Hans Christian Andersen fashioned "The Little Mermaid" from diverse elements, but fundamentally the story is a literary tale that is recognizably his own. The folkloric elements that have been identified are the plot itself, as inspired by de la Motte Fouque's story Undine; Paracelsus's doctrine of elementary spirits; the ballad "Agnete and the Mermaid"; and the folktale "The Mute Queen" (for the scene in which the mute mermaid lives in the palace) (Holbek, 166). Andersen also incorporated varied aspects of traditional and literary tales about selkies, nixes, Lorelies, and Melusines. In all of these traditions, a fairy creature can remain on Earth as a bride to a mortal only under certain conditions (Warner 1994, 396).
This chapter looks briefly at some of these influences before concentrating on the critical interpretations of Andersen's most prominent tale and its most well-known adaptation, the Disney film. In actuality, there have not been too many other renderings of this storyline published since Andersen made it his. Although some short story variants were produced in the 1990s, this chapter includes only one reworking in novel form and two poems. Most of the short stories have been reactions to the Disneyfication of Andersen's tale, which is summarized here.
Andersen begins his tale with a description of the underwater world of the Sea King and his subjects. Grandmother, the first character that speaks, tells the Sea King's daughters of the ceremony that they will embark on when they are 15 years old.