Thursday 2 May 2024

Portals and Paintings

A very long time ago in my late teens, I wrote a book with the rather unimaginative title ‘The Magic Forest’ which was (quite rightly) never published. Although derivative (I was inspired by Walter de la Mare’s strange and wonderful novel ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’) it was nevertheless the closest I’d yet got to finding my own voice; and I’d been writing lengthy narratives ever since nine or ten years old. It was a dream-quest story in which a girl goes through a picture into a magical world: the picture in question was a reproduction of  Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Snake-Charmer’ which hung on my bedroom wall (see above). My heroine, Kay, looks at it and sees

...the ripples of a lake reflecting the quick luminous afterglow of a sun’s sinking. There were night-flowering reeds and a tall, heron-like bird, and standing in the darkness of the trees, partly in silhouette against the night sky, was a human figure. It was wearing a dark cloak and piping on a flute. Answering the flute came snakes, great forest pythons pouring scarcely distinguishable from the branches and from the lake. Kay’s feet sank into shallow mud. She heard the low, hollow-sweet notes, saw the snakes twist about the charmer’s legs. A heavy, scaly body dragged over her foot. Midges stung and bit her, but a little coolness came breathing over the water. 

And so begins an adventure which I won’t bore you with, it's enough to say that Kay goes on a quest with a yellow water-bird and a monkey, to find a sorcerer who has infested the forest with poisonous butterflies.

          I knew that ‘going into a picture’ was not an original idea but one which had appeared in several of my favourite children’s books. In C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ (1952) Lucy and Edmond Pevensie, and their cousin Eustace Scrubb, tumble into a painting of what looks like a Narnian ship at sea. When Eustace asks Lucy why she likes it, she replies, ‘because the ship looks as if it was really moving. And the water looks as if it was really wet. And the waves look as if they were really going up and down.’ She’s right, they are doing these things. The ship rises and falls over the waves, a wind blows into the room bringing a ‘wild, briny smell’, and ‘Ow!’ they all cry, for ‘a great, cold, salt splash had broken right out of the frame and they were breathless from the smack of it, besides being wet through.’ As Eustace rushes to smash the painting the other two try to pull him back. Next moment all three are struggling on the edge of the picture frame, and a wave sweeps them into the sea.

          Lewis didn’t invent the ‘picture as portal’ trope, either. It’s quite likely he found it in a Japanese tale, ‘The Story of Kwashin Koji’ from ‘Yasō-Kidan’ (‘Night-Window Demon Talk’), a book of legends collected by Ishikawa Kosai (1833-1918) and retold by Lafcadio Hearn in his 1901 book ‘A Japanese Miscellany’. It is the sort of thing Lewis would have read. It tells of Kwashin Koji, a rather disreputable old fellow and a heavy drinker, who made a living ‘by exhibiting Buddhist pictures and by preaching Buddhist doctrine.’ On fine days he would hang a large picture – ‘a kakemono on which were depicted the punishments of the various hells’ – on a tree in the temple gardens and preach about it. The painting was so wonderfully vivid that onlookers were amazed.

Hearing this, the ruler of Kyōto, Lord Nobunaga, commanded Kwashin Koji to bring it to the palace where he could view it. The old man obliged and Nobunaga was deeply impressed by the painting. Noticing this, his servant suggested that Kwashin should offer it as a gift to the great lord. Since his livelihood depended upon the picture, Kwashin asked instead for payment in gold, which was refused. So he rolled up the picture and left. But the servant followed him, killed him, and took the picture for his lord. When the scroll was unrolled, however, it was found to be completely blank – while Kwashin had mysteriously returned to life and was showing his picture in the temple grounds as before. Some time later Nobunaga was himself murdered by Mitsuhidé, one of his captains, who invited Kwashin Koji to the palace, feasted him and gave him plenty to drink. The old man then pointed to a large folding screen which depicted ‘Eight Beautiful Views of the Lake of Omi’, and said, ‘In return for your august kindness, I shall display a little of my art’. Far off in the background, the artist had painted a man rowing a boat, ‘occupying, upon the surface of the screen, a space of less than an inch in length.’ As Kwashin Koji waved his hand, everyone in the room saw the boat turn and begin to approach them. It grew rapidly larger...

