The Little Mermaid in Plato’s Cave

Reading Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” after seeing the Disney movie can make it feel like the Christian references were awkwardly tacked on to a story that really has nothing to do with Christianity. But if we read it from a Christian perspective, it’s astonishingly beautifully crafted. Andersen uses transitions from darkness to light and from depth to height to depict a Christian journey into ultimate reality.

In Andersen’s version of the story, the titular little mermaid has always been enthralled by the world above and by the prince. But it’s only when she learns that human beings have immortal souls that she visits the sea witch in order to become human. Her goal in marrying the prince is not only love but also the acquisition of an immortal soul, which — according to legend — could be granted to a soulless being through the sharing of two souls in holy matrimony as performed by a priest. This, of course, puts the mermaid in a terrible situation, because in order to strive for heaven she must also strive for the intermediate earthly goal of marrying a human being. This is the central conflict of the story.

The story contains three physical strata, corresponding symbolically to spiritual strata: the ocean, land, and the heavens. The grandmother summarizes these strata: “Human beings . . . have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to dust. It rises up through the clean, pure air beyond the glittering stars. As we rise out of the water, and behold all the land of earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see.” The mermaid longs to go to what she calls the ‘upper world,” to “fly over the sea in ships, and mount the high hills which were far above the clouds” and one day attain “that glorious world above the stars.”

The grandmother tells the mermaid about the world above.

The story progresses through these three strata, beginning with the mermaid trapped in the depths of the ocean, proceeding to her visiting land and eventually living there, and concluding with her existence as a Daughter of the Air. But the story is made complicated by the mermaid’s need to travel through the stratum of land in order to reach the stratum of heaven.

The deepest stratum, the ocean, is introduced to us right away in terms of its depth. Andersen describes it in the first sentence as “very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above.” Lest we forget its depth, we are then told that the palace is at the very deepest spot of all and that the mermaid’s eyes are as blue as the deepest sea. The word “deep” is repeated throughout the story, particularly in connection with the death of sailors through the temptation of mermaid song and with the dark, fathomless nature of the sea.

The sea is thus not only literally deep but also a low spiritual point. Here the mermaid has no chance at eternal life, and she only sees, so to speak, through a mirror dimly. She yearns to know what lies above the waters, but she is at first not even permitted above water. She can only see the stars “faintly,” as well as a “black cloud” that could be either a ship or a whale. When her eldest sister goes above, she looks up through the “dark blue water” and imagines that she could hear church bells, even “down in the depths of the sea.” The dark depths of the sea thus prevent her from accessing a symbol of the spiritual realm, and symbolically prevent her from accessing spiritual salvation itself.

The first indication that the mermaid yearns for more than her dark, deep underwater existence is in her love of the sun. She plants a garden of red flowers in the shape of the sun, and we are told that she “cared for nothing but her pretty red flowers, like the sun” — except, that is, for the marble statue of a human being which stands in her garden.

If we analyze the story in terms of its strata of ocean, land, and heaven, it is telling that the mermaid’s garden contains elements from both land and heaven. The sun is a perfect symbol for the spiritual salvation she yearns for. Symbolically, in Christianity, the sun represents the radiance and glory of Christ and the power of the light of good over the darkness of evil; fire, too, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and light of Jesus Christ, and both these aspects of the sun are emphasized through the story. Physically, the sun is in the heavens, far from the depths of the ocean. It is described as red and associated with light and fire, which is the polar opposite of the deep, dark, blue, cold, watery world within which the mermaid resides. And Andersen sets up the image of the sun in a manner evocative of Plato’s allegory of the cave and the quest for ultimate reality (which was, of course, tremendously influential on Christianity):

“Outside the castle there was a beautiful garden, in which grew bright red and dark blue flowers, and blossoms like flames of fire; the fruit glittered like gold, and the leaves and stems waved to and fro continually. The earth itself was the finest sand, but blue as the flame of burning sulphur. Over everything lay a peculiar blue radiance, as if it were surrounded by the air from above, through which the blue sky shone, instead of the dark depths of the sea. In calm weather the sun could be seen, looking like a purple flower, with the light streaming from the calyx.”

Here everything is distorted, as one might expect in an underwater world. The flowers are like “flames of fire,” the fruit like “gold,” the earth like “the flame of burning sulphur” — all images of light or flame. By contrast with this, the sun is made bluer through the waves, until it looks like “a purple flower.” The flowers look like flames, and the sun looks like a flower! As in Plato’s cave, the shadow reality of the world underneath looks more real than the world above. But the mermaid, like Plato’s hero, yearns for the sun.

