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.”

I was a babe in arms when Ariel debuted in 1989. By the time I was old enough to miss her, Ariel and company were “in the vault.” Consequently, before I had Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I had an anime version, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid/Andasen dôwa ningyo-hime (1975), on VHS. My younger siblings and I, we knew this other little mermaid first, her tragic eyes like saucers. The movie’s elegiac, otherworldly soundtrack gave us the heebie-jeebies and expressed an abysmal zone of sadness we’d never known. Our mother popped in the tape when she needed us to settle down. For all she knew, the Japanese were onto something, and how deep it was I couldn’t say, our human condition à la mermaid. The movie began with a caricature Hans delivering the as-blue-as simile to two-dimensional Scandinavian children—we ate it up. Except for changes like a companion dolphin and her name as “Marina” (countenance and diction, a dead ringer for Marcia Brady), this rendition stayed true. It’s how I always knew the ill fate of the little mermaid.

Carsten and I asked around. When we finally located some, the kornblomster were decidedly periwinkle.

Hey! I unleashed my basic Danish. “De er ikke blå, de er lilla.”

Carsten laughed. “What a liar!”

In the future, when I parse Andersen’s lines I think back to that film, imagining it set me up.

The mermaid who resigns her voice and opts for the ultimate backseat through suicide—she’s not the It Girl; she’s the one who gave it up all for the boy, That Girl. Now, I look at Den lille havfrue and think her melancholy is hangdog regret. She has pulled me to her across the Atlantic, but hers wasn’t the luring woo of a Siren. No, I just feel we are simpatico. I’ve recently gotten out of a bad relationship.

I Skyped Heidi, my eyes rimmed with puff, gulping down snot. What now. That girl didn’t have it in her to move to the West Coast for graduate school.

“Chan, come to DK,” Heidi insisted.

Heidi was my host mother in 2005. Or, for lack of a better title, my Euro Mom—firmness in her voice like that of a German frau. Therefore, a visit was slated and I jetted away in August of 2009. Boarding my Dulles transfer, I was so high on caffeine I thought I saw the Starbuck’s mermaid on that last venti dance around, whirling her tail, Whoo-whoo-whooooo! I touched my racing head then and thought, Crazy. I am. But I’d be fine. I needed only to put an ocean between me and the break-up.

Heidi flagged me down at CPH airport with the tote I presented her in 2005. The Little Mermaid is screen-printed on its canvas cheek, Ariel’s sequined tail winking like a collection of third eyes. Disney’s color lab developed a special ink for her animated tail ad hoc and gave it her name, “Ariel.” It’s a limpid blue-green, like Caribbean water. A color I reached for.

Hej, Chantel!” Heidi hugged me and brushed the bangs from my eyes. “Are you awake, little mermaid?”

It was 7 a.m. I’d forgotten that she used to call me that.

A paper cup appeared under my nose. “Kaffe?

This tall, angular woman with Viking in her veins, all of her grit bound to rub off, was perfect.

And now I stand looking up at Den lille havfrue expectantly: I want approval. For her to say “You did good, kid.” But she is tight-lipped. The sea witch got her tongue. Projecting, I know—but she’s so easy to make in my image.

Poor child! Poor fish!

In my mouth, a bad flavor—the aftertaste of salted licorice, like briny fennel seed; very Nordic—that I am determined to like.

Soon after I arrive back in DK my “brother,” Heidi’s oldest son, walks by with a can of paint. No doubt something to do with the technical school he’s attending. But I ask, “Hvad laver du, Morten?”

Morten gives me a wild grin. “I thought we might color Den lille havfrue later.”

We are heading to Copenhagen to celebrate a friend’s birthday in the pubs, and to watch the national team play toward the World Cup.

I say I’ll never let him hurt my darling mermaid.

“I joke.” He laughs. “But Chantel, people do it a lot.”

“They do?” I didn’t know.

Ja. Then she has to be fixed.”

I march off to Google.

Den lille havfrue has been vandalized time and again. I filter through the search results. It started in 1961: panties and a brassiere painted on, her hair painted red.

She was red-painted again in 1963.

1964 saw the statue beheaded by Situationist artists, and, oh my God, if the city didn’t shroud the headless figure in a big blanket—like a corpse at the scene of an accident—before moving the remainder out for repair. (Her head wasn’t recovered and had to be reproduced.)

Come 1976, painted again.