And all of a sudden, the water of the lake seemed to overflow out of the picture into the room, and the room was flooded; and the spectators girded up their robes in haste as the water rose above their knees. In the same moment the boat appeared to glide out of the screen, and the creaking of the single oar could be heard. Then the boat came close up to Kwashin Koji, and Kwashin Koji climbed into it; and the boatman turned about, and began to row away very swiftly. And as the boat receded, the water in the room began to lower rapidly, seeming to ebb back into the screen... But still the painted vessel appeared to glide over the painted water, retreating further into the distance and ever growing smaller, till ... it disappeared altogether, and Kwashin Koji disappeared with it. He was never again seen in Japan. 

The lakewater flooding out of the painted screen corresponds to the ‘great salt splash’ of the wave bursting into the children’s bedroom in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, while the creaking oar finds an echo in Lewis’s description of ‘the swishing of waves and the slap of water against the ship’s sides and the creaking and the overall high steady roar of air and water’.

          John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ (1927), and its sequel ‘The Box of Delights’ (1935) contain some delightful ‘pictures as portals’. In ‘The Midnight Folk’ little Kay Harker, left by his governess to learn the verb ‘pouvoir’, looks up as the portrait of his great-grandpapa comes to life: 

As Kay looked, great-grandpapa Harker distinctly took a step forward, and as he did so, the wind ruffled the skirt of his coat and shook the shrubs behind him. A couple of blue butterflies which had been upon the shrubs for seventy odd years, flew out into the room. ... Great-grandpapa Harker held out his hand and smiled... “Well, great-grandson Kay,” he said, “ne pouvez vous pas come into the jardin avec moi?” [....]

Kay jumped on to the table; from there, with a step of run, he leaped on to the top of the fender and caught the mantelpiece. Great-grandpapa Harker caught him and helped him up into the picture. Instantly the schoolroom disappeared. Kay was out of doors standing beside his great-grandfather, looking at the house as it was in the pencil drawing in the study, with cows in the field close to the house on what was now the lawn, the church, unchanged, beyond, and, near by some standard yellow roses, long since vanished, but now seemingly in full bloom. 

His great-grandfather takes him into the house, where ‘A black cat, with white throat and paws, which had been ashes for forty years, rubbed up against great-grandpapa’s legs and then, springing on the arm of his chair, watched the long-dead sparrows in the plum tree which had been firewood a quarter of a century ago’. This beautifully gentle transition into the past as well as into a painting is something I’ve always loved: it depicts time past with yearning but without melancholy, and we see little orphaned Kay receive care and support from kind ancestors who watch over him. Exciting as it is, ‘The Midnight Folk’ is a book a child can read and never feel unsafe. Later in the story, Kay realises that his governess is really a witch, and his grandmother’s portrait addresses him.

“Don’t let a witch take charge at Seekings. This is a house where upright people have lived. Bell her, Kay; Book her, boy; Candle her, grandson; and lose no time: for time lost’s done with, but must be paid for.”

          He looked up at her portrait, which was that of a very shrewd old lady in a black silk dress. She was nodding her head at him so that her ringlets and earrings shook. “Search the wicked creature’s room,” she said, “and if she is, send word to the Bishop at once.”

          “All right,” Kay said, “I’ll go. I will search.” 

This time Kay doesn’t enter the picture, but his grandmother’s words give him strength, confidence and purpose.

In ‘The Box of Delights’ the old Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings, who has given a magical show to Kay and his friends, escapes the villains pursuing him (‘the wolves are running!’) by bringing to life the picture of a Swiss mountain on the study wall. As he and Kay gaze, the picture seems to ‘glow and open’ and become the mountain itself. ‘They heard the rush of the torrent. They saw how tumbled and smashed the scarred pine-trees were among the rolled boulders... High up above... in the upper mountain, were the blinding bright snows, and the teeth of the crags black and gleaming. “Ah,” the old man said, “and yonder down the path come the mules.” ’

A string of pack mules descend the mountain path, and near the end of the line trots a white mule with a red saddle.

The first mules turned off at a corner. When it came to the turn of the white mule to turn, he baulked, tossed his head, swung out of the line, and trotted into the room, so that Kay had to move out of the way. There the mule stood in the study, twitching his ears, tail and skin against the gadflies and putting down his head so that he might scratch it with his hind foot. “Steady there,” the old man whispered to him. “And to you, Master Kay, I thank you. I wish you a most happy Christmas.”

At that, he swung himself onto the mule, picked up his theatre with one hand, gathered the reins with the other, said, “Come, Toby,” and at once rode off with Toby trotting under the mule, out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall. 

