The Little Mermaid
By Lee Chang-kook
Emeritus Professor of English at Chung-Ang University
On returning home from a weeklong sightseeing trip to four Northern European countries this summer, including Denmark, what I felt like doing first, and actually did, was to take my anthology of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales from the bookshelf and reread ``The Little Mermaid," among others.
I had read the tale and some of his others, such as ``The Ugly Duckling" and ``The Little Match-Seller," in Korean translation and as a schoolboy, and I vaguely remembered ``The Little Mermaid" to be a sad story in which a mermaid falls in love with a royal prince ― a fabulous and farfetched story, simply a fairy tale.
Now, after reading the tale once again, this time translated in English, very carefully and slowly and after having visited Odense, the very place where Andersen was born, and especially after having seen with my own naked eyes the little bronze statue of the Mermaid at Langelinie Pier in Copenhagen, my perception of the story and its author has undergone a sea change. During the re-reading, my heart broke and I was almost moved to tears. Advanced age seems to make a man more sentimental and easier to break.
The mermaid in Andersen's tale is a wistful, thoughtful and yearning creature who wants to be a human, to be loved by a human and to have an immortal soul after death like humans do. It is this strong and unnatural desire that causes her to abandon the royal palace deep under the sea and her dear family, to sacrifice her bodily form at great pain, and that finally drives her to great sorrow and death.
But, to my great consolation, the Little Mermaid has resurrected herself and enjoys an immortal life, just as she wished. As a slender female figure of bronze, she now stands and gazes at the stately ships sailing the waters of Copenhagen harbor. Young as she is in comparison to the harbor and the city, The Little Mermaid has become a landmark of Copenhagen for millions of visitors every year and a symbol of immortality applying both to art and artist. Truly, art is long and life is short.
As a literary form, the so-called ``fairy tale' is a disadvantageous category compared to poetry, novel or drama. It is a genre usually given to various writings of the less gifted, the not so earnest or the less ambitious that are simply content writing for unsophisticated children only. It is supposed to be mild, light and mostly educational. But the truly great writers or geniuses are those who can make the best use of a given form and transcend it. Hans Christian Andersen wrote his unique stories in the old form in quite a new way. Therein lies his genius.
The genius of Andersen cannot be fully appreciated until one feels and experiences the rich variety of his literary imagination. Among his 159 fairy tales ever in print, ``The Shirt Collar," for example, delights us with its witty playfulness. ``The Story of a Mother" is a moving portrayal of a mother's tragic plight. Each of ``Aunty Toothache," ``Lucky Peer," and ``Anne Lisbeth" has an unforgettable story and character. Whether comedy, tragedy or morality tale, his stories abound with poetry, depth and subtlety, and commend themselves to people of all ages.
Just look! Measured by the number of translations and published editions all over the world, plus the actual dissemination among the populace, Andersen is the author whose works are most widely spread and read. His fairy tales are said to be translated into almost 200 different languages. The works of international literary figures such as Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe might be translated in equally as many languages, but their works are not usually read, as are Andersen's, by the general public, I suppose, nor are they as understood or so beloved.
Today, just as in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the mermaid is known to us as a desirable, favorable and enigmatic creature, not uninterested in man and perhaps not without danger. For this reason, traditions have probably grown up around The Little Mermaid at Langelinie Quay in Copenhagen. Sailors from all over the world visiting the harbor honor her with flowers and kisses, believing and wishing that she will bring them good luck. She is undoubtedly the most photographed "girl" in the world. Countless people from all corners of the world have allowed themselves to be immortalized alongside her, including me.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone seems to love The Little Mermaid. She has been vandalized on several occasions, usually with paint, since her unveiling in 1912. The worst act of vandalism occurred in 1964, when her head was sawed off with a hacksaw and removed. It was generally believed that the motive was hate for the "sensitive" style of the sculpture. The perpetrator was never found. Fortunately, the plaster original was (and is) still kept at a bronze foundry, so an identical stature was re-made without any sign of the disfigurement. However, Copenhagen Harbor was once without its mermaid for a month.
I recall fondly the hustle and bustle of the Langelinie Quay in Copenhagen when I visited the place for the first time in my life. She was sitting on a granite stone in drizzling rain, surrounded by the noisy crowds competing for a better place to take pictures. There she sat, a melancholy dreamer somewhere between our world and her own, gazing far out to sea.
``If she had been thoughtful and silent before, she now became far more so. And when her sisters enquired of her what she had seen on the first day when she visited the upper world, she answered them not. Evening after evening, she visited the shore where she had left the prince," as Andersen wrote in ``The Little Mermaid."