Fra kapitlet "Interpretation, analysis, text" (Analyse og fortolkning), A Poet in Time, Odense 1999 (yderligere information nederst).

The Miracle and A Miracle in the Life of a Mermaid

I. Mermaid Epistemology

"The Little Mermaid" does not have a "tacked-on" ending. In this regard I am adding my voice to an increasing chorus of critics, who are in considerable or partial or at least grudgingly minimal agreement with an article by Søren Baggesen, "Individuation eller frelse?" which was published almost thirty years ago in the magazine Kritik.1 It seems to me that this apparent "regression" to a reconsideration of religious principles is a very sound idea. There seems to me to be little danger that scholarship on religion in Andersen will find itself caught in the ideologically one-sided studies of the 1940's and 1950's.2 It is now possible to state that this "neo-Baggesenian" view takes for granted, without blushing about it, the matter that "The Little Mermaid" concerns a miracle, rather than a simple matter of unrequited love and suicide which is followed by a bit of authorial "structuring invocation".3 This is not to say that there are no valid critical methods around that would deny the miracle issue. That would be silly. But it is no longer the case that those who accept Andersen's use of an integrally positioned and functionally necessary miracle will find themselves in an isolated critical periphery. What is not so clear, or rather, the matter about which such "neo-Baggesenians" are not so much in agreement, is where we should go with the argument, once the miracle issue, the not-at-all-tacked-on-ending-issue, is agreed upon. There seems to be little consensus about this, and, one might add, little praise reserved for Søren Baggesen for having forced us all to rethink the problem. But that is probably symptomatic of our critical trade.

I have to admit from the start that I am not in complete agreement with Baggesen either. But I must say that I like the way he has tackled the problem. Part of the new critical "agreement to disagree" about the integral ending may be sorted out if we take the trouble to differentiate between an establishment of what lies inherently in the text on the one hand, and how the text should be interpreted, on the other. What Baggesen did quite well in 1967 was to attempt to ground his salvation idea in a careful close reading. Clearly, "The Little Mermaid" can be read as ambiguous autobiography or inspiring allegory, as class struggle or gender struggle, as platonic yearning or artistic progress - that is the nature of a well-wrought tale, and the prerogative of the well-wrought-up critic. Surely no one of these recent interpretations should obviate the need for or validity of the others. Since my own concern is primarily narratological, I have returned to Baggesen's close reading, treading some old water, so to speak. But my premise sets me off in a somewhat different direction: my reading will not cater initially to the expectations of the reader, but to the perceptions of the Mermaid herself. What I propose here is a test of Mermaid logic - that is, an epistemological exercise which will make use of some ideas of cognition or game theory, detailing as our central issue the question of how to be a Mermaid.

That is, after all, what the text tells us about. My ground rule for the second half of the article contains an unfortunate but necessary hedge: while the important ideas concerning Mermaid cognition occur only within the text, the idea that there is nothing at all "hors du texte" seems to me to be a preposterous notion. A few "outside" comments at the end should be legitimately allowable, as long as they do not obscure the epistemological development that is described at the beginning. I would ask that my reader keep this in mind.

The task of describing mermaid consciousness is not well accounted for in folklore or anywhere else, and would have to be considered to comprise a unique instance, though the assumptions on which the Mermaid's story is based have both traditional and literary precedents.4 To anticipate a bit of the coming discussion: part of the problem with Baggesen's argument is the implied necessity of "normalizing" or providing a Scriptural explanation for an epistemological anomaly. I would rather argue for letting the anomaly be what it appears to be, and see where it leads us.

So we begin. We find ourselves guided by a Narrator who appears to have superior understanding of the traditions and environments through which he leads us, combined with a bipartisan view of humans and merpeople.5 But his point of view, his narrative "camera", if you will, soon focuses upon the youngest of the Merking's daughters, and from that point it essentially never leaves her.6 He brings us to the underwater kingdom as observers of a Mermaid who is also a pre-adolescent, neither baptized (being permanently immersed does not count) nor confirmed - and not confirmable. Although our Narrator himself appears to be enchanted by the world through which he guides us, he maintains a neutral, undogmatic position on the religious status of the Mermaid or her ilk. But he does make note of her early behavior, which is not that of a generic merperson. As is often noted in the critical literature, she is a "strange child", who has her own way of ordering her undersea garden, and she exhibits impulses which are depicted as odd or devient with respect to her family. Despite the comfort and security of her world, she carries in her nature a longing away from it, and her cultivation of the sun and her interest in the world of humans up above are symptomatic:

[D]en yngste [Havfrue] gjorde sin [Have] ganske rund ligesom Solen, og havde kun Blomster, der skinnede røde som den. Hun var et underligt Barn, stille og eftertænksom [F]oruden [Blomsterne, vilde hun kun] have en smuk Marmorstøtte, en deilig Dreng var det [88:23ff]

The youngest mermaid made her garden quite round, like the sun, and had only flowers that shone as red as it did. She was a strange child, quiet and thoughtful Besides the flowers, she only wanted to have a beautiful marble statue, portraying a lovely young boy.

But symptomatic of what? Since we are people, we may find it natural or expected to have her fixated upon the "human world", but the Narrator exhibits no particular human prejudice. He is merely reporting a potential conflict within her own mercommunity when he says

Ingen Glæde var hende større, end at høre om Menneskeverdenen derovenfor [88:34f]
No pleasure was greater for her than to hear about the human world up above.

or, when a ship passes overhead,

[Menneskene i Skibet] tænkte vist ikke paa, at en deilig lille Havfrue stod nedenfor og rakte sine hvide Hænder op mod Kjølen [89: 23f]
The people on the ship hardly thought that there was a lovely little Mermaid standing beneath them, reaching up towards the keel with her white hands.