One of the many reasons this passage works so well is its detailed physicality, the realistic animal behaviour of the mule quivering its skin and scratching its head and taking up so much room in the study. And as magic, it’s such a satisfactory way to foil the baddies.      

Towards the end of the book, Kay has ‘gone small’ via the magic of the Box of Delights but having temporarily lost the Box he cannot restore himself to his proper size. Finding Cole Hawlings chained and caged in the underground caverns which Abner Brown is about to flood, he creeps into Cole’s pocket for a bit of lead pencil and a scrap of paper on which to draw, at Cole’s request, ‘two horses coming to bite these chains in two’. Though plagued by the snapping jaws of little magical motor-cars and aeroplanes, he manages to draw the horses rather well.

The drawings did stand out from the paper rather strangely. The light was concentrated on them; as he looked at them the horses seemed to be coming towards him out of the light; and no, it was not seeming, they were moving; he saw the hoof casts flying and heard the rhythmical beat of hoofs. The horses were coming out of the picture, galloping fast, and becoming brighter and brighter. Then he saw that the light was partly fire from their eyes and manes, partly sparks from their hoofs. “They are real horses,” he cried. “Look.”

          It was as though he had been watching the finish of a race with two horses neck and neck coming straight at him... They were two terrible white horses with flaming mouths. He saw them strike great jags of rock from the floor and cast them, flaming, from their hoofs. Then, in an instant, there they were, one on each side of Cole Hawlings, champing the chains as though they were grass, crushing the shackles, biting through the manacles and plucking the iron bars as though they were shoots from a plant.

“Steady there, boys,” said Cole... 

Cole places the diminutive Kay on one of the horses and leads them along the rocky corridor, but the water is coming in fast. ‘Draw me,’ says Cole, ‘a long roomy boat with a man in her, sculling her’ and ‘put a man in the boat’s bows and draw him with a bunch of keys in his hand.’ Kay does his best, although the man’s nose is ‘rather like a stick’, and Cole places the drawing on the water. It drifts away while the stream becomes angrier and more powerful.

“The sluice-mouth has given way,” Kay said.

          “That is so,” Cole Hawlings answered. “But the boat is coming too, you see.”

          Indeed, down the stream in the darkness of the corridor, a boat was coming. She had a light in her bows; somebody far aft in her was heaving at a scull which ground in the rowlocks. Kay could see and hear the water slapping and chopping against her advance; the paint of her bows glistened above the water. A man stood above the lantern. He had something gleaming in his hand: it looked like a bunch of keys. As he drew nearer, Kay saw that this man was a very queer-looking fellow with a nose like a piece of bent stick. 

With its boatman, boat, creaking oar and rush of oncoming water, this too is very reminiscent of the tale of Kwashin Koji, which I suspect Masefield as well as Lewis may have read. Whether it’s so or not, both the concept and the writing are wonderful.

A novel which owes nothing to the Japanese story is Meriol Trevor’s ‘The King of the Castle’ (1966). A decade on from C. S. Lewis but largely forgotten today, Trevor’s books for children were well-written and sometimes powerful fantasies with allegorical Christian themes; I would borrow them from the local library and enjoyed them.. They were less popular among children than Lewis’s books, probably because Trevor’s ‘Christ’ figures were human adults, where Lewis had a glorious golden lion. They follow in general the pattern of ‘contemporary children find a way into magical worlds and go on quests’; her best book is (I think) ‘The Midsummer Maze’, but ‘The King of the Castle’ is good too. It opens with a boy, Thomas, sick in bed (see mysterious illnesses that keep children marooned in bed for weeks). Slowly recovering from whatever it was, he grows bored, so one day his mother gives him a gilt-framed picture she bought in a junk shop, so that he will ‘have something to look at instead of the wallpaper’. This feels a bit forced; would a young boy really appreciate ‘an old engraving in the romantic style’? But perhaps the castle swings it:

It showed a wild rocky landscape with twisted thorn trees on the horizon, bent by years of gales, and a few sheep prowling on the thin grass near a torrent which rushed turbulently out of a deep and shadowy ravine. Beside the river a road ran, white in the darkness, till it too disappeared behind the steep shoulder of the gorge. Perhaps it led on to the castle which backed against a wild and stormy sky of clouds that rolled like smoke over the sombre hills. 

Thomas thinks it ‘very mysterious’ and once it’s on the wall he lies looking at it.

He wondered where the road went after it turned the corner. He imagined himself walking along the road, rutted and dusty, stony as it was. The huge cliffs loomed above him.

