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Hans Christian Andersen
The Little Mermaid
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The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen
(from Hans Andersen Forty-Two Stories , translated by M. R. James)
Far out in the sea the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest of cornflowers, and
as clear as the clearest glass; but it is very deep, deeper than any anchor-cable can
reach, and many church towers would have to be put one on the top of another to
reach from the bottom out of the water. Down there live the sea people.
Now you must not think for a moment that there is only a bare white sandy bottom
there; no, no: there the most extraordinary trees and plants grow, which have stems
and leaves so supple that they stir at the slightest movement of the water, as if they
were alive. All the fish, big and little, flit among the branches, like the birds in the air
up here. In the deepest place of all lies the sea king's palace. The walls are of coral,
and the tall pointed windows of the clearest possible amber, but the roof is of mussel-
shells that open and shut themselves as the water moves. It all looks beautiful, for in
everyone of them lie shining pearls, a single one of which would be the principal
ornament in a Queen's crown.
The sea King down there had been a widower for many years, but his old mother kept
house for him. She was a clever woman, but proud of her rank, for which reason she
went about with twelve oysters on her tail, while the rest of the nobility might only
carry six. For the rest she deserved high praise, especially because she was so fond of
the little sea Princesses, her grandchildren. There were six of them, beautiful children,
but the youngest was the prettiest of them all. Her skin was as bright and pure as a
rose-leaf, her eyes were as blue as the deepest lake; but like all the rest, she had no
feet—her body ended in a fish's tail. All the love-long day they might play down in
the palace in the great halls where live flowers grew out of the walls. The big
windows of amber stood open, and the fishes swam in through them, just as with us
swallows fly in when we open the windows; but the fishes used to swim right up to
the little Princesses and feed out of their hands and allow themselves to be stroked.
Outside the palace there was a large garden with fiery red and dark blue trees, whose
fruit shone like gold, and their flowers were like a flaming fire, because they were
always moving their stems and leaves. The ground was of the finest sand, but blue
like the flame of sulphur. Over the whole expanse down there lay a wonderful blue
sheen. You could more easily imagine that you were far up in the air and could see
the sky above you and below you, than that you were at the bottom of the sea. In a
dead calm you could see the sun: it looked like a purple flower out of whose cup all
the light was streaming.
Each of the young Princesses had her little plot in the garden, where she could dig
and plant as she liked. One would make her flower-bed in the shape of a whale,
another preferred to have hers like a little mermaid, but the youngest made hers quite
round, like the sun, and would only have flowers that shone red like it. She was an
odd child, quiet and thoughtful, and whereas the other sisters would deck out their
gardens with the quaintest things, that they had got from sunken ships, she would
only have—besides the rose-red flowers that were like the sun far up in the sky—a
pretty statue of marble. It was of a handsome boy, carved out of bright white stone,
which had come down to the sea bottom from a wreck. Beside the statue she planted
a rose-red weeping willow, which grew splendidly and hung its fresh branches over
it, right down to the blue sand bottom, on which the shadows showed violet, and
moved with the branches; it looked as if the top and the roots of the tree were playing
at kissing each other.
She had no greater delight than in dreaming about the world of men up above. The
old grandmother had to tell her all she knew about ships and horses and men and
animals. It seemed to her particularly delightful that up there on earth the flowers
smelt sweet (which they did not at the sea bottom), and that the woods were green
and the fish which one saw among the branches could sing so loud and prettily that it
was a joy to hear them. It was the little birds that the grandmother called fish,
otherwise they could not have understood, for they had never seen a bird.
"When you're full fifteen years old," said the grandmother, "you shall have leave to
come up out of the sea and sit on the rocks in the moonlight, and see the big ships
that come sailing by; and forests and houses you shall see."
During the year that was passing one of the sisters was fifteen years old; but the rest
—why, each was a year younger than the next, and so the youngest had a clear five
years to wait before she could come up from the sea bottom and see how things go
with us. But the first promised the next one to tell her what she had seen and had
thought beautiful on the first day, for their grandmother didn't tell them enough: there
were very many things they wanted to know about.
None of them was so full of longing as the youngest, the very one who had the
longest time to wait, and was so quiet and thoughtful. Many a night she stood at the
open window and gazed up through the dark blue waters where the fish went waving
their fins and tails. She could see the moon and the stars; of course they were very
pale, but, seen through the water, they looked much larger than they do to our eyes. If
something like a black cloud passed along beneath them, she knew that it was either a
whale swimming above her, or even a ship with a number of people in it. Certainly
they never thought that beneath them there was a lovely little mermaid stretching her
hands up towards the keel.
And now the eldest Princess was fifteen years old and could rise up above the surface
of the sea.
