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by hans christian andersen.
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Age Rating 10 plus.
FAR out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest
cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep,
indeed, that no cable could sound it, and many church steeples, piled
one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface
of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.
We must not imagine that there is nothing at the bottom of the sea but
bare yellow sand. No, indeed, for on this sand grow the strangest
flowers and plants, the leaves and stems of which are so pliant that the
slightest agitation of the water causes them to stir as if they had
life. Fishes, both large and small, glide between the branches as birds
fly among the trees here upon land.
In the deepest spot of all stands the castle of the Sea King. Its walls
are built of coral, and the long Gothic windows are of the clearest
amber. The roof is formed of shells that open and close as the water
flows over them. Their appearance is very beautiful, for in each lies a
glittering pearl which would be fit for the diadem of a queen.
The Sea King had been a widower for many years, and his aged mother kept
house for him. She was a very sensible woman, but exceedingly proud of
her high birth, and on that account wore twelve oysters on her tail,
while others of high rank were only allowed to wear six.
She was, however, deserving of very great praise, especially for her
care of the little sea princesses, her six granddaughters. They were
beautiful children, but the youngest was the prettiest of them all. Her
skin was as clear and delicate as a rose leaf, and her eyes as blue as
the deepest sea; but, like all the others, she had no feet and her body
ended in a fish's tail. All day long they played in the great halls of
the castle or among the living flowers that grew out of the walls. The
large amber windows were open, and the fish swam in, just as the
swallows fly into our houses when we open the windows; only the fishes
swam up to the princesses, ate out of their hands, and allowed
themselves to be stroked.
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
the blue sky were everywhere, above and below, instead of the dark
depths of the sea. In calm weather the sun could be seen, looking like a
reddish-purple flower with light streaming from the calyx.
Each of the young princesses had a little plot of ground in the garden,
where she might dig and plant as she pleased. One arranged her flower
bed in the form of a whale; another preferred to make hers like the
figure of a little mermaid; while the youngest child made hers round,
like the sun, and in it grew flowers as red as his rays at sunset.
She was a strange child, quiet and thoughtful. While her sisters showed
delight at the wonderful things which they obtained from the wrecks of
vessels, she cared only for her pretty flowers, red like the sun, and a
beautiful marble statue. It was the representation of a handsome boy,
carved out of pure white stone, which had fallen to the bottom of the
sea from a wreck.
She planted by the statue a rose-colored weeping willow. It grew rapidly
and soon hung its fresh branches over the statue, almost down to the
blue sands. The shadows had the color of violet and waved to and fro
like the branches, so that it seemed as if the crown of the tree and the
root were at play, trying to kiss each other.
Nothing gave her so much pleasure as to hear about the world above the
sea. She made her old grandmother tell her all she knew of the ships and
of the towns, the people and the animals. To her it seemed most
wonderful and beautiful to hear that the flowers of the land had
fragrance, while those below the sea had none; that the trees of the
forest were green; and that the fishes among the trees could sing so
sweetly that it was a pleasure to listen to them. Her grandmother
called the birds fishes, or the little mermaid would not have understood
what was meant, for she had never seen birds.
"When you have reached your fifteenth year," said the grandmother, "you
will have permission to rise up out of the sea and sit on the rocks in
the moonlight, while the great ships go sailing by. Then you will see
both forests and towns."
In the following year, one of the sisters would be fifteen, but as each
was a year younger than the other, the youngest would have to wait five
years before her turn came to rise up from the bottom of the ocean to
see the earth as we do. However, each promised to tell the others what
she saw on her first visit and what she thought was most beautiful.
Their grandmother could not tell them enough--there were so many things
about which they wanted to know.
None of them longed so much for her turn to come as the youngest--she
who had the longest time to wait and who was so quiet and thoughtful.
Many nights she stood by the open window, looking up through the dark
blue water and watching the fish as they splashed about with their fins
and tails. She could see the moon and stars shining faintly, but through
the water they looked larger than they do to our eyes. When something
like a black cloud passed between her and them, she knew that it was
either a whale swimming over her head, or a ship full of human beings
who never imagined that a pretty little mermaid was standing beneath
them, holding out her white hands towards the keel of their ship.
