Disney’s animated The Little Mermaid (1989) is the first movie I remember going to see at the theater. In case you’re wondering, that makes me two things: 1) old and 2) the target demographic for the 2023 live-action remake of the animated classic. Not only do I have fond-but-hazy memories of hearing “Kiss the Girl” and “Part of Your World” for the first time, lo those many years ago, I also now have a daughter through whom I can experience that magic all over again. The movie industry may be selling nostalgia these days, but as it turns out, I’m buying.
All of this is to say: it should come as no surprise that I loved every minute of the live-action The Little Mermaid, released in theaters this past May. Can we talk about Halle Bailey for a minute? That voice! Her gorgeous face! The athleticism required to appear as if she was actually swirling, floating, and diving underwater! She was magnificent, as was the whole world conjured in the film. Somehow, Halle and the wizards behind the computers at Disney studios made mermaids, sea witches, and singing crabs feel real.
When I began thinking about The Little Mermaid and its relationship to the RP, my first inclination was to highlight our many posts on love magic. After all, love spells like this one from eighteenth-century Russia or this one in a sixteenth-century English manuscript aren’t so very different from the spell Ursula weaves for Ariel. True, neither of these magical recipes requires a mermaid to give up her voice in exchange for legs, but grinding the heart of a snake into powder to sprinkle in a woman’s food as a love potion isn’t so very far removed from Ursula’s oeuvre.
Love magic we’ve got a-plenty in our archives, but that wasn’t what stood out in my viewing of the live-action The Little Mermaid. For me, the thrill of the remake came from seeing Ariel’s underwater existence come to vivid, three-dimensional life. We live in an entertainment era chock-a-block full of CGI effects, and even still, I found myself agog at the visuals in the film. How did they make Ariel’s hair swirl like that? The visual effects actually changed how I thought about a story I know by heart. Because Ariel’s CGI-conjured world felt both real and fantastical, her deep desire to give it all up for the mundanity of carriage rides and dinner conversation (or lack thereof) came into sharper focus for me.
In the Disney version, Ariel’s choice to leave the water comes with consequences: she has to give up her voice to grow legs. She can’t be what she was underwater when on dry land.
In that respect, she’s kind of like coral—or, at least, she’s kind of like coral as premodern philosophers understood it. As Laurence Totelin wrote in her 2016 post, The Coral and the Seal: Ancient Amulets Against All Ills, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that naturalists discovered that coral was in fact an animal—or, more precisely, thousands of marine animals whose secreted exoskeletons form the structures we call coral. Before then, natural philosophers believed that coral began its life underwater as a plant and then transformed into stone when it came into contact with air. Like Ariel, coral became wholly different when it crossed from the underwater world into our own.
Because it transformed from plant into stone, premodern people believed that coral had transformative properties when used as a medicinal or magical ingredient. Totelin wrote about ancient recipes in which coral was used to staunch blood, to whiten teeth, or to protect against all manner of evils. Other posts in the RP archives show coral being used in recipes centuries later: in the medieval French Livre de simple médicines, in recipe collections from early modern Austria, and in published recipe books from seventeenth-century England, to name just a few. The prevalence of coral in recipes spanning from the ancient to the early modern world points to its perceived power as a transformative ingredient. Like a singing mermaid, coral was precious because it was that rare object that could cross from the watery world into our own. The very fact of its presence on land suggested a wondrous metamorphosis.
The worldview that brought us mermaids and medicinal coral may be long gone, but in so many ways we remain fascinated and mystified by the creatures of the deep—and for good reason! Every day scientists discover new life lurking in the depths, some of it nearly as fantastical as singing mer-people (though not, perhaps, as photogenic as Halle Bailey). Who knows? Maybe somewhere in those depths is an organism with powerful, transformative properties of the kind premodern philosophers could only imagine for coral.
But just as Ariel was up against Ursula’s deadline in The Little Mermaid, we have our own deadline to meet when it comes to marine life. At the rate our oceans have warmed this summer, we may lose the world’s coral reefs within a few years. Early modern naturalists would be appalled—as should we. Deep sea creatures we can only imagine may become extinct before we have a chance to discover them.
So, if there’s one lesson I think we should take from this summer’s excitement for The Little Mermaid and premodern philosophers’ misapprehensions about coral, it’s this: the ocean may be inhospitable to humans and filled with creatures beyond our wildest imagination, but, in the lightly edited words of our marine heroine, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a “part of [our] world” worth saving.
In the spirit of remembering those who have been “part of our world,” I’d like to take this opportunity to offer enormous thanks to our co-editor, Clare Gordon Bettencourt, who is stepping down from our editorial board. Clare first joined the RP team with me in 2019 as a social media coordinator. If you’ve enjoyed our Twitter feed over the past few years or felt buoyed by the RP’s community online, it’s because of Clare’s work amplifying new scholarship, celebrating accomplishments, and bringing people together in ways that made us all stronger. Of course, Clare is also a researcher and scholar in her own right, and we were lucky to feature her post on “Food Identity Standards and Recipes as Legislation,” based on her dissertation research, in 2021. We are so grateful for her contributions and wish her well in her new career at Santa Clara University.