When she came back she had a hundred things to tell; but the most beautiful thing,
she said, was to lie on a sandbank in the moonlight in the calm sea, and to see close
by the shore the big town where the lights twinkled like hundreds of stars, and to hear
the sound of music and the noise and stir of carts and people, and see all the church
towers and steeples and hear the bells ringing; and just because she couldn't go up
there, she longed after all that, most of all.
Oh, how the youngest sister did listen! And when, later on in the evening, she stood at
the open window and gazed up through the dark blue water, she thought about the big
town and all the noise and stir, and then she fancied she could hear the church bells
ringing down to her.
The year after, the second sister had leave to rise up through the water and swim
where she liked; she ducked up just as the sun was going down, and the sight of that
she thought the most beautiful of all. The whole heaven, she said, had looked like
gold, and the clouds—oh! the beauty of them she could not describe: red and violet,
they sailed past above her, but far swifter than they there flew, like a large white
ribbon, a skein of wild swans away over the water, to where the sun was. She swam
towards it, but it sank, and the rosy glow died from the clouds and the face of the sea.
Next year the third sister went up; she was the boldest of them all; and so she swam
up a broad river that ran into the sea. Beautiful green hills she saw, with rows of vines
upon them. Palaces and mansions peeped out from among stately woods. She heard
all the birds singing, and the sun shone so hot that she had to dive beneath the water
to cool her burning face. In a little inlet she came upon a whole crowd of young
human children; they were quite naked, and ran about and splashed in the water. She
wanted to play with them, but they ran away in a fright, and then came a little black
creature (it was a dog, but she had never seen a dog before) and it barked at her so
dreadfully that she was terrified and took refuge in the open sea; but never could she
forget the splendid woods and the green hills and the pretty children who could swim
in the water, though they had no fish-tails.
The fourth sister was not so daring. She stayed out in the lonely sea, and told them
that that was the most beautiful of all. You could see many many miles all round, and
the sky arched over you like a great bell of glass. Ships she had seen, but far away
they looked like gulls. The merry dolphins had turned somersaults, and the big
whales had squirted up water out of their nostrils, so that it looked like hundreds of
fountains all around her.
Now came the turn of the fifth sister. Her birthday, it happened, was in winter, and so
she saw what the others had not seen on their first visit. The sea was all green to look
at, and round about there floated large icebergs, everyone looking like a pearl, she
said, and yet they were far bigger than the church towers that men built. They showed
themselves in the strangest shapes and were like diamonds. She had seated herself on
one of the largest, and all the ships made a wide circle in fear, away from the place
where she was sitting and letting the wind set her long hair flying; but on towards
evening the sky was covered with clouds, it lightened and thundered, while the black
sea lifted the masses of ice high up, and made them glitter in the fierce lightning.
Aboard of all the ships they took in sail, and there was anxiety and fear, but she sat
calmly on her floating iceberg and watched the blue flashes strike zig-zagging into
the shining sea.
The first time any of the sisters came to the top of the water, each one of them was
always entranced by all the new pretty sights she saw, but now that, as grown girls,
they had leave to go up whenever they liked, it became quite ordinary to them, and
they longed to be at home again; and after a month had passed they said that after all
it was far prettier down at the bottom, and there one was so comfortable at home.
On many an evening the five sisters would link arms together and rise in a row above
the water. They had lovely voices, more beautiful than any human being's, and when
a storm was coming on, and they thought some ships might be lost, they would swim
before the ships and sing most beautifully of how pretty it was at the bottom of the
sea, and bade the seafarers not to be afraid of coming down there.
But they could not understand their words; they thought it was the storm. Nor did
they see any beautiful things down there either, for when the ship sank they were
drowned, and only as dead corpses did they ever reach the sea King's palace.
When of an evening the sisters rose like this, arm in arm, up through the sea, their
little sister was left behind quite alone, looking after them, and it seemed as if she
must have wept, but a mermaid has no tears, and that makes her suffer all the more.
"Oh! if only I was fifteen," she said, "I know I shall become really fond of that world
up there and of the people who have their homes there!"
At last she was fifteen years old.
"There now! We've got you off our hands," said the grandmother, the old widow
Queen. "Come here, and let me dress you out like your other sisters"; and she put a
wreath of white lilies on her hair, only every petal in the flower was a half-pearl, and
the old lady made eight large oysters take tight hold of the Princess's tail, to indicate
her high rank.
"But it hurts so," said the little mermaid.
"Yes, one must suffer a little for smartness' sake," said the old lady.
Oh dear! She would gladly have shaken off all this finery and put away the heavy
wreath. The red flowers in her garden became her much better; but she dare not
change it. "Good-bye," she said, and rose bright and light as a bubble, up through the
water. The sun had just gone down when she lifted her head above the sea, but all the
clouds were still glowing like gold and roses, and in the midst of the pale red heaven
the evening star shone clear and beautiful. The air was soft and cool, and the sea dead
calm. There lay a great ship with three masts; only a single sail was set, for no wind
was stirring, and round about on the rigging and on the yard, sailors were sitting.