Her right arm sawn off in 1984. Returned.

A second, bungled attempt to behead the statue in 1990 left an eighteen-centimeter gash in her neck.

She lost her head again in 1998. It turned up. Restored.

On September 11, 2003, she was blasted right off her rocky roost and into the harbor water. (I wonder, did it feel nice in the water? Refreshing? Like home?)

Then witness Den lille havfrue in 2004. While the European Union was vetting Turkey’s bid for entry, she was outfitted in burqa and a sash reading “TYRKIET I EU?” Turkey in the EU?

International Women’s Day, March 8, 2006: splashed with green paint, “8 Marts” scrawled on her rocky dais, a dildo glued to her hand.

Doused with pink paint in March of 2007.

And sloshed two months later—the word “AV” (“OUCH”) left framed beside the statue.

That same month, May of 2007, Copenhagen woke up to discover the mermaid observing hijab.

The night after the night someone put her in the headscarf, she modeled a KKK robe.

Most recently, in June of 2008, she was bombed with white paint. The semblance was of having been messed on by seagulls—not friendlies like Ariel’s Scuttle, but mercenary birds.

And, what can I say, I majored in cultural anthropology. When I knock into this vandalism thing, my radar sings.

But that term, “vandalism,” is no good. It smothers the fish-slippery question cultural anthropologists are always trying to get at: WHY? If we do not “get why,” we probably don’t understand the perspective. The thing to do is plumb the depth, catch the drift. I paraphrase the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz : “To understand isn’t to forgive.”

Graffiti, for instance. Marginalized or disenfranchised groups, powerless to an extent by definition, find outlets like graffiti to remark on their predicaments. As such, graffitiing is a resource for the resourceless. It’s serious—a fugitive act of insubordination, a way to talk back to The Man, to social facts and forces that affect people personally.

Given the rough-sea life of Den lille havfrue, the Danish Ministry of Tourism calls her “a tough old lady.” And I wonder. I won’t say every incident of vandalism is profoundly tactical, only that maybe there’s more to it. It’s a messy endeavor, soliciting opinions from natives and comparing what they say against what you see from the outside. And then articulating your conclusions to the locals to see if you ‘got it’ or not.

Like an anthropologist, Den lille havfrue is an outsider looking in. She’s practically alien. Anthropologists would fillet themselves to be so etic. Anthropologists are fishes out of water, participant-observers, half-in/half-out, half-human/half-fish. They are like the foreigner Ariel committing a faux pas when she uses her dinner fork as a hair comb. Except that Den lille havfrue was remiss: the silly girl, she tried to become one of them. She “went native,” fully emic and not okay.

I look at myself—my leggings, tunic, and blazer ensemble, the way I’ve started to pin my hair. I notice the grocery clerk mistakes me for a Dansker, and how pleased I am. My mouth opens to say something in English—I’ll show myself for what I really am—but counting out the right amount of kroner, I just simper.

In 2005, Heidi’s second oldest son, Mikkel, made arrangements to study abroad in a Kansas high school. Heidi and I idled outside the American embassy while he waited inside to get his paperwork processed. Up and down the street, other embassies appeared approachable, their flags whipping happily from facades, balconies, and roofs. But the American embassy was fenced, the only one, with barbed wire no less, and guards frisked everything with their hands, wands, and what looked like a metal detector.

Heidi gasped. For fanden!

She’d forgot to give Mikkel his passport-size photographs. If he didn’t have everything, he’d need to make a new appointment, would miss the deadline. Heidi begged the guard to let her inside. She asked to have anyone take the photos in, but no. And then it occurred to me.

I flashed my passport, a navy American cover and not a burgundy Danish one, and, to the guard’s surprise, sailed right through.

Inside, Mikkel’s face scrunched up, “You? Why?” And I gestured around the ugly waiting room, “This is my country.”

Danes are proud to claim Andersen as one of their own. He’s a go-to reference in a pinch. More people know Andersen than Shakespeare. I am told that when Danes are abroad, they cite Hans and his brainchild, “The Little Mermaid.” She’s their girl. The most photographed girl in Denmark and, some people say, the world over.

But, in March 2010, they sent Den lille havfrue away.

