The Ascension of the Mermaid
Disney, Hans Christian Andersen, and the spiritualization of romance
Before we get into this week’s edition of Ecstatic, we’re excited to give you a first glimpse at the new Ekstasis Collection, released today!
This Weekend Edition of Ecstatic is by Dorothy Bennett
Like many other Disney-bred millennials, I found the princess story’s end-with-a-wedding structure uniquely satisfying as a kid. The rainbow spewing from King Triton’s golden spear, as Ariel and Eric enjoyed their cake with an ocean view in The Little Mermaid, was a moment of top-tier satisfaction. Then as a teenager, I read Hans Christian Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid. His cornflower-eye and golden-hair mermaid was a shock. Each step with human feet caused her immense pain. Her prince married someone else. Her sisters rose from the depths with a dagger that could restore her tail if she used the blade on the prince and his new bride. She instead chose to drown herself, and miraculously joined other self-sacrificial creatures in the sky, kissing good children’s upturned faces with a touch like sea breeze.
The Little Mermaid has inspired wildly different adaptations. Whether your mermaid is a redhead, a Black woman, or an Italian boy, one thing remains the same in every telling: the main character ascends from the murky floor of the ocean to the human world, and sometimes even into the skies and constellations beyond. It’s a tale of spiritual ascension conveyed through a metaphor of place.
The Danish Hans Christian Andersen is explicit about his mermaid’s pursuit of a soul. A few decades earlier, the French writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué captured the same idea in Undine as a sea creature gains a soul only to then sacrifice herself for her beloved and her beloved’s chosen. Much more to my taste and a half-century later, Scottish writer George MacDonald portrayed a soul-seeking water-bound maiden in The Light Princess who manages to marry the man she loves and join him on land. While Disney’s 1989 version, written by John Musker and Ron Clements, is not forthcoming about the state of Ariel’s soul, they are explicit about her spiritual fulfillment. She was married by the end. Spiritual fulfillment? Check. In each version, the mermaid pursues ascension, and in each, they begin the pursuit when they discover a romantic interest.
But what about Luca, the 2021 feature written by Enrico Casarosa, Jesse Andrews, and Simon Stephenson? Pixar’s sea-creature Luca leaves his ocean home for friendship; he gains enlightenment along the way and finally moves beyond this friend to pursue knowledge of the stars at a human school. It’s not explicitly romantic, but it is still a spiritual ascension, sparked by a relationship, that ultimately sends our main character alone into the skies.
The question is, though, can an earthly relationship spark true spiritual ascension? And if it can do that, can continued spiritual ascension be fostered within the relationship, or must it be pursued alone?
Thanks for reading Ecstatic! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Growing up, I could feel the cultural throb that a romantic relationship would provide spiritual fulfillment. I appreciated a good fairy-tale romance, just as I appreciated a good flirt, but I also had a lot of things I wanted to accomplish. To be reductionistic, I was a romantic kid who became a teenager in agreement with Andersen and Fouqué—to spiritually grow, I needed to be isolated and self-sacrificial to the point of self-preoccupation. Then, there was a meet-cute and a marriage. Happily, my reality wound up somewhere between a wedding blessed by King Triton’s rainbow and a wedding-night dagger. Now I’m a wife who feels these ideas push and pull at each other.
As C.S. Lewis described in The Screwtape Letters, a person can don a mask around their beloved, pretending to be a version of themselves that they desire to be, and in the process, become it. The little mermaid did it, after all. But C.S. Lewis also wrote in The Four Loves, that lovers are preoccupied with one another, while friends stand shoulder to shoulder, preoccupied with something else. By this definition, the ultimate goal of attaining a soul would be lost to the little mermaid, not that this seemed to bother Disney. She cannot strive for spiritual ascension within a relationship if she is always consumed by her partner—figuratively face to face, and never shoulder to shoulder marveling at something beyond the two of them, like the stars. While the answer may now seem that romantic relationships should just be more like friendships, that is not entirely the case. Yes, they should contain friendship, with all the mutual respect that requires, but they will also be romantic. They will surely require being face-to-face occasionally, in a way that a pure friendship does not, and that is not a spiritual detraction.
There are many better examples of marital bliss than the retellings of fairy tales, but the way I delight in consuming each new version of them gives me the desire to treat them as serious subject material. I will continue to ponder these depictions and the way romance is used to spark spiritual ascension, how is it sometimes used to substitute spiritual fulfillment, and how would I give a happy ending to the little mermaid if she were to continue pursuing her soul with a partner?
Writer & Videographer
Dorothy holds a master's in Theology & Art from the University of St. Andrews. She has recently published articles in Tor.com and Christianity Today, and currently co-runs a video marketing company in Austin, TX.
She is actively seeking a literary agent for her first novel. Find more of her work here: dorothybennett.com
Thoughts on Dorothy’s article? Leave a like and share in the comments!