The Paris Review

The Original Little Mermaid

On Kay Nielsen, Disney, and the sanitization of the modern fairy tale.

A concept drawing by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid.

The mermaid in the illustration was lithe, mysterious, sylphlike. She perched on a rock, inscrutable. For years, I’d been bombarded with the images, books, merchandise, and endless one-offs of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Disney’s Ariel was redheaded, cheerful, an open book—voluptuous in that squeaky-clean cartoon way. She was certainly not the mermaid Hans Christian Andersen envisioned when he wrote his tragic tale. But here was a sad water sprite who was the perfect embodiment of the ambiguous virtues of folklore. I’d stumbled across her online, in a series of concept drawings for Disney’s The Little Mermaid. They had been drawn in the fifties and shelved for thirty years.

A concept drawing by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid.

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