So when you get to Copenhagen, there’s clearly only one site to see: the statue of the Little Mermaid. And you also get the same reaction from all the locals, “Why would you want to do that? It’s such a small statue. It’s not worth it.”
TripAdvisor seems to agree with that sentiment, ranking the statue a #48 of 374 things to do. It only gets 3.5 out of 5 stars. This ranks below the very scenic spiral spire of The Church of Our Savior (4.5 stars, though we were warned away by my uncle due to the neighborhood being a notorious drug den), the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, and the palace where the Royals stay at. It’s probably not my top site either. I was most excited about the Round Tower of Copenhagen, another local landmark that was mentioned many times in Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. (I’ll have to talk about that some time in the future.)
And yet… when you get to The Little Mermaid, you’re greeted with crowds of tourists pushing and jostling to get into position so they can have a picture of this tiny, insignificant statue. One that has the face of a celebrity ballerina and the body of the sculptor’s wife. I should know. I was one of those tourists.
Fortunately, I was already prepared for the underwhelming scale: I’d already seen Vancouver’s “Girl in the Wet Suit”, a modified copy of The Little Mermaid. (Though the Copenhagen version is still better.) After all, it’s called “The Little Mermaid.” “Little” is part of the name. It’s a unique statue in which the lighting is never, ever going to be right. Even when you get a postcard, most of the statue is going to be hidden in shadows.
But, seriously, why the fascination? Well, it’s got a strange totemic quality in that if you visit a certain city, you feel like you’ve wasted your day by not seeing the city’s symbol. Like… going to New York and not seeing the Statue of Liberty or going to Seattle and not going up the Space Needle.
And, well… it’s actually a fairly intriguing statue. I mean, it’s barely the Little Mermaid. It’s just a nude woman reclining on a rock. The only clue is that her foot is still partially a fish tail. But you do start to wonder… what’s going on in her head? What drove her to leave everything she left behind? Knowing the original non-Disney doomed conclusion, are we seeing this poor girl mere weeks before she meets her demise? There is a bit of a sense of doom in seeing how precariously she balances on that smooth rock, as if any false step means her end. The arm is angled out as if she’s unsteadily feeling the ground for the first time. The shadows work to her advantage, as if she’s still carrying the dark ocean depths with her as she arrives on land.
The statue has been vandalized many times, and the Copenhagen city council has toyed around with plans to fence her off or put her further out at sea… but the close proximity to which tourists can approach her is, I feel, also part of the appeal. As in, we are the world that she’s getting so close to, but will never fully join. If you set her apart for the sake of safety… well, I feel you lose that element.
All that was probably never the authorial intent. (It was commissioned by a noble who was obsessed with a ballet based on the story and who was obsessed with one of the ballerinas, in general.) But I think that’s what it finally came to represent, and why the statue remains the top Copenhagen tourist attraction.