On this Valentine’s Day, it is good to reflect on what role romance has in the Christian life.
It is not, I think, found in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Perhaps, I am biased against this movie because I have watched it 50 bazillion times with my kids (as well as the sequel and prequel). Even so, I believe that what it says about romantic love is not good.
Since I think most people are familiar with it, let me retell the story from a slightly different vantage point. The sixteen-year-old Ariel wants to live on land. She catches a glimpse of a man, Prince Eric, saves his life, and, then, wants to abandon all of her family, her friends, and her whole lifestyle to be with this stranger about whom she knows little, less than someone she might find on Match.
Her ogre father has the audacity to love her and look out for her good, suggesting that humans are dangerous, having a propensity to kill and eat aquatic beings.
Ariel still wants to go to land, “where they do not discipline their daughters, bright young women, tired of swimming.” She decides to sell her voice, HER VOICE, to become human and use only her body to attract this unknown prince.
As Ariel pursues the prince however, Ursula, the sea witch, casts a spell so Prince Eric will marry her instead of Ariel. To get out of this dilemma, Ariel’s father gives Ursula his life in exchange for Ariel’s, but the sacrifice is useless, only giving Ursula more power. She takes his crown and trident and sets off to destroy Ariel and Eric. Only by killing her, by killing their enemy, do Eric and Ariel get to live happily ever after. Oh yeah, and Ariel happily abandons her family, friends, and aquatic life to be with Eric who sacrifices . . . nothing.
The litany of offenses should be easy to identity: women have to give up their identity to be with men, love at first sight is worth more than family and friendships, sacrificial love is impotent, and kill whoever tries to hinder your romantic relationship. Love, according to this narrative, is about fulfilling personal wants and desires to the detriment of everything else.
It is no wonder that the ancients considered eros, what we would call romantic love, a kind of madness that is best to avoid. What role could it possibly play?
While I think Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast actually has a good depiction of romance, I do not want you to think I have some prejudice against mermaids. So, let me turn to Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” to get at the value of romance for Christians.
In this story, the sixteen-year-old littlest mermaid (for Anderson does not give her a name) still has a fascination for the land. Yet, everyone is allowed to go to the surface. Neither her father nor her Grandmother, both of whom Anderson notes are wise and lovingly care for the children, prohibit it. It is only the youngest mermaid, however, who does not tire of going to the surface.
The little mermaid is enchanted by the sun, drawn up, over and over again, to the light. Once she sees a ship being torn apart in the waves and a prince thrown overboard. She rescues the prince and falls in love with him.
She asks her grandmother about humans and finds out that they have souls that live on after their death. Mermaids may live for three hundred years, but then they turn to sea foam. In this youngest mermaid a twofold desire is born: one for the prince and one for an immortal soul. The Grandmother warns her against her growing desire but does tell her the only way to get a soul is to have a human love her.
The little mermaid cannot rid herself of this desire, so she visits the Sea Witch. The Sea Witch says that she will help the mermaid but it will cost her her voice and every step she takes with her new legs will feel like she is walking on knives. The little mermaid agrees, but the Sea Witch tells her she should think carefully about what she is doing. She is sacrificing her family and friends, and, if the prince does not love her and marries another, she will die neither as a mermaid nor as a human with an immortal soul. The little mermaid still agrees.
On the surface, the little mermaid meets the prince she rescues, but he ultimately falls in love with another and marries her. Knowing the little mermaid will die at sunset on the prince’s wedding day, the little mermaid’s sisters sell their hair to the Sea Witch for a knife. They give it to the little mermaid and tell her if she kills the prince and his new wife with the knife before sunrise, she can return to being a mermaid.
Knowing that she is neither human nor mermaid, the little sister goes into the honeymoon suite while the married couple slumbers, raises the knife to plunge it into their hearts . . .and then tosses the knife out the window. She cannot kill them. The sun rises, and the little mermaid dies.
Instead of nothingness though, the little mermaid finds herself floating above the water, among the people of the air. It turns out one can also gain a soul by truly loving another and not just by having someone love you.
Here, I think, is the value of eros for Christians. Romance is at root good. It can draw us out of a parochial view of life and the world so that we can love others better. It draws us out not so that we can reject our selves, friends, and families but that, through loving another, we might understand how to love better, more fully, more Christ like. Romance points to something greater. In Anderson’s version, the little mermaid’s love of the sun leads her to the prince which leads her to desire a soul and ultimately moves her to a genuine love of another. It is a demanding and richer love, and, ultimately, the completion of romantic love. While I hope most relationships do not end like the little mermaid’s, I do hope that people experience this expansive eros, the romance that opens one up to the fullness of life and to a beloved, and, through this love, to the neighbor, the stranger, and even the enemy. I think Pope Benedict captures it well in Deus Caritas Est when he writes that eros is “a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”