Friday, 8 June 2012

The Perilous Seas of Faeryland

 'The Little Mermaid', Arthur Rackham

Are 'mermaid books' a genre? There’ve been plenty of mermaid stories published in the last six to eight years – Helen Dunmore’s ‘Ingo’ series and Liz Kessler’s lovely ‘Emily Windsnap’ titles spring instantly to mind: but they've been too different to be connected or viewed as a genre – certainly not in the same way that vampire or werewolf stories have. This is no bad thing.  For even though what seems to be a sudden fashion is often no more than a different way of joining up the dots, I’ve got a feeling that mermaids (and their underwater kin the selkies and kelpies) offer more various kinds of opportunity to the writer than the biting of throats and sucking of blood.  Subtler, more lyrical.  A different world.

Mermaids and selkies represent the Other – they look like humans but they aren’t, or perhaps they are only half human.  In all the folklore I’ve read about mermaids, they have no souls, and sometimes they mourn this and sometimes they don’t care…  Hans Andersen’s little mermaid will disappear like foam on the sea if she doesn’t win a soul: but when she does gain a soul, she stops being a mermaid.  She becomes a spirit of the air, a sort of angelic Christian spirit – and so in either case she ceases to be, or at least loses her identity... Plus, mermaids and selkies physically inhabit a place we can’t survive in, the world of the sea: so to write a book about mermaids is to take the reader on an imaginative journey into a different world. 

Most mermaid stories are sad.  Some mermaids are actively dangerous. (One legend tells of a giant mermaid who rises out of the sea to demand of passing ships, ‘What news of King Alexander?’  Unless she receives the response, ‘He lives, reigns, and conquers the world!’ she wrecks the ship in her fury.)  So mermaids are also a metaphor for the beauty and danger of the sea, which has the power to wreck ships and take lives. There’s a lot going on in mermaid stories.

For me this sombre illustration by Arthur Rackham suggests the danger of desiring the Other

All fiction is affected by contemporary concerns.  Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ was concerned with salvation because he wrote in a highly Christian century.  Nowadays, in our multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-everything society, I think writing about mermaids offers an opportunity to explore issues of trust and communication between individuals who may look different from one another, who may appear to come from different worlds. What is it to be ‘human’? How do we define it?  How do we recognise similarities and reconcile differences?  In very different ways, Liz Kessler’s 'Emily Windsnap' books and Helen Dunmore’s ‘Ingo’ and its sequels explore these questions, as well as issues of pollution and climate change. In 'Ingo', merfolk and humans were once one people, who have diverged and now live in separate worlds - except that each race still impacts the other. Liz Kessler's 'Emily Windsnap' is a little girl who herself bridges the gap: her father is mer, her mother human. To which world does she belong?  Is it always necessary to choose?

And what about the original legends, such as the Cornish Mermaid of Zennor or the Scottish selkie and kelpie stories?  The legends are tremendously inspiring - but you have to think about them, find out what they are saying to you.  I wrote about the selkies, the shape-shifting seal people, in ‘Troll Mill’, the second part of my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’.  The legend is of a fisherman who sees the selkies dancing on the moonlit beach in the form of lovely women, and he snatches up one of their discarded sealskins so that the selkie girl can’t escape into the sea.  She has to marry him and bear his children, but one day she finds where he’s hidden the sealskin.  At once she throws it on, returns to the sea and abandons him and her human (half-human?) children forever. 

For me, this legend seemed to be about the difficulty of understanding one another, even in a bond as close as marriage – in a sense, one’s partner is always the Other.  It speaks of the power struggle between couples – and the grief of a failed partnership – and, very strongly I thought, about the new mother’s plunge into post-natal depression.  And that was how I used it in my book, though keeping the magic and lyricism. In my short mermaid book ‘Forsaken’, the human-mer partnership is the other way around, based on an old Scandinavian ballad about a Mer-king who marries a mortal woman, and one day she hears the church bells ringing above the sea, and goes back to the land and leaves him forever.  Rarely in folklore do these stories end happily.  But I read the legend, and my spine tingled, and I wanted to see what would happen if one of the half-mer children went looking for her mother…  Would the ending be different?

Margo Lanagan, in ‘The Brides of Rollrock Island’, has found something quite different in the selkie legends (see her post and my review).  In her book, the seals are used, manipulated, transformed, in a way which denies their nature and damages the wrongdoers. It’s a marvellous book which will keep me thinking for – I suspect – years. The beautiful women who step out of the seal carcasses appear, to the rough island men who have obtained them like mail-order brides, to be the culmination of delight: but they and their sons live with the guilt of the seal women’s ever-present mild but steadfast grief.

Franny Billingsley’s ‘The Folk Keeper’ is another story which is concerned with questions of identity and belonging, a wonderfully creepy take on the selkie legend.  And Gillian Philip’s ‘Firebrand’ and ‘Bloodstone’ include not only selkies, as sinister death-omens, but her heroes of the Sithe, the Scottish faeries, ride kelpies too (water horses from the lochs): sleek and dangerous and man-eating.  Kelpies appear again in Maggie Stiefvater’s wonderful ‘The Scorpio Races’, an evocative and thrilling story of racing the savage water horses on a wild Scottish island.  Should men take and attempt to tame these otherworldly creatures?  Is it courage or cruelty?  Should they, perhaps, be left to their own world and their own nature?

These are all strong, and wonderfully written books.  If you feel like taking a plunge into the perilous seas of fairyland, do try them!


  1. Great post! There are many mermaid stories, usually about some Average American Girl who discovers she is a sea princess ( or a Faerie or Demon or Vampire Princess) and there's this gorgeous undersea prince... but they're just a form of paranormal romance/wish fulfilment. Have you read Ruth Park's My Sister Sif? That was one of her later books and has a couple of mermaid sisters living in Sydney. There's one I plan to read at some stage on a student's recommendation, a murder mystery with mermaids...

  2. Oh, and Poul Anderson did a series of stories based on "Agnete and the Merman" which were put together in a book called The Merman's Children, about the four children the human woman had with the Mer king.

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  4. Fascinating, Sue. Yes, I've got 'My Sister Sif', which is lovely. And I must look up the Poul Anderson.