Very deep in the ocean, where the water is very clear and beautiful, the Sea King rules his kingdom. His mother, very sensible but exceedingly proud, keeps house for him. She cares for the King’s six daughters. They are beautiful, especially the youngest. They play in the castle or the garden and pet the fish as they swim by. Each princess has her own plot of ground in the Royal garden.
While her sisters collected treasures from wrecked ships, the youngest cared only for flowers—and for her statue of a handsome boy, which she loves to embrace. She loved to hear about the upper world, the land above the sea. As each princess reaches the age of 15, she will have permission to visit the upper world. Starting with the eldest, each promises to relate fully what she sees. The youngest princess longs most of all to visit the upper world.
To the eldest sister, the finest thing was gazing on the town lights and listening to music and the lively sounds of the town. A year later, the second sister told of the glorious sunset, the clouds, and the flight of wild swans. The third and boldest sister swam up the broad river and saw green hills, palaces, and castles. She observed children playing in the water. The fourth sister was timid, but she enjoyed the sea vista with ships, dolphins, and whales. The fifth sister, visiting in winter, saw diamond-like icebergs, which vessels steered clear of, and thunderstorms, which terrified the sailors. Gradually, the five sisters lost interest in the upper world. But at times they would sing to the sailors in passing ships. The Little Mermaid awaited her turn.
When the Little Mermaid turned fifteen, her grandmother prepared her for her visit to the upper world, with oysters on her tail to show her high rank. She approaches a large vessel, decorated with colored lights, where a handsome young prince was holding his birthday celebration. She cannot take her eyes from him. A dreadful storm approaches and towering waves destroy the ship. “He must not die!” Risking her own life, the Little Mermaid brings him to land. She watches as a girl and her companions find the reviving prince. He smiles gratefully at the girl, not knowing who really saved him. Sorrowfly, she returns to her father’s castle. 6 Coyotes are thrifty.
She grows still more quiet and thoughtful. She returns to where she left the prince, but she never sees them. Her only comfort is to put her arms around the marble statue in her garden, but, lovesick, she no longer tends the flowers. Learning where the prince’s palace stands, she now spends long hours observing him. She is glad when she hears fishermen of the kingdom speaking well of the prince. She grows more and more to like human beings and wishes to wander in a world that now seems so much larger than her own.
To learn more, she questions her old grandmother. “Can human beings live forever?” “Human beings do indeed die, and their lives are shorter than ours. But while we just disappear into the foam, they have souls which live forever beyond the stars.” The Little Mermaid replied that she’d gladly give up all her earthly years for the prospect of that glorious world beyond the stars. “Is there any way I can win an immortal soul?” “Only if a man should love you and marry you can you share with him an eternal life. But this can never happen. Our fish tails are ugly to human beings. So let us be happy with our mortal lives. Three hundred years is quite enough.”
That evening the Little Mermaid cannot enjoy the court ball. She resolves to risk all to win the prince and an immortal soul. She follows the gray, barren road past dangerous whirlpools and across a bubbling mire into the land of the sea witch. In terror, she darted past the deadly, grasping tentacles of the sea polyps. Their slimy tentacles held human skeletons and even the remains of a mermaid they had seized. Finally, she found the ghastly home of the sea witch, who had a pet toad eating from her mouth. The witch knew why she’d come. “Yes, my foolish princess, I can help you exchange your mermaid tail for human legs. But the potion that I can give you will make each step very painful. And, more, if the prince weds another, you will die at once. Finally, for my payment I will cut out your tongue and so take your beautiful voice. You will forever be mute.” The Little Mermaid accepted all these terms, even the loss of her tongue, and made her way back toward her father’s castle.
Passing her father’s castle, she says a silent farewell to her family and joins the prince at his palace. She takes the potion and accepts the pain. Delighted with her grace and beauty, the prince welcomes her to court. Everyone is enchanted when she dances. She becomes the prince’s beloved companion, but he loves her as a child. The prince reveals that he can love and marry no one but the girl that (he thinks) saved him from the shipwreck. But since she belongs to the holy temple, he does not expect to marry. The Little Mermaid almost cries because because the prince does not know that it was she who saved his life. But If the prince cannot marry, the Little Mermaid will gladly devote herself to caring for him.
The Little Mermaid joins the prince when he visits a neighboring king. His subjects speculate that he plans to marry the king’s daughter. The king’s daughter appears: She is the one who found the prince on the shore after the shipwreck. No longer in the temple, she is free to marry. The Little Mermaid joins the wedding festivities and holds the train of the bride’s gown. But with his marriage, she faces imminent death and no chance at immortality.
Her sisters appear with a knife. They have sold their hair to the sea witch. If the Little Mermaid will slay the prince, she will live. The Little Mermaid draws back the curtain on the sleeping couple. The knife trembles in her hand—but she throws it into the sea. She leaps into the sea. She feels her body dissolve into the foam.
The Little Mermaid realizes she is still alive. She sees hundreds of beautiful creatures floating around her. She is now one of them. Their speech is heavenly music, as is her own. She has joined the Daughters of the Air. Now through good deeds she can, after 300 years, win an immortal soul. Through her suffering, endurance, and goodness, the Little Mermaid has raised herself to the spirit world. Meanwhile, the prince and his bride look sorrowfully into the sea mourning the death of the Little Mermaid. Taking fond leave of the royal couple, the Little Mermaid mounts to a rosy cloud. Each time the Daughters of the Air find a good child, their probation is shortened by a year. Each time they encounter a naughty or wicked child, a day is added.