There was a crowd swishing little Dannebrog, the Danish flag; speeches, Danish and Chinese authorities, a choir of Chinese schoolgirls in satin cheongsams, a crane. The Danish Ministry of Culture had decided to ship her to Shanghai to represent the country in the 2010 World Expo. Danes—socialist, ranked the happiest people in the world—cheekily named their exposition WELFAIRYTALES. The Danish pavilion showcased their model for sustainable urban living. It was a feat of architecture: a gleaming white double spiral; a lane for pedestrians; a lane to try out DK’s free city bicycles; educational tracts; a place to sit and enjoy smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches; a spa-like pool that was blue-green in color, to swim in if you wanted; and her. For Den lille havfrue, it was the story of an ambassadorial landmark, what my Danish girlfriend, Signe, called “her long business trip.” The mermaid had her 97th birthday in Shanghai. There was a three-day bash, red roses in her lap, and girls who jumped into the pool like they always do in Denmark on her birthday. When all was said and done, the Danish pavilion took in 5.5 million visitors—the population of Denmark.

It wasn’t her first visit to the People’s Republic. Once upon a time, Disney’s Little Mermaid directors wanted the millions of tiny, underwater bubbles inked by hand, not Xeroxed. The only economical way to do it was to farm out the bubble work to a firm in Beijing. It meant the film’s production schedule was threatened when Chinese students took to Tiananmen Square in 1989. The cel artwork, actually, was just a few blocks away when the government tanks rolled in.

In an interview with directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Clements remarked, “There was a question if civil war broke out, would we get our bubbles back?”

“Which is all we cared about,” said Clements, laughing.

“Yeah, no,” said Musker apologetically, “we cared about the guy in front of the tank and that democracy might take root there, but we were wondering what’s going on with our bubbles?

Hasn’t the little mermaid seen it all? Isn’t she well traveled? It’s expected, though. Migrating fishes are known to cover great distance. They even get to that really outlandish spot, which is our psyche.

Signe has these pictures of herself as a kid. Whenever her family went to the beach, she’d find bunches of rocks in shallow water and climb atop the biggest. Folding her legs underneath her, glancing sidelong, she’d ask to have her picture taken.

“I guess all Danes are born and raised with her in their company, somehow,” said Signe. “That’s why she means that much to us.”

I could almost hear a strain from Disney’s The Little Mermaid: “She’s our sister! / Ariel … !

Flemming Brian Nielsen, the stone mason contracted to move her, promised, “I’m going take care for her like she is my own daughter.”

When Danes found out about her departure, some stuck pink Post-its to her chest, like a bikini top. They scaled the notes along her tail in green and yellow, so Den lille havfrue was ready for a luau. As long as you’re out, they seemed to be saying, you should see some stuff. Go to Australia, see the Great Barrier Reef. The Venetian canals?!

Others were not in support of her departure. Like Heidi: “I think it’s soh stoopid, a gimmick,” she pooh-poohed. She had on her disapproving face. Why should they send the real Den lille havfrue and not a replica?

But the government insisted the gesture wouldn’t be the same. The real statue would mean so much to the world. They had to send her.

Still, her authenticity is troubled. The Langelinie Quay statue isn’t the original, though the original statue and the copy were cast coevally from the same materials. The original is in the possession of Eriksen’s heirs. It was displayed in Tivoli Gardens, safe there until the havfrue everyone knows returned from China. Walt Disney visited Tivoli all those years ago. The amusement park inspired him, by his own account, to move ahead in 1955 with Disneyland. Who knew? And later, he’d bring her across the pond.

The girl can swim.

While she was away, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei set up a real-time broadcast of Den lille havfrue in the pavilion. Almost as though she were still with the Danes. But Signe told me the Danes felt orphaned, and badly for the tourists who came and met her void. There was a sense of missing one’s near-and-dear, not a pet goldfish or prize koi.

I remember the scene in Splash when Eugene Levy’s character, Dr. Walter Kornbluth, exposes Madison. He turns a hose on her in front of a crush of journalists and her saffron tail appears against the New York sidewalk.

“Behold, the mermaid!” he says.

She’s put in a tank for scientific observation, where she becomes so dispirited that Kornbluth is moved to help, and Madison gets away, as all mythic fish do.

You have to wonder what it must feel like, to have a mermaid slip through your hands.

Danish novelist Peter H. Fogtdal blogged: And what does Denmark get in return for this unselfish act? The Wall of China, of course. Rumors have it that the Chinese will send their wall to Denmark, so we can use it to keep foreigners out. We have to protect our gene pool, you see.

