Tots to Teens, Star 2 on Sunday
I’M told that mermaids are the next big (floppy and wet) thing in YA fiction. A rather anatomically inconvenient mythological creature to write about if you ask me. The tail, of course, would be an excellent method of birth control. In fact, it would prohibit sexual intercourse altogether (wouldn’t it? My knowledge of aquatic vertebrate anatomy is practically non-existent) and this would surely meet with the approval of nervous parents and those who promote sexual abstinence among the young.
And what about the settings of these books? Mermaids have restricted mobility and any action would have to take place by the sea, on the sea or in the sea. I’m not sure if they need salt water to survive. If not, then at least these mermaid characters could also hang out in a swimming pool, or bath-tub. At a pinch they might also be propped up in a shower stall with the water running.
In The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, a mermaid manages to replace her tail with legs and feet, but at great cost. Every step she takes with her new feet, feels like she’s walking on sharp knives. I have always found this story really off-putting because of the extremes this little twit is willing to go through for a man.
Fans of the movie have argued that Ariel is an adventurous, head-strong young woman who is prepared to defy her father in order to live her dream, but all I see is a silly girl who gives up her voice (her most precious asset) and her family for a man who she knows next to nothing about.
Of course, as it’s Disney, the prince falls in love with Ariel (the little mermaid) without having had a single conversation with her. This hardly matters – after all, as Ursula, the sea witch, tells Ariel: “On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word … Come on! They’re not all that impressed with conversation, true gentlemen avoid it when they can. But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn! It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” Ugh.
Well, if you like the story of the little mermaid, the story has been retold by Carolyn Turgeon as Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale (Broadway, 256 pages, ISBN: 978-0307589972).
Another YA novel about mermaids is The Mermaid’s Mirror (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 320 pages, ISBN: 978-0547194912 ) by L.K. Madigan. This one is about a girl who is inexplicably drawn to the ocean up to the point of sleepwalking on the beach and to the edge of the sea. She nearly drowns one day and is saved by a mermaid who reveals a secret about Lena’s identity. Hmm … I wonder what it could be.
Then there’s a new trilogy called Lost Voices. The first book (Harcourt Children's Books, 304 pages, ISBN: 978-0547482507) has just been released and tells the tale of Luce, assaulted and left for dead on a clifftop. When she falls into the water below, Luce thinks she will drown but, instead, she changes into a mermaid. Welcomed by other mermaids who were once human girls, Luce discovers that she is now doomed to a life spent luring men to their deaths.
The best mermaid-related tale I’ve ever heard is the one told in The Mermaid Saga, a series of graphic novels by Rumiko Takahashi. The mermaids in this story are not the long-haired, sweet-voiced beauties who sit on rocks, combing their hair and turning shells and seaweed into fashion accessories. The mermaids here are evil flesh-eating creatures who keep young by consuming human flesh. Humans who eat mermaid flesh will become immortal, but might just as easily die or turn into a monster, or Lost Soul.
Mermaid Saga is about a 500-year-old immortal who ate mermaid flesh when he was a young man. While looking for a cure to his immortality he meets an immortal girl whom he helps escape from a village of mermaids. The girl was being fattened up by the mermaids who were planning to eat her once she reached puberty. Not quite what you were expecting of mermaids, right?
Whether they are benign or malevolent, mermaids appeal because they are mysterious and magical – fantasy figures that fascinate and repel equally, not least because of their dual nature. Neither fish nor fowl, they would be deemed monsters if not for their beauty and bare breasts. What challenges would a spotty, buck-toothed, flat-chested mermaid face? Is there more to life (for a mermaid) than luring sailors to a watery death or falling disastrously in love with a human? If more mermaid books are going to be published, I hope the mermaids in them prove to be more complex than Andersen and Disney would have us believe.