There was music and singing, and as evening grew darker hundreds of variegated
lamps were lit. They looked as if the flags of all nations were waving in the air. The
little mermaid swam straight up to the cabin window, and every time a wave lifted
her, she could see through at the windows, clear as mirrors, numbers of gaily dressed
people; but the handsomest of them all was the young Prince with the big black eyes:
he was certainly not much over sixteen, and this was his birthday, and that was why
there were all these fine doings. The sailors danced on the deck, and when the young
Prince came out there, more than a hundred rockets shot up into the sky. They shone
as bright as day, and the little mermaid was quite frightened and dived down beneath
the water, but soon she put up her head again, and then it seemed as if all the stars in
the sky were falling down on her. She had never seen fireworks like that. Great suns
whizzed round, splendid fire-fish darted into the blue heaven, and everything was
reflected back from the bright calm sea. On the ship itself there was so much light
that you could see every least rope, let alone the people. Oh! how handsome the
young Prince was; he shook hands with the crew and smiled and laughed, while the
music rang out into the beautiful night. It grew late, but the little mermaid could not
take her eyes off the ship and the beautiful Prince. The coloured lamps were put out,
no more rockets flew up into the sky, no more guns were let off, but deep down in the
sea there was a murmur and a rumbling. Meanwhile she sat on the water and swung
up and down, so that she could see into the cabin; but the ship now took a swifter
pace, one sail after another was spread, the waves rose higher, great clouds came up
in the distance, there was lightning. Oh, there would be a terrible storm; and the
seamen took in sail. The great ship ploughed with the speed of a bird over the wild
sea, the water piled itself into huge black mountains, as if to top the masts, but the
ship dived down like a swan between the tall billows, and rose again over the heaving
waters. To the little mermaid it seemed just a pleasant jaunt, but not so to the sailors.
The ship creaked and cracked, the stout planks bent with the mighty blows that the
sea dealt. The mast snapped in the midst as if it had been a reed, and the ship heeled
over on her side, while the water rushed into her hull. Now the little mermaid saw
they were in peril; she herself had to beware of the beams and broken pieces of the
ship that were driven about in the sea. At one instant it was so pitch-dark that she
could see nothing whatever; then, when it lightened, it was so bright that she could
see everyone on board. Everyone was leaping off as best he could. The young Prince
above all she looked for, and she saw him, when the ship parted, sink down into the
deep. For a moment she was full of joy that now he was coming down to her; but then
she remembered that men could not live in the water, and that he could never come
alive to her father's palace. No, die he must not! So she swam in among the beams
and planks that drove about in the water, quite forgetting that they might have
crushed her—dived deep beneath the water, and rose high among the billows, and so
came at last to the young Prince, who could hardly keep himself afloat any longer in
the stormy sea. His arms and legs were beginning to tire, his beautiful eyes were
closing; but he would perforce have died had not the little mermaid come to him. She
held his head above the water, and let the waves drive her with him whither they
* * * * *
At dawn the tempest was over; of the ship there was not a bit to be seen. The sun rose
red and bright out of the water, and it seemed as if thereat life came into the Prince's
cheeks; but his eyes were still closed. The mermaid kissed his fair high forehead and
stroked back his wet hair. She thought he resembled the marble statue down in her
little garden. She kissed him again and wished that he might live after all.
And now she saw in front of her the dry land, high blue hills on whose top the white
snow shone as if swans were lying there. Down by the shore were lovely green
woods, and in front of them lay a church or an abbey (she knew not what), but at least
a building. Lemon and apple trees grew in the garden, and before the gate were tall
palms. At this spot the sea made a little bay; it was dead calm, but very deep right up
to the rocks where the fine white sand was washed up. Hither she swam with the fair
Prince and laid him on the sand, but took care that his head should rest uppermost in
the warm sunshine.
Now the bells rang out from the great white building, and a number of young
maidens came out through the gardens. The little mermaid swam further out, behind
some high boulders which stuck up out of the water, laid some sea-foam over her hair
and her bosom, so that no one could see her little face, and there she watched to see
who would come to the poor Prince. It was not long before a young girl came that
way, and seemed to be quite terrified, but only for a moment. Then she fetched more
people, and the mermaid saw the Prince revive, and smile on all those about him. But
on her, out there, he did not smile; he had, of course, no notion that she had rescued
him. She felt very sad, and when he was carried into the great building, she dived
sorrowfully down into the water, and betook herself home to her father's palace.
She had always been quiet and thoughtful, but now she became much more so. The
sisters asked her what she had seen the first time she went up, but she did not tell
them anything about it.
Every evening and morning did she go up to the place where she had left the Prince.
