Themes of Sacrifice

The Little Selkie has been out now for about two weeks, so it’s theme time! Whenever I adapt a fairy tale I study the original (which we have done) and decide where I will depart from it (which I discussed a little bit in the previous post) and I take a look at the original fairy tale’s theme. NOTE: BEWARE, SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Hans Christian Andersen tale is conflicted. The “moral” happens in the last five lines of the story, when the Little Mermaid turns into a daughter of the air and is told she can perform good deeds to earn her soul. Morever, there’s a fair bit of manipulation as the other daughters of the air tell the newly transformed mermaid that her years of service can be shortened/lengthened by the behavior of children. (Clearly this was supposed to motivate kids to act better.) This is somewhat set up by the conversation the Little Mermaid has with her grandmother, when they discuss how mermaids cannot go to heaven because they lack souls.

It feels a little slap-dash in its delivery, so some readers believe the Little Mermaid is a cautionary tale, and that it is meant to show people that they should remain in their station and not love above their level. As the Little Mermaid was written in 1836 and published in 1837, this probably mirrored society at the time. However, others say that the Little Mermaid is meant to encourage risk on behalf of love, as it is the Little Mermaid’s selfless actions that give her the opportunity to earn her soul as a daughter of the air.

The Little Mermaid is the first fairy tale I have adapted that didn’t have a clear or even hidden moral–besides the attempt to bribe kids into good behavior, which I wasn’t going to even try to pull off. Needless to say, I was more than a little at loss for the theme I would paint with my story. I read the Little Mermaid several times before it finally hit me that I could take an aspect of the story that is often glossed over, and enlarge on it: sacrifice for the sake of love.

The Little Mermaid is filled with small, glancing references to sacrifice for the sake of love, but the big two I’m going to go over today are found in the same part of the story–almost in the same paragraph. Example 1: The Little Mermaid’s sisters love her so much they cut off their hair in order to purchase an escape for her. Remember, this was 1837. Fantasy or not, women simply did not have short hair. Sheering off their hair would have been a major social no-no, but they did it for their sister. Example 2: The Little Mermaid refuses to use the dagger to kill the prince–which would have let her turn back into a mermaid. Killing a guy because he doesn’t love you might sound drastic, but remember that the Little Mermaid is playing with fire. Since the prince loves another she is going to die, and because she doesn’t have a soul that means she isn’t just dying, she’s disappearing forever–unlike the prince with his human soul. Even with those steep consequences, the Little Mermaid refuses to kill the prince, sacrificing herself for his happiness.

Because I wasn’t interested in creating a story that had a sad ending, or a story that hinged on Dylan being obsessed with Callan, I couldn’t use those exact examples. Instead, I decided to borrow the spirit of sacrifice for the sake of love. From the start of the story Dylan is perfectly willing to sacrifice herself. She has her voice sealed so she cannot be weaponized–granted it was an impulsive decision and wasn’t the best option, but she does it because she wants to protect her family and the ocean. By the end of the book she has grown in character so while she’s still impulsive, she is no longer as arrogant, and she’s willing to make what is, in her mind, the greatest sacrifice ever and save the landers in the Summer Palace in exchange for Jarlath ruining her pelt. This is basically the second example I mentioned above, slightly twisted. (Think about it, instead of Dylan having the knife it is Jarlath who has it and uses it, forever exiling Dylan to her human body/making her unable to return to the sea in her sea lion body.)

The most important part of the original Little Mermaid is that she refuses to kill the prince and sacrifices herself. Dylan’s selkie story is quite different, but has a similar flavor because she also refuses to let Callan be killed, and in exchange sacrifices her life as she knows it. Still, there is a bright note in Dylan’s life. The kelpie is (reluctantly) grateful to her, and while such a creature cannot be tamed, it could be befriended…

And on that note be sure to check back in on a few days. As I know quite a few of my readers are mothers, I’m going to put up a new short story for Mother’s Day, and it may or may not be about Dylan and the kelpie. Enjoy the week, Champions, and thank you for reading!

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