This is made complicated by the intermediate stratum of the land, which is represented in her garden by the marble statue of a human being. A marble statue is a curious choice for Andersen here, because marble statues are essential parts of Christian religious iconography. It is common to see marble statues of Jesus or Mary in churches. The mermaid’s relationship to this statue — the way she displays it prominently in her garden as a symbol of her deepest yearning and cares for almost nothing else — is indeed almost like worship. But the statue is, in the end, just a rock in the shape of an ordinary person. Immediately after being introduced to the statue, we are told about its “shadow” and how it “seemed as if” it was kissing the tree. Tracking the images of light and clarity of perception here, it seems we are back in Plato’s cave.

The mermaid in shadow with her statue

When the mermaid finally comes to the surface of the water, the primary images are quite similar to the icons in her garden. She sees the prince, whom she comes to compare to the statue in her garden. She also sees light (clouds of “crimson and gold”; “glimmering twilight”; “evening star”; “colored lanterns”; “great suns” that “spurted fire about”; and “fireflies”). And this light is connected to clarity of perception: she can look in through “clear glass window-panes”; the lights are reflected in the “clear, calm sea”; and the ship is “so brightly illuminated” that everything “could be distinctly and plainly seen.” Even the night air is “clear.”

We are told explicitly that the sun has just set before the mermaid comes to the surface. She has not, as yet, experienced the true brilliance of the sun. But she does see light in a way that she had never experienced beneath the ocean. Most of her sisters have retreated into the ocean out of fear of the world above. The little mermaid, too, is afraid when she sees the fireworks as “bright as day,” and she dives back into the water. But then, unlike her fearful sisters, she faces the light and comes back to the surface. In this moment she feels “as if all the stars of heaven were falling around her,” a foreshadowing of the spiritual importance of her choice to return to the light above her.

The prince is an important part of her spiritual journey. As she saves him from sinking into the depths of the sea, he is an opportunity for her to practice virtue and to experience love. Yet he is, ultimately, just a human being — and one she comes dangerously close to worshiping. She wraps her arms around the statue that reminds her of him, but stops tending the flowers that represented the sun, until her garden becomes “dark and gloomy.” Thus the human who stands in between her realm and the realm of heaven distracts her from the light of heaven.

And ultimately, he cannot give her the salvation she ultimately desires. He is merely a human prince, not the Prince in heaven, despite the marble statue of him. And the narrative itself depicts him as almost Christlike in how he is described as “coming to life again” when she saves him. She “suffered unheard-of daily pain for him,” as if she were an ascetic suffering for Christ. The mermaid has confused the human world — her waystation toward heaven — with heaven itself. Dazzled by humans’ seeming ability to travel “far above the clouds” and by the prince “on whom her wishes depend,” she cannot see this human for what he is: a mere human.

And so the mermaid sacrifices everything for the hope that this one human being may love her. Her visit with the devilish sea witch is frightening and Faustian in tone, yet the content is opposite: she is sacrificing temporary pleasure in order to gain an immortal soul. The fact that she deals with a witch in hopes of entering heaven reflects her difficult predicament whereby she must pass through the earthly world in order to gain entrance to heaven.

Once on land and with the prince, we enter Plato’s cave again. We are told that “the sun had not risen” when she first comes ashore. She cannot speak or communicate. The prince marries another woman because of a case of mistaken identity. Nothing is clear now.

Finally, the sun returns to the story. At sunrise, the mermaid will die, unless she kills the prince during the night. She sacrifices herself for his life, and by so doing, in a scene brilliantly illuminated by the morning sun, she is finally able to begin ascending to the stratum of heaven, not through a man’s soul but through treating a human being with love and with virtue.

The mermaid’s righteous sacrifice, illuminated by the sun

But the ending is ambivalent. She does not go to heaven straight away, but rather becomes a “daughter of the air” who earns a soul by her good deeds toward human beings. Her time may be lengthened and shortened by the actions of human beings. It seems that, for Andersen, there is no path to heaven except through this plane of mundane reality. Human beings are no substitute for the divine, but love and connection to other human beings is the way we come to salvation and to ultimate reality. The mermaid’s tale, then, is ultimate our tale as well. Like her, we must pass through the mundane reality of this world, in all its imperfection, to have a hope of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven.

The quotes in this piece were taken from the 1872 translation by H.P. Paull.