The fairytale of the Little Mermaid has become famous worldwide, and is forever memorialised in a statue in Copenhagen. So, where did Hans Christian Andersen get his inspiration from, and why is she so popular now?
Hans Christian Andersen
Let’s start this off with the writer who created the story, Hans Christian Andersen himself. Andersen was born in 1805, in Odense, Denmark, to rather poor parents. He moved to Copenhagen to study at the university in 1828. Though we now know him best for his fairy tales, he first found success as a novelist, but also wrote plays, poetry, and travelogues about his trips around Europe. Notably, he made two trips to England, to meet Charles Dickens, whom he admired greatly. He never married or had children, and there has been speculation about his sexuality. However, that is not for us to decide or label for him, so we’ll leave it at that!
He published his first collection of ‘Fairy Tales, Told for Children’ (‘Eventyr’ in Danish) in 1835, followed by two more instalments to complete the first volume by 1837. Initially, critics and the public overlooked these works, but he later gained recognition when translations were published around Europe. Throughout his life, he wrote several more collections, totalling hundreds of tales! Some of the most popular include ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘The Princess and the Pea’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, and ‘Thumbelina’. Denmark declared him a ‘national treasure’, before his death in Copenhagen, in 1875.
Andersen’s tales take some inspiration from the legends and folklore that have existed in Denmark, and many European countries for centuries. His tales are original works (not simply the written versions of orally transmitted stories, as in other cases), but their universal elements appeal to all cultures. He was innovative in his style though, by using more spoken language idioms. And while the stories are ‘for children’, he introduces many darker themes and sad ending, which resonate with adults as well.
Indeed, many of his tales are autobiographical; for instance, Andersen admitted ‘The Ugly Duckling’ recounts how he was bullied in his childhood, before growing up to be a successful writer, just as the ugly duckling transforms into a swan. He struggled with personal relationships, never marrying or having children, and often felt like an outsider. Even once he found success, he never felt fully accepted.
The Little Mermaid
‘The Little Mermaid’ first appeared in his 1837 ‘Fairy Tales’ collection. The original tale tells of an unnamed mermaid who falls in love with a prince, and goes to the sea witch to become human – sounds familiar so far? She wants to gain an ‘immortal soul’, which mermaids can only get if a human falls in love with them. This would allow her to go to heaven when she dies, instead of dissolving into sea foam, as mermaids do.
However, the price she pays for her legs, is having her tongue cut out, and her new feet are always in agony. If the prince marries her, she will get her ‘immortal soul’; if he doesn’t, she will die on the day of his wedding. There’s no ‘happily ever after’ in this tale though, as the prince does indeed marry someone else. The mermaid’s sisters make another deal with the sea witch, and bring her a knife, to murder the prince. This would allow her to become a mermaid again, but she cannot bring herself to do it. She dies – but then finds herself amongst the ‘daughters of the air’, beings who must do 300 years of good deeds to then go to heaven.
So just a little darker than the Disney version then?
Creating the Statue
The Danish brewer, Carl Jacobsen, saw a ballet version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ story at the Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, in 1909. Ellen Price danced in the role of the little mermaid, and Jacobsen fell in love with the story and her performance. He commissioned Edvard Eriksen to create a sculpture of the mermaid, to be presented as a gift to the city of Copenhagen. Price was the model for the head, but refused to pose nude. Instead, Eriksen’s wife, Eline, stepped in to model for the body. Eriksen created the piece out of bronze and granite, and positioned her to be gazing to the land, where her prince lived.
The statue sits on Langelinie Pier, on the shore of Copenhagen harbour, and was unveiled on 23rd August 1913. She became instantly popular amongst visitors to the city, and celebrated her 100th birthday in 2013. There are also now many copies of her around the world – although the statue remains under official copyright until 2029 (70 years after Erkisen’s death in 1959). If you venture out of Copenhagen, to Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, you will find ‘Han’, also known as ‘The Little Merman’, a similar looking statue of a young man. She has also been the victim of vandalism many times, including twice losing her head, and once an arm! Vandals have also poured paint on her several times, often as an act of political activism. However, every time, she has been restored.
Andersen, and ‘The Little Mermaid’, found a good deal of fame during his own lifetime. The original fairy tales were written in Danish, of course, but were also translated in many other languages, including English. This allowed audiences from all over Europe to discover his work. Although, it is rumoured that some translations were better than others, meaning his reputation varied! Many of them have since been turned into ballets, plays, and more recently, movies. Because of their universal appeal, people have continued to love these stories, all the way up to the present day.
After her statue was installed, ‘The Little Mermaid’ gained a good deal of additional fame. This only increased further with the release of the 1989 Disney movie – although it varies quite a bit from the original. Disney has adapted many other fairy tales over the years as well, and in most cases, cleans them up somewhat. They remove the darker elements, and give the heroes their happy endings. Of course, Disney versions are not without their own criticism, especially from a feminist, and a racial/cultural perspective! But the global scale of Disney means that more people are familiar with their version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ than the original.
One of the important things to know about ‘The Little Mermaid’ statue, is that it’s small. A lot of people are expecting a grander affair, but in fact, she is the smallest attraction in Copenhagen! She is just 1.25m (4ft) tall and weighs 175kg (385lb). It often gets quite crowded around her as well. To reach her from land, you have to walk or cycle north from the city centre, to the end of Langelinie Pier. Many sightseeing buses pass by this area too, or you can take public bus 26 which stops nearby.
Another option is to view her from the sea. There are boat tours available around Copenhagen’s canals and harbour, which will pass by her. Of course, you will be further away than if you go by land, and you will be viewing the statue from behind, as she faces inland.
Other Hans Christian Andersen Locations
While the statue is the most popular, there are some other Andersen related sites in Copenhagen too! Not far from Nyhavn, you can visit the Hans Christian Andersen Fairytale House. It features scenes from some of his fairy tales, brought to life with lights and sounds, available in Danish, English, and German. You can also visit his study there, containing a collection of his belongings, and learn more about his life.
In Nyhavn, look out for number 67, a tall white building, where Andersen lived for many years. There is now a plaque on the side of the building to commemorate him. And, there are two statues of Andersen himself in the city. In King’s Gardens, he sits on a plinth, decorated with brass reliefs of scenes from some of his fairy tales. The other is in City Hall Square, where he looks skywards, with a book in his hand.
Entry: Free from land. Boat tours of the harbour will require a ticket.
Opening hours: None apply, as it is an open air statue – just go before sunset of course!
It takes around 20 minutes to walk to the Little Mermaid statue from the centre of Copenhagen, so just allow enough time to get there and back. She is close to Langelinie Park, where you can find public toilets. There are cafes and other facilities around the area as well.