Mermaids: Exploring Gender Inequality in “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”

The cover page of The Pink Fairy Book, edited and compiled by Andrew Lang

©Copyright 2011, Katherine Smyk, Mark Moliterni

Andrew Lang, ed. Hans, the Mermaid’s Son. The Pink Fairy Book. Ill. Ford, H. J. New York: Dover, 1967. 112-125. Print.

Andrew Lang as a Patriarchal Storyteller

Andrew Lang’s The Pink Fairy Book, originally published in 1897, was part of a lucrative series of ‘coloured’ fairy tale anthologies.  With 41 stories in this volume alone, Lang covered a vast array of folk and fairy tales over the course of his career. The series was enormously popular and a new book was released each Christmas to much fan fervour (“Andrew Lang”). Lang, who was considered conservative even in his time, championed fairy tales as a storytelling medium mainly for children (“Andrew Lang”). Accordingly, he used his stories to reinforce the patriarchal beliefs of his time, rather than subverting them. H.J. Ford, his long time partner, illustrated the text with sixty-nine classically drawn, black and white images, further emphasizing the book’s conservatism. Tucked away in this version of the Fairy Books is a little known Danish story called “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” which demonstrates the masculine bias in Lang’s work and its place in the greater historical trend of patriarchal folk and fairy tales. In this story, the mermaid takes a role behind the scenes of the narrative, obscuring her as a subject.

Mark Moliterni will be analyzing the myth of the mermaid by contrasting Lang’s characterization of the mermaid with the characterization of her son. Historically, mermaids have been used in literature and folk tales as a representation of femininity in a condescending manner, depicting them as little more than objects of sex and beauty. In her study of the story’s context Katherine Smyk will be focusing on the origins of “Hans” by analyzing it in the context of Greek mythological figures Hercules and the Sirens. Essentially, this exhibit will explore the inherent gender inequality of the mermaid myth, as has been seen throughout folk and fairy tale history.

The Mermaid as an Object of Sexuality and Beauty

“Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” follows the life of the titular half-merman on his journey of maturation. The plot begins with a human blacksmith named Basmus who goes missing at sea. Three days after his disappearance, Basmus mysteriously returns back to town with a boat full of fish and a life’s supply of treasures. Six years later, when Hans arrives at Basmus’s home, it is revealed that the blacksmith was rescued by a mermaid during his three days at sea and together they conceived a son. Though only six, Hans has the physique and stature of an eighteen year old man and his mother can no longer handle him, thus bringing him to his father’s house.

The story deemphasizes the significance of the mermaid, never going beyond her role as a mythical wish-fulfilling creature and mother. She receives no name, no dialogue, and little agency over the plot. Her main purpose is to serve as a tool for Basmus’ survival and to facilitate a sort of mythical sexual fantasy, sleeping with him during their time together and conceiving his son. Although she receives no descriptive characterization in the text, there is an illustration devoted to her, which further accentuates her position as an object of desire and sex. In a rather beautiful image, the naked mermaid with long, luscious hair guides the fully clothed Basmus by the hand through her magical world under the sea.

H.J. Ford illustrates the mermaid's and Basmus' first meeting

Besides providing Basmus with sexual fulfilment, there is little else that can be concluded about the mermaid other than her inadequacy as a mother. She takes on a subordinate role as a woman who cannot manage her own son, sending him off to his father because he is much too strong for her. This strength manifests itself physically but, in actuality, works as a metaphor for man’s overall power over woman. The mermaid’s lack of characterization, especially in contrast to her son and Basmus, says more than anything else. By deciding not to focus on the mermaid, Lang implicitly suggests that her story is not worth telling and her character lacks significance, despite her importance as a plot-device.

Hans as the Idealized Masculine Figure

In contrast, Hans is characterized as being unstoppably powerful, with no apparent qualities from his mother’s “race,” other than super strength. With the body of a human man, Hans is unrecognizable as a mer-person and little is said of his physical appearance (as opposed to the emphasis placed upon his mother’s beauty). The attribution of supernatural strength for Hans is not particularly inspired; a cliché ability for a male character to be endowed with. Perceived as a metaphorical extension of man’s mental and intellectual power, super strength has defined many male characters throughout literary history from Hercules to the Hulk.

Old Eric attacks Hans, as illustrated by H.J. Ford

Hans is also characterized as intellectually superior to everyone he encounters. Many of the characters Hans meets on his journey attempt to outsmart him by assigning him with seemingly impossible tasks, which he always completes in the end. The story’s only other illustration depicts the sea creature, Old Eric, attempting to drown Hans by sneakily attacking from behind. Hans, of course, lives; he is, after all, the almighty hero of the story.

Instead of carving a new archetype for the mermaid in his story, Lang only perpetuates the myth of the mermaid and many of the misogynistic beliefs which helped define it. In fact, nearly all of the classic tropes of the mermaid myth are played upon here: her elusiveness as a character, her role as a sex symbol and seductress, and the mysteriousness of the mermaid child rearing and birthing process (Banse; Jewitt). After all, she seduces Basmus, a father of many young children (and so, presumably, married), symbolizing sexual temptation and “deviations from the righteous path” (Banse 150). The reader never gets to know the mermaid; she vanishes from the plot after the second page and even then, everything we know of her comes second hand. Due to Lang’s conservatism and his decision to direct his fairy tales at children, there is no explanation as to how she gave birth to Hans (or how, anatomically, she and Basmus were even able to conceive). Furthermore, there is no detail into her relationship with her son or how she raised him to be so out of control that she had to send him away in the end.

The portrayal of the mermaid in Lang’s text only perpetuates the patriarchal views of gender in society and the inherent misogyny in the myth of the mermaid. Where the mermaid could have been more than just an object of affection and an actual character with definitive personality traits, she amounts to little more than a plot device.

Mermaids in Greek Mythology

By analyzing the mermaid from the contextual perspective of Greek Mythology, the earlier qualities conceived of the female archetype as a seductive mythological creature can be examined. By looking at the Sirens as well as the elusive quality of the ocean itself, the influence that the Greeks had upon Andrew Lang’s depiction of the mermaid become apparent. The inequality inherent to the power relations of the male and female can be seen as the female resorts to manipulation and abduction. The development of the mermaid within the lore of the British Isles as well as Denmark drew inspiration from the Sirens of Greek Mythology. Most notably appearing within Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens assailed Odysseus and his crew. The half-woman, half-eagle creatures accosted these men with their enticing singing, both vicious and mysterious in their beauty (Vredeveld 846). The Greeks, a seafaring people, viewed the sea as a world of its own, parallel to that of earth. The unexpected appearance of the Sirens is a testament to the mystery that the sea possesses (Greene 427-428).

Odysseus is assailed by the Sirens in this Greek vase painting.

Aesthetically, mermaids have been characterized in similar ways to the Sirens. Each feminine creature embodies notions of sexuality, violence, and intrigue. Both the Sirens and the mermaids belong to a single element – air in the case of the Siren, and water in the case of the mermaid (Aggard). The tale of “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son,” offers a story that is also focused upon the luring of a male to sea, as well as the consequences of the man’s vulnerability to the mermaid’s temptation. The intention of the mermaid is similar to that of the Sirens within The Odyssey. Both The Odyssey and “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son” acknowledge the seductive influence of an archetypical female figure, as well as the naivety of man. The mermaid’s son represents the unification between the mermaid’s power and human mortality. The son is sent to live with his father among mortals, where he encounters hostility as a result of this unification. This echoes the trials and tribulations faced by Hercules within Greek Mythology. Hercules, a demigod, cannot truly be comfortable within the company of mortals (Aggard). He is constantly being challenged, mocked, and questioned. The same is true of Hans, who is resented and opposed by the mortals that he comes to live among. Andrew Lang, a Scottish folklorist, historian, and editor, depicted the son of the mermaid as a Herculean figure who overcomes his obstacles, ultimately departing from the land of the mortals for the sea. Once again, the juxtaposition of water and air can be identified as Hercules departs for Olympus, a kingdom elevated above the mortal world.

Perpetuating Patriarchy through the Mermaid Myth 

In summation, Hans, the Mermaid’s Son depicts a literary female archetype that is manipulative and seductive while being mysterious and elusive. During her brief appearance at the beginning of the narrative, she lures a naïve man into her clutches and conceives his child who grows up to be a problem for them both. Later returned to land, the man has been dumbfounded by the mermaid and cannot recall being ensnared by her overt display of feminine power (Greene 430). The man must then deal with the consequences of his naivety when eventually faced with his son. The son, who unites characteristics of his influential mother with those of his credulous father, is a representational bond of the analogous genders as well as that of two races – the mermaid and the mortal. This outcome is a demonstration of female persuasion and coercion. From the contextual perspective of Greek Mythology, this characterization of the mermaid was used as a literary tool, converting femininity into an archetype. This, initially done with the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, first offered a female archetype utilizing her sexual appeal as a leveraging tool. Later drawn upon by “Hans, the Mermaid’s Son”, the female harnesses the water as an elemental power within a new narrative. The power struggle displayed between the male and the female ultimately leaves the woman as the antagonist of the story. This depiction is a testament to the gender inequality within literary characterizations. With only a brief appearance within the narrative, the story largely omits the importance of the mermaid for anything other than her use to man, perpetuating a patriarchal ideal.

Works Cited

Aggard, Walter R. “Greek Prototypes of American Myths.” Classical Journal of the Middle           West and South. 54.8 (1959): 338-343. Print. <>.

“Andrew Lang.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resource               Center. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.

Banse, Karl. “Mermaids- Their Biology, Culture, and Demise.” Limnology and                               Oceanography 35.1 (1990): 148-53. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Greene, William Chase. “The Sea in the Greek Poets.” North American Review. 199.700             (1914): 427-443. Print. <>.

Jewitt, Llewellynn. “The Mermaid of Legend and of Art.” The Art Journal 6 (1880): 117-               20. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Rosenstein, Roy. “Andrew Lang.” Nineteenth-Century British Book Collectors and                       Bibliographers. Ed. William Baker and Kenneth Womack. Detroit: Gale Research,              1997. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 184. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4            Oct. 2011.

Vredeveld, Harry. “”Deaf as Ulysses to the Siren’s Song”: The Story of a Forgotten Topos.”        Renaissance Quarterly. 54. The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.                              <>.