The Mermaid's playful configuration of her garden seems to have transformed itself here into a gesture of longing or supplication or frustration in her attempt to reach or communicate with the unknown, "higher" world. But why does she like humans so much? The Narrator makes no gratuitous assessments of her "human predilection". But one or another peculiar clue does gradually creep in. When a mersister has been "up there" and returns to tell about the town she saw, it is the church bells that impress the little Mermaid most, even though we have to assume that she has never yet heard them herself:

[D]a syntes hun at kunne høre Kirkeklokkerne ringe ned til sig [89:38f]
Then she thought (or imagined) that she could hear the church bells ringing down at her.

The formulation has an interesting quality. It would be best to hold separate our Mermaid logic from any normal human inclination about the significance of church bells. If she appreciates church bells without having seen them or heard them, and without knowing what symbolic function they serve, her consciousness is depicted as being fed by an impulse over which she has no control. Unlike the symbols of her round garden and "sun-colored" underwater flowers, which require interpretation (or combination with later sun-images in the story) to give them specific religious meaning, the church bell issue should prove to us that she is strange.7

After about four pages, or about 20% of the story, we - and the Mermaid herself - learn that there is a basic and irreconcilable enmity between merfolk and humans. This angle of the story congeals around the next-to-youngest mersister, when she is sitting on an iceberg. Here Andersen artfully combines some Danish legendry about mermaids with those classical tales about sirens, who sing unwitting sailors to their deaths [91:14ff].8

For an author who might be expected to tone down the human-merperson enmity, for the sake of his youthful, biedermeyer audience, Andersen is surprisingly graphic in his depiction of human terror, and his use of the impartial Narrator makes it even worse:

[N]aar det da trak op til en Storm, svømmede de foran Skibene og sang saa deiligt, om hvor smukt der var paa Havets Bund, men [Søfolkene] kunne ikke forstaae Ordene, de troede, at det var Stormen [91:16ff]
When a storm arose, they swam in front of the ships and sang so beautifully about how lovely it was at the bottom of the sea; but the seamen could not understand the words. They thought that it was [the sound of] the storm.

This is legend, narrated from a point of view that comprehends not only the human participant - who may not believe in the existence of the numinous actor - but also the numinous actor, who acquires a certain amount of understanding about the human. The understanding contained here is of importance for the progress of the story, since it constitutes a "mermaid-behavioral principle" that has been internalized by our Mermaid when she meets her Prince. Otherwise her "mermaid rules" before her love story is set in motion are of a simple nature, and concern her coming of age and her "adult" dress [91:21ff]. Her much-discussed love story - the transference of her affection from her garden statue to the living Prince - occurs as soon as she sees him on the ship [92:18ff], and then is quickly translated into a decisive action that same night, when the storm wrecks his ship. She begins with a mermaidian thought:

Det syntes den lille Havfrue just var en morsom Fart, men det syntes Søfolkene ikke [93:8ff]
The little Mermaid thought it was a merry ride, but the seamen didn't think so at all.

and concludes with the interesting mental conflict, when confronted by the drowning Prince:

Ligestrax blev hun ganske fornøiet, for nu kom han ned til hende, men saa huskede hun at Menneskene ikke kunne leve i Vandet Nei døe, det maatte han ikke [93:20ff]
At first she was happy about it, because now he would be coming down to her. But then she remembered that humans couldn't live in the water No, he mustn't die!

By the application of her basic "mermaid rule" she can get the Prince, and take him down to her garden - dead - or she can keep him from drowning, and deliver him to his own world, and out of hers. That she chooses the latter is (as Baggesen has been careful to point out) a peculiar and un-mermaidenly thing to do. But one should note that this scene is not depicted by our Narrator in terms of a moral decision on her part. It is a practical matter: she loved him at first sight, now she risks her life to save his. That our human response to this scene may have moral significance - even Lutheran moral significance on a symbolic level (if we want to carry the argument as far as Baggesen does) - is another thing entirely. The Narrator is setting up a double value system here. The Mermaid acts in accord with a Samaritan principle, but she is not a Samaritan, she is a "Mischwesen", a legendary animal. For the sake of clarity, we have to keep this concept constantly before us.

To continue with her cognitive process: having delivered the Prince to his dry shore, and inadvertantly to his lady-love to be, our Mermaid returns to her own kingdom and starts pining. Mermaid logic: the rules of her game are changed by her action. Her pining at this point has a distinct, breathing, anti-sea object, which has replaced that pre-adolescent yearning for "up there". This gradually evolves into a more maturely expressed love.9 Because of this love, she finally pulls her Grandmother into a discussion of human and mermaid qualities, or what we could term a definitive set of cosmic rules or guidelines for mermaidenly behavior. In their conversation, the Mermaid's hidden agenda is her concrete love for the Prince, while that of her Grandmother, we assume, is a more general desire for the granddaughter's upbringing as a proper mermaid. Here we learn that:

Merpeople live for 300 years.
Humans live for a shorter time.
Humans have an eternal soul.
Merpeople, by contrast, become seafoam, which is an Andersenian euphemism for annihilation (as Baggesen also has pointed out).

The Mermaid's reaction is instantaneous, and highly surprising for a teenager with her particular hidden agenda:

[J]eg vilde give alle mine hundrede Aar, jeg har at leve i, for blot een Dag at være et Menneske og siden faae Deel i den himmelske Verden! [96:21ff]
I would relinquish all my hundreds of years to live in, if only I could be a human being for one day, and then take part in the Heavenly world!

