1263 København, Danmark
3325 7400

Watch your step, I tell myself. Watch out. The promenade here spills over to meet the water. It’s cobbled, so you can get up close, but the big stones puzzled together with concrete grout are not level. Last time I played the part of the graceless tourist, tripping and bumping. This time I wait.

“The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen Harbor at Langelinie Quay is a mecca. In a country of not even six million, about a million people come here every year to look upon Den lille havfrue.”

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen Harbor at Langelinie Quay is a mecca. In a country of not even six million, about a million people come here every year to look upon Den lille havfrue. I like the sailors—in town from the world over—their smart uniforms or civilian polos and boat shoes, the flowers they bear and the kisses they blow hoping she’ll impart good luck out there on the teal chop.

I was in Denmark in 2005 for a home-stay. My summer between high school and college, a time liminal like half-and-half mermaids, was like being underwater where laws such as gravity are suspended and anything seems possible. I do know how that sounds. IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT! But I was seventeen—a year older than Disney’s Ariel, two years older than Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid.

I “took an education,” as the Danes say, and now, four years later, am in Denmark again. Ahead of me independent groups of tourists snap-snap-snap, review their work on camera screens, and snap again, until finally I’m able to approach her:

O dainty, patinated, finned-one.

It feels, I guess, like Catholics prostrating themselves before the Blessed Virgin, Hindus before Parvati—any of us squinting over the lip of a wishing well—like you can sense the mojo. People reach out to touch her (maybe for luck?) and the coldness surprises their fingertips, is mistaken for an effect, or even a blessing.

Do you not love me the best of them all?” the eyes of the little mermaid seemed to say.

That, from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid.”

The statue was commissioned by Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen—Carl of Carlsberg beer. He and his wife Ottilia were huge benefactors of art. They had a thing for sculpture—in fact, they bought and gave away enough of it to put the brewery in fiscal danger. Of all things, beer is the reason we have the mermaid; we can drink to that—and people do. I have.

Look and see how the sculptor, Edvard Eriksen, worked Andersen’s text into bronze. The statue was realized in 1913, and at 1.25 meters, she is tiny. Much tinier than people expect. Especially we Americans, used to our super sizes.

At this the good blonde people with topaz eyes smile and shake their heads.

Hvorfor? Why should The Little Mermaid be big?”

“She shouldn’t,” I tell them. As if I’m above other tourists. “She’s perfect.”

Det er rigtigt,” they say. It is right.

The Danes are not insecure, just incredulous. How could she be otherwise?

Look at her—aloof on the apex of a dog pile of boulders. Just lovely. She has the head of Copenhagen Royal Theatre prima ballerina Ellen Price, her seemly coif, and because Price would not sit au naturel, the body of Eriksen’s own wife, her B-cups. You notice it’s not a true fin. At least not the classical fin imagist depictions of mermaids have, for she’s got discrete thighs, even knees and calves. Things blur at what would be ankle. Instead of feet, “legs” taper into economical, serrated fins that fan stiffly out and evoke shark teeth, the pert dorsal fin of dolphins and taut sails. It’s less showy Daryl Hannah tail in Splash, more Aqua Man sportiness, because Eriksen chose to render the change.

She gazes off, about two-thirds human. She’s somewhere else.

There’s some downwelling between Den lille havfrue and Ariel. See the shots of Ariel perching on rocks, how they’re a throwback to the primordial little mermaid, the first fish to walk out of the wet. Ariel follows in her footsteps.

But this little mermaid is not our Ariel. She didn’t meet her prince and live happily ever after. Having rescued him, she fell in love, that’s true. If only she could walk among the humans. The sea witch would do it, but there is no free lunch. Her premium? She’d cut out the little mermaid’s tongue. We think we know this sea witch too, but don’t.

Pat Carroll, who voiced Ursula, said, “Many people call her an octopus and I’m so knowledgeable, I have to correct. She is not an octopus; she is a squid. And they ask what that means. She has six tentacles instead of eight which makes it less expensive to draw.”

Andersen’s sea witch is not Disney’s Ursula, either. No moray eel minions to speak of; no grab for the King’s trident. In fact, she warned the little mermaid:

“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess.”

No going back. No crab, mon, nor flounder nor daffy—albeit well-intentioned—seagull to help, though her sisters tried. Their hair to the sea witch for a knife—before sunup, the little mermaid should slay the man she loved, or herself become sea fizz.

One summer day in 2005, at the farmers’ market in Køge, I turned to my host father.

“Can you show me cornflowers?”

Carsten’s brow pinched. He looked at me with no idea. Corn flower?

“Far out in the ocean,” I quoted, “where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower … ” Andersen’s opening line to “The Little Mermaid.”

Kornblomst.” Carsten was patting his chin. “Let’s try.”

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