“But I am walking along the road,” Thomas thought suddenly. He looked down and saw his feet walking. They wore brown leather rubber-soled shoes. He was not wearing pyjamas but jeans and his thick sweater, but the wind seemed to cut through the wool. It was cold. 

Following the road up beside the rushing river, he turns to look back, wondering if he will see his bedroom with himself lying in bed. But ‘what he saw was the wild country of the picture extended backwards, the river running away and away towards thick-forested hills. It was almost more unnerving to find himself totally in the world of the picture.’ I like this acknowledgment of the unsettling side of suddenly entering an unknown world. Soon after, a young shepherd and his dog rescue Thomas from a wolf. The shepherd turns out to be this book’s Christ figure, and at the end of the story Thomas returns through the picture to find himself back in bed.

Compared with with the other ‘paintings as portals’ discussed here, this is perhaps the weakest, since Thomas’s interaction with the engraving is entirely passive. It’s given to him and he doesn’t even need to leave his bed: just looking at it does the job. Characters in the other stories all have some degree of agency in passing through the portals. Kwashin Koji is in full control of what happens: he can enter a painting at will. Lucy and Edmund topple into the Eastern Sea while actively trying to prevent Eustace breaking the picture. Accepting his great-grandfather’s invitation, Kay Harker clambers on to the mantelpiece to reach him. Like Kwashin Koji, Cole Hawlings chooses a painting to enter and escape through, while the rather older Kay Harker of ‘The Box of Delights’  draws the pictures which come to life and rescue them. (Do these drawings count as portals? While it’s true that Kay and Cole don’t pass through them, the horses, boats and boatmen emerge from the paper into this world, so I think they do.)

Kay’s drawings of horses and boatmen bring me to the drawings in Catherine Storr’s wonderfully sinister ‘Marianne Dreams’ (1958). Marianne is another child struck down by an unnamed illness that keeps her in bed. Weeks on, bored and convalescent, she finds a stub of pencil in an old work-box and uses it to draw a house with four windows, a door and a smoking chimney – to which she adds a fence, a gate and a path, a few flowers, ‘long scribbly grass’ and some rocks. Then she falls asleep and dreams she’s alone in a vast grassland dotted with rocks. Walking towards a faint line of smoke she arrives at a blank-eyed house with ‘a bare front door’ ringed with an uneven fence and pale flowers. A cold wind springs up and she’s frightened. ‘I’ve got to get away from the grass and the stones and the wind. I’ve got to get inside.’

Marianne’s dreams take her into the inimical ‘world’ of her drawing: what she finds there depends on whatever she has recently drawn, plus the mood in which she drew it. The experience is uneasy from the start and becomes scarier at every visit. It’s arguable that the drawings (to which she keeps adding) are not portals at all, only the catalyst for dreams which express Marianne’s anger, fear and stress. Nevertheless the strange ‘country’ in which she finds herself – and to a certain extent manipulates – feels psychologically serious and real; portals may work in more than one way. She draws a boy looking out of the window, someone who can let her into the house. Next night he is there. She discovers that his name is Mark: he is real, very ill and unable to walk, and shares with her the same nice home tutor. In the dream world he is dependent on her: as the wielder of the pencil she can draw things for his comfort – or not. In a fit of temper one day she scribbles thick black lines, like bars, all over the window where he sits – raises the fence, adds more stones in a ring around the house and gives to each one a single eye. All these horrifying things become real in her next dream.

Marianne looked round the side of the window. From where she stood she could see five – six – seven of the great stones standing immovable outside. As she looked there was a movement in all of them. The great eyelids dropped; there was a moment when each figure was nothing but a hunk of stone, motionless and harmless. Then, together, the pale eyelids lifted and seven great eyeballs swivelled in their stone sockets and fixed themselves on the house.

          Marianne screamed. She felt she was screaming with the full power of her lungs, screaming like a siren: but no sound came out at all. She wanted to warn Mark, but she could not utter a word. In her struggle she woke. 

As the terrifying stone Watchers crowd ever closer to the house, Marianne and Mark must escape. Marianne draws hills in the distance behind the house, with a lighthouse standing on them, for she knows the sea there, just out of sight. Eventually the children make it to the lighthouse on bicycles she has drawn. Here they are safe, but Mark points out that they can’t stay forever. They must reach the sea, inaccessible below high cliffs. A helicopter is needed, but Marianne cannot draw helicopters. After struggling with herself to relinquish power (‘it’s my pencil!’) she draws the pencil into the dