The Little Mermaid & Peter Pan

Dark Origins Behind Disney's Fairy Tales Part I: 'The Little Mermaid & Peter Pan'

By: Domonique Salberg

There are endless fascinating things about the history of Disney and how it became the not only paramount but adored business it is today, by children and adults alike. It is a company that has left an irremovable impression on the world and our hearts. However, for some or many, the origins of their favorite tales are unknown, and ironically too gruesome for children; as with the enchanting stories of The Little Mermaid (1989), Peter Pan (1953), Cinderella (1950), Tangled (2010), Snow White (1937), and Pinocchio (1940) which were all inspired by folklore. What several of these popular Disney fairy tales have in common are their first known introductions were recorded by the publishers, Brothers Grimm.

Who were German academics, philologists, cultural researchers, and authors who together collected and published folklore during the 19th century. Without them, we may not have some of the princesses, magical creatures, and settings we have come to enjoy for several decades. Fortunately, these stories inspired one of animation’s pioneer’s Walt Disney, to reimagine them through the lens of adolescence and remove the cruelty and violence emblematic of the enduring popular folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm.

The Little Mermaid

“When you have reached your fifteenth year,” said the grand-mother, “you will have permission to rise up out of the sea, to sit on the rocks in the moonlight, while the great ships are sailing by; and then you will see both forests and towns.” 

-Hans Christian, The Little Mermaid, 1837

The Little Mermaid (1837), or the original title “Den lile havfrue,” was created in Denmark by author Hans Christian Andersen. It follows the journey of a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea as a mermaid to gain a human soul. Much to the Disney version, she saves the prince (he does not see her) and then what initiates her desire to become human. Both visit a sea witch, longing for an everlasting life with the prince, and exchange their voice for a potion which gives them legs (and a human soul in the original).

The witch then warns once she becomes human, returning to the sea will be impossible. However, the price is, she will continuously feel as if she is walking on sharp knives and warns a soul can only be obtained if she wins his love and hand in marriage, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. If she should fail and the prince marries someone else, she will dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.

Once she drinks the potion, it feels like a sword is piercing through her body, causing her to pass out naked near the palace, the prince finds her and is mesmerized by her beauty and grace. They become good friends. Time passes, and the prince is encouraged to marry a neighboring princess, but instead professes he loves another princess, whom he believes is the one that rescued him. They marry, much to the little mermaid’s dismay. Awaiting death, her sisters rise from the sea and present her with a dagger that the sea witch gave them in exchange for their long beautiful hair.

Instructed, if she stabs the prince with the dagger, she will be a mermaid once more. Rejecting this, she throws herself off the ship, only to dissolve into foam; but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warm sun and discovers she was turned into an ethereal earthbound spirit, a daughter of the air. Thus, other daughters of the air saved her because of her selflessness. Giving her a chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds for humanity for 300 years, then one day rise up into heaven.

Peter Pan/Pied Piper of Hamelin

“As a rule /
I refrain from calling any man a fool. Heed me now. /
I’ll wait until yon clock strikes the hour. /
Don’t let me go away /
Without my pay.”
-Robert Browning, Pied Piper of Hamelin 1842

A more straightforward story, then the first, Pied Piper of Hamelin, written by Robert Browning in 1842, is actually a poem. Inspiring Disney’s character Peter Pan, Pied Piper of Hamelin is a legend derived from the town of Hamelin Lower Saxony, Germany, dating back to the Middle Ages. The poem describes a piper in 1284 dressed in multicolored (“pied”) clothing, who was a rat-catcher hired by the town Mayor to lure rats away with his magic pipe. Once the rats are lured into the Weser River and drowned, the citizens refuse to pay this service. The mayor even goes so far as to blame the piper for bringing the rats himself in an extortion attempt. He retaliates by using his instrument’s magical power on their children, leading them away as he had the rats while the adults were in a church.

It should be noted; he eerily returned dressed in green like a hunter playing his pipe. Maybe that is how Peter Pan got his green costume? Doing so, he enticed 130 children to follow him into a cave and were never seen again. Nevertheless, depending on the version, although this is one of the more popular of the recordings, one to three children were left behind: one was deaf and could not hear the music, the second disabled and could not follow quickly enough, and the last was blind and therefore unable to see where to go. These three informed the adult villagers in the church of the missing children who were never to be seen again.

Interesting fact: The children are believed to have been last seen on the street Bungelosenstrasse. To this day, music or dancing is not allowed on this street.

Part II: Cinderella & Rapunzel
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