The other night, Jim and I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo.
I’ll admit, when I picked up the DVD, it almost went back unwatched when I read: “Inspired by the Classic Hans Christian Andersen Story ‘The Little Mermaid.’” I have nothing against “The Little Mermaid,” but those of you who know Miyazaki’s work know that he’s not above telling some pretty sad stories. For those of you who are only familiar with the Disney adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” I’ll note that the original Hans Christian Andersen story is anything but a happy tale.
No. I’m not going to slam the Disney version. I enjoyed it and think the softening of Andersen’s tale was appropriate given Disney’s target audience. Nor am I going to provide spoilers for Ponyo beyond what is absolutely unavoidable.
Instead, I want to tell you about a really cool insight I had when I was explaining to Jim why Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is not the usual “happily ever after” fairytale.
Here, best as I can recall, is my brief summary of the original story:
The little mermaid – she’s the youngest of six, by the way – is obsessed with the upper world. In a sense, even before she meets her prince, she’s in love with the idea of him, because of a statue of a human youth she has in her garden. When the little mermaid rescues the prince from a shipwreck, her obsession grows to the point that she can’t stop thinking about him.
Even when the little mermaid is told that as a mermaid she’ll live 300 years, she’s willing to trade everything for her prince. Incidentally, she’s also told that the love of a human will give her a soul, but although this has some appeal, it’s the prince she wants.
The little mermaid goes to the sea witch and trades her voice for legs, even though she’s warned that every step she takes will feel like knives are cutting into her. Moreover, the sea witch warns the little mermaid that if the prince weds another, the little mermaid will die and vanish into sea foam.
Despite ample warnings, the little mermaid makes the bargain. She finds her way to the prince. He, however, is already in love – and like her what he loves is an idea. In his case, he’s in love with the girl he believes saved him from the shipwreck, a girl who is consecrated to a temple. He keeps the former mermaid by him mostly because she reminds him of this other girl.
The ending is tragic. The prince is betrothed. When he meets his betrothed, he discovers that she’s the girl from the temple. Apparently, she’d only been signed on for a limited period of service. Of course, the prince is delighted to have his dream come true. He marries her happily… And the little mermaid, having given up everything to live for a brief time in continual pain, vanishes into foam.
There’s more to the story, but I’ll get back to that in a second. What hit me as I was telling Jim this version of the story was the realization that I was pretty sure I knew what story Andersen had been adapting for his tale – the story of Ariadne of Crete and her tragic love for Theseus of Athens.
Like the little mermaid, Ariadne gives up everything for Theseus. She tells him how to solve the Labyrinth (thus saving his life) and helps him to escape Crete. She is willing to go with him into an alien land (giving up her royal title and “voice”). There’s even a sea link, since Crete is an island kingdom, so symbolically Ariadne belongs to the water.
On the isle of Naxos, Theseus abandons Ariadne. There are various versions why he does this. In some versions, he simply forgets. In others, he has a dream that he should leave her. What is important is the core of the story – a woman gives up everything for a man who cannot recognize how much she loves him.
The story of Ariadne has other successors than just Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” One of these is that of Siegfried and Brunhilde. Those of you who’ve seen Ponyo may recall that “Brunhilde” is Ponyo’s original name. Clearly Miyazaki was very aware of this theme of rejection of the lover by the beloved.
At the end of both the story of Ariadne and that of the Little Mermaid, the faithful girl gets a consolation prize. In some versions of Ariadne’s tale, the god Dionysos claims her as his bride. And the little mermaid? She gets a promotion in the spiritual hierarchy. From a soulless mermaid, she becomes one of the a “daughters of the air” – creatures which themselves are soulless, but have a chance to win a soul for themselves (whereas mermaids can only gain a soul if a mortal loves them).
I promised no spoilers for Ponyo, but I will say that while Miyazaki is clearly aware of all these traditions, he gives the story his own twist. It’s one I liked very much, especially since, the more I thought about it, the more depth I found in the waters in which little Ponyo swims.