She saw how the fruits in the garden grew ripe and were picked; she saw how the
snow melted on the high mountains; but the Prince she never saw, so she always
turned homeward sadder than before. It was her one comfort to sit in her little garden
and throw her arms about the fair marble statue which was like the Prince; but she
took no care of her flowers, and they spread as in a wild wood over all the paths, and
wove their long stems and leaves in among the branches of the trees, so that it was
quite dark there.
At last she could contain herself no longer, but told one of her sisters, and at once all
the others got to know it, but nobody else except them and just one or two other
mermaids, who didn't tell anyone but their dearest friends. One of these could tell
who the Prince was: she too had seen the fete on the ship, and knew where he came
from and where his kingdom lay.
"Come, little sister," said the other Princesses, and with their arms about each other's
shoulders they rose in a long line out of the sea in front of the spot where they knew
the Prince's palace was.
It was built of a kind of pale yellow shining stone, with great marble steps that you
could go down straight into the sea. Stately gilded domes rose above the roof, and
between the pillars that surrounded the whole building stood statues of marble which
seemed alive. Through the clear glass of the tall windows you could see into the
noble halls, where costly silk curtains and tapestries were hung, and all the walls
were decked with great paintings that it was delightful to gaze at. In the middle of the
largest hall a great fountain splashed; its jet soared high up towards the glass dome in
the roof, through which the sun shone on the water and on the beautiful plants that
grew in the wide basin.
Now she knew where he lived, and thither she came on many an evening and night
upon the water. She swam much closer to the land than any of the others had dared to
do; she even went right up the narrow canal beneath the stately balcony of marble,
which cast a shadow far over the water. Here she would sit and gaze at the young
Prince, who believed himself to be quite alone in the bright moonlight.
Many an evening she saw him sail, to the sound of music, in his splendid boat, where
the flags waved; she peeped out from among the green weed, and if the breeze caught
her long silver white veil, and anyone saw it, they thought it was a swan flapping its
Many a night when the fishermen lay out at sea with torches, she heard them telling
all manner of good about the young Prince, and it made her glad that she had saved
his life when he was being tossed half dead upon the waves, and she thought of how
close his head had lain on her bosom, and how lovingly she had kissed him then; he
knew nothing whatever about it, and could not so much as dream about her.
She became fonder and fonder of human people, and more and more did she long to
be able to go up amongst them. Their world, she thought, was far larger than hers: for
they could fly far over the sea in ships, climb high up above the clouds on the lofty
mountains; and the lands they owned stretched over forests and fields farther than she
could see. There was a great deal she wanted to know, but her sisters could not
answer all her questions, so she asked the old grandmother: she knew well the upper
world, as she very properly called the countries above the sea.
"If the human people aren't drowned," the little mermaid inquired, "can they go on
living always? Don't they die as we do down here in the sea?"
"Yes," said the old lady, "they have to die, too, and besides, their lifetime is shorter
than ours. We can live for three hundred years, but when we cease to be here, we only
turn to foam on the water, and have not even a grave down here among our dear ones.
We have no immortal souls, we never live again; we are like the green weed: once it
is cut down it never grows green again. Human kind, on the other hand, have a soul
that lives always after the body has turned into earth. It rises up through the clear air,
up to all the shining stars; just as we rise out of the sea and look at the human
people's country, so do they rise up to unknown beautiful places, which we never
"Why did we have no immortal souls given us?" said the little mermaid, very sadly. "I
would give all my hundreds of years that I have to live to be a human being for only
one day, and then get a share in the heavenly world."
"You mustn't go thinking about that," said the old lady, "we have a much happier and
better lot than the people up there."
"So then I've got to die and float like foam on the sea, and not hear the noise of the
waves and see the lovely flowers and the red sun! Can't I do anything at all to gain an
"No," said the old lady, "only if a human being held you so dear that you were to him
more than father or mother, and if with all his thoughts and affections he clung to you
and made the priest lay his right hand in yours with the promise to be faithful to you
here and for ever, then his soul would flow over into your body, and you too would
have a share in the destiny of men. He would give you a soul and still keep his own.
But that can never happen. The very thing that is counted beautiful here in the sea, I
mean your fish's tail, they think horrid up there on the earth; they have no notion of
what's proper: up there people must needs have two clumsy props which they call
legs, if they're to look nice."
The little mermaid sighed and looked sadly at her fish's tail. "Let's be cheerful," said
the old lady. "We'll jump and dance about for the three hundred years we have to live.
It's long enough in all conscience; after that one can sleep it out all the pleasanter in
one's grave. To-night we're to have a court ball."