This tells us that the Mermaid, who has previously filled her symbolic and undefined longing for "upper beyondness" that we (but not she) might call religious, and filled this empty space in her being with the very palpable physical object of the human Prince, immediately abandons him for the prospect of immortality, a concept about which she has just been informed. Our Mermaid logic tells us that something is going on in the mind of the heroine which is not specifically predicated upon that modicum of kissing and carrying on with the unconscious, half-drowned young man. She has been taught her first Christian principle, and she abandons everything else in favor of it. Of course, the Mermaid is now in for a severe shock, because Grandmother stipulates still more rules:

[K]un naar et Menneske fik dig saa kjær, at du var ham meer end Fader og Moder; naar han lod Præsten lægge sin høire Haand i din med Løfte om Troskab her og i al Evighed, da flød hans Sjæl over i dit Legeme og du fik ogsaa Deel i Menneskenes Lykke. Han gav dig Sjæl og beholdt dog sin egen [96:30ff]
Only when a human being was so in love with you that you were more to him than his own father and mother; when he had the priest10 put his right hand in yours with a vow of fidelity now and forever, then his soul would flow over into your body and you would also take part in human happiness.

And this, naturally, is impossible, because humans don't marry fish.

The Mermaid has to ponder this. Earlier, she had one problem; now she has three. Her first problem is that her wish for an immortal soul has suddenly taken precedence over her earthly love. Her second is that her love has been pushed back in her face (so to speak) as a condition for her getting a soul.11 The third, of course, is that the Prince is not going to meet her halfway. Baggesen spends a good deal of time with this passage, noting the Biblical allusions: the end of Genesis 2 and Luke 14:26.12 This exercise seems to me to be beside the point. Grandmother is not any more a Christian than the Mermaid, and the fact that she mimics certain human sentences is not any more surprising than that she mimics human vanity by wearing oysters on her tail. She also paraphrases some things from folklore and from La Motte Fouquet's "Undine", but neither the legend nor the religious quotations moves the little Mermaid one whit closer to any miracle. What does appear to move her closer is the apperceptive situation. The Mermaid learns that she has one single chance for the acquisition of a soul, and that chance is the Prince's love. She also learns to hate herself, her fish form.

This leads us to the Mermaid's well-known, desperate decision to have herself mutilated. Her thought now circles around the two points equally: Prince and eternal soul.13 Armed with this double thought, she would be ready to breach the gates of Hell (if she had known what Hell was), and for all practical purposes, she does. The Sea Witch is amused and happy, since with her modicum of superior knowledge, she is sure that the Mermaid is heading for certain failure in her project. At the Sea Witch's kitchen, the Mermaid's courage is sorely tested, but she also receives a new set of rules:

She can obtain legs, but she will retain her mermaid consciousness and situation - that is, she is going to have human form, but no eternal soul. Inside, she is still a Mermaid.
The legs will cause her extraordinary pain.
And having once purchased her human form, she cannot change back into a mermaid. (This, according to the narrative construct, would appear to be a lie on the part of the Witch, but we are concerned with Mermaid logic - those rules which precipitate her action, not the information that might be available to us.14 )
If she does not win the love of the Prince (note that the Witch uses the language of seduction in speaking of this), and he marries another, the Mermaid will never acquire an eternal soul.
But she will turn into seafoam at sunrise the morning after the wedding of the Prince to somebody else.

These terms being acceptable to the Mermaid, she is given the drink. Baggesen makes a major point of the color change in the Witch's elixir from black (the witch's blood) to clear, which he says is a miracle, a sign of Christian grace. I disagree, partially because the Narrator gives us no indication that the Sea Witch is surprised or displeased with the result of her own alchemy. If Andersen had wanted to convey the sense of a higher power stepping in at this point, one could imagine him having the Witch grumble something like: "Oh, piffle! It always turned out black when I did it before!" No, the clarity of the drink, in the context of the story text itself, is simply part of the Witch's evil magic, not God's grace. So the Mermaid pays for her tail-removal concoction - her tongue is cut out - and she takes her formal leave of the merkingdom and deposits herself on the Prince's doorstep, where she carries out her project.

The Prince finds her - in the shape of a naked lady - and takes her into his retinue. Baggesen finds her to be an "Eve-figure" at this point, which he considers to be a necessary step in the degradation which precedes the raising of mankind to grace. There are two major problems with this idea. First, as Baggesen himself admits, Eve's degradation came after she had lost her innocence, which the Mermaid has not done. Secondly and more importantly, Eve, whatever her sinful condition implies, is a human being, and (if the Reader will pardon my insistence), the Mermaid is not a human being, and has no human soul. Whether or not Andersen was working with a genre-picture of the shameful naked Eve is a moot point - it has no significance for the progression of the Mermaid toward her goal.15 On the other hand, if we are keeping track of our Mermaid logic, it is clear at this point that the Sea Witch has been basically correct in her assessment of the Mermaid's desperate situation - seen from the point of view of the merfolk. As we know, the Prince is in love with the girl whom he remembers from the beach, the Mermaid is fixated on the Prince and would not think of changing partners, so the whole project quickly reaches an impasse. The Mermaid's reaction, however, is significant, and is surely a move that the Sea Witch would not be able to comprehend:

Pigen hører det hellige Tempel til, har han sagt, hun kommer aldrig ud i Verden, de mødes ikke mere, jeg er hos ham, seer ham hver Dag, jeg vil pleie ham, elske ham, ofre ham mit Liv! [102:34ff]
The girl belongs to the holy temple, he says, and she'll never come out into the world. They will never meet again. I'll be with him, see him every day, and I'll take care of him, love him, offer him my life!