At length the eldest was fifteen and was allowed to rise to the surface
of the ocean.
When she returned she had hundreds of things to talk about. But the
finest thing, she said, was to lie on a sand bank in the quiet moonlit
sea, near the shore, gazing at the lights of the near-by town, that
twinkled like hundreds of stars, and listening to the sounds of music,
the noise of carriages, the voices of human beings, and the merry
pealing of the bells in the church steeples. Because she could not go
near all these wonderful things, she longed for them all the more.
Oh, how eagerly did the youngest sister listen to all these
descriptions! And afterwards, when she stood at the open window looking
up through the dark-blue water, she thought of the great city, with all
its bustle and noise, and even fancied she could hear the sound of the
church bells down in the depths of the sea.
In another year the second sister received permission to rise to the
surface of the water and to swim about where she pleased. She rose just
as the sun was setting, and this, she said, was the most beautiful sight
of all. The whole sky looked like gold, and violet and rose-colored
clouds, which she could not describe, drifted across it. And more
swiftly than the clouds, flew a large flock of wild swans toward the
setting sun, like a long white veil across the sea. She also swam
towards the sun, but it sank into the waves, and the rosy tints faded
from the clouds and from the sea.
The third sister's turn followed, and she was the boldest of them all,
for she swam up a broad river that emptied into the sea. On the banks
she saw green hills covered with beautiful vines, and palaces and
castles peeping out from amid the proud trees of the forest. She heard
birds singing and felt the rays of the sun so strongly that she was
obliged often to dive under the water to cool her burning face. In a
narrow creek she found a large group of little human children, almost
naked, sporting about in the water. She wanted to play with them, but
they fled in a great fright; and then a little black animal--it was a
dog, but she did not know it, for she had never seen one before--came to
the water and barked at her so furiously that she became frightened and
rushed back to the open sea. But she said she should never forget the
beautiful forest, the green hills, and the pretty children who could
swim in the water although they had no tails.
The fourth sister was more timid. She remained in the midst of the sea,
but said it was quite as beautiful there as nearer the land. She could
see many miles around her, and the sky above looked like a bell of
glass. She had seen the ships, but at such a great distance that they
looked like sea gulls. The dolphins sported in the waves, and the great
whales spouted water from their nostrils till it seemed as if a hundred
fountains were playing in every direction.
The fifth sister's birthday occurred in the winter, so when her turn
came she saw what the others had not seen the first time they went up.
The sea looked quite green, and large icebergs were floating about, each
like a pearl, she said, but larger and loftier than the churches built
by men. They were of the most singular shapes and glittered like
diamonds. She had seated herself on one of the largest and let the wind
play with her long hair. She noticed that all the ships sailed past very
rapidly, steering as far away as they could, as if they were afraid of
the iceberg. Towards evening, as the sun went down, dark clouds covered
the sky, the thunder rolled, and the flashes of lightning glowed red on
the icebergs as they were tossed about by the heaving sea. On all the
ships the sails were reefed with fear and trembling, while she sat on
the floating iceberg, calmly watching the lightning as it darted its
forked flashes into the sea.
Each of the sisters, when first she had permission to rise to the
surface, was delighted with the new and beautiful sights. Now that they
were grown-up girls and could go when they pleased, they had become
quite indifferent about it. They soon wished themselves back again, and
after a month had passed they said it was much more beautiful down below
and pleasanter to be at home.
Yet often, in the evening hours, the five sisters would twine their arms
about each other and rise to the surface together. Their voices were
more charming than that of any human being, and before the approach of a
storm, when they feared that a ship might be lost, they swam before the
vessel, singing enchanting songs of the delights to be found in the
depths of the sea and begging the voyagers not to fear if they sank to
the bottom. But the sailors could not understand the song and thought it
was the sighing of the storm. These things were never beautiful to them,
for if the ship sank, the men were drowned and their dead bodies alone
reached the palace of the Sea King.
