I want a happy ending like in the fairy tales I so love: And they lived happily ever after to the end of their days. But I still wonder what that means. Does nothing bad ever happen again? Do the characters never again face evil? Does all the suffering end when the prince sweeps up the virtuous, ill-used, impoverished girl? Fairy tales are supposed to end with happiness for those who’ve been abused, those who’ve struggled, but happily ever after still leaves me asking, What happened next? My experience is more like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid — the actual story he wrote, not the Disney version:
The little mermaid drew back the crimson curtain of the tent, and beheld the fair bride with her head resting on the prince’s breast. She bent down and kissed his fair brow, then looked at the sky on which the rosy dawn grew brighter and brighter; then she glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood. She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam.
The sun rose above the waves, and his warm rays fell on the cold foam of the little mermaid, who did not feel as if she were dying. She saw the bright sun, and all around her floated hundreds of transparent beautiful beings; she could see through them the white sails of the ship, and the red clouds in the sky; their speech was melodious, but too ethereal to be heard by mortal ears, as they were also unseen by mortal eyes. The little mermaid perceived that she had a body like theirs, and that she continued to rise higher and higher out of the foam.
“Where am I?” asked she, and her voice sounded ethereal, as the voices of those who were with her; no earthly music could imitate it.
Among the daughters of the air,” answered one of them. “A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. After we have striven for three hundred years to do all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul.”
The little mermaid lifted her glorified eyes towards the sun, and felt them, for the first time, filling with tears. On the ship, in which she had left the prince, there were life and noise; she saw him and his beautiful bride searching for her; sorrowfully they gazed at the pearly foam, as if they knew she had thrown herself into the waves. Unseen she kissed the forehead of her bride, and fanned the prince, and then mounted with the other children of the air to a rosy cloud that floated through the aether. (1)
The little mermaid receives not what she wants, the love of her dear prince. She’s given what she needs: the gift of tears, the community of the daughters of the air who recognize her striving and welcome her to work along beside them, and the hope of gaining a soul so that she can mount up to heaven. She is adopted into a world she never imagined when she sacrificed everything to be with the prince. Life continues after the happy ending. Toil continues but hope flourishes. She learns that “if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another harder and better one.” (2)
(1) Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid, http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Horse And His Boy