* * * * *
Truly, it was a magnificent affair, such as you never see on earth. The walls and
ceilings of the great ballroom were of glass, thick but clear. Many hundreds of large
mussel-shells, rose-red and grass-green, were set in rows on either side, with a blue
flame burning in them that lighted up the whole hall and shone out through the walls,
so that the sea outside was all lit up. You could see all the innumerable fish, big and
little, swimming round the glass walls. The scales of some of them shone purple-red,
on others they shone like silver and gold. In the middle of the hall there flowed a
broad rapid stream, and on it mermen and mermaids danced to their own beautiful
singing. Such charming voices no one on earth possesses. The little mermaid sang the
most beautifully of them all, and they clapped their hands at her, and for a moment
she felt joy at her heart, for she knew that she had the loveliest voice of anyone on
earth or sea. But soon she began to think again about the world above her. She could
not forget the handsome Prince, and her own sorrow that she did not, like him,
possess an immortal soul. So she stole out of her father's palace, and while everything
there was song and merriment she sat sadly in her little garden. There she heard the
beating waves sounding down through the water, and she thought, sure, he is sailing
up there, he whom I love more than father or mother, he to whom my thoughts cling
and in whose hand I would lay the destiny of my life. I would risk everything to win
him and an immortal soul. While my sisters are dancing in my father's palace, I will
go to the old Sea Witch. I've always been dreadfully afraid of her, but it may be she
can advise me and help me.
So the little mermaid went off out of her garden, towards the roaring maelstrom
behind which the witch lived. She had never been that way before. No flowers grew
there, and no sea grass: only the bare grey sandy bottom stretched out round the
maelstrom, where the water whirled round like a roaring millwheel and swept
everything it caught hold of down with it into the deep. Right through those tearing
whirls she must go to enter the Sea Witch's domain, and here for a long way the only
path ran over hot bubbling mire which the Witch called her peat moss. Behind it lay
her house, in the middle of a hideous wood. All the trees and bushes of it were polypi,
half animal and half plant, which looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of
the ground. All their branches were long slimy arms with fingers like pliant worms,
and joint after joint they kept in motion from the root till the outermost tip.
Everything in the sea that they could grasp they twined themselves about, and never
let it go again. The little mermaid was in terrible fear as she stopped outside the
wood. Her heart beat with terror, and she almost turned back, but then she thought of
the Prince and of the human soul, and so she took courage. She bound her long
flowing hair close about her head, so that the polypi should not catch her by it; she
joined her two hands together on her breast, and darted along as a fish darts through
the water, in among the terrible polypi, which stretched out their pliant arms and
fingers after her. She saw that everyone of these held something it had caught, and
hundreds of little arms held it like strong bands of iron. Men who had been lost at sea
and had sunk deep down there, looked out, white skeletons, from among the arms of
the polypi. Rudders of ships and chests they held fast; skeletons of land beasts, and
even a little mermaid, which they had caught and killed. That, to her, was almost the
most frightful thing of all.
Now she came to a great slimy clearing in the wood, where large fat water-snakes
wallowed, showing their ugly whitey-yellow coils. In the centre of the clearing was a
house built of the white bones of men: there the Sea Witch sat, making a toad feed
out of her mouth, as we make a little canary bird eat sugar.
The hideous fat water-snakes she called her little chicks, and let them coil about over
her great spongy bosom.
"I know well enough what you want," said the Sea Witch, "and a silly thing, too; all
the same, you shall have your way, for it'll bring you to a bad end, my pretty Princess.
You want to be rid of your fish tail and have two props to walk on instead, like
humans, so that the young Prince may fall in love with you, and you may get him and
an immortal soul." With that the Witch laughed so loud and so hideously that the toad
and the snakes tumbled down on to the ground and wallowed about there. "You've
come just in the nick of time," said the Witch; "to-morrow after sunrise I couldn't
help you till another year came round. I shall make a drink for you, and with it you
must swim to the land before the sun rises, put yourself on the beach there, and drink
it up; then your tail will part and open into what men call pretty legs. But it'll hurt, it'll
be like a sharp sword going through you. Everybody that sees you will say you are
the prettiest human child they ever saw. You'll keep your swimming gait, and no
dancer will be able to float along like you. But every step you take will be as if you
were treading on a sharp knife, so that you would think your blood must gush out. If
you can bear all that, I will do what you wish."
"Yes," said the little mermaid, with a faltering voice; and she thought of the Prince
and of winning an immortal soul. "But remember," said the Witch, "when you've once
taken a human shape, you can never become a mermaid again, you can never go
down through the water to your sisters or to your father's palace; and if you don't win
the love of the Prince, so that for you he forgets father and mother, and clings to you
with all his thoughts, and makes the priest lay your hands in one another's, so that you
become man and wife, then you won't get your immortal soul. On the first morning
after he is married to anyone else, your heart will break and you will become foam on
"It is my wish," said the little mermaid, pale as a corpse.
"But I must be paid, too," said the witch, "and it's not a small matter that I require.
