You’ve heard, or read, or watched the stories of The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Princess and the Pea. You might also recall, The Emperor's New Clothes or Groove as it is now commonly referred to. The origins of these stories come from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. And what a master storyteller was he.
The other day, my friend and I were discussing Disney and other animated films that we loved –‘cause who doesn’t love a bit of animation? – When we decided to re watch Thumbelina. Not remembering a whole lot of the story other than it features a pretty little thing no higher than an inch who falls for a Fairy Prince, and also a Spanish, busty, lip-sticked toad. We thought what better way to spend the evening than revisiting one of the loves of our childhood.
We soon realised the reason we didn’t remember this story was because, quite frankly, it was perverse. An abomination of animation, this young girl not only falls for the prince within seconds of seeing him, but they decide to ride off together the next day on a bumblebee and become man and wife. During the night she manages to get kidnapped by a stripper toad, coaxed into becoming a star on the toads boat, as well as betrothed to the hideous toads son.
In the next hour she meets an erratic swallow that seems to herald danger each time he leaves her, a mouse that wishes to wed her to a blind and rich mole who is besotted with her pretty voice, a show-biz cricket who wants her voice and beauty but then calls her ugly when his friends decide that she is revolting, which leads her to self-doubt and belittlement, and once she escapes these selfish creatures again runs into Mr fairy prince who weds her without delay and they sing merrily together about “joining wings”.
The whole thing was down right absurd and disturbing, even to my eyes that have seen the likes of Hannibal and The Game of Thrones. This tale was centred on a naïve, impressionable, vulnerable and beautiful little person who fell into the possession of selfish and evil people, she was ridiculed, revered, stolen, harassed, and possessed by all manner of creatures. She had no power over herself whatsoever but was continuously under the foot of others. I doubt any child watching this would be able to evaluate what they just watched and determine its moral implications.
Why would Warner Brothers revel in making such an adaptation?
This question led me to do some research. I read the original story for myself to see how much the film stayed true. Many of the obstacles and creatures Thumbelina meets in the film were imagined and written by Hans. However, the story was more focused in Hans’ version and easier to follow and comprehend. The original didn’t seem as perverse or confused as the film adaptation. In fact, although it was sad it did end happily with Thumbelina meeting the king of the Fairies.
As I continued reading Hans’ tales I also came across the The Little Mermaid. Wow. The original read so different from the Disney classic I had grown to know and love. You see Ariel doesn’t end up with Eric. No. The prince that Ariel meets marries a beautiful princess from a neighbouring country. Previously the sea sorceress made a bargain with Ariel and told her if she doesn’t marry the prince she will die the morning after he marries another, and the soul she acquired as a human would die with her. Then, her sisters warn her just before the dawn of her death to kill the prince so that she can live. She cannot kill the prince so she throws the dagger in the open ocean and follows suit.
Only, she doesn’t die. Aether women (resembling a kind of purgatory) greet her and tell her that for 300 hundred years they will live in the air blessing homes of good children until they can achieve immortality and go to heaven. But, if they should ever cry at wicked children their tears add a year trial to their life before they can go to heaven. All of this after she cut out her tongue for the man prince she loved and wanted to spend her mortal life with. What is going on here?
I venture further into the tales of Hans, getting lost in the pages of his creations. I am disturbed and disappointed at some of the uncharacteristic happy endings and complex plot and characters but intrigued all the same. I have to find some salvation in these unusual and mesmerising tales. Not all of them joyful or hopeful.
Although the original and the adaptations were vastly different in plot, many of the characters and details of place and setting remained the same. I have no idea what this means. What I do know is that this Hans wrote some creepy stuff. Embedded in his tales are subtle messages that you don’t obviously learn. His stories cause you to sit and reflect on what you read. In fact, they leave you dazzled and confused. Some simpler than others, others more complex and woven more tightly and exquisitely than any old story I know. He was a master of words, symbols and signs. How could a young mermaid that had her tongue cut out, had abandoned her home, family, and the essence of who she was get married to a prince and live happily ever after? She couldn’t. Instead she had to face her 300 years of living with people in a place she had never known. Facing the reality that she alone had destroyed her life. Albeit it wasn’t too horrid, as the winged ladies seemed very nice and graceful.
The stories of Hans Christian Andersen don’t always have endings that allow the characters in them or the reader much closure. You can’t predict the ending of Andersons’ fairy tales. They teach you to retrospect though. Look at your own actions and thoughts critically and try to understand yourself from the characters in his fairy tales. Hell, like in the emperors story, if I identified with a person that lied to appear smarter than he was, and consequently wore nothing but underwear in the streets of his kingdom to prove that he could “see” what others might not, I’d question myself.
I came to the realisation that this reading business isn’t so bad. Maybe instead of revisiting film adaptations of our favourite classics we should be revisiting the originals. Just maybe they can prompt critical thinking and help us question our values, morals and goals. Maybe we should invite children to the party. Instead of facing them with happy endings we should introduce alternate endings. Some don’t always make us smile or laugh, but if they make us really think, what’s the harm in that?
Image: Richard Doyle, illustration from In Fairyland, 1870