The Sea Witch — the undisputed villain of Disney’s The Little Mermaid –– holds a somewhat different role in the Hans Christian Andersen tale by the same name. In both she serves as an important character, providing the Little Mermaid a way to reach what she wants, but the characterization is so different.
Ursula, her Disney name, is a power-hungry creature, out for vengeance and willing to (quite adeptly) manipulate the situation to get what she wants. She lives in what appears to be the rib-cage of a deceased sea-creature, the only path to her home is through a garden of reaching, grabbing creatures of her creation.
All her actions (except for one notable point) are directed to one goal: revenge against King Triton for (apparently) exiling her, which (apparently) will make her the ruler of the seas. This is what drives her to “help” Ariel, and to interfere when it looks as though things are not going as she planned.
Anderson’s Sea Witch, on the other hand, is less invested. Still painted in a negative light, her home made of human bones and surrounded by a garden of “half animals and half plants; they looked like serpents with a hundred heads growing out of the ground. The branches were long slimy arms, with fingers like flexible worms, moving limb after limb from the root to the top. All that could be reached in the sea they seized upon, and held fast, so that it never escaped from their clutches.” She has water-snake pets (similar to Ursula’s eels), but beyond that…
Andersen’s (unnamed) Sea Witch doesn’t appear to have any motives of revenge or acquisition of power. She doesn’t manipulate the situation, simply participates in a trade. It is the Little Mermaid’s grandmother who plants the idea of being able to become human; the Mermaid goes to the Sea Witch to find a way to make it happen. This Sea Witch doesn’t mire the decision with plays on the Mermaid emotions and situations. She tells the Mermaid that what she wants “is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess.” She is clear that the Little Mermaid will not see her family again, and that every step she takes will be like stepping on sharp knives.
It’s a simple exchange: the Little Mermaid could get her prince and an immortal soul, for this she has to pay her voice. I find it intriguing that the word “trifle” shows up during this scene in both the Andersen telling and the Disney version — Ursula refers to Ariel’s voice as being “a mere trifle of a thing,” but Anderson’s Sea Witch states “it is not a trifle that I ask.”
The Sea Witch tells the Mermaid she must get the prince to fall in love with her. If he marries another then the Mermaid will die and turn to sea-foam (as is the fate of Mermaids when they die).
That could be the last we hear from the Sea Witch in Andersen’s telling, after all she has done what is asked of her. However, she returns towards the end of the story. The prince is about to marry another and the Mermaid’s sisters find out about this. They go to the Sea Witch and exchange their hair for a way to return the Little Mermaid to being a Mermaid. All she has to do is kill the prince and “when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish’s tail, and you will be once more a mermaid, and return to live out your three hundred years before you die and change into salt sea foam.”
Andersen’s Sea Witch is simply providing a service in exchange for payment, in Disney she is heavy-handed and manipulatively seeking revenge and power.
Which brings me to something I hadn’t noticed before in watching the Disney movie — it’s the
moment where Ursula loses the collected power that she has held throughout. As the final battle begins she accidentally kills her Eels. Until that point she is angry, but she is in control. She holds the power. Suddenly, though, she shifts to acting from a place of pure rage. Yes, until that point she has manipulated people, exploited weaknesses and done her best to stack the cards in her favor, but she never acted irrationally. But then her pets, her babies, are killed and she plunges into angry actions, swirling up the storm that ultimately causes the weapon that will kill her to become available.