September 10, 2010

The Little Mermaid according to Tolkien [review time]

‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Anderson does not qualify as a fairy tale according to Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’. Although it does accomplish fantasy, its ending is not a satisfying fairy tale ending, in that it does not create the sensation described by Tolkien. It also loses readers in terms of believability, and forces them to suspend their disbelief. One can even argue that the fantastic elements of the story were not necessary to the plot, but merely decorative devices to make the story fanciful. This is something that concerns Tolkien greatly, so it is clear that ‘The Little Mermaid’ is not a fairy tale, but something else entirely.

Tolkien is very clear in his theories about that which disqualifies a story from the genre of the fairy story. He argues that a Eucatastrophe is necessary to resolve the conflict of the story and cause a reaction from the reader: “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.” (Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’). The happy ending without a cost is not satisfactory to Tolkien. ‘The Little Mermaid’ does not evoke the same emotional response as other fairy tales because the end reward is without a price. It is also problematic because there is no foreshadowing of the little mermaid escaping her fate in this way. It is clear that she is meant to escape the fate that is consistent with the plot: that she gives up her life to save the prince and does not make it to heaven. Instead the daughters of the air offer her eternal life, telling her, “By striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul”. The possibility of obtaining a soul in such a way is never mentioned before the last scene. Becoming an air fairy is not only an unsatisfactory resolution to the problem, but it also disconnects the reader from the world of the story.

The Secondary World created by Anderson is perfectly believable in the beginning, but the ending forces the reader to suspend their belief in order to stay in it. According to Tolkien, suspension of disbelief is less satisfactory than a genuine immersion in the Secondary World. The point where the world ceases to be believable is when the little mermaid dies and becomes an air fairy. The scene is set perfectly for the tragedy of her death, which comes about completely in accordance with the story’s outlook on death, when suddenly she is saved from her fate and given a path to gaining an immortal soul. The air fairy is never mentioned before in the story, so the ending feels forced and unnatural. The air fairy is a plot device leading to the desired ending, but not originating from the story’s theme. The reader is abruptly torn out of a world that has set down its rules and a story that has been presented as if it were truth. Although Anderson succeeds in telling the story according to Tolkien’s high seriousness, he loses the audience to disbelief. This, in combination with an unsatisfying conflict resolution, prohibits us from considering ‘The Little Mermaid’ a fairy story in accordance with Tolkien’s theories.

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