And: I bet she screamed like a pig all the way to Shanghai. … They think she is going to be a hit. What they forget is that our Mermaid only is interesting when someone tries to behead her. Maybe the Danes should hire some Mandarin (sic) thugs to saw her head off, so we get some much needed more exposure?

But notice how Peter capitalized Mermaid? Like God.

The photograph inset in Fogtdal’s post is of a man and woman getting their picture taken with the mermaid. The man paws at one of Den lille havfrue’s breasts.

On April 1st, while Den lille havfrue was away, the Danish National Museum of History acted foolishly. A skeleton lounged on her dais, human above the waist, but below her pelvis a spine continued, ending as a cartilaginous fan-like lace—a tail. It was pretty funny.

Morten: “The Chinese,” yuk yuk yuk, “ate her!”

But the suggestion of her death created unease. Mythologies don’t die unless the tellers who sustain them die, or change. Danes laughed out loud but looked around, at their hands, to make sure they were still there. Are we okay? They wanted to know.

Den lille havfrue is Denmark’s Sphinx, its Statue of Liberty and Mona Lisa. Danes answer to her, to what she means and wants. Like me, they think they get her, but none of us do, really. Most of what you see in her is you. She’s whatever.

She’s Barbie! This idea so strikes me while I’m packed into Køge’s medieval square with 50,000 Others that I spill my cider. But on stage it’s bad, none other than Aqua—Ak-va—the band who gave us “Barbie Girl.” Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please. When I was in fourth grade and jiving to that song at the roller rink, I couldn’t have guessed I’d hear the band live one day in Denmark. Did you know two of their three band members are Dansker? Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!

I realize Den lille havfrue‘s symbolic nature makes her a sitting duck. Symbols are hugely potent. But they stand so adamantly for something that they are liable to be renegotiated, or hijacked and put to new ends. They are plastic. Sea changes happen. What’s more, Den lille havfrue is a sacred cow, and everything sacred comes under fire eventually.

I know Danes to be candid, outspoken, and jocular. (Their e-mails, texts, and virtual chats are studded with emoticons—a display of the exact communication they prefer, I think—and I find myself lobbing smileys into our exchanges.) Exercising freedom of speech to the point of provocation is also meget Dansk. The Muhammad caricatures are a case in point. Of course the Danish newspapers knew the cartoons would offend Denmark’s Turkish diaspora, but they were, as the papers’ editors saw it, a discourse on self-censorship. The first publication caused unprecedented violence in Copenhagen, and, in the face of it, the cartoons ran a second time. In Iran, the government renamed a favorite pastry, the danish, the Rose of Muhammad. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Freedom fries were consumed and support-Denmark groups begun.

Ironically, Den lille havfrue is frequently mistreated. I ask Danes why the statue is so often vandalized. “Because people know it works,” another Morten says. For attention, most of them suggest. Signe says that when it happens, the desecration affects the whole country.

I Facebook Danish poet Carsten René Nielsen. He is looking forward to an audience with the queen, Margrethe II, the following week. (He thinks the Expo was “really brilliant PR.”) Carsten says Den lille havfrue “is kitsch and a national symbol at the same time and will therefore … attract attention.” He calls her 1964 beheading Denmark’s “baptism into modernity,” but Carsten isn’t aware of the other counts.

“If there has been vandalism against The Little Mermaid since then, I think it has just been normal vandalism (drunk youngsters ‘having fun’).”

I scrunch my face. How could he not know what she’s been through?

It’s so at odds with what people have been telling me. I have to reassure myself that this is alright—anthropology is a dispute—but I worry: have I been overstating? Weirdly, I feel protective of Den lille havfrue in a sisterly way. It’s one thing to hurt her, another to say she’s not important enough to be meaningfully singled out. The sash, the blast, the dildo, the headscarf, they must be ideological. Right?

In his 1997 book, Carsten says Jørgen Nash “claims to be the ‘Mermaid murderer’ from 1964,” and that he did it supposedly “because of a broken heart and only later—being a Situationist artist—tried to capitalize on it artistically.”

“Anyway,” says Carsten, “the beheading sent a shock through Denmark and was a significant event.”