You have the loveliest voice of anyone down here at the bottom of the sea, and with it
no doubt you think you'll be able to charm him; but that voice you must give me. I
must have the best thing you possess as the price of my precious drink. I shall have to
give you my own blood in it, that the drink may be as sharp as a two-edged sword.
"But if you take away my voice," said the little mermaid, "what have I left?"
"Your beautiful form," said the witch, "and your floating gait, and your speaking
eyes: with them you can easily delude a human heart. What, have you lost courage?
Put out your little tongue, and I'll cut it off for the price, and you shall have the potent
"So be it," said the little mermaid, and the witch put her cauldron on the fire to boil
the magic drink. "Cleanliness is a good thing," said she, and scoured out the cauldron
with some snakes which she tied in a knot. Then she scratched herself in the breast
and let the black blood drip into the pot. The steam took the most dreadful shapes,
enough to fill one with fear and horror. Every moment the witch cast something
afresh into the cauldron, and when it was really boiling, the sound was like that of a
crocodile weeping. At last the drink was ready, and it looked like the clearest of
"There you are," said the witch, and cut off the tongue of the little mermaid. Now she
was dumb, she could neither sing nor speak.
"If the polypi should catch you when you are going back through my wood," said the
Witch, "just throw one drop of that drink on them, and their arms and fingers will
break into a thousand bits." But there was no need for the little mermaid to do that;
the polypi shrank back in fear before her when they saw the shining drink which
glittered in her hand as if it had been a twinkling star. So she passed quickly through
the wood, and the marsh, and the roaring maelstrom.
She could see her father's palace. The torches were quenched in the great ballroom.
No doubt everyone in there was asleep, but she dared not go to them now that she
was dumb and was going to leave them for ever. It seemed as if her heart must burst
asunder with sorrow. She stole into the garden and took one flower from each of her
sister's flower-beds, and blew on her fingers a thousand kisses towards the palace,
and rose up through the dark blue sea.
The sun was not yet up when she saw the Prince's palace, and clambered up the
stately marble steps. The moon was shining beautifully bright. The little mermaid
swallowed the sharp burning drink, and it was as though a two-edged sword was
piercing her delicate body: she swooned with the pain, and lay as one dead. When the
sun shone out over the sea, she awoke and felt a torturing pang, but right in front of
her stood the beautiful young Prince. He fixed his coal-black eyes on her, so that she
cast her own eyes down, and saw that her fish's tail was gone and that she now had
the prettiest small white legs that any young girl could have. But she was quite naked,
so she wrapped herself in her masses of long hair. The Prince asked who she was and
how she had come there, and she gazed at him sweetly and yet sadly with her dark
blue eyes, for she could not speak. Then he took her by the hand and led her into the
palace. Every step she took was, as the witch had warned her, as if she was treading
on pointed swords and sharp knives, yet she bore it gladly. Led by the Prince's hand,
she walked light as a bubble, and he and everyone else marvelled at her graceful
Costly robes of silk and muslin were put upon her, and she was the fairest of all in the
palace; but she was dumb and could neither speak nor sing. Beautiful slave girls clad
in silks and gold came forward and sang to the Prince and his royal parents. One sang
more sweetly than all the rest, and the Prince applauded her and smiled on her. Then
the little mermaid was sad, for she knew that she herself had sung far more sweetly;
and she thought: Oh! if he could but know that to be near him I have given my voice
away for ever!
Then the slave girls danced graceful floating dances to the noblest of music, and now
the little mermaid raised her pretty white arms and rose on tip-toe and floated over
the floor, and danced as none had ever yet danced. At every movement her beauty
grew yet more on the sight, and her eyes spoke more deeply to the heart than the song
of the slave girls.
Everyone was enraptured by it, and more than all, the Prince, who called her his little
foundling; and she danced again and again, though every time her foot touched the
ground it was as though she was treading on sharp knives. The Prince said that now
she should always be near him, and she was allowed to sleep outside his door on a
cushion of silk.
He had a boy's dress made for her, so that she might ride with him on horseback.
They rode through the sweet-smelling woods, where the green boughs brushed her
shoulders, and the little birds sang in the cover of the young leaves. With the Prince
she clambered up the high mountains, and though her delicate feet were cut so that
everyone could see, she only laughed, and followed him till they could see the clouds
beneath them like a flock of birds flying towards the distant lands.
At home at the Prince's palace, when at night all the others were asleep, she would go
out to the broad marble stairs, and it cooled her burning feet to stand in the cold sea
water, and then she thought about those who were down in the deeps below.
One night her sisters came up arm in arm, singing mournfully as they swam on the
water, and she beckoned to them, and they recognized her, and told her how sad she
had made them all. After that they visited her every night; and one night she saw far
out in the sea, the old grandmother, who had not been to the top of the water for many
a year; and the Sea King, with his crown on his head. They stretched their arms
towards her, but they dared not trust themselves so near the land as the sisters.
