Of Sirens and Sorrow – Part 3

Sirens Blog Tour

Of Sirens and Sorrow – Part 3

Amanda Kespohl

Continued from Part 2


As you can see, when a fairytale involves romance between humans and merfolk, it often ends in tragedy. Someone typically ends up losing his/her life, his wife, or both. So what’s behind this recurring theme? Well, in the case of these three tales, it could be as simple as shared inspiration. Sources suggest that Fouqué was inspired by Melusina’s tale when he wrote Undine.[1] Similarly, Andersen took inspiration from Undine when he wrote “The Little Mermaid.”[2] It’s easy to recognize the similarities that support this theory. Undine, like Melusina’s tale, involves a water spirit who marries a human man. In each case, the man makes certain unusual promises to his wife, only to break them and lose her forever. In the “Little Mermaid,” as in Undine, a water spirit seeks to obtain a soul by marrying a human, who ultimately does not appreciate her, but seeks out another of his own kind.

Yet, there may be more at play. After all, these are not the only tales of merfolk/human romances that involve tragedy.[3] Additionally, fairytales often serve as metaphors for real life. In life, as in fiction, lovers are often divided by being from different worlds—separated by class, religion, or geography, for instance. Similarly, the lovers in the merfolk/human romances are trying to bridge the gap between two worlds—land and sea, mortality and immortality. In either case, the divide may prove to be insurmountable, and struggling against it can result in suffering. Indeed, author Terri Windling suggested in her article, “Hans Christian Andersen: Father of the Modern Fairytale,” that Andersen was inspired to write “The Little Mermaid” by his own realization that no matter what he endured to try to dwell in the upper class world he admired, he would never truly belong there because of his humble origins. [4]

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Undine (1909).
One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Undine (1909).

In the introduction to Undine, C.M. Yonge points to the differences in kind as being the divisive factor in that tale. She writes, “we cannot help sharing, or at least understanding, Huldbrand’s beginning to shrink from the unearthly creature to something of his own flesh and blood. He is altogether unworthy . . . , [and] we cannot but see that Fouqué’s thought was that the grosser human nature is unable to appreciate what is absolutely pure and unearthly.”[5] This is a fair point. Humans are inherently flawed. It must have been difficult for Huldbrand to relate to his perfectly loving and forgiving wife. Similarly, Melusina’s tale seems to embrace this notion—that a human must ultimately prove unworthy of such an ethereal partner. Even the prince in “The Little Mermaid” could not appreciate the mermaid’s devotion, but looked past her to find a human mate. However, Andersen treats him a little more kindly in his tale. As author Rosellen Brown observes, the mermaid comes to him “deprived of her voice, of her personality, her self, left only with her looks, which are captivating but (to the prince’s eternal credit) insufficient compared to the pleasure of a complete speaking woman.” [6] Still, one wonders what would have happened if she had come to him with a voice. Would it have been enough to give the story a happy ending, despite the innate differences between the prince and the mermaid?

Ultimately, the beauty and tragedy of such tales is as intoxicating a combination as salt air and sandy beaches. They reflect the beauty and tragedy of the ocean itself—an unknowable world of hidden depths, dangerous creatures, and the husks of drowned ships and humans. Is it any wonder that we should view such an untamable and mysterious force and the creatures that might live there as a source of tragedy?

I drew inspiration from these tales and hid little nods to them in my own story, “The Fisherman and the Golem,” which will be published in the forthcoming anthology, Sirens, edited by Rhonda Parrish. To discover whether my characters escape the tragic fate of those whose lives are touched by water spirits, check it out when it’s released on July 12, 2016. In the meantime, if you’re looking for further reading material, try some of the fairytales mentioned in footnote 3.

Amanda Kespohl is an appellate judicial clerk who writes bench summaries by day and fantasy novels and short stories by night. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her beagle, Bailey, and spends her spare time reading fairy tale retellings and Marvel comic books. Check out her website at https://amandakespohl.wordpress.com/ or find her on Twitter at @amandakespohl.

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[1] “Undine—An Introduction.” The Historical Mermaid. Web. May 27, 2016. http://academics.wellesley.edu/Psychology/Cheek/Narrative/Stories/undine_intro2.html; Ferber, Michael. A Companion to European Romanticism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. Print. 152; “Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid.” HubPages, Nov. 14, 2014. Web. 27 May 2016. http://hubpages.com/education/hans-christian-andersen-little-mermaid.
[2] “Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid.” HubPages, Nov. 14, 2014. Web. 27 May 2016. http://hubpages.com/education/hans-christian-andersen-little-mermaid.
[3] You might try, for instance, “The Golden Mermaid,” or “The Fisherman and his Soul,” or any of the many tales about selkies.
[4] Windling, Terri. “Hans Christian Andersen: Father of the Modern Fairy Tale.” Journal of Mythic Arts. The Endicott Studio. 2003. http://www.endicott-studio.com/articleslist/hans-christ.html.
[5] Yonge, C.M. Introduction. Undine. Friederich de La Motte-Fouqué. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2825/2825-h/2825-h.htm#link2H_INTR.
[6] Brown, Rosellen. “Is It You the Fable Is About?” Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Women Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales.  Kate Bernheimer, editor. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. 62.
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