Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Attempt to Teach My Students a Concept I'm Not Sure I Agree With ...

I'm trying desperately to convince my students that virtually every story fits into a basic motif that we call, in middle school-ese, the "hero's quest".

As a writer, I find the idea that every story is essentially the same kind of cynical and almost bitter, but as a teacher, I have to sing in a different choir at times.

Anyway, in one of my many and varied attempts to convince them of this, I wrote the following exemplar paper.

I think it might have gone a little over their heads ;-)
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"The Little Mermaid’s Underwater Quest"
by KL

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is very different from the Disney version. However, it remains the story of a young mermaid who desires the love of a human man and her quest to marry him. Although its ending is not happy, there is no question that “The Little Mermaid” fits into the hero’s quest motif.

The very fact that the little mermaid lives underwater gives her birth unique qualities. She is the youngest daughter of the Sea King, and her under the sea world is a microcosm of our own. She watches each of her older sisters grow up and yearns to do the things that they can do.

This is especially true of the visit each young mermaid princess takes above water when they reach the age of fifteen. It is the little mermaid’s destiny to visit the human world—from the safety of the ocean, of course—and take from it what she will. As soon as she falls in love with the prince, though, he becomes the focus of her quest, and therefore part of her destiny.

The little mermaid is guided by two old women in her quest. First, her grandmother illustrates to her how a mermaid princess should act and gives her words of wisdom regarding her trip to the ocean’s surface. The sea witch also serves as her guide, giving her the potion that will turn her into a human at great cost. It’s also noteworthy that the sea witch advises her against becoming human, encouraging her instead to be happy with her existence.

The little mermaid has no direct foe, so to speak. However, the prince’s fiancée ultimately serves as the “enemy” in that the prince is in love with her and not the little mermaid. Still, the little mermaid does not blame the princess for her beauty or for the prince’s love of her; rather, she recognizes that she is a victim of circumstance.

Romance is at the heart of the little mermaid’s quest. She falls in love with the prince and takes on tremendous pain and risk for the chance to get him to reciprocate with his own love. The fact that she must witness the prince falling in love with another woman make the little mermaid’s own romantic wishes especially painful, even more so than the knives she feels with each step she takes.

There is no “final battle” in this story in the traditional sense. However, the wedding between the prince and the neighboring princess surely felt that way to the little mermaid. It is also with this marriage that any hope for a lifetime of romantic happiness with the prince is dashed, a fact that she clearly recognizes as she chooses not to murder the prince with the knife her sisters gave to her.

The little mermaid’s journey home, so to speak, is somewhat unusual. Among the sacrifices that she made in giving up her fish’s tail was the possibility of returning to her mermaid life as usual. However, she becomes a “daughter of the air” through her good deeds instead of the usual mermaid’s fate of becoming sea foam on the ocean.

When the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air and as such as the hope of someday achieving immortality, her quest is completed. While the intent of her quest was to marry the prince and become a human forever, fate had something else in store for her. What she found through her quest was ultimately more than what she had hoped for, something that is often true of hero’s quest stories … and why “The Little Mermaid” is such an effective example of the hero’s quest motif.