It is quite clear, I think, what has occurred here. The love theme has now superseded that of the eternal soul. It is not that soul-acquisition has been forgotten. But the Mermaid has come to the mature understanding that her project has failed. Given that she is inexorably doomed, her new project is the sacrifice, over time, of her life to him, with the satisfaction that she will have lightened his earthly burden, since she has no means of lifting hers from her own shoulders. Her Mermaid logic, with its behavioral principles, now corresponds neither to that of her Grandmother nor to that of the Sea Witch, and she starts to make up new rules to guide her continuing action. But - one might ask rhetorically - where do you get the rules for a game that has never been played before, and in which you are the only participant?

The answer to this is not given to the Mermaid to ponder, since the plot, as they say, thickens. The Neighbor-King's daughter is suddenly identified as the girl on the beach whom the Prince loves - the one that the Mermaid, so to speak, delivered him to - and he is ecstatic. The marriage occurs, and on the wedding night, the Mermaid's sisters give her the knife and a final set of Mermaid rules:

Kill the Prince and regain your Mermaid shape (that is, in spite of what the Sea Witch first told her);
Or fail to kill the Prince, and turn to seafoam at the sun's first morning ray.

This is temptation of a sort that even the non-human, non-Christian Mermaid can comprehend.16 Of course, she chooses to fail. Of course? By virtue of what rules? By the logic of her apperceptive mass: by the love that would have given her an eternal soul if it had been reciprocated, which it wasn't, but which stands for her as a remnant of the nearest proximity to eternity that the Mermaid knows. It seems a rather complex bit of gnosis, but the retention of the complicating shadow of "eternity" in the equation is, I believe, of great importance.

Unenlightened regarding the Mermaid's cognitive battle, the sisters return sorrowfully to the sea. The Mermaid throws the knife, jumps into the sea and dies. And lo (here I allow myself an exclamation with Christian resonance), the rules of the game change again. The Mermaid is still conscious. What happened? This is the break in logic, the (only) Miracle of the story. I will return to it in a brief moment, but for the sake of completing the package, the set of rules for the Daughters of the Air has to be defined:

- The Mermaid is not exactly alive. Or to put it the way the narrator phrases it:
[D]en lille Havfrue følte ikke til Døden [105:35f]
The little Mermaid did not feel death [or dead]

That does not mean that she is alive, it means to me simply what it says: she did not feel as if she were dead (however that might be conceived as feeling).

She is not alone in the air, but is surrounded by "a hundred transparent, lovely beings" without wings, but capable of moving through the air. And the Mermaid has the same form as these. She can also speak (this would be another indication that she is dead, if you understand what I mean by this).
She is identified as a Daughter of the Air among the others, and it is explained to her that she is no longer a living Mermaid. By some special means, she has been raised to the status of one of these beings, and by following their precepts, she can create for herself an eternal soul.
It takes 300 years.
The time is designated a "time of trial" ("Prøvetid"), during which the soul is "created" by the good deeds of the Daughters.
The time is reduced by one year for each time that

 vi finde et godt Barn, som gjør sine Forældre Glæde og
 fortjener deres Kjærlighed [106:30f]
 we find a good child, who brings happiness to its parents and
 deserves their love

But the trial is lengthened each time

 vi see et uartigt og ondt Barn [106:33f]
 we see a naughty and evil child

by one day for each tear these spirits must weep over it.

II. "The" Miracle, or "A" Miracle?

The interpretative matter, then, is to put the above cognitive sequence into a framework that accurately reflects the Mermaid's epistemological experience, but also to stretch our conceptual framework to include a few issues which are not available to the Mermaid (at least, until her final position). We must return to the question: What is the nature of the miracle that occurs in "The Little Mermaid"? The question is trickier than it sounds. If we phrase the question as follows: What miracle occurs in the Mermaid's story?, we may answer this (as noted above) plausibly with reference to the single occurrence of a transformation from dead mermaid matter to an airy spirit of some sort - which is both all the Narrator lets us know, and a sufficient amount for us to conclude that the story indeed concerns a miraculous happenstance.

But if we rephrase the question: What sort of miracle occurs in the Mermaid's story?, we are faced with a more complex problem. Do miracles have "sorts"? How do we define the concept? Lest we completely lose ourselves in a hair-splitting and excessively voluminous argument, let us try three possibilities, with the primary caution that they may not all be mutually exclusive - or that the portrayal of the miracle may not exclude a certain combination:

  1. There is a miracle of the type described in medieval Catholic texts (in other words, there is "a" miracle).
  2. There lies before us a manifestation of the miracle of Lutheran faith (in other words, "the" miracle).
  3. There has been such a major re-definition of the concept by Andersen himself that there is no way of determining whether we are faced with "a" Catholic miracle or "the" Protestant miracle.

Obviously, we will have to spend most of our time on the third possibility. As far as the first two are concerned, the distinction may seem irrelevant, but I am not so sure about this point. All miracles emanate from God, to be sure. But according to Augustinian teachings, miracles do not occur in opposition to nature, but work according to hidden rules which are "natural" but unknown to us:

For how can an event be contrary to nature when it happens by the will of God, since the will of the great creator assuredly is the nature of every created thing? A portent therefore does not occur contrary to nature but contrary to what is known of nature.17

While the wonder of creation itself is just as much a part of Protestant faith as it is of Catholicism, there lay in early Lutheranism, and still lies today, an aversion to the possibilities for the sort of extrapolation inherent to Augustinian thought. Beyond the range of miracles accruing to the birth and life of Christ, the Creation itself, and the all-encompassing, central miracle of salvation, the Lutherans have maintained a skeptical or even fearful view of miracles, tending to re-interpret them according to the limited area noted. Something of the nature of the miracle in "The Little Mermaid" should be able to inform us which of these two areas of Christianity dominates Andersen's story. But the third possibility must always be kept in mind: that Andersen, with childhood training in Lutheranism, a "freethinking" father and recent travel in Catholic countries, might find it productive to combine a number of disparate religious elements to form a fantasy that reflects a creative, individual usage of the miracle concept. Here is the "framework" of the miracle in "The Little Mermaid," as I understand it:

