Mermaid on the rocks
Photographs: Heather Gartside
Text: Heather Gartside
Sat for a hundred years between a rock and a hard place, the Little Mermaid gazes sadly towards the land, awaiting her prince to return. She gave up her royal status, her family, and was physically crippled and maimed - the price she must pay for adapting to fit a vision of female beauty that the prince can accept and love.
"Can you please inform me if there is elevator access to the top of the Little Mermaid?" - Tourist email enquiry 2019
But he is long gone, perhaps an early victim of ’fake news’ when he awoke shipwrecked on a beach to behold the vision of yet another princess saving him, and so was duped into loving the wrong girl.
This diminutive teenager disappoints entire groups of tourists on my guided tours. “Is that it?” The most overworked comment as tourists pose grumpily on the slippery rocks below. Yet she’s as famous as other iconic statues that symbolize cities, including the Statue of Liberty and Christ the Redeemer in Rio. She is the unlikely pin-up girl for a piece of 190-year long branding, largely attributed to the master storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen who certainly put Copenhagen on the map as ”Fairytale Capital of The World” from the 1830s onwards.
Small is beautiful
Denmark at this time was licking its wounds in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. when the Danes had their arm severely twisted by the British to stop merrily making a fortune by freebooting between all sides. The French had their Waterloo, as did the beleaguered Danes and after ceding Norway to the Swedish, the now tiny country plunged into bankruptcy. But not for long, as what emerged was a period where instead of looking outwards to their once substantial empire, the Danes looked inwards and into rebuilding the losses with a vision of a new, better world for every citizen. As an artist, I know how no vast array of luxurious paints can turn you into a better painter, but a restricted palette and a focus on what you have to hand can create the best work.
From the 1830s until the 1880s began a period known as the Danish Golden Age. A flourishing of the creative arts and an establishing of Denmark as a force to be reckoned with in literature, design, democracy, music, philosophy, inventions and science. H.C Andersen was at the forefront with his delightful, dark and vivid tales. As the industrial revolution raged with black clouds of toxic smoke throughout Europe, Denmark, with their lack of fossil fuels became renowned as a place to visit for fresh air, dreamy spires and fairytale castles. It still is today, but perhaps now is the time to promote the city in other ways.
Something fishy going on
The Little Mermaid is a paradox as a pin-up girl anyway. First published in 1837, the story is one of his most famous fairy tales. It tells the story of a mermaid who becomes entranced by the human world. The tale ends (sort of) happily as the Little Mermaid does not perish forever. She changes into a spirit of the air and is given a chance to attain the immortal soul she dreamt about. She is no longer in pain, has recovered her voice and soon, in a mere 300 years, will have an immortal soul.
Although she was a woman with great curiosity for the world, the unknown and the forbidden, I do see her as a woman of her time - a victim of love and sacrifice, as she trades her beautiful voice for legs and stabbing pain as she walks. She paid the ultimate price and gave it all up for the prince. The story contains a message about love and self-sacrifice and the dangers of accepting abuse or inconsiderate treatment in the name of love.
She has just 100 years to go before she attains her immortal soul. I would be nice to see her left alone for her remaining sentence. To brand the city for modern Danish values instead, and leave the pensive statue to a more gracious old age than the hoards of mermaid crazed tourists allow? Copenhagen today is a city and society that we can all live in: rich, poor, with or without kingdoms under the sea. Maybe sustainable tours of the future could show the world how a well-run society can be? All with the clean water, fresh air and the gender equality that the Little Mermaid would have undoubtedly delighted in.