Mermaid in Red by Kelly HawesColumbine: Often in fictional fantasy mermaids and mermen live in a kingdom under the sea complete with shell-encrusted palaces, well-equipped armies mounted on sea creatures (seahorses or dolphins, depending on size) and all the accoutrements of civilized living – royal personages, gardens, fashion, jewellery, pets and so forth! Some even have sophisticated technologies.

Caves with underwater entrances but partly filled with air may be frequented by the mermaids, and sometimes they live in cities which were once on land but have sunk beneath the waves. These merfolk are usually the conventional kind, with human upper bodies and the lower bodies and tails of fish. Sea nymphs, on the other hand, are more fully human in appearance. The King of the Sea, Neptune, and his court may appear in either guise.

More unearthly merfolk, perhaps with green skin and gills, may travel in small groups leading simple nomadic lives like the mammals of the sea. Danny meets a group like this in Only Human. There are also selkies, who are seals in the sea and human on land.

Other water folk, naiads, undines, melusines and nixies, the spirits of rivers, forest pools, fountains and waterfalls, are more rarely written about. The nineteenth-century German romance Undine tells of a water maiden who gains a soul through the love of a human knight.

Whether of the sea or freshwater, it seems these folk more than any other actively seek out the love of mortals, longing to marry and have half-human children. The discovery of such mixed heritage is the theme of several fantasy mermaid books, including The Tail of Emily Windsnap, in which a land-child learns of her affinity with water, and Thora in which a sea-child is sent to spend time on land. In The Mermaid’s Child the orphaned Malin searches for the truth; a more complex book for older readers.

Hans Christian Anderson’s haunting story The Little Mermaid remains the outstanding example of love and sacrifice. The original heart-rending ethereal ending has been displaced in favour of a more conventional happy ever after in modern versions.

Oscar Wilde’s tale The Fisherman and his Soul is an exquisite companion story. It tells of a fisherman who cut away his shadow-soul so that he could live with his mermaid love under the sea. He had caught her in his nets, and been enchanted by her beauty and her singing. It ends tragically for the lovers, though the Priest finally recognizes the truth of Love.

Sirens are sometimes confused with mermaids: the very word is the same in some languages. Originally, though, they were not half-fish, but half-bird. Though they lived by the sea, they perched on rocky islands and coasts, their seductive voices drawing unwary humans to their deaths. The Secret of the Sirens is a modern novel with this type of siren and other mythical creatures of the sea. The Lorelei of the Rhine is a river siren who usually takes the appearance of a beautiful maiden.

From the poem “Die Loreley” by Heinrich Heine:

The boatman hears, with an anguish
More wild than was ever known;
He’s blind to the rocks around him;
His eyes are for her alone.

In legend mermaids are similarly occasionally blamed for drowning sailors by tempting them into the water, whether through cold-heartedness or ignorance of the human inability to breathe underwater. In Peter Pan the mermaids attempt to drown Wendy out of jealousy.

Fantasy mermaids are more likely to be merry and playful, like dolphins, or vain and flirtatious, like frivolous beautiful maidens everywhere, though they are sometimes gifted with the ancient wisdom of the sea. Mermen less often rise to the surface world and are portrayed as having a warrior spirit, taking arms against sea monsters or against other undersea colonies as in Wet Magic.


The Little Mermaid
– the original story by Hans Christian Andersen

“The Mermaid” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

“The Forsaken Merman” by Matthew Arnold

Read more about fantasy mermaids:

Emily Windsnap, half-human, half-mermaid

Fred the Mermaid (well, half-mermaid, half marine biologist)


Calypsia and Jake in The Tide Turner

Ooli in Ragboy, Rats and the Surging Sea

The mermaids of Mermaid Lagoon in Escape from the Carnivale

Rani and her family in Mermaid Magic

Dulcie in Eager and the Mermaid

The Flots in The Fish in Room 11

Read about selkies:

Ariel in Deep Water – merrows also appear
Morlo and his mother in The Seal Children
Gavin sees a selkie – maybe – in The Gift Boat

Read about freshwater folk:

Axos & Odol in Paddlefeet

Still to come:

The Little Mermaid & Midnight Pearls

The Kingdom under the Sea: Wet Magic; Age of Aquariums; The Ingo trilogy

Half-mermaids: Thora; The Mermaid’s Child

Legends of Mermaids: The Mermaid of Penperro; The King and the Merman; Mermaid Wisdom; Sea Enchantress

Water Spirits: Undine ; The Water Sprites

Poetry about Mermaids: Mermaid Poems; The Lady of the Lake

Fantasy Mermaids for Little Sisters: Zoe and the Mermaids; Mermaid Wishes; The Sea Princess; The Merman; Not Quite A Mermaid series

Mermaid Lagoon: The mermaids of Never Land

Elementals: Water
Reuben and the Mermaid
Only Human