The Mermaid is substantially inclined toward humanity, for reasons that have to be uncertain and obscure to herself as a merchild. Her connection of the sun with her obscure longing is ambiguous. But we gradually find out - or more important, the Mermaid finds out - that it is not tanning or walks on sunny fields she longs for: it is a mystery. We would have to go "hors du texte" (and thus, abandon our close reading) to learn that the sun is used by Andersen elsewhere as a symbol of divinity. But as noted above, the mystery repeats itself in the incident of the imagined church bells. As several recent critics have pointed out: she is steered from the beginning by a power over which she has no control. It is important to note that the Mermaid is not informed about divine matters from the start: she only learns about the concept of the "immortal soul" halfway into the story. But having once grasped the concept, she immediately holds onto it as the most important aspect of humanity, and the "key" here is her statement that she would give up all her hundreds of years for one day as a human, if that is what would catapult her into Heaven. In sum: the Mermaid's obscure inclination is not really for Humanity itself or its sunny environment, but for participation in the Divine.18 If her striving is so single-minded, and if we are observing the progress of an act of will learning about itself, at the same time it is "guided" by a Divine Hand, we are clearly moving into the area of Catholic thought. 19

Humans have souls. They are not in danger of losing them, they do not have to work at getting them. Humans retain their souls after death, they are unconditionally granted access to Heaven, as long as they live in the Faith. Our sources of information in this story do not mention Faith, and they neglect to speak of Hell (Hell simply lies beyond the parameters of this tale), nor do they mention extinction - in the case of humans. Humans end up automatically, according to the limited point of view expressed by Grandmother, eternally blessed and happy. The problem here is that at no point does the Mermaid become a human. Her desire to live as one for a single day and then go to Heaven is never fulfilled. She remains a member of a class of "Mischwesen", of fabulous animals, and her platonic longings, however much support they are afforded by Romans 8:19ff, do not in and of themselves generate a miracle.20 What appears to generate this Andersenian miracle is the conflux of a series of specific acts in which the Mermaid makes conscious decisions, and the combined result of those acts, when the specific acts are re-interpreted in terms of a second set of rules to which the Mermaid does not have access.

We remember that the Mermaid accepts the rules and conditions given at each instance in the story - she is not depicted as imagining any alternative to the cognitive boundaries she is given - but she also oversteps their requirements time after time. She grows a different garden. She longs for church bells that she has never heard. She saves the Prince instead of watching him drown. She pines for him instead of forgetting him as an inaccessible or inimical being. She refuses to follow her Grandmother's mermaid-rules. She denies her Mermaid tendencies and her Mermaid shape, and makes a contract with the Sea Witch, which causes her to destroy her body and abandon her kingdom forever, in order to balance on the keen edge of a possibility of becoming human. Certainly by this time the Reader will be led to think of imitatio, but it is important to note that the Mermaid herself clearly has no knowledge of the significance of her torture. She accepts it because her priorities are clear, not because the rules of the game are known. Having placed herself on dry land, she doesn't follow the Witch's rules either. Midway into her project, she realizes that the Prince loves somebody else, and she changes her ambition from a desire for her eternal soul to a love which she fully understands will result in her own annihilation, but will grant the Prince solace. This too has a "second significance": it frees her from Grandmother's rule that she must have a physical union with a human to obtain her goal. Was Grannie's rule even valid? Who knows? Agnete's merman never got a soul, nor did Undine. The "second significance" tells us that her choice of a spiritual love over a physical one is a step "upward". For the Mermaid herself, in terms of her learned rules and her value system, it is clearly the opposite. She could not be expected to comprehend the idea that her resignation of the earthly component of her striving is a positive and necessary step. Finally, tempted by her sisters to wipe the slate of her spiritual development clean and start over as a Mermaid, she faces her ultimate choice. As she stands with the knife in her hand, having lost the game by the rules she comprehends, she is - this, I think, is the important point - she is fundamentally, by the stated rules of Mermaid logic, no longer a mermaid, neither physically nor mentally (spiritually). Cognitively, she is what the Prince is, not what her sisters are. Not even the gift of 300 years has any value for her, because it is 300 years as a thing which is totally alien to her. She carries within her the idea of eternity. What I mean by that is that she is capable of weighing time (the present, or 300 years) and eternity (death or Heavenly existence), and choosing the latter. That is the point where the story can sustain a miracle. The miracle, interpreted in this way, is clearly an exception to the norm. The Mermaid is tendered a miracle because she is different from the rest. She is not offered the same salvation as everybody else, or the Lutheran salvation of everyman. Her merpeople are not offered salvation. The vague difference in her being at the beginning has ultimately congealed around a concept-complex that we can recognize as "humanity" in its ideal, distilled form, and the particular act of salvation is a kind of recognition of this - an exception. It is a Catholic concept.

