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Literature / The Singing Mermaid

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The Singing Mermaid, also known as De Zingende Zeemeermin,note  is a Dutch Fairy Tale that falls under Nautical Folklore. Around 1970, Nelly Kunst included it in Er was eens... Bekende Oude Sprookjes Naverteld Door Nelly Kunst. The tale is a variant of the Mother and Death motif as found in The Story of a Mother by Hans Christian Andersen and The Aged Mother by The Brothers Grimm, but it lacks the theophilosophic compliance and allows the mother to get her child back.

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A fisherman's widow goes looking for her only child when they don't return home for dinner. She searches along the coast until late at night she happens upon a mermaid who sings about the children playing happily in her castle at the bottom of the sea. Upon being asked, the mermaid confirms the widow's child is among her charges now and continues singing. The widow begs and begs for her child until the mermaid feels pity and takes the widow along to a room in her castle. Through a tiny window, she can watch her child playing happily with the other children and she may stay as long as she wants. The widow is content at first, but as time passes longs for contact. She begs and begs once more and again the mermaid takes pity. She will return the child if the widow weaves her a mantle of her own hair, which the widow eagerly begins to work on. But again, time takes a toll on her emotional state, because her hair grows only so slowly. She doesn't have to beg this time — the mermaid takes pity and lends the widow a salve (or potion) to make her hair grow faster. It still takes a long time to finish the mantle, but the widow gets it done to the mermaid's satisfaction. She reunites the widow and her child and returns them to the surface.

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Compare with the stories surrounding Davy Jones, who keeps the corpses and sometimes the souls of drowned sailors in his locker, which is the seafloor.


Tropes included

  • Awesome Underwater World: The mermaid's castle at the bottom of the sea is a sight to behold. It houses the souls of drowned children, who get to play for eternity.
  • Bald Women: The widow ends up bald (until her hair grows back naturally) when she uses her own hair to make the mermaid a mantle. It's a sacrifice she didn't need to think about twice.
  • Death of a Child: The death of the widow's only child is what brings about the rest of the tale. Beyond the usual importance of a child, this child is all the family the widow still had, which adds to her desperation. The tragedy becomes even greater when the child is shown to be just one of many children who have been lost to the waves.
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  • Determined Widow: The widow has nothing more to lose after her child's death, so there's nothing that can deter her from getting them back. Of the virtues that can be assigned to the widow, persistence is the main one.
  • Equivalent Exchange: The mermaid essentially offers to give back a piece of the widow, her child, in return for a piece of the widow, her hair woven into a mantle. It's not in any way addressed in the fairy tale, but it can be interpreted that the time it would take to finish the mantle based on human hair growth speed would be equivalent to the child's age at the time of death.
  • Important Haircut: In some versions, the mermaid offers the salve to the widow a last time to spare her from returning to the surface with a bald head, but the widow politely declines because it doesn't matter compared to having her child back. Her new baldness therefore serves as a mark of her well-earned new beginning.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The mermaid has her role as psychopomp and can't just go around handing the dead back to the living, but she's not indifferent to sorrow either. The widow's persistence is one driving force in the story, the mermaid's pity the other.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The mermaid isn't always called a mermaid and when she is the context leans towards the term being used in a generic water spirit sense rather than in a person-with-fish-tail sense. She's the keeper of the souls of children drowned at sea.
  • Pimped-Out Cape: The mantle the widow makes is not only of a quality befitting a mother who desperately wants her child back, but also is made of her very own hair. There's not another like it.
  • Psychopomp: The mermaid is the caretaker of the children claimed by the sea, whom she hosts in her castle on the seafloor. She is not the killing element herself, as she states that it's the sea who took the child. She also says that it's the sea that never returns a soul, but evidently she has some authority of her own.
  • Rapid Hair Growth: The salve the mermaid gives the widow makes her hair grow faster so she can finish the mantle faster. In Kunst's version, the mermaid gives the salve to the widow immediately and the mantle is thus finished in half a year, but other versions imply a much longer production time. In some versions, the mermaid offers the salve to the widow a last time to spare her from returning to the surface with a bald head, but the widow politely declines because it doesn't matter compared to having her child back.
  • Rescued from the Underworld: The widow accompanies the mermaid to her underwater castle to see her dead child. After a while, "seeing" stops being enough and she gets an offer from the mermaid to exchange a mantle of her own hair for the child. It takes a long time, but the widow weaves a fine cloak and is allowed to take her child back home.
  • Super Not-Drowning Skills: It's not explained how the widow doesn't drown on the trip to or during her stay in the mermaid's castle, but it's logically the mermaid's doing.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: The widow buys her child back from the dead with a mantle made from her own hair. She weaves it herself. The true challenge is in acquiring the hair, since human hair doesn't grow very fast; an estimation for the widow would be between ten and fifteen centimeter in a year. Mercifully, the mermaid gives her a salve to speed up the growth rate.

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