Day by day she grew dearer to the Prince: he loved her as one might love a dear good
child, but he never had a thought of making her his Queen: and his wife she must be,
or else she could never win an immortal soul, but on his wedding morning she would
turn into foam on the sea.
"Are not you fonder of me than of all the rest?" the little mermaid's eyes seemed to
say when he took her in his arms and kissed her fair brow. "Yes, you are dearest of all
to me," said the Prince, "for you have the best heart of them all. You are dearest to
me, and you are like a young maiden whom I saw once and certainly shall never meet
again. I was on a ship that was wrecked, and the waves drove me to land near a holy
temple where a number of young maidens ministered. The youngest of them found
me on the bank and saved my life. I saw her only twice. She was the only one I could
love in all the world, but you are like her, you almost stamp her likeness on my soul.
She belongs to that holy temple, and therefore my good fortune has sent you to me,
and we never will part." "Ah, he doesn't know that I saved his life," thought the little
mermaid. "I bore him over the sea, away to the grove where the temple stands; I sat
behind him in the foam and watched to see if anyone would come, and saw the pretty
maiden whom he loves more than me"; and the mermaid heaved a deep sigh. Weep
she could not: "'The maiden belongs to the holy temple,' he said; she will never come
out into the world: they will never meet again. I am with him, I see him every day. I
will tend him and love him and give up my life to him."
But now the Prince was to be married, people said, and to take the beautiful daughter
of the neighbouring king; and it was for that that he was fitting out such a splendid
ship. "They say, of course, that the Prince is going to travel to see the country of the
king next door, but it really is to see his daughter. He's to have a great suite with
him." But the little mermaid shook her head and laughed: she knew the Prince's mind
better than anyone else. "I must travel," he had said to her, "I must see the pretty
Princess; my father and mother require that, but they will not force me to bring her
home as my bride. I cannot love her. She is not like the fair maiden of the temple, as
you are. If ever I chose a bride it would be you first, my dumb foundling with the
speaking eyes." And he kissed her red lips and played with her long hair and laid his
head on her heart, so that it dreamed of man's destiny and an undying soul.
"You're not afraid of the sea, are you, my dumb child?" said he as they stood on the
splendid ship that was to bear them to the country of the neighbouring King. And he
told her of storms and calm, of strange fishes in the deep, and of what divers had seen
down there, and she smiled at his description, for, of course, she knew more than
anybody else about the bottom of the sea. In the moonlit night, when all but the
steersman were asleep, she sat on the gunwale of the ship and gazed down through
the clear water and fancied she saw her father's palace. On the summit of it stood the
old grandmother, with a crown of silver on her head, gazing up through the swift
current at the ship's keel. Then her sisters came up upon the water, and looked
mournfully at her and wrung their white hands. She beckoned to them and smiled,
and wanted to tell them that all was going well and happily with her; but then the
ship's boy came towards her, and the sisters dived down: so he thought the white arms
he had seen were foam on the sea.
Next morning the ship sailed into the harbour of the neighbouring King's fine city. All
the church bells rang out, and from the tall towers there came blaring of trumpets,
while the soldiers paraded with waving flags and glittering bayonets. Every day there
was a fete, balls and parties followed on one another; but as yet the Princess was not
there. She was being brought up far away in a sacred temple, they said, and there was
learning all royal accomplishments. At last she arrived.
The little mermaid waited, eager to see her beauty, and she had to confess that a more
graceful form she had never seen. The skin was so delicate and pure, and behind the
long dark eyelashes a pair of dark-blue beautiful eyes smiled out.
"It is you!" said the Prince, "you, who saved me when I lay like a corpse on the
shore!" and he clasped his blushing bride in his arms. "Oh, I am more than happy!"
he said to the little mermaid; "my dearest wish, the thing I never dared hope for, has
been granted me. You will rejoice in my happiness, for you are fonder of me than all
the rest"; and the little mermaid kissed his hand, and thought she felt her heart
breaking. His wedding morning would bring death to her, and would change her into
foam upon the sea.
All the church bells were ringing; the heralds rode about and proclaimed the
betrothal. On every altar fragrant oil was burning in precious silver lamps; the priests
swung their censers, and the bride and bridegroom joined hands and received the
blessing of the Bishop. The little mermaid, clad in silk and gold, stood holding the
bride's train; but her ears heard not the festal music, her eyes saw not the holy rite;
she thought, on the eve of her death, of all that she had lost in the world.
That very evening the bride and the bridegroom embarked on the ship, and the
cannons were fired and the flags waved, and amid-ship was raised a royal tent of gold
and purple with the loveliest of curtains, and there the married pair were to sleep in
that calm cool night.
The sails bellied in the wind, and the ship glided easily and with little motion, away
over the bright sea.