A miracle in this Andersenian sense is based upon a change in the "natural order of things" (which cannot be conceived rationally and thus must be predicated upon a God-notion), which is depicted as deriving from or in some way relating to series of actions which in and of themselves form the premises, but which could not have been anticipated by the participant. The miracle itself is that the given rules of the game of life apply at all times and under all circumstances, for us, and for the little Mermaid as well. At the same time, behind the "given set of rules" is a second set which is observed only by a Divine Power. Our notion of having fulfilled our own desires or those of the community, or even those of the Divine Power, all accrue to the first set of rules. The second set is inscrutable.21 Fortunately for us (or unfortunately, we might suppose in less felicitous cases) the second set is the one that counts. Or perhaps one could say it this way: in that tiny instant of time, as the Mermaid holds the knife, rejects it and throws it into the sea, just when she jumps, she has crossed over the last borderline that might have prevented her from achieving humanity. But that would be tantamount to saying that for that brief instant she fulfills the requirements that she had striven for - at first longing for humanity, then imitating humanity, finally demonstrating an inner cognizance of the highest principles of humanity. Being humanity is not something she can do herself (in this respect, both Grandmother and the Sea Witch appear to have been trustworthy), and it requires help from a higher power, but it would not accrue to her (our story tells us) without her also having inadvertantly fulfilled the conditions of the second set of rules. That, as I understand it, is an Andersenian Miracle. But the instant of a change of her condition into humankind is the same as the instant in which she dies, because it is her death, not her possible intention or willingness to die, which finally confirms her humanity. It is on the basis of this specially designed instance, this exception, that I believe the story leads us away from "the" miracle, or the general salvation of the Lutheran position, and sets up an epistemological position that ought best be interpreted as "a" miracle, that is to say, an exception, and therefore a freely expressed Catholic standpoint. As a matter of fact, the Mermaid is not so unlike those martyrs who in heathen conversion legends are depicted as longing in an incompletely defined way for the Christian divinity, and who share certain traits as preparation for their own personal miracle: in the case of young women, their virginity, general ethical perfection and disregard for the body is transformed upon conversion into a wish for death and eternal life.22

If one finds more than a whiff of "Catholicism" about the miracle in this tale, one is faced with a new problem. To what extent is such a tendency consistent within the story? Or is it merely a narrative whim? We have a new possibility now - not of a "tacked-on" conclusion, but that of an integral conclusion based upon a "tacked-on" religious ideology. But is that really the case? My reading tells me that it is not. "The Little Mermaid" seems to me clearly an Italian product, not unlike Improvisatoren, in which Catholic elements were identified at an early point by Pastor Chr. Svanholm.23 The coastline in "The Little Mermaid" and the activities of the people imply a southern climate. The land where the unconscious Prince is deposited has

høie blaae Bjerge, paa hvis Top den hvide Snee skinnede grønne Skove, og foran laae en Kirke eller et Kloster Citron- og Apelsintræer voxte der i Haven, og foran Porten stode høie Palmetræer [93:40ff]
high blue mountains, on whose peaks white snow glistened green forests, and closer up lay a church or cloister Lemon and orange trees were growing in the garden, and in front of the gate there were high palm trees.

The Prince's own castle displays southern European architecture:

Dette var opført af en lyseguul glindsende Steenart, med store Marmortrapper, een gik lige ned i Havet. Prægtige forgyldte Kupler hævede sig over Taget, og mellem Søilerne, som gik rundt om hele Bygningen, stode Marmorbilleder [95:7ff]
It was built of a light yellow, glistening type of stone, with great marble stairs; one of these descended right into the sea. Magnificent gilded domes rose up above the roof, and between the columns that encircled the entire castle there were marble statues.

We will note as well that the Neighbor King's daughter spends her young life in "det hellige Tempel" [102:34] (the holy temple), which in conjunction with the preceding passages above translates into a Catholic cloister, a common place to deposit young highborn ladies until they were ready for marriage - or forever, if they were never ready.24 We recall the statement:

Pigen hører det hellige Tempel til, har han sagt, hun kommer aldrig ud i Verden [102:34f]
The girl belongs to the holy temple, he said; she will never come out into the world.

Do we need more? We also have a marriage ceremony of the Prince and his bride, at which

Præsterne svingede Røgelsekar [104:12]
The priests swung their censers.

Basically then, we have a story set in the Catholic culture that Andersen visited in 1833-34.25 And we have a miracle which is prepared within the context of the story not as a Lutheran allegory, but as a miracle of exception, a Catholic miracle of the sort exhibited in heathen conversion stories. The clincher should be the final scene, of course, in which Andersen presents his (ex-)Mermaid and his readers with the Catholic Purgatory.26 I also see Catholicism in the final scene, but I am not sure that Purgatory is an adequate term for it. In terms of pure narrative value, of course, Purgatory is clearly superior to either Heaven or Hell, both of which lack any possibility for plot development.27 But something is wrong with the Purgatory-concept in "The Little Mermaid". To be sure, it is a "Prøvetid" ("time of trial"); we have reference to a form of indulgences - the children who will shorten the time in Purgatory for the dead, and the occupants of Purgatory are aware of the rule that their ultimate removal into Paradise comes only after a stipulated time which is predicated upon specific actions.28 But what should we make of the mild, rather painless and benign atmosphere? The joy the ex-Mermaid feels? And, not least of all, what about the constant activity outlined by her comrades, the Daughters of the Air? By what religious measuring-stick should we assess this penultimate phase of the Mermaid's cognitive journey? I think the answer to this lies not in the Purgatory idea, but in another area of Catholic doctrine, fancifully conceived.

