When it comes to tourism, talk of Denmark far too often revolves around what is, perhaps, one of its most unimpressive and disappointing landmarks – the Little Mermaid. This sorrowful lass reclining by the sea is not ugly. And yet, she is not beautiful. In truth, the Little Mermaid is bland. She is a small statue crafted in a style that neither captures the entirety of the female form in vivid detail nor the essence of it through less specific but still compelling lines and curves.
She stands as an example of what happens when you take something mediocre and attempt to force it to greatness. With people, they sometimes excel – rising to the moment and to become something truly spectacular. With statues…well…they just become a disappointment. Something to take a photograph with, for the sake of taking a photograph, before moving on to the discovery of things that are more compelling and engaging.
It also fosters resentment and annoyance. I can think of few other statues that are so disliked by the local population. The only one that comes to mind more prominently is of course the “Freedom” statue of William Wallace, which looks suspiciously like actor Mel Gibson, in Scotland. That statue has been assaulted with a sledge hammer, caged for its own protection (irony aside), had its face shot off with a shotgun, and now resides after careful restoration inside a locked visitor’s center.
While the average Dane’s level of animosity towards the Little Mermaid leans more towards apathy, she has still been the focus of numerous assaults including multiple beheadings, the removal of an arm and a number of unwelcome paint jobs. While, unlike Wallace, she still remains upon her native perch available to the public, she is filled with cement, reinforced, and carefully monitored.
Of course it doesn’t help that the artist’s family who owns the rights to the statue are less benevolent than a pack of hungry hyena. While they’ve never disclosed what they make each year from the Little Mermaid, they are famous for their aggressive defense of royalties and for targeting photographers. Not exactly the type of behavior that fosters belief or support in the Little Mermaid as a national icon. You may have noticed that a photo of the Little Mermaid is missing from this post – well, i’d include a photo of the Mermaid in this post, but, well…I think you’ll understand.
At the end of the day I often wonder, in this city of wonders, of art, of culture, and of history – why do we care about the Little Mermaid and how has she become the crowning attraction tied to H.C. Andersen? Was it just that in a mad scramble to find something tangible that embodied his wonderful stories that a bland statue of a mermaid by the sea was the best that could be found? Or is there some innate beauty or attraction to the Mermaid that most locals and visitors overlook? I doubt it.
It is a crying shame that the Little Mermaid stands as such a disappointing tribute to one of Denmark’s greatest authors and the central figure in one of his most well-loved stories. There surely must be a more fitting tribute that we can invest our energy and excitement in. I for one wish her no ill will, but of the many things to see during a quick visit to Copenhagen – the only reason to visit the Mermaid is for a check-mark on a checklist. What I find makes the whole affair even more unfortunate is that she sits less than a 10-minute walk from the slightly older Gefion Fountain. A glorious tribute to a Norse goddess that has sweeping lines, plays with water elegantly and possess a sense of motion and power that actually merits praise.
The one question that remains is how will the Little Mermaid’s story end this time? Will it be a happy ending? Or will it share echoes of the original fairytale, one full of sadness and unrequited love.