When the sisters rose, arm in arm, through the water, their youngest
sister would stand quite alone, looking after them, ready to cry--only,
since mermaids have no tears, she suffered more acutely.
"Oh, were I but fifteen years old!" said she. "I know that I shall love
the world up there, and all the people who live in it."
At last she reached her fifteenth year.
"Well, now you are grown up," said the old dowager, her grandmother.
"Come, and let me adorn you like your sisters." And she placed in her
hair a wreath of white lilies, of which every flower leaf was half a
pearl. Then the old lady ordered eight great oysters to attach
themselves to the tail of the princess to show her high rank.
"But they hurt me so," said the little mermaid.
"Yes, I know; pride must suffer pain," replied the old lady.
Oh, how gladly she would have shaken off all this grandeur and laid
aside the heavy wreath! The red flowers in her own garden would have
suited her much better. But she could not change herself, so she said
farewell and rose as lightly as a bubble to the surface of the water.
The sun had just set when she raised her head above the waves. The
clouds were tinted with crimson and gold, and through the glimmering
twilight beamed the evening star in all its beauty. The sea was calm,
and the air mild and fresh. A large ship with three masts lay becalmed
on the water; only one sail was set, for not a breeze stirred, and the
sailors sat idle on deck or amidst the rigging. There was music and song
on board, and as darkness came on, a hundred colored lanterns were
lighted, as if the flags of all nations waved in the air.
The little mermaid swam close to the cabin windows, and now and then, as
the waves lifted her up, she could look in through glass window-panes
and see a number of gayly dressed people.
Among them, and the most beautiful of all, was a young prince with
large, black eyes. He was sixteen years of age, and his birthday was
being celebrated with great display. The sailors were dancing on deck,
and when the prince came out of the cabin, more than a hundred rockets
rose in the air, making it as bright as day. The little mermaid was so
startled that she dived under water, and when she again stretched out
her head, it looked as if all the stars of heaven were falling around
She had never seen such fireworks before. Great suns spurted fire about,
splendid fireflies flew into the blue air, and everything was reflected
in the clear, calm sea beneath. The ship itself was so brightly
illuminated that all the people, and even the smallest rope, could be
distinctly seen. How handsome the young prince looked, as he pressed the
hands of all his guests and smiled at them, while the music resounded
through the clear night air!
It was very late, yet the little mermaid could not take her eyes from
the ship or from the beautiful prince. The colored lanterns had been
extinguished, no more rockets rose in the air, and the cannon had ceased
firing; but the sea became restless, and a moaning, grumbling sound
could be heard beneath the waves. Still the little mermaid remained by
the cabin window, rocking up and down on the water, so that she could
look within. After a while the sails were quickly set, and the ship went
on her way. But soon the waves rose higher, heavy clouds darkened the
sky, and lightning appeared in the distance. A dreadful storm was
approaching. Once more the sails were furled, and the great ship
pursued her flying course over the raging sea. The waves rose mountain
high, as if they would overtop the mast, but the ship dived like a swan
between them, then rose again on their lofty, foaming crests. To the
little mermaid this was pleasant sport; but not so to the sailors. At
length the ship groaned and creaked; the thick planks gave way under the
lashing of the sea, as the waves broke over the deck; the mainmast
snapped asunder like a reed, and as the ship lay over on her side, the
water rushed in.
The little mermaid now perceived that the crew were in danger; even she
was obliged to be careful, to avoid the beams and planks of the wreck
which lay scattered on the water. At one moment it was pitch dark so
that she could not see a single object, but when a flash of lightning
came it revealed the whole scene; she could see every one who had been
on board except the prince. When the ship parted, she had seen him sink
into the deep waves, and she was glad, for she thought he would now be
with her. Then she remembered that human beings could not live in the
water, so that when he got down to her father's palace he would
certainly be quite dead.
No, he must not die! So she swam about among the beams and planks which
strewed the surface of the sea, forgetting that they could crush her to
pieces. Diving deep under the dark waters, rising and falling with the
waves, she at length managed to reach the young prince, who was fast
losing the power to swim in that stormy sea. His limbs were failing him,
his beautiful eyes were closed, and he would have died had not the
little mermaid come to his assistance. She held his head above the water
and let the waves carry them where they would.
