1. POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS
Film: THE LITTLE MERMAID.
LINK TO THE SONG
‘Those poor unfortunate souls,’ exclaims Ursula, the sea-witch, with obvious distaste. Her vignette with Ariel is a self-contained narrative mythos standing amid the multiple archetypal tropes that litter The Little Mermaid like sea-shells on the sand. It is a common re-staging of the Christian ‘pact with the devil’ theme, even though the song is not directly Christian, steering away from that parable especially in the film’s happy ending (another primal archetype).
The music is exquisite, constantly vacillating in its tone between motherly tutorship and understated threat. In fact, this is one of the most varied songs in the Disney canon, so flexible that it remains equally catchy when transposed into new genres, effortlessly shifting from waltz and Operatic cantata to Ariel’s own lyric aria and the final Masonic call to the under-gods (sparsely broken by intermezzos of dialogue).While other Disney songs focus on the destructive qualities of evil, Poor Unfortunate Souls tackles the more subtle question of its seductive power, and the song is drenched with self-irony as Ursula, putting on her elaborate act over the low keys of her hymn, switches personalities to reflect the fears and desires in the gaze of Ariel. Like all great Disney villains, Ursula compounds her malevolence with an irresistible, inveigling personal charm – but the words she speaks have an extraordinary depth.
‘Those poor unfortunate souls’ – here are perhaps the most poignant words ever uttered in a Disney film. The register is that of a speaker who is external to humanity and to ‘the souls’ that compose it – it is as though nature herself were looking at her subjects. From a Christian point of view, these words acknowledge the bitter heritage of original sin – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, in Hamlet’s words, the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Ursula, like nature, states these lines with mock compassion, drawing a gulf between the transcendental (God or the gods, nature personified, the devil, the supernatural, the force of fortune), which she represents, and the earthly, in those poor unfortunate souls whom she is so strikingly indifferent towards (worms, who are literally crushed and trapped in the ground of Ursula’s lair). The word ‘unfortunate,’ to the extent that fortune is a force beyond our control and a sister concept to representations of divine will or judgment, becomes a bitter metaphor to mean un-transcendental – and, therefore, natural. Thus ‘unfortunate’ and ‘natural’ contaminate each other in their meanings, lending an aura of melancholy and compassion to these four words which remains unmatched in the entire Disney canon.
Turning from the established condition to the suggestive potential, what is Ursula actually selling? What is she offering? In no other Disney film (except perhaps for Aladdin) does the villain represent such a fundamental catalyst for the fulfilment of the hero/ine. If Ariel cannot agree to Ursula’s pact and become human, there is no overriding her father’s authority, no reaching out to Prince Eric, no possibility for common grounds and, ultimately, no fateful happy ending. Though Ursula operates out of self-interest, the pact (or p/act) is not evil in and of itself. What Ursula offers is the possibility for Ariel to assume her full power. Such an assumption is necessary for Ariel to reach her happy ending, because her happy ending is precisely a state of independent agency, one in which her inner will has broken free from the shackles of family (her father), culture (her fish-friends) and even nature, in her condition as a mermaid. Ursula is selling the power to transcend those very natural limits which she represents in her lyric and which lend the song its title, those fateful destinies which surround Ariel as indistinct worms on every side – those poor, unfortunate souls.
Thus the song, in its entirety, becomes a potent metaphor for the human condition, torn between a deterministic condition of suffering and a will to break the rules and go beyond whatever the world around us (re)presents as destiny. The terror of assuming our own power is even greater than that of remaining in a state of suffering – this is why other traditions portray it as ‘selling your soul,’ the most frightening of scenarios, or by punitive parables such as that of King Midas. Our powers are so limitless that they scare us. If you negotiate with the transcendental, if you barter with the supernatural, then by definition you do not know what the price will be. Hence the root of the proverb, ‘Be careful what you wish for, because it may come true.’ As we look into Ursula’s mirror, we see the forces which bind and determine us, we see society, family, culture, morality, even nature, and we see them all for what they are – vaporous, feather-slight, powerless constructions which can be demolished with a brush of the finger. Like the cauldron of the sea-witch, the freedom that we subsequently stare into is terrifying – there are no referents, no points to hold on to, no anchors for identity, only the liberation of our power, which is unbounded. Is it a choice worth making? Will we know the price of what we have gained – and, as importantly, what we have lost – until we have crossed forever the line of our free will?
The double theme in Ursula’s song, the opposition of nature and natural laws against the existential void of our infinite power (the latter symbolised by the inebriatingly powerful figure of Ariel), is not a dialectic – Ursula is not an external agent ‘selling’ something, she is just an aspect of Ariel’s own free will. At the most, a projection of her terror. But Ursula and Ariel are not polarized figures, they are not yin and yan or alpha and omega or light and dark. They coexist in the same awareness, in the same ‘oneness,’ each a condition for the other – the ‘transcendental’ as a projection produced by the earthly (or, those who live on earth), and the ‘earthly’ as a category produced by the individual to describe her surroundings, retrospectively produced after the assumption of her power. The message of this song is lacerating – you are omnipotent. So be careful.