What is the "position" of the Mermaid-become-Daughter-of-the-Air? She had never sinned, she never "fell from grace". Especially if my previous comments about her virtually saintlike behavior, her longing away from the temporal world, her mortification of the flesh, her sacrificial stance in imitation of Christ, and so on, make any sense at all, she would seem to be a poor candidate for interim punishment. But Mermaid logic and Andersen's "fantasy Catholicism" may tell us something else. She, the little heathen who was bound to three hundred years of half-animal, undersea life, whose race was inimical to that of humans and employed seductive capacities that could lead them to ruin, has never functioned within the Holy System. Now, by virtue of a unique miracle, she is ultimately granted an opportunity to earn a soul. The opportunity comes precisely at the moment of her death. Mermaid logic tells us, then, that she has never once had a chance to exercize that soul - she still has no "eternal soul", even as she flies around causing little miracles of her own in the "warm lands".29 What Andersen appears to want to imply by the quasi-Purgatory idea is that the entire 300-year period of Mermaid existence has to be washed clean of the implied sin of mermaidism. This sinful state found its expression in her actions down below: her deal with the Sea Witch was sinful (although motivated ultimately by her heavenly striving), her naked state upon the Prince's shore was sinful (although not an act with a conscious sinful motive), and her seductive dancing belongs to the same state. The point is that her life qua mermaid lies within a sinful category, and is therefore subject to various expressions of sinfulness, which must be cleansed in full before she may rise to Paradise. This gives Andersen the impetus to the element of Purgatory in her new state.

But there is a final twist in the argument. In the instructions given by the Daughters of the Air, the ex-Mermaid is told:

Luftens Døttre have heller ingen evig Sjæl, men de kunne selv ved gode Handlinger skabe sig een. [106:9f]
The Daughters of the Air don't have an eternal soul either; but with their good works, they can create one for themselves.30

This is the story's most problematical point, from an orthodox standpoint. It certainly has nothing to do with normal Purgatory, because dead souls in that religion are not depicted as flying around, spreading the smell of flowers. On the other hand, it is even less a part of the Lutheran doctrine. If understood in terms outlined for human action, it lies closest to the Neo-Pelagian Scholastics such as Duns Scotus, who "discards the Augustinian doctrine of the impotence of the will to do good. It can itself turn to God without grace and thus merit grace congruously.31 With the aid of this earned grace it attains to the higher merit (de condigno). In the first case the merit is man's own; in the second it is the merit of grace which his own has, however, made possible." As is well known, a keystone of Luther's reformatory thought was that "good works" had no such merit: "Our good works are, in fact, sins in the judgement of an infinitely perfect God."32 If the ex-Mermaid, however, is depicted not in a Catholic Purgatory and not in a Lutheran framework, where is she? The best answer that can be made is that she is miraculously offered a kind of "Mischwesen" second chance. By Mermaid logic (which may now be considered to be the revealed logic of Andersen's fanciful construct), she may not continue as a Mermaid, because that would be automatically sinful and would not lead her to Paradise at all. She may not continue as a human, because humans (by the logic of the story) have souls, and she has not "earned" hers, she has only earned consideration. She thus miraculously evolves into something entirely different, with a set of conditions that fits her particular situation. That the state appears to combine traits of Purgatory and Catholic-inspired spirit life is an ontological conundrum that we may expect her to understand better in about three hundred years, when she leaves it behind.


1. Baggesen, Søren, "Individuation eller frelse?" in Kritik 1967:1, pp. 50-77. Note also the response to his article by Eigil Nyborg, "Psykologien og ny-kritikken", in Kritik 1967:2, pp. 116-28, and Baggesen's further reply, "Replik til Eigil Nyborg", in Kritik 1967:2, pp. 129-34. The remarks on Baggesen by five different authors (Hans Henrik Møller, Jacob Bøggild, Ib Johansen, Johan de Mylius and Ole Egeberg) in Det flydende spejl, ed. Finn Barlby, Copenhagen: Dråben, 1995, may be cited as one example of his "staying power" and contemporary importance. See pp. 43ff, 84, 86f, 96, 99, 101, 108ff, 113f and 117! tilbage

2. I refer here to H. St. Holbech's H. C. Andersens Religion, Copenhagen: Schønberg, 1947, and to Chr. Svanholm's H. C. Andersens Ungdoms-Tro, Trondheim: Brun, 1952. An article by Frits L. Lauritzen, "Religionen i H. C. Andersens eventyr", in Dansk teologisk Tidsskrift, 1950, pp. 46-161, is by contrast to these other early discussions narratologically sound, and may well be considered a legitimate forerunner to Baggesen's type of reasoning. tilbage

3. I borrow the term ("strukturerende besværgelse") from Peer E. Sørensen's H. C. Andersen og herskabet, Grenaa: GMT, 1973, p. 186. tilbage

4. Traditional themes related to Andersen's occur in legendary material concerning the "water sprite", to which we should add nos. F 251.6-11 in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, rev. ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Cf. also Enzyklopädie des Märchens, ed. K. Ranke, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981, vol. 3, art. "Elf, Elfen", esp. sp. 1337. Literary treatment is found in La Motte Fouqué's "Undine", where similarly complex behavorial rules for a soulless water-being are discussed. tilbage

5. He (if it is a He) is a human being, since he refers to the merpeople as "dernede" [87:6] (down there) rather than "down here", and he includes himself pronominally with his human audience as "we" "us" [88:6 etc.]. All quotations from the story and their page and line numberings are taken from H. C. Andersens Eventyr, kritisk udgave, ed. Erik Dal, Copenhagen: Hans Reitzel, 1963, vol. 1. The informal translations are my own. tilbage

6. This generalized statement is not undermined by the "separate" adventures of the mersisters, since their stories are clearly recounted to the Mermaid upon their return. tilbage

7. Note also that the statue in the garden and the "sun-flowers" are noted within the range of her consciousness as a merperson (although her inclination toward them is not initially clarified); the church bells, by contrast, are not "linked" to any undersea bell experience. tilbage

8. The folklore that tells us that the sight of a mermaid presages a terrible storm also appears to be delicately intimated in the story, but the point is not specifically made by the Narrator. tilbage

9. In order to convey a sense of a passage of time, for the sake of mermaid maturity, Andersen uses almost two pages (10% of his story) to relate this maturation. tilbage