I put the question to Danish writer Morten Brask, who replies that Carsten is “absolutely right … assuming that the vandalism has higher meanings.” Morten tells me he used to work as a political satirist. In 2001, he Photoshopped the veil onto Den lille havfrue in a mock advertisement for the Dansk Folkeparti (right wing), years before the incidents with the sash and the headscarf. About the statue he says, “We don’t really like it. We laugh a little when tourists go to see it. I mean, it’s just a statue—but a statue with enormous symbolical value, easy to use and abuse.”

Denmark at once adores and abhors its mermaid. These days, Copenhagen runs with Paris and Milan, and she’s middlebrow (worse than lowbrow), she’s out. With the chic Vikings now giving her the cold shoulder, the havfrue has become the Other completely. She is sent away to China, where other grating Danish things like Aqua go to find new fans.

This unsentimental attitude isn’t new. In the 1930s, Poul Henningsen wrote The Denmark Film (There is a Lovely Country) to bait tourists. His portrayal was not well received. Henningsen defended his project in the May 1, 1935 issue of Berlingske Aftenavis: “I have indeed included everything that is typical—the whole of everyday Denmark; but perhaps not the Sunday pleasures which a Dane would think of first. Nor have I included the Little Mermaid, which I personally think is a bad monument. But can’t we pass her by for once? Just to be free of her this one time.”

While the mermaid was udlandet i Kina, a group calling itself “The Temp Little Mermaid Agency” was formed. “We are interested,” the group stated, “in what alternatives there might be to the classic and common understanding of Denmark, not to mention the people who to this date embody it.” They wanted to know, “What happens in their absence? What else is there to talk about?”

The agency set up a pedestal of boulders, like the mermaid’s, and scheduled people to serve as stand-ins. It was the little mermaid versus five hundred little mermaids—women and men alike, striking her faraway, folded-up pose. A woman named Benedikte wore a black lace leotard, a long black skirt, and sky blue flippers. She eventually napped right there on what looked like a giant river stone. There were lots of couples, some little kids, and at least one pirate. There were no women with red hair.

Ariel’s shock of red hair correlates to that of another mermaid, Madison, played by Daryl Hannah. Given the success of Splash (1984), Disney Studios did not hesitate to green-light The Little Mermaid. Only, because Hannah had done towhead already, Disney went in a different, more idiosyncratic direction: of course red. The studio based Ariel’s mind-of-its-own mane on astronaut Sally Ride’s hair in zero gravity. And the plot thickens.

Hannah’s beautiful tail took five to eight hours to don, but it worked. Her safety team could not keep up, that is how swimmingly she swam. In an interview, Hannah offered that she’d been very taken with Hans Christian Andersen’s short story. “I had my mermaid swim down because I’d been doing it since I was a little, tiny kid, you know.” On set, it was too arduous to hoist her back and forth, in and out, so Hannah was left in the water, hanging out around the boat. Sometimes Ron Howard dropped french fries into her mouth.

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset used Den lille havfrue in their installation When a Country Falls in Love With Itself (2008). Taking their cue from minimalist Scandinavian design, they positioned a single large mirror for Den lille havfrue to look into, so onlookers could see her reflected, too. There can be no richer, pithier report: the artwork addressed both Denmark’s relationship to Den lille havfrue and the country’s own self-regard. When a Country Falls in Love With Itself echoed the traditionally vain mermaid who, mirror in hand, is preoccupied with her beauty.

And that’s what it is. They don’t love her; they love themselves.

What Elmgreen and Dragset were quite literally reflecting on is an ugly run of intolerance that has settled into Danish society, and has everything to do with Islamophobia in the post-Sept. 11 world.

In 2009, Denmark refused political asylum to the Iraqi refugees it had been hosting. Time to go home. Home? the Iraqis asked. A Copenhagen priest took them into Christiansborg, where they invoked the ancient claim of sanctuary. Danish police broke through the buffer of protestors on the cathedral’s steps and forcibly removed the refugees, deporting them to Baghdad. And what should happen as a result?

A photograph of Integration Minister Birthe Ronn Hornbech’s head was affixed to Den lille havfrue. A sign was strapped to the statue’s chest: “Send Birthe til Kina I stedet.” Send Birthe to China instead.

Yes! I practically clapped. Sing it, sister. The mermaid speaks.

It’s sweet because the very first mermaid stories, ca. 1000 BCE, are from Assyria, modern-day Iraq. You scratch my patina-scummed back, and I’ll scratch yours.

