Be forewarned, my English major is about to show big time. That being said, today we’re looking at Disney’s The Little Mermaid. That’s right, the classic animated film of the late 80s based on the children’s tale by Hans Christian Andersen. At least, that’s what they want you to think. You see, The Little Mermaid is actually based on a different story, the story you all know even if you know nothing about it: the legend of Faust.
If the name doesn’t bring the tale to mind, the term Faustian Contract will. Everyone has heard stories of the Devil going around making deals with people in exchange for their souls. Well, the original is the tale of Dr. Faust, most notably chronicled in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. And many years later, it was turned into a kids’ film by Disney (who better to cash in on deals with the Devil?). Not convinced? Read on . . .
At first glance, Ariel is a rebellious teenager who wants to run away with her boyfriend she’s only known for five minutes. But she’s a Disney princess of the Silver Age; she’s not allowed to be that shallow. What she really wants is knowledge, specifically knowledge of a world forbidden to her. She has studied the human world from shipwrecks and lost artifacts, but she still has questions that can only be answered by experiencing life on the surface. And hey, when the answer to your burning questions is a handsome prince, what sixteen-year-old girl is going to turn the guy down?
Dr. Faust is also looking for knowledge of a forbidden world: the world of magic. He has exhausted everything science and religion can offer, so now he studies the dark arts. But he still longs for greater knowledge that can only be gained by experience. And hey, when the answer to your questions is a nearly all-powerful demonic servant, what power-hungry scholar is going to turn the guy down?
Ariel makes her deal with Ursula the sea witch, while Faust makes his with the demon Mephistopheles. Both get their desires in exchange for their souls (in other words, both belong to the people currently serving them). Both have a way out of the deal: Ariel has to get a kiss from her prince, and Faust has to repent of his sins and seek God’s forgiveness. But neither one takes advantage of the loophole. Sure, they consider it, Ariel more seriously than Faust, but both are too busy chasing their other desires. Ariel explores the human world, making new discoveries every day, and Faust uses the vast powers of his demonic slave to play petty tricks on people and insult the pope. In the end, despite Ariel’s and Faust’s final efforts to break the deal, the devil comes to collect from both. Of course, the hero can’t lose in a Disney film, so Ariel’s bondage to Ursula is only temporary. Faust is not so lucky; he gets ripped limb from limb by a horde of demons and spends eternity in Hell.
So one is the tragedy of a scholar who gets too close to evil in the search for knowledge and power, and the other is a happy little adventure with a mermaid, a prince, an evil octopus woman and a Jamaican crab. But they have more in common than you might think. So if you’re thinking about summoning a demon or making a deal with the Devil, take a lesson from these two and don’t. Your life will be much less complicated.
The Little Mermaid is owned by Disney.