10. Or "minister"; there is no distinction in Danish. tilbage

11. There is no other way - because Grandmother is not depicted as an all-knowing character. She has no knowledge of the Daughters of the Air. tilbage

12. The latter of these passages has to do with the demand for the Christian disciple, and (as Eigil Nyborg also pointed out) has nothing to do with the Mermaid's situation. But the rest is also problematical, since the crucial phrase in Grandmother's rulebook is: "da flød hans Sjæl over i dit Legeme" [96:34], "then his soul flowed over into your body", which has no counterpart in orthodox - anything. tilbage

13. The observant reader will note how carefully - or insistently - Andersen combines the two concepts: 97:30f, 98:38, 99:15, 102:13f, 103:11f, etc. tilbage

14. The alternative would not make any sense to the Mermaid at this point, even if she were to hear about the option of the knife and the Prince's blood. tilbage

15. It does have some significance, however, for my interpretation of the final rules of the Mermaid game. See below, p. 572. The Mermaid, qua Mermaid, has no consciousness of sin, nor does she "sin" within the context of her faithful love for the Prince. This, however, does not free her from existing in a sinful state, in a religious sense. tilbage

16. Baggesen is correct in noting this as a central part of the "miracle" argument. I would contend, however, that temptation, as a Christian concept - that is, as a fall from Grace - is unavailable to a Mermaid who has no eternal soul and no Grace to fall from. tilbage

17. Augustinus, De Civitate Dei 21.8. I quote from Benedicte Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind, revised ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987, p. 222. Ward's discussion of "The Theory of Miracles" gives a good overview of the definitional problem. See also Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination, transl. A. Goldhammer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, especially concerning the distinction between "marvels" and "miracles", p. 12 and pp. 27-34. tilbage

18. It is used this way in "Pigen, som traadte paa Brødet" and "Skrubtudsen", for example. tilbage

19. This point of departure corresponds well with the notions of several recent critics: cf. for example Johan de Mylius, Naturens stemme i H. C. Andersens eventyr Odense: H. C. Andersen-Centret, 1989, p. 15: "Havfruens vej går fra havets dyb, fra havfrueeksistensen forbundet med driften og døden i en stræben og længsel, der kræver ofre og lidelse, op mod det højeste, mod Gud, mod udødelighed." tilbage

20. Cf. Johan de Mylius, "Finalen i luften," in Det flydende spejl, Copenhagen: Dråben, 1995, pp. 103f. tilbage

21. Not totally inscrutable to the view of the Christian, of course, since such "right actions" as Samaritan aid and imitation of Christ are well known to the initiated. The rules of the game are depicted by Andersen as inscrutable to his characters, and the miraculous turnabout thus comes as a complete surprise. This is the narratological concept used in "Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne", "Krøblingen" and "Pigen, som traadte paa Brødet". The construct is also seen in fables such as "Den grimme Ælling" and "Skrubtudsen". "Dynd-Kongens Datter" and "'Noget'" use the construct as only one of several narrative threads. tilbage

22. Apperceptional approaches to the phenomenon of saint's lives or miracles are, unfortunately, not easily found. The progress of a young heathen towards martyrdom or sainthood, however, follows a recognizable pattern which we may also see mirrored in "The Little Mermaid". tilbage

23. Chr. Svanholm, op. cit. (cf. note 2), particularly pp. 194f. Interestingly enough, Svanholm attempts to discredit Andersen's Catholic traits in that novel, regarding them as a sort of narrative veneer which is laid on over an essentially Lutheran belief system. tilbage

24. It would be reasonable to assume Andersen's substitution of "temple" for the implied "convent" or "nunnery" was done to avoid direct reference to a religion opposed by many of his adult readers. tilbage

25. "[D]et straalende Hav med de brogede Kyster, der skildres, er til at begynde med et eventyrligt Kattegat, der i Skildringens Stigen forvandler sig til selve Middelhavet." Hans Brix, H. C. Andersen og hans Eventyr, Copenhagen: Schubotheske Forlag, 1907, p. 96. tilbage

26. Purgatory (in Danish: "Skærsilden") as a term is used by several recent critics to describe the last scene in "The Little Mermaid", even though no connection to other Catholic elements is made. tilbage

27. In deference to Dante Alighieri, I hasten to add that I mean by this that the protagonist is actually sent to Heaven or Hell, not that he or she passes through. Cf. Andersen's fascination for "in-between" after-life states, like the Purgatory in "Pigen, som traadte paa Brødet", the exclusion from Heaven in "'Noget'", or the Swedenborgian greenhouse in "Historien om en Moder". tilbage

28. Excellent folkloric description of the "Purgatory" concept is found in Jacques Le Goff, op. cit., especially pp. 67-77. tilbage

29. That is, if she is counted as a regular Daughter of the Air; cf. 106:9. tilbage

30. Furthermore: "'Om trehundrede Aar svæve vi saaledes ind i Guds Rige!'" [106: 27] ("In three hundred years, we will float into the Kingdom of God!"). It is not useful, however, to speculate about the Daughters of the Air in general terms. Their origin and the reason for their own "time of trial" are not delineated in Andersen's construct. tilbage

31. Voluntas disponit se de congruo ad gratiam. The quotation is from James Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation, New York: Russell, 1962, vol. 1, p. 74. tilbage

32. Stultus itaque nimis est qui ex operibus suis sese justum putat habendum, cum si judicio Dei offerantur, peccata sint et inveniantur. Quoted in Mackinnon, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 193. The idea is retained in Melanchthon's "Augsburg Confession", art. XX, although phrased there in a conciliatory way. tilbage

Bibliografisk information om teksten:

Massengale, James: "The Miracle and A Miracle in the Life of a Mermaid", In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.