There is what we might call a sweet spirituality in many of the stories we are told. My mother introduced me to this quality through some very simple stories, and I have searched for it in its deeper invitations ever since.
Longing for a Soul
My mother being Danish, Hans Christian Andersen was a standard. Amongst the stories she read to us was The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid is not only a story of love, but of longing for immortality. It is not just the prince the Little Mermaid wants, but an immortal soul so she can live forever (mermaids turn into sea-foam at the age of 300).
So the little heroine asks her grandmother about the human world and is told, “We have no immortal soul; we never have life again. . . . Mortals, on the other hand, have a soul which lives forever after the body has turned to dust. It mounts up through the clear air to all the shining stars.”
Her grandmother’s words only stir her longings more, so she asks, “Isn’t there anything at all I can do to win an immortal soul?”
Even as a child, I was being taught something wonderful about myself—I had an immortal soul! I would live forever. I would rise up to the shining stars. I don’t think as a child the idea of not existing ever took hold on my mind. The Little Mermaid wanted what I had, as my mother’s faith assured me.
There was, however, the grandmother continued, a way she could be immortal and gain a soul. “Only if a mortal fell so much in love with you that you were dearer to him than a father and mother; only if you remained in all his thoughts and he was so deeply attached to you . . . with a vow of faithfulness now and forever; only then would his soul float over into your body, and you would also share in the happiness of mortals. He would give you a soul and still keep his own."
Here was the child’s version of what love, and temple altars, and eternal lives are all about. One soul flowing into another’s, feeling oneness on all levels—life and immortality rising out of love.
Longing for Love
When my wife, Laurie, was dying, she was afraid of what the separation would do to our love. I drew upon Andersen and told her my soul had already entered her and hers into mine. That I felt her in every cell of my being, and the possibility of separation was not conceivable, for it would be a spiritual death—a tearing of a single soul felt in two individuals. She would always be in my thoughts until our reunion. I learned that from The Little Mermaid, and it was there when I needed it for both my wife’s and my own comfort. We knew what the floating soul was all about.
Andersen never knew love and died unmarried, but he craved it all his life. As he was the Ugly Duckling, he was also the Little Mermaid. After his death, they discovered a small leather bag hanging from his neck. It contained a letter from Riborg Voight, a girl he had once loved many long decades ago.
The Little Mermaid sacrifices all, including her voice, for a love that could make her immortal, and with each step she takes, pain shoots through her feet as if she were walking on knives. In Andersen’s tale, the prince does not fall in love with the Little Mermaid; he marries another princess while the little heroine turns into seafoam.
However, she is met by the daughters of the air who “have no immortal souls, either, but by good deeds they can create one for themselves.” This creation would take 300 years. She is promised that she, also, through goodness, can create her own soul, and that she will have the help of good children throughout the world. So goodness, as well as love, also creates the soul.
“For every day that we find a good child who makes his parents happy . . . God shortens our period of trial. The child does not know when we fly through the room, and when we smile over it with joy a year is taken from the three hundred.”
Well, children all over the world can picture the Little Mermaid floating over their rooms, and in their goodness, they can grant her what she wanted even more than the prince. I love the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, but it missed the whole point and got the ending wrong.
Great literature—great personalities—like The Little Mermaid, last with an enduring power because they continue to speak to each new generation, and what they say matters. They help us find our highest selves. They give us greater sensitivity. They help us understand our feelings. They prepare us to internalize the personalities we find in scripture. They open our hearts to love. They teach us to forgive, to empathize, to feel gratitude, to grieve. They open our eyes to beauty. And above all, they bestow a sense of things greater than ourselves, while at the same time showing us the nobility and dignity of ourselves.
For other gospel lessons from classic tales, check out Out of the Best Books: Eternal Truths from Classic Literature by S. Michael Wilcox, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.