I have thought about how I might deface Den lille havfrue, and I’ve decided I would take my cue from Elmgreen and Dragset. I’d make a chalkboard in the shape of a speech bubble and stake it beside her mouth, then leave a box of chalk. Anybody could come and put words in her mouth, ideas into the head of this avatar.

“Catch me if you can,” I’d begin. Make her a temptress like the ancient, victimizing Sirens, the ones who obliged Odysseus to lash himself to a mast.

Outside of Nordic folklore, most people long held that mermaids would drown men—they were trouble. Andersen’s story was a first, a humanizing portrait of these scaly quasi-women, and after it mermaids were made nice.

Heidi takes me to Legoland in Billund (Lego is Danish). I am loitering at the scale model of Nyhavn—those ideal, colorful townhouses and trim sailboats—when it occurs to me. I follow the petite waterfront, scanning it for an even littler Den lille havfrue. Mikkel shrugs. How do I know she’s here?

“She must be.” I squint. They wouldn’t have left her out. I double around.

I find her sitting there in her way, several Lego people on the bank having their look-see. What more am I looking for?

In time I am striding to my gate through CPH, homeward bound. I notice by the bar a replica Den lille havfrue about a fifth the size of the real one. Looking at the time—I have more than an hour before boarding call—I hunker down with a Carlsberg, chewing on pimento olives and crackers and baking ideas about the nature of roughing up mermaids.

When I am ready to go, I ask another patron to get a picture of us, then thank him and shoulder my carry-ons.

Vi ses. See you later. I tweak her nose. And I blow her a kiss.

Out my window, under the plane’s wing, the clouds are ocean lather.

The last time I saw her, grey swans were bobbing off by docked yachts. And then, right off the page of Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” a snow-white swan glided over. The chic woman next to me pushed her sunglasses onto her head and pointed out to a child, “Le vilain petit canard.” I knew what she said though I don’t speak French. The ugly duckling. Disney considered doing Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” in the 1930s for their Silly Symphonies series; instead, they chose the late bloomer’s story.

I watched the severe bird swim circles around Den lille havfrue, its neck like a question mark, taunting her. The national bird of Denmark is a territorial jerk. Danish parents often warn their children: “Hvis du kommer for tæt på en svane, så kan den brække din arm.” If you go too close to a swan, it might break your arm. All the tourists clucked in their languages.
Do you not love me the best of all?” the eyes of the Little Mermaid seemed to say.

Behind her, the waterscape appeared like wrinkled bedsheets. Her silence didn’t seem like voicelessness then.

At first, Walt Disney Studios didn’t know how to create Ariel. Would she be cute, or exotic? They came up with a spirited, head-strong sweet-sixteener based on live-action model Sherri Stoner and teenage Alyssa Milano.

Not since the 1950s had animation been a key venture of The Walt Disney Company, but Ariel turned the tide. In the wake of The Little Mermaid came a wave of success—Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994)—that became known as the “Disney Renaissance.”

But the bond between creators and their brainchildren can strain. As did Pygmalion’s Galatea, Den lille havfrue has come into her own. “Galatea,” Shaw tells us, “never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

Which reminds me. A stanza from a Debra Cash poem, “The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight”:

Hans lied. He didn’t know the prince was just an excuse
for me to change my life, to stop being a sister, a daughter.

No longer the lovesick thing Andersen created, the Little Mermaid’s mien is all knowing. She’s not mute after all; she’s actually quite conversational about Danish socioculture, how wide but readable the world is, how we gain insight from low-profile things. Behold the mermaid.

Coda comes from the Latin cauda, “tail.” Only naturally can this end with a tail.

My uncle sat down with Walt Disney and his people in the sixties. Uncle gifted 3,000 acres of cheap, middle-of-nowhere land to Disney, and Disney gifted stock to my uncle in return. With the government’s blessing, the company avoided taxation because of the economic stimulation Disney would bring, and in that way about 28,000 acres of palmetto brush, cattle land, and swamp became Disney World and its add-ons.

Disney opened a satellite production facility in Florida’s Lake Buena Vista in the summer of 1988. The studio did ink and paint support for The Little Mermaid. I’d been born a few months earlier, only 15 miles away.

There’s more, but what I think happened is that a convergence of currents generated a whirlpool, and I got sucked down its Charybdian throat. It all seems very fishy, doesn’t it? But we know that’s what intrigue smells like. Like something rotten in the state of Denmark.

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