When it grew dark, variegated lamps were lit and the crew danced merry dances on
the deck. The little mermaid could not but think of the first time she rose up out of the
sea and saw that same splendour and merriment; and she too whirled about in the
dance, swerving as the swallow swerves when it is chased; and everyone was in
ecstasies of wonder at her: never before had she danced so wonderfully. Sharp knives
seemed to be cutting her delicate feet, but she hardly felt it: the wounds in her heart
were sharper. She knew that was the last night she would see him for whom she had
forsaken her race and her home, and given up her lovely voice, and daily had suffered
unending pain unknown to him. This was the last night that she would breathe the
same air as he, or see the deep ocean and the starlit heavens. An eternal night without
thought, without dream, awaited her who neither had a soul nor could win one.
But all was joy and merriment aboard the ship till long past midnight. She laughed
and danced with the thought of death in her heart. The Prince kissed his beautiful
bride, and she played with his black hair, and arm in arm they went to rest in the
It was still and quiet now on the ship: only the helmsman stood at the tiller. The little
mermaid laid her white arms on the bulwark and gazed eastward for the red of dawn:
the first ray of the sun, she knew, would kill her. Then she saw her sisters rise out of
the sea; they were pale as she, their beautiful long hair no longer fluttered in the
breeze: it had been cut off.
"We have given it to the witch to make her help us, that you may not die to-night. She
has given us a knife. Here it is! Do you see how sharp it is? Before the sun rises you
must plunge it into the Prince's heart, and when his warm blood gushes out upon your
feet, they will grow together into a fish tail and you will become a mermaid again,
and will be able to come down to us in the water and live out your three hundred
years before you turn into the dead salt sea foam. Make haste! He or you must die
before the sun rises. Our old grandmother has been mourning till her white hair has
fallen off as ours fell before the witch's shears. Kill the Prince and come back! Make
haste: do you not see the red band in the heavens? In a few minutes the sun will climb
into the sky, and then you must die'; and with a strange heavy sigh they sank beneath
The little mermaid drew aside the purple curtain of the tent and saw the beautiful
bride sleeping with her head on the Prince's breast, and she stopped and kissed him
on his fair brow, and looked at the sky where the red of the dawn was shining brighter
and brighter, looked at the sharp knife, and fixed her eyes again on the Prince, who in
his sleep was murmuring the name of his bride. She alone was in his thoughts, and
the knife quivered in the mermaid's hand—but then—she cast it far out into the
waves, and where it fell they shone red, and it seemed as if drops of blood spurted up
out of the water. Once more she gazed with a half-dying glance on the Prince, and
then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and felt that her body was dissolving
Now the sun ascended out of the sea, and his rays fell mild and warm upon the death-
cold foam, and the little mermaid felt no touch of death. She saw the bright sun, and
above her floated hundreds of lovely transparent forms. Through them she could see
the white sails of the ship and the rosy clouds in the sky. Their voices were as music,
but so ethereal that no human ear could hear it, just as no earthly eye could see them:
wingless, they floated by their own lightness through the air. The little mermaid saw
that she too had a body like theirs, which was rising further and further up out of the
"To whom am I coming?" said she, and her voice rang like that of the other beings, so
ethereally that no earthly music can re-echo its sound.
"To the daughters of the air," the others answered; "the mermaid has no immortal
soul, and can never gain one unless she wins the love of a mortal; it is on a power
outside her that her eternal being depends. The daughters of the air have no
everlasting soul either, but they can by good deeds shape one for themselves. We are
flying to the hot countries, where the stagnant air of pestilence kills men: there we
waft coolness, we spread the perfume of the flowers through the air and send men
new life and healing. When for three hundred years we have striven to do the good
we can, we receive an immortal soul and have a share in the everlasting happiness of
mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have striven for that too with all your heart; you
have suffered and endured and raised yourself into the world of the spirits of the air,
and you also, by good deeds, can shape for yourself an immortal soul in the space of
three hundred years."
And the little mermaid raised her bright arms towards God's sun, and for the first time
she felt the gift of tears.
On the ship there was stir and life again. She saw the Prince with his fair bride
seeking for her: in deep sorrow they gazed down into the bubbling foam as if they
knew she had cast herself into the waves. Unseen, she kissed the bride's forehead, and
on him she smiled and then soared upward with the other children of the air to a rose-
red cloud sailing in the heavens. "So, when three hundred years are over, we shall
float into the heavenly kingdom, and we may reach it yet sooner," whispered one of
them. "Unseen we float into the homes of men, where children are, and for every day
on which we find a good child that makes its parents happy and earns their love, God
shortens our time of trial. The child does not know it when we are flying through the
room; and when we smile on it in happiness, a year is taken from the three hundred.
But if we see a perverse and evil child, we have to weep in sorrow, and every tear we
shed adds a day to our time of trial."