Carol S. Pearson’s bestselling book “The Hero Within” combines insights from literature, anthropology and psychology to distinguish six heroic archetypes. Taking both Hans Christian Andersen’s and Disney’s versions ‘The Little Mermaid’ as case studies, this blogpost shall identify archetypes from Pearson’s Heroic Myth Index that can be traced in the main character.
An archetype is a typical example of something. The concept of ‘archetypes’ in psychology was brought about by Carl Gustav Jung who used the concept in his theory of the human psyche. According to Jung, archetypes were found within the collective unconscious of people. Archetypes symbolise some of the most basic human motivations and as such the concept has often been adopted by authors so as to help their writing have a universal acceptance. Archetypes help the audience to visualise the characters in the story, to relate with the characters and even identify with the situations presented in the story from a social and cultural point of view (Frye, 1951).
Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ embodies the archetype of the seeker from the onset of the story. She exhibits an intense desire to leave her known environment in her father’s kingdom and explore the surface of the sea and the land where the human’s leave (Wahlstrom, 1999). The long time that she has to wait to become of age and the stories shared by her sisters make her yearn even more to go to the surface of the sea (Andersen, 1971). She also takes on the archetype of the lover. The little mermaid shows the heights that she would go to so as to be with her beloved prince. She is willing to give up her life as a mermaid and even her voice so that she can be with the prince. She shows energy and passion in getting the prince to love her. The last archetype that is evident from Andersen’s Little Mermaid is the creator. As a creator, the little mermaid had the most beautiful garden among her sisters. She planted pretty red flowers therein and had a marble statue of a handsome boy carved out of white stone as the object of her care.
Disney’s version of the little mermaid is perhaps more popular than the original story by Hans Christian Andersen. The animated movie, like any other Disney productions, end in a happily ever after scene where the Little Mermaid dubbed Ariel gets to marry the object of her love, the prince (Trites, 1991). This is unlike in Andersen’s version where she is heartbroken and ends up taking her own life to become one of the daughters of the air. Because of the many sacrifices she makes, she is the heroine in the movie (Woodside & Sood, 2016). This movie adaptation, like Andersen’s original version, uses several archetypes for the character Ariel so as to allow the audience to relate with the production at a personal level.
Right from the onset of the movie, Ariel’s innocence is evident. She is spontaneous and trusting like a child (Pearson, 2016). Her optimism allows her to be able to sacrifice her tail for human legs and venture into the human world to make the prince whom she had rescued fall in love with her. She pays for her legs with her voice – the only identity marker that the prince would have used to recognise her. She is naïve and childish and the prince loves her the way he can love a child. Ariel embodies the archetype of the caregiver when she rescues the prince from the shipwreck. As a caregiver, she is driven by compassion and stays to watch over the prince until he is helped by other humans (Pearson, 1991). She comes to the surface of the sea everyday so as to watch him as well. Towards the end of this movie adaptation, Ariel embodies the archetype of the sage when she takes matters into her own hands to prevent the witch Ursula from getting married to the prince. She has her friends find and crack the shell that the witch had trapped her voice in and reveals her identity to the prince. This archetype was also described in William Perry’s nine-stage model of cognitive development in college students. Following this model, in the end of the movie, Ariel and her prince arrive at stage D7 – the commitment. This last stage in the personal development of our heroine Ariel, was unavoidable for Disney as the remediation gave the myth a classical fairy-tale ending: a wedding between the prince and the princess.
Thus, in the Andersen version the little mermaid resonates with Pearson’s archetypes of the seeker, the lover and the creator. These are archetypes also associated with many (mainly male) hero’s in myths and fairy tales. However, in Disney’s version of the tale, she is characterised by being innocent, a caregiver and a sage, aspects that less resemble the traditional hero, the character described in Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, but seem to be more about the description of the perfect wife. Personally, I think of this re-characterisation as a loss. And for the 21st century, I would prefer a new archetype: our little mermaid as a divine trickster.