The Little Mermaid & Literary Diversity

Over the long, luxurious holiday that was Chinese New Year (Happy Year of the Monkey, y’all!), my husband and I had a few visitors: Tien, a Foreign Service Officer from another post, and her one year old daughter, Violet.

I’m still on the fence about whether I should be proud or embarrassed that I had a DVD of Disney’s The Little Mermaid on hand for Violet’s entertainment (I have no little kids of my own on whom to blame this). Regardless, the film quickly lulled her off to dreamland, leaving her mommy and I to chat about childhood memories of our favorite red-headed mermaid.

I still adore Disney‘s fun-and-song-filled take on the story. But adulthood made me curious about Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale. Reading it left me jaw-dropped… and kind of grateful that Disney pulled the wool over my three-year-old eyes, safeguarding my innocence. No spoilers here, but Andersen’s original ending is rather bleak. There’s some debate, too, about whether his heroine’s deus ex machina was even original to the tale; some scholars suspect it to be a quasi-happy ending tacked on later to mollify readers (though it’s hardly a joy-fest).

All in all, the tale’s pretty rough. As this quirky Bustle article points out, “This story should just be called The Little Mermaid Gets A Series Of Really Raw Deals.”

But when I rejoiced over Disney’s whitewashing of the tale, Tien–whose Mandarin is amazing–mentioned that her childhood had included a Chinese-produced cartoon version, which sticks to the original story. I was surprised and a bit baffled; why such a difference between the Chinese and American takes on the tale?

Of course, this is an equally valid question for the gap between the original Dutch tale and the 1989 American cartoon. It’d be easy to attribute it to Disney’s prettying up rough edges to make the story wee-one appropriate. But the darker original was intended for children, particularly as a tool meant to encourage (or in Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers’ words, “blackmail”) children into behaving.

Instead, I think the difference is rooted in a contrast between cultures–culture of country, culture of time period. The 19th century – in which The Little Mermaid was first published – was an era of strict Victorian morality imposed on the young and old alike; today’s child-rearing culture is vastly different. And though I cannot fairly assess Chinese or Danish story-telling tendencies (I’m far from an expert in either), I’ve researched enough cross-cultural literature to notice distinctions between regional writing styles.

There’s an exception to every generalization, so I’m not seeking to make immutable categories out of countries’ literary canons. But although America certainly produces some tragic literature, we tend on the whole, I think, to have a thread of optimism running through our stories. Sometimes that optimism is nothing giddier than the hope that a sad tale may promote change, as is the aim of much women’s and/or racial issue writing; but still there remains the dream of progress.

This hopeful zeitgeist makes sense, of course. It takes serious optimists to look at a raw, terrifying landscape believed to full of savage beasties, evil spirits, and wild Indians (please stop throwing things at me–I’m American Indian myself) and say, “Yep, we can make this place home.” We are a can-do society. That pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude requires confidence that a reward awaits the effort.

We think Ariel should get her prince. And what’s more, we think she can… and keep her cake voice, too.

Irish literature, which I’ve studied as a hobbyist and a scholar, is a totally different proposition. The Irish imagination is vibrant, mystic, coy… and a bit dark. I’m racking my brain, but cannot think of one work of Irish fiction that I’ve read without some element of the magical or surreal. Anne Enright’s The Gathering is a long, twisty series of recollected memories that may or may not have happened. Dermot Healy’s A Goat’s Song is a giant loop leading you ever-toward hope… until the twist at the end proves all you’ve just read is imaginary. A Star Called Henry is Roddy Doyle’s magical realist tale of the psuedo-mythic feats of a young man and his dynamic wife (A.K.A. Our Lady of the Machine Gun).

Irish literature is slippery, magical, in-concrete… and brutal. All that whimsy does not shield the reader from tragedy. There is death, pain, and (possibly) sexual trauma like pedophilia. But the distinguishing element of this tragedy is the nonchalant way in which it’s told–as though such occurrences are as banal as any other. Right in the midst of one of A Star Called Henry‘s most celebratory moments, the narrator drops a grim bomb–a quick flash-forward of his violent future demise. I remember actually glaring at the book; how dare Doyle spoil my happy mood with such an abrupt, indifferent forecast of something so gloomy?

But is it any surprise that Irish writing contains such an element? Ireland is an ancient land with a rich, textured, folkloric cultural underpinning. But its inhabitants have also suffered political oppression; centuries of strife between sects of the population; and a “Great Hunger” (1845-52) that left 1 million dead of famine and disease. Accounts of the devastation written by visitors to Ireland during this period are heart-rending.

The famine also produced a long history of immigration… not out of adventure-lust, but out of necessity. During the Famine alone, the country lost as many to immigration as to starvation… a total population drop of 2 million, approximately a quarter of Ireland’s population. Gatherings for departing friends and family were called American Wakes, because it was understood to be the migrants’ final farewell. They’d sail off, never to be seen again.

This stoic expectation of the global division of families seems to linger today. Many Americans are shocked to learn I live literally half a world away from my family; upon hearing the same information, Irish folks don’t blink. Such diaspora is a fact of life.

Considering this national history, it’s hardly surprising if Irish literature treats sorrow as a given. The Irish imagination has been taught by collective past experience that tragedy is inevitable, something to be pressed through with stoic determination… perhaps with a wry twist of a joke as accompaniment.

I actually find this sort of distinctive national literature lovely, almost profound. In a world that has shrunk until my Chinese “hometown” has several McDonald’s and Starbucks, as well as a KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Gap, it can sometimes seem like cultural uniqueness is in jeopardy. But literature preserves that soul of otherness, which is mysterious and invitational in a way no other experience can be. It opens to us a wider, more nuanced world… even if we’re without the means of adventuring beyond our own borders.

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5 thoughts on “The Little Mermaid & Literary Diversity

  1. Interesting thoughts! I recall a children’s literature course in which we read original versions of some fairy tales (undergraduate school, long ago), and I had a similar “shock” reaction to some of the material. I also recall learning about the changing perceptions about children over several hundred years in Western culture. One can’t help but think of Dickens and the plight of orphans in Victorian England. I suppose one tangible value to the optimism of American culture, as you express it here, might be that children are offered a stronger sense of hope? Then again, I think of the perseverance of a few family members I can think of (Irish and German), and perhaps that kind of iron will can be useful.

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    1. I agree–as with most things in life, I think balance is critical. I definitely have no desire to return to the Dickensonian days, but there’s a lot of value in the exercise of some good ol’ fashion grit, too! Optimism and hope are good–going too soft, not so much. 🙂

      My ultimate fairytale shock was when I encountered the original tale of Cinderella as a second grader; a few decades later, I still can’t rid my mind of the image of the evil stepsisters hacking off toes and heels in an effort to wedge their feet into the glass slipper. Yikes! I think Alice Hoffman says it best, “Every fairy tale had a bloody lining. Every one had teeth and claws.”

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      1. I echo your “yikes” in response to the Cinderella details. I like the “teeth and claws” idea for some reason. I recall enjoying Bettleheim’s book about fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. I read it long ago, so the ideas are not fresh in my mind, but this topic is engaging and interesting.

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