“Every night when he says his prayers, he prays for the fairies, that they’ll be saved on the last day”—Eddie Lenihan, contemporary Irish storyteller
Why does the Little Mermaid want to become human? If you only know the Disney version, you’re missing great depth.
‘ “Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?” ’
The Little Mermaid wants a soul; she wants heaven and eternity; she wants God. She is happy in her beautiful underwater kingdom, but like all of us, she wants more.
Her goal is marriage with the prince because that is the mechanism by which she partakes in his conjoined soul. (The traditional notion of marriage as sacrament remains opaque to my own Protestant upbringing, so I may have to return to this idea at a later date.)
In my favorite faerie story, one of the Good Neighbors—(Themselves, the sidhe, the fey; it is discourteous to speak openly of the fairies)—either ask directly, or solicit a mortal to ask on their behalf: ‘ “Go and ask Father Horrigan to tell us whether our souls will be saved at the last day, like the souls of good Christians . . .” ’
The answer, like most folk stories, depends on the version, and the sensibilities of the teller. In some, the priest attempts to catechize them, but they persist in saying the Our Father “who wert in heaven . . .” In T. Crofton Croker’s tale of the Priest’s Supper (collected by Yeats), the priest tells his parishioner to go back to the Good Folk and tell them to ask the priest himself, directly. The terrified fairies scatter; it is inconceivable that they personally encounter God’s servant. Eddie Lenihan’s contemporary variant has an implicit negative, with the fallen beings murdering the responding priest in rage or retaliation. Thereafter, the Bishop advises his priests to give an equivocal reply: “That won’t be known till the end o’ time, till the Last Day.”
Why do these mythological characters long for an immortal soul?
To be sure, folklorically, sociologically, the question expresses the anxieties and ambivalences of the storyteller and his audience: it is we humans who want to find out about our own eternal destinies. The storyteller is projecting, or expressing, cultural concerns through the story.
Yet—perhaps it is my inner child who wishes all fairy stories were literally, and not merely metaphorically, true—I always approach these tales with a what if wonder, with the same suspension of disbelief I extend to a good novel in which the fictional world can become more real than so-called reality.
I am Irish enough in this: Do I believe in fairies? No, not really. (clap, clap, clap.) All the same, I’m not cutting down that thorn tree or leveling that barrow. I want the supernatural world to exist.
Today, we have humans longing to be supernatural creatures. We have LARPs (live action role playing) with people dressing up as werewolves and vampires, wearing black, running and playing games throughout the streets of our towns and cities. I have seen self-proclaimed vampires on talk shows, some of whom have fanged dental implants and who, so they claim, actually drink blood. In today’s modern world, humans wish to become other, but in the traditional stories, it is the creature who with jealousy longs to be human. And not merely human: mortal (even to embrace the slings and arrows of uncomprehended pain) and, moreover, mortal-as-eternal: in unity, or potential unity, with God.
Perhaps the mythological creatures know that which we humans have forgotten: that we were created for union with God—and not merely in the afterlife, but here and now.
May we each live our lives like a faerie: enjoying the pleasures of each day while striving for eternity, in touch with the supernatural and aware of our transformed-otherworldly nature, mindful of the end of time and longing for the immortality which is union with God.
Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” Available online through Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/27200/27200-h/27200-h.htm#li_merma
“The Annotated Little Mermaid.” Sur La Lune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/littlemermaid/index.html (An all around excellent site for all things fairy tale related.)
Croker, T. Crofton. “The Priest’s Supper.” Available online through the Internet Sacred Texts Archive, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/fip06.htm
Lenihan, Eddie. Meeting The Other Crowd: the Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland. N.Y.: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnum, 2003.
Panzer, Dori. “Eddie Lenihan: A Storyteller in Modern Ireland.” Expedition, Vol. 46 n. 1 University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthroplogy. http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/46-1/Storyteller.pdf
Yeats, W. B. ed., The Book of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. Available online through the Internet Sacred Texts Archive. (essentially a reprint of the Croker indicated above.) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/index.htm