In the morning the storm had ceased, but of the ship not a single
fragment could be seen. The sun came up red and shining out of the
water, and its beams brought back the hue of health to the prince's
cheeks, but his eyes remained closed. The mermaid kissed his high,
smooth forehead and stroked back his wet hair. He seemed to her like the
marble statue in her little garden, so she kissed him again and wished
that he might live.
Presently they came in sight of land, and she saw lofty blue mountains
on which the white snow rested as if a flock of swans were lying upon
them. Beautiful green forests were near the shore, and close by stood a
large building, whether a church or a convent she could not tell. Orange
and citron trees grew in the garden, and before the door stood lofty
palms. The sea here formed a little bay, in which the water lay quiet
and still, but very deep. She swam with the handsome prince to the
beach, which was covered with fine white sand, and there she laid him in
the warm sunshine, taking care to raise his head higher than his body.
Then bells sounded in the large white building, and some young girls
came into the garden. The little mermaid swam out farther from the shore
and hid herself among some high rocks that rose out of the water.
Covering her head and neck with the foam of the sea, she watched there
to see what would become of the poor prince.
It was not long before she saw a young girl approach the spot where the
prince lay. She seemed frightened at first, but only for a moment; then
she brought a number of people, and the mermaid saw that the prince came
to life again and smiled upon those who stood about him. But to her he
sent no smile; he knew not that she had saved him. This made her very
sorrowful, and when he was led away into the great building, she dived
down into the water and returned to her father's castle.
She had always been silent and thoughtful, and now she was more so than
ever. Her sisters asked her what she had seen during her first visit to
the surface of the water, but she could tell them nothing. Many an
evening and morning did she rise to the place where she had left the
prince. She saw the fruits in the garden ripen and watched them
gathered; she watched the snow on the mountain tops melt away; but never
did she see the prince, and therefore she always returned home more
sorrowful than before.
It was her only comfort to sit in her own little garden and fling her
arm around the beautiful marble statue, which was like the prince. She
gave up tending her flowers, and they grew in wild confusion over the
paths, twining their long leaves and stems round the branches of the
trees so that the whole place became dark and gloomy.
At length she could bear it no longer and told one of her sisters all
about it. Then the others heard the secret, and very soon it became
known to several mermaids, one of whom had an intimate friend who
happened to know about the prince. She had also seen the festival on
board ship, and she told them where the prince came from and where his
"Come, little sister," said the other princesses. Then they entwined
their arms and rose together to the surface of the water, near the spot
where they knew the prince's palace stood. It was built of
bright-yellow, shining stone and had long flights of marble steps, one
of which reached quite down to the sea. Splendid gilded cupolas rose
over the roof, and between the pillars that surrounded the whole
building stood lifelike statues of marble. Through the clear crystal of
the lofty windows could be seen noble rooms, with costly silk curtains
and hangings of tapestry and walls covered with beautiful paintings. In
the center of the largest salon a fountain threw its sparkling jets
high up into the glass cupola of the ceiling, through which the sun
shone in upon the water and upon the beautiful plants that grew in the
basin of the fountain.
Now that the little mermaid knew where the prince lived, she spent many
an evening and many a night on the water near the palace. She would swim
much nearer the shore than any of the others had ventured, and once she
went up the narrow channel under the marble balcony, which threw a broad
shadow on the water. Here she sat and watched the young prince, who
thought himself alone in the bright moonlight.
She often saw him evenings, sailing in a beautiful boat on which music
sounded and flags waved. She peeped out from among the green rushes, and
if the wind caught her long silvery-white veil, those who saw it
believed it to be a swan, spreading out its wings.
Many a night, too, when the fishermen set their nets by the light of
their torches, she heard them relate many good things about the young
prince. And this made her glad that she had saved his life when he was
tossed about half dead on the waves. She remembered how his head had
rested on her bosom and how heartily she had kissed him, but he knew
nothing of all this and could not even dream of her.
