariel’s tale would have been quite so popular with me…or my parents, for that matter.
I can hear my mum now; “Turn that horrible, morbid thing off, it’ll give you nightmares!”
And she hasn’t even heard the other Disney origin stories. Stay tuned for more!