Under the Sea & Beyond the Clouds

The success of the 1989 film, The Little Mermaid, is credited with single-handedly saving the Walt Disney company from ruin. Millions saw the movie, and tens of millions purchased the video. But few people know that the original Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is—unlike the Disney version—a profound Christian allegory of love, immortality, and the true meaning of life. In the animated Disney version, the Little Mermaid is a careless, immature girl who becomes obsessed with winning the heart of a handsome human prince. But in Andersen's original, the Little Mermaid is a thoughtful and sensitive creature whose desire for the love of a human is only a part of a deeper longing for heaven. In Andersen's story, mermaids don't have souls. Instead, they live 300 years and then vanish, becoming mere foam on the waves. But the Little Mermaid's grandmother tells her that if she wins the love of a human and marries him, she will receive a soul just like his, and be allowed to live forever in the Kingdom of Heaven. Andersen's use of the term "Kingdom of Heaven" is just one of many Christian references in his story. In his book, Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian explains that the "rose-red willow" in the Little Mermaid's garden symbolizes "blood and tears and the passion of the Cross." The sun high above the surface of the water represents God. Guroian says that Andersen's description of the sun looking like "a purple flower with... light streaming out from its center," evokes an "otherness" and a "numinous reality" that points toward heaven. In fact, at the story's end, when the Little Mermaid at last begins her journey toward immortality, Andersen makes the connection explicit, saying "she lifted her bright arms up towards God's sun." Disney's Little Mermaid is obsessed with romantic love. But in the Andersen version, winning the heart of the prince is just part of the mermaid's deeper longing for heaven. At one point she exclaims: "I would give the 300 years I have [in order to] be a human girl for just one day and then to receive my part in the Kingdom of Heaven." Guroian says the Disney version "betrays the original and exploits our society's obsessions with physical beauty and romantic love," making the latter into an idol. Those who are familiar only with the film ought to read the original story, which, Guroian says, warns "about the harm that such an idol can bring upon its worshiper." In the end, Andersen's Little Mermaid gets her wish for immortality through a Christlike act of self-sacrifice. Guroian says that "In this great and profound fairy tale, Andersen challenges every reader to contemplate his or her fate if love does not endure and personal immortality is just an illusion." If your own kids are familiar only with the watered-down Disney version of The Little Mermaid, read them Andersen's original. Explain its deeper meanings, and how it differs from the Disney version. The story of a mermaid who longs for heaven provides a role model that may get them thinking about the real kingdom of heaven—and how they must live to find it.


Chuck Colson


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