The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, All About Perception

She is the icon of Copenhagen, the sister of the Mermaid of Warsaw, she is the lovely mermaid of Copenhagen.

It is a tiny statue, but it tells a large heart-rending story. The Little Mermaid was the title character in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale about young unrequited love.

Just because most of us know the Disney version (the happy version of the story), I’ve reproduced the plot from Wikipedia here interspered with videos telling the actual story by Hans Christian Andersen:

The Little Mermaid dwells in an underwater kingdom with her widowed father (the sea king or Mer-King), her dowager grandmother, and her five older sisters, each of whom had been born one year apart. When a mermaid turns fifteen, she is permitted to swim to the surface for the first time to glimpse the world above, and when the sisters become old enough, each of them visits the upper world one at a time every year. As each returns, the Little Mermaid listens longingly to their various descriptions of the world inhabited by human beings.

When the Little Mermaid’s turn comes, she rises up to the surface, watches a birthday celebration being held on a ship in honor of a handsome prince, and falls in love with him from a safe distance. A violent storm hits, sinking the boat, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. She delivers him unconscious to the shore near a temple. Here, she waits until a young woman from the temple and her ladies in waiting find him. To her dismay, the prince never sees the Little Mermaid or even realizes that it was she who had originally saved his life.

The Little Mermaid becomes melancholy and asks her grandmother if humans can live forever. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter lifespan than a mermaid’s 300 years, but that when mermaids die, they turn to sea foam and cease to exist, while humans have an eternal soul that lives on in heaven. The Little Mermaid, longing for the prince and an eternal soul, visits the Sea Witch in a dangerous part of the ocean. The witch willingly helps her by selling her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue and beautiful voice, and she warns her that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea. Consuming the potion will make her feel as if a sword is being passed through her body, yet when she recovers, she will have two human legs and will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. However, she will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die with a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.

After she agrees to the arrangement, the Little Mermaid swims to the surface near the prince’s palace and drinks the potion. She is found by the prince, who is mesmerized by her beauty and grace, even though she is considered mute by everyone in the kingdom. Most of all, he likes to see her dance, and she dances for him despite suffering excruciating pain with every step. Soon, the Little Mermaid becomes the prince’s favorite companion and accompanies him on many of his outings. When the prince’s parents encourage their son to marry the neighboring princess in an arranged marriage, the prince tells the Little Mermaid he will not because he does not love the princess. He goes on to say he can only love the young woman from the temple, who he believes rescued him. It turns out that the princess from the neighboring kingdom is the temple girl. The prince declares his love for her, and the royal wedding is announced at once.

The prince and princess celebrate their new marriage on a wedding ship, and the Little Mermaid’s heart breaks. She thinks of all that she has sacrificed and of all the pain she has endured for the prince. She despairs, thinking of the death that awaits her, but before dawn, her sisters rise out of the water and bring her a knife that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid kills the prince and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more, all of her suffering will end, and she will live out her full life in the ocean with her family.

However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his new bride, and she throws the knife and herself off the ship into the water just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warm sun and discovers that she has turned into a luminous and ethereal earthbound spirit, a daughter of the air. As the Little Mermaid ascends into the atmosphere, she is greeted by other daughters who tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. Because of her selflessness, she is given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds to mankind for 300 years and will one day rise up into the Kingdom of God.

The story by Andersen so defined the city that it was commissioned for the city by Carl Jacobsen (founder of Carlsberg) in 1909. Sculpted by Edvard Eriksen, the statue was unveiled in 1913 and became an instant hit – attracting visitors from far and wide. It is in a way, a must see in Copenhagen.

But the sight of the statue today has the tendency to disappoint. When researching what to see in Copenhagen I came across this video by Mark Wolters talking about Der Lille Frau (the fifth item).

A similar consensus seemed to emerge on Tripadvisor. With a relatively unimpressive rating by tourists. Even those who rated it high and described it as a vital part of the Copenhagen trip for its history and symbolism caveated the experience by describing how the statue did not “take your breathe away”. There is also the fact that the the walk to the statue is lined with the grand Amalienborg Palace, and the elegant St Albans Church making the statue appear even more simple.

But does it really deserve its “overhyped”, “underwhelming” reputation?

At 1.25m the statue is essentially a popular but unimposing structure easily blocked and missed. Its human to tend to aggrandize something important in our minds. But there is something poetic about the size of the mermaid. The Little Mermaid did not impress on the prince the truth of her role in saving him. She was in essence an unimposing character. At the same time, the scene in the distance of tens of people taking pictures hugging their loved ones with the lonely loveless maiden in the background was somehow jarring on hindsight. There is a saying that Hans Christian Andersen’s story’s were allegories about his own love life and somehow that image seemed more sad that I thought.

While it was perhaps not the intention of the sculpture, to me at least the statue was more than a symbol of the city – it was a reminder of human nature, and a visual demonstration of the sad tale behind the children’s story – with us as the actors.

Maybe this perspective of mine came about because I did not know much about the story before visiting, but based on this perspective, I would rate the statue, 5 stars.



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