She grew more and more to like human beings and wished more and more to
be able to wander about with those whose world seemed to be so much
larger than her own. They could fly over the sea in ships and mount the
high hills which were far above the clouds; and the lands they
possessed, their woods and their fields, stretched far away beyond the
reach of her sight. There was so much that she wished to know! but her
sisters were unable to answer all her questions. She then went to her
old grandmother, who knew all about the upper world, which she rightly
called "the lands above the sea."
"If human beings are not drowned," asked the little mermaid, "can they
live forever? Do they never die, as we do here in the sea?"
"Yes," replied the old lady, "they must also die, and their term of life
is even shorter than ours. We sometimes live for three hundred years,
but when we cease to exist here, we become only foam on the surface of
the water and have not even a grave among those we love. We have not
immortal souls, we shall never live again; like the green seaweed when
once it has been cut off, we can never flourish more. Human beings, on
the contrary, have souls which live forever, even after the body has
been turned to dust. They rise up through the clear, pure air, beyond
the glittering stars. As we rise out of the water and behold all the
land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which
we shall never see."
"Why have not we immortal souls?" asked the little mermaid, mournfully.
"I would gladly give all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to
be a human being only for one day and to have the hope of knowing the
happiness of that glorious world above the stars."
"You must not think that," said the old woman. "We believe that we are
much happier and much better off than human beings."
"So I shall die," said the little mermaid, "and as the foam of the sea I
shall be driven about, never again to hear the music of the waves or to
see the pretty flowers or the red sun? Is there anything I can do to win
an immortal soul?"
"No," said the old woman; "unless a man should love you so much that you
were more to him than his father or his mother, and if all his thoughts
and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right
hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and
hereafter--then his soul would glide into your body, and you would
obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give to you
a soul and retain his own as well; but this can never happen. Your
fish's tail, which among us is considered so beautiful, on earth is
thought to be quite ugly. They do not know any better, and they think it
necessary, in order to be handsome, to have two stout props, which they
Then the little mermaid sighed and looked sorrowfully at her fish's
tail. "Let us be happy," said the old lady, "and dart and spring about
during the three hundred years that we have to live, which is really
quite long enough. After that we can rest ourselves all the better. This
evening we are going to have a court ball."
It was one of those splendid sights which we can never see on earth. The
walls and the ceiling of the large ballroom were of thick but
transparent crystal. Many hundreds of colossal shells,--some of a deep
red, others of a grass green,--with blue fire in them, stood in rows on
each side. These lighted up the whole salon, and shone through the walls
so that the sea was also illuminated. Innumerable fishes, great and
small, swam past the crystal walls; on some of them the scales glowed
with a purple brilliance, and on others shone like silver and gold.
Through the halls flowed a broad stream, and in it danced the mermen and
the mermaids to the music of their own sweet singing.
No one on earth has such lovely voices as they, but the little mermaid
sang more sweetly than all. The whole court applauded her with hands and
tails, and for a moment her heart felt quite gay, for she knew she had
the sweetest voice either on earth or in the sea. But soon she thought
again of the world above her; she could not forget the charming prince,
nor her sorrow that she had not an immortal soul like his. She crept
away silently out of her father's palace, and while everything within
was gladness and song, she sat in her own little garden, sorrowful and
alone. Then she heard the bugle sounding through the water and thought:
"He is certainly sailing above, he in whom my wishes center and in whose
hands I should like to place the happiness of my life. I will venture
all for him and to win an immortal soul. While my sisters are dancing in
my father's palace I will go to the sea witch, of whom I have always
been so much afraid; she can give me counsel and help."
Then the little mermaid went out from her garden and took the road to
the foaming whirlpools, behind which the sorceress lived. She had never
been that way before. Neither flowers nor grass grew there; nothing but
bare, gray, sandy ground stretched out to the whirlpool, where the
water, like foaming mill wheels, seized everything that came within its
reach and cast it into the fathomless deep. Through the midst of these
crushing whirlpools the little mermaid was obliged to pass before she
could reach the dominions of the sea witch. Then, for a long distance,
the road lay across a stretch of warm, bubbling mire, called by the
witch her turf moor.