So, I rambled about Ursula from The Little Mermaid before after I’d heard her song “Wasting Away” from the musical. The ramble was, I admit, less rambling and more plotbunny.
That did, however, get me interested in how Ursula fits into the kingdom under the sea in her various incarnations. A bit of googling before work and I found that even Disney doesn’t seem sure where to stick her. She and Triton were, at one point, close, but the exact nature of their relationship varies. The animated film is the most ambiguous with Ursula only having once lived, not only in Atlantica, but in the palace itself. In the musical, Ursula is Triton’s sister. In the Kingdom Hearts incarnation, she was his fortuneteller.
Each of these roles—friend, sister, fortuneteller—implies trust. At some point in time, Triton trusted Ursula. Then Ursula betrayed him. He then defeated and banished her. He did not kill her. He did not even banish her very far. When Ursula had her moment of victory, she did not kill Triton. Instead, she took his power and turned him into a (thank you, wiki!) polyp. Yes, the narrative requires they both live, but they don’t even *try* to kill one another. Part of that may be the desire to gloat, but I am willing to wager that part was also due to their former relationship—whatever it may have been. (I’d argue that Triton still trusted Ursula on some level; he knew that if he took her deal, she would keep her word and let Ariel go).
(Interestingly, Ursula targets Ariel because Ariel is Triton’s youngest and very close to his heart. Ursula’s goal was never Ariel, but Triton. Ariel really just caught between a long battle between two powerful individuals who knew each other too well).
While the relationship between Triton and Ursula is unknown, the origin of their conflict does not change between versions. Ursula makes a power grab and loses. However, her actions are more than that, *she betrays Triton* by making that power grab. Greed, betrayal, and holding a grudge—those are what mark her as a villain. (And, honestly, so too is Triton marked. He is reactionary and holds a grudge against the human world (and, for that one prequel, music); Triton is only redeemed because, in the end, he lets go. He lets go of his resentment; Ursula does not).
Ursula only turns into the mega-villain, though, when her eels are killed. Her worst moment was precipitated by grief. Grief, rage, resentment, greed, and betrayal—no wonder she grew to such a massive size.
But, this is a ramble, so let’s jump back a point—just what exactly were Ursula and Triton to one another?
In the original animated film, she was once a resident of his palace. The palace, while large and ornate, was not exactly a busy place. The palace is not full of residents outside of Triton’s own family. Ursula, however, had once had a place there. He trusted her enough to let her near his wife and, possibly, daughters. While Ursula could have been plotting against him from the start ala Jafar, I doubt she did. Triton was not as dim as the Sultan. And, that first battle whenever it occurred, ended without any lasting harm to either. Ursula is banished, but allowed to remain close. Triton grows his family. It is my headcanon now that Ursula’s transformation of Triton later in the film was as much as to remove the threat he posed as it was to pay him back for shutting her out for so many years.
In other incarnations, the relationship is so much more interesting. The King’s fortuneteller would have been a confidante. The fortuneteller would have helped direct policy, advised future consequences, and interpreted dreams or omens. Ursula-as-fortuneteller would have had considerable power in Atlantica with little reason to disrupt that. (Note: Even Jafar did not make a move until Jasmine’s future marriage threatened his influence and power in Agrabah(sp)).
As Triton’s sister, Ursula was the recipient of the shell necklace she wore. Triton received the trident. They grew up together and each were given an object of power. They were equals. Then something changed.
Something changed. Ursula went from close, trusted, equal confidante, sister, and friend to banished sea witch. A nightmare. A bogeyman.
In each scenario above, Ursula had power and access to power, but then it was suddenly not enough. Something threatened her position.
Perhaps Ursula did have another reason for targeting Ariel over any of her sisters. Ariel most resembled her mother, after all. Ariel’s mother who would have usurped Ursula’s role in Triton’s life.
Resentment and greed would have built and escalated until Triton did something that caused Ursula to lash out. (Ursula can play a long game, but she is also passionate and her greatest actions occur out of emotion).
And then it would have all been over, leaving only the king and the witch.
Anyway, I hope that makes some sense.