Mermans and Mermaids

Hans Christian Andersen was an ugly duckling who tried all his life to become a swan. Born in Denmark in 1805, his childhood was dominated by poverty, mismatched parents, and an ambiguous sexual identity. Attracted to both men and women, for a while he focused his emotional attention on Edvard Collin, the son of his benefactor.

“Agnete and the Merman”, a traditional Danish folktale, tells how one day while Agnete is walking by the sea, a merman jumps out of the water and proposes to her.  Impulsively, Agnete accepts and goes to live with him in the sea where the couple have several merbabies. All goes well until Agnete hears the village church bells ringing. Impulsively, she returns on land for a visit but, having her feet back on the ground once again, Agnete decides to stay and not go back to her merfamily.

Andersen rewrote the folktale in the form of a love poem and sent it to Collin. For Andersen, the story of Agnete was that of “the never satisfied longing of the heart, its wondrous yearning for a new, different way of being”. Collin, instead, greatly criticized Andersen’s efforts saying that the poem was trivial, childish and desperately misshapen.

To escape his disappointment and overwhelming feeling of loneliness, Andersen decided to travel. In Rome, from 1833 to 1834, Andersen lived at via Sistine 104, in between the Spanish Steps and the Fountain of Piazza Barberini. Here he began “The Improvisatore”, the novel that would make him famous in Denmark. The novel begins with a description of Bernini’s Fountain with its Triton calming the waters by blowing on his conch shell.

Fontana del Tritone

Triton, Poseidon’s son, is half man, half fish. In other words, a merman like the one in the story of Agnete”. But Rome has mermaids, too, such as that of Piazza Navona’s Fountain of Neptune.

A couple of years after living in Rome and learning of Collin’s wedding engagement, Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid”. It’s a story about how a mermaid falls in love with a prince after saving his life. In order to be able to follow him on land, she gets a magic potion from a sea witch that will transform her tail into legs. But it will also make her mute.

The prince finds the Little Mermaid and finds her amusing but certainly is not in love with her. Instead he falls in love with and marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom.  The Little Mermaid’s sisters arrive with a magic knife and tell their sister to kill the prince then pour his blood on her human legs so she can become a mermaid again and go back to the sea with her family and live another 300 years. But the Little Mermaid’s love for the prince keeps her from killing him. Instead she throws herself and the knife into the sea. The water starts turning red and the Little Mermaid starts turning into foam. Then suddenly she hears voices telling her that she will be rewarded for having spared the prince’s life. Instead of turning into foam, she’ll turn into air. And this will give her a chance to do good deeds so that one day she can go to the Kingdom of God.

In other words, “The Little Mermaid” is a form of gruesome religious propaganda disguised as child entertainment.  Love is not joy but self-sacrifice to earn your way into Heaven.

I find Andersen’s fairy tales spooky and disquieting. His paper cut outs are much more entertaining. Before TV and internet, people use to entertain themselves in other ways and one way Andersen kept himself entertained was by making paper cut outs. He would carry a pair of scissors in his pocket. Often invited to social gatherings, he would tell stories while making these silhouettes then give them away.

“Paper cutting is the prelude to writing” he once wrote.

Paper Cutting

One of Andersen’s paper cuts greatly resembles those sculpted figures of a woman hold her fish tails often found on Romanesque capitals. The important Colonna family of Rome used this figure as their emblem because the siren defied the tempests.

The Sirenca

Andy Warhol was enchanted by Andersen’s paper silhouettes and a year before he died did a series of screen prints based on them.

Anderson & Warhol

Make believe is often a form of survival.


To read more about Andersen: Hans Christian Andersen : The Life of a Story Teller by Jackie Wullschläger on



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