This Danish fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Mermaids and begins with a mermaid who has established an unexpected career in agriculture. Her herd of cows usually graze on seaweed, but that’s not working for them and at length they demand some real grass. The mermaid swings atop one of the cows and leads the herd to a nearby field. “Now, my darling grey cows, and you, my huge bull Mark, eat your fill,” the mermaid says, and they do exactly that – until the humans come along to spoil everything.
You see, near the field is a small town. No one there owns any cows, therefore the grass is of no particular use to them, but the sight of the mermaid happily combing out her hair while her beasts graze ignites their latent xenophobic possessiveness. Forming a mob, they block the mermaid’s path as she tries to return to the sea, throwing stones and beating the cows with sticks. They are terrible people. The bull Mark wants to retaliate with his considerable force, but the mermaid has queenly good manners and won’t let him hurt anyone. She and her herd are instead locked away in a yard while the townsfolk debate what to do.
One man wants to kill them all. He is, appropriately enough, the town butcher. A tailor protests, not because he is ethically superior but because he’s scared of Mark. A third man, this one a lawyer, comes up with an alternative suggestion: making the mermaid pay damages for the eaten grass. “Don’t mermaids possess riches?” he points out, and the crowd starts cheering.
They go to the mermaid with their demands. “I can’t pay,” she says blankly. “I haven’t any money.” This is a cultural misunderstanding on her part – she is wearing a heavily bejewelled girdle that will do quite nicely. There are easily enough precious stones there to set up all the townsfolk for life, but given how little worth the mermaid seems to place on her girdle, they assume she must possess far greater riches. “In three days time,” they tell her, “come to the shore where we shall be waiting, and bring us three more such girdles.” She agrees to the terms and they let her go back to the sea.
The cows wade into the sea, disappearing underwater, until only the mermaid and her bull are left on the beach. “Rake up, my bull!” the mermaid instructs, and Mark goes to work with his horns. Sand fills the air. The crowd of onlookers who followed them down to the water quickly retreat, but Mark keeps raking and sand keeps flying, settling like drifts of snow upon rooftops and streets, piling against windows and blocking doors. When the town is half-buried, the mermaid tells Mark to stop and he gives a smug bellow for anyone listening before following her into the sea.
That’s what you get when you mess with a mermaid. The townsfolk clean up as best they can, but two days of shovelling is not enough to make a dent and soon patience is in short supply. The lawyer throws down his shovel, announcing he’ll go to the city and sell the mermaid’s girdle. A distrustful chorus is raised. In the end the butcher and tailor accompany him, to make sure no one cheats anyone else.
On the way to the city, they stop and the lawyer draws the girdle from his pack. The stones shine winningly in the sunlight. “Thousands of pounds we shall get for these gems!” he gloats. “What, only thousands? Nay, millions!” This attitude does not inspire trust from his companions, each of whom insist on carrying it the rest of the way – the argument turns into a fight, each man grabbing a side of the girdle and pulling with all his might. Unsurprisingly, it breaks. Jewels roll everywhere. When the men hurry to gather them up, they find only dried seaweed. They can do nothing but return to town, empty handed.
The mermaid is a woman of her word. On the third day she comes to the beach as agreed, bringing the promised jewels. “Your girdles!” she calls. “Come and fetch them!” No one comes near; in the distance, the lawyer shakes his fist. The mermaid laughs and dives deep.
Given how often fairy tales portray the other – be that minority groups, non-humans or just non-pretty people – as evil or at the least untrustworthy, it’s rather wonderful to encounter a story in which such attitudes are so roundly criticised. The mermaid is dignified and courteous in the face of other people’s awful behaviour, but at the same time she’s nobody’s victim. Something else worth noting? The only descriptor of her looks is ‘queenly’. She doesn’t need to be hyperbolically beautiful to be stone cold fabulous.