Does The Little Mermaid really take place in Denmark as many people think? After all, that is where the author of the original fairytale, Hans Christian Andersen, lived and where the world-famous Little Mermaid statue can be found. But it is not that easy.
The original Little Mermaid fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen took place in Italy, not in Denmark as many people assume. Disney’s animated movie version of The Little Mermaid also takes place in the Mediterranean Sea (Atlantica) and Italy (Prince Eric’s castle).
In the following, we will look at the details in the fairytale and the Disney movie that prove that it did in fact not take place in Denmark.
Where was the original Little Mermaid fairytale set? (Not Denmark!)
Since Hans Christian Andersen lived in Denmark and the famous statue of the Little Mermaid is in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, many people assume that the fairy tale was also set in Denmark.
But Andersen never mentions in his fairy tale where exactly the story takes place or to which country the prince belongs.
However, it is believed that the land where the Little Mermaid meets the prince was inspired by his travels in Italy.
It is known that the Italian landscape fascinated him very much. So much indeed that he incorporated his experiences into the fairy tale of The Little Mermaid as well as other pieces (in The Improvisatore from 1835 he describes various Italian cities).
In 1834 Andersen traveled to Italy for the first time and in 1837 The Little Mermaid was published. That’s why it is believed that he possibly even wrote the fairy tale during his lengthy stays in Italy.
And if you read the original fairy tale by Andersen, you can easily see that it is definitely not Denmark.
Already in the first sentences of the fairy tale Andersen wrote the following:
„Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal…“Hans Christian Andersen
Cornflowers have a bright light blue color.
However, in Denmark and northern Europe in general, the sea is mostly gray or dark blue and nowhere near as clear as it is in warmer parts of the world.
In this image, you can see the ocean in Denmark on the left and the ocean in (southern) Italy on the right. As you can see, the water is much clearer and brighter in Italy.
You can also see, that Denmark has a flat shore (because it’s a very flat country) while Italy has many rocks and hills right on the shore (there is a statue up on the hill).
In fact, Andersen describes many such features of an Italian or Mediterranean landscape in his fairy tale.
When the Little Mermaid and her sisters swim to the surface to look at the country, they see green hills on which people grow wine and high blue mountains with snow on their peaks.
The third sister’s turn followed, and she was the boldest of them all, for she swam up a broad river that emptied into the sea. On the banks she saw green hills covered with beautiful vines, and palaces and castles peeping out from amid the proud trees of the forest.Hans Christian Andersen
Italy has many such hills where wine is grown as well as mountains.
However, Denmark is a very flat country where there are no mountains and where wine is rarely grown.
And there are snow-covered mountains in the south of Italy too, just like Andersen describes them.
For example, there is snow on the summit of the volcano Etna in Sicily for most of the year:
Moreover, in the fairy tale, lemon and orange trees grow in people’s gardens and there are even palm trees.
Orange and citron trees grew in the garden, and before the door stood lofty palms.Hans Christian Andersen.
Oranges and lemons grow in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain, and vineyards and palm trees are also typical of these southern areas of Europe as well.
This also means that definitely could not have been Denmark. Because there it is simply not warm enough for lemon trees and palm trees.
Another reference to Roman or Greek history is the statue of the prince that the Little Mermaid found when it fell out of a ship and sank to the bottom of the sea.
While her sisters showed delight at the wonderful things which they obtained from the wrecks of vessels, she cared only for her pretty flowers, red like the sun, and a beautiful marble statue. It was the representation of a handsome boy, carved out of pure white stone, which had fallen to the bottom of the sea from a wreck.Hans Christian Andersen
Similarly the palace of the prince definitely falls into the category of Greek style architecture with marble stairs, pillars and statues:
“Come, little sister,” said the other princesses. Then they entwined their arms and rose together to the surface of the water, near the spot where they knew the prince’s palace stood. It was built of bright-yellow, shining stone and had long flights of marble steps, one of which reached quite down to the sea. Splendid gilded cupolas rose over the roof, and between the pillars that surrounded the whole building stood lifelike statues of marble.Hans Christian Andersen
This style of architecture is also very commonly found in many areas in Italy because the Greek influenced Italy (the Romans) a lot in regards to art and mythology.
Furthermore, Andersen mentions that the mermaids interact with dolphins. In Denmark, it is too cold for dolphins, but they do live in the Mediterranean sea.
All of this shows that the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen was strongly influenced by the Italian landscape that Andersen experienced during his travels to Italy.
Where does Disney’s The Little Mermaid take place?
Disney’s 1989 movie version of “The Little Mermaid” took Hand Christian Andersen’s fairy tale as its inspiration.
A few things were changed, of course, such as the ending of the film and some additional characters like Sebastian and Flounder were added.
The only thing that is stated in the movie itself about Ariel’s whereabouts is that she lives in an underwater city called Atlantica.
For a long time Disney did not really give many hints on where exactly the Little Mermaid is set.
But in 2019 a video was released on the Disney Princess Youtube channel that cleared up all the doubts:
At 0:19 min it is said that Ariel grew up in the Mediterranean Sea, meaning her underwater hometown Atlantica is located somewhere on the ground of the Mediterranean Sea.
And at 0:51 min it is stated that Prince Eric’s palace is somewhere in Italy. That means all the land scenes take place in Italy.
The exact part of Italy is not mentioned but I will get to that.
So, let’s have a closer look at where both Atlantis and Eric’s castle are located and what clues prove this in the movie.
Where do Ariel and her family live? (Where under the Sea?)
In the movie, the underwater city in which Ariel and her family live is called Atlantica, after the famous mythological underwater kingdom Atlantis.
The ancient myth of Atlantis in the Atlantic
Atlantis is an allegedly sunken city in the sea, around which many myths are entwined. It was actually first mentioned by the philosopher Plato in Greece more than 2000 years ago.
Plato wrote that Atlantis was located outside the Strait of Gibraltar. This strait connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, the island kingdom is also called Atlantis, after the Atlantic Ocean in which it is supposed to lie.
But in the movie Atlantica does not seem to be exactly where the legend says it is.
We know that Disney placed the underwater city in the Mediterranean Sea, which only starts on the other side of the strait of Gibraltar, and that the country where Ariel goes on land is Italy.
So my guess would be that Disney placed Atlantica on that other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, and thus in the Mediterranean Sea just in front of Italy.
Like this, Atlantica would still be very close to its name giver, the Atlantic ocean, but also very close to Italy where Prince Eric’s kingdom is.
Ariel could very easily reach Eric’s castle that way. It could be the first country that she sees when she comes to the surface.
Connections to Greek and Roman mythology
Another interesting point is that the father of the little mermaid in Disney’s film has a name that is closely tied to Greek mythology: King Triton.
In Greek mythology, Triton is a water god with a fishtail that lives in the Mediterranean Sea. His parents are Poseidon and Amphitrite. Poseidon is the god of the sea and belongs to the twelve gods of Olympus.
The interesting thing is that according to the myth, Triton lived in a golden palace at Lake Triton (Chott el Djerid) in Tunisia. Tunisia is located right next to Italy on the African side of the Mediterranean Sea.
This is actually very close to where I think Atlantica would be: as I said, between Italy and the Strait of Gibraltar. So another possible reason, why this might really be where Disney placed Atlantica is in the Mediterranean Sea.
Where is Prince Eric from? (Where is his kingdom located?)
As stated in the video, Prince Eric’s castle is located somewhere in Italy, but the exact area is not revealed.
In the following, I will present the details from the movie that prove that the movie (on land) is set in Italy and explain why I think it is the south of Italy and specifically one of the islands: Sardinia or Sicily.
Eric’s castle is a mixture of Italian, Swiss and Spanish influences
When you look at Eric’s castle, it does not instantly become clear which country it might be in.
But it is often said that Disney took inspiration from Chillon Castle at Lake Geneva in Switzerland (see picture on the right).
Chateau de Chillon is located in the French part of Switzerland, very close to the French border (and the Italian border too).
As you can see in the picture, Eric’s castle (middle) and the Chateau de Chillon (right) do look quite similar.
Some people concluded that if the castle that Eric’s castle might be based on is in Switzerland, that should also be where The Little Mermaid takes place. But this is impossible for two reasons.
Firstly, Switzerland is not even located at the sea. And Ariel lives in the ocean as we know. And secondly, why would Dinsey give Louis the chef a French accent if everyone was in a French-speaking place anyway?
My guess would be, that the castle was chosen for inspiration because it has somewhat of an Italian or Roman style. In fact, the city Chillon started as a Roman outpost. And the Romans were Italians after all.
Another hint is, that on the blog of Disneypark it is mentioned that their Little Mermaid castle attraction is a Mediterranean-style castle with a Spanish-tile roof.
Where does the Spanish come from? I think it might just mean that the roof tiles are of the Spanish design, but not that the whole castle is Spanish.
I also found another small castle called Pepoli Castle that is located in Sicily (Italy) and looks similar (see picture on the left). Especially the yellow lines around the towers remind me of Eric’s castle.
Funnily it is located in a town at the sea that is called Erice!
But that could just be a coincidence and does not necessarily mean that Eric is the prince of Erice. This town was named after the Greek hero Eryx who was the king of the city.
But who knows where Disney took inspiration for the prince’s name;)
The Bathtub in Eric’s castle might be a reference to Roman mythology
When Ariel takes a bath in Eric’s castle you can see a funny-looking fish on top of the bathtub. At least that is what it looks like.
But in reality, it is a dolphin as it was commonly depicted in Italian and Greek art.
In this picture you can see that the dolphin looks the same as the dolphins on the Neptune fountain in Rome, Italy:
Neptune is the Roman version of the sea god Poseidon from Greek mythology. And in mythology, Neptune/Poseidon is the father of Triton.
That’s why when Ariels great-grandfather appears in the Little Mermaid series he is called Neptune!
This means the dolphin in Eric’s bathroom might be a reference to the sea gods/merfolk that appear in Roman mythology aka Ariel’s family. So, another hint at Italy.
In mythology, dolphins are in fact strongly associated with Neptune as well as Triton.
As you can also see in the Little Mermaid movie, Triton rides a chariot that is pulled through the sea by dolphins, who are basically the horses of the sea (besides the hippocampi).
The garden of Eric’s castle looks like an Italian landscape painting
When Airel looks out the window of the castle one evening, she sees Eric and his dog Max playing outside in the garden.
There are two things here that do again support that the Little Mermaid takes place in Italy: the marble pavilion and the characteristic trees.
The pavilion in Eric’s garden looks like a classical marble Pavilion. They are used as resting spaces in gardens and parks. A similar word for such a small pavilion structure is gazebo.
Such garden pavilions are popular in many places, but the fact that it seems to be made from marble fits the descriptions from the original fairy tale which also refers to Roman-style marble temples and pillars.
Cypress trees can be found all over the Mediterranean (it is even called the Mediterranean cypress), but Italy is especially famous for its beautiful cypress tree featuring landscapes.
Especially the area of Tuscany in Italy is famous for its cypress landscapes.
So, seeing such pillars and cypress trees combined really does give off a strong Italy vibe, as the following picture from Italy confirms:
Grapes and palm trees look very Mediterranean
Just like in the original Little Mermaid fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, there can be found typically Mediterranean plants like grapevines and palm trees in Eric’s kingdom.
When Eric takes Ariel on a trip through the town, they dance together in a small court. Behind them are marble pillars on which grapevines grow.
Afterwards they continue their trip. On their way you can see many palm trees growing.
You can watch the whole scene, in which both the grapes and several palm trees show up, here on YouTube.
Grapes (for wine) are grown all over Italy, but southern Italy is especially famous for it’s wine.
The same goes for palm trees. There are typically more palm trees towards the South of Italy, which makes me believe that Eric’s castle might be located further in the South of Italy, instead of the North.
The animals do fit the Mediterranean too
Most of the animals in The Little Mermaid do really live in Italy or in the sea around it.
Both dolphins and sharks, which are shown in the movie, live in the Mediterranean Sea.
The bird Scuttle is a sea gull, which are also common in the Mediterranean sea and Italy.
In the scene in which Ariel and Eric are on a boat on a lake (when Sebastian sings “Kiss the Girl”) there are also flamingos. And you can find them in Italy too during some times of the year (e.g. in Sardinia).
Flounder is a tropical fish and some of his kind have been found in the Mediterranean Sea more recently. Here I wrote an article about what kind of fish Flounder is.
For the other fishes, however, it is a bit messy. When Sebastian sings “Under the Sea” he mentions sea fish as well as freshwater fish. But freshwater fish cannot possibly live in the sea.
So I’m not quite sure if Sebastian’s fish knowledge can be trusted and he is calling these fish by their real names;) But you can check out which fish he mentions in this video:
Sebastian himself is of course a crab from the Caribbean. So he is basically an immigrant and we do not have to check (there are crabs in the Mediterranean Sea too of course).
If you are interested in why Sebastian is a crab though and not a lobster as some people think, you can read my article about it here.
Even Usulas pets, her moray eels, live in the Mediterranean Sea. They are called Mediterranean morays (also called Roman morays).
As I showed in this post, the Mediterranean with its clear blue waters and its numerous Greek myths about mermaids served as inspiration for the film.
Eric’s kingdom is located in Italy. Just like in the original fairytale by Hand Christian Andersen.
As I mentioned I think it might be one of the big Italian islands: Sardinia or Sicily. The high number of palm trees and the clear and warm water could be proof.
The fact that Prince Eric seems to do a lot of sea traveling also makes it likely that his kingdom is on an island.
Another fact, that might prove that it’s could be Sardinia or Sicily is that besides filming in the studios in London, the Disney Live-Action Version of The Little Mermaid is currently being filmed in Sardinia in Italy! (Spring 2021)
This could mean that Atlantica lies on the left (western) side of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea and Prince Eric’s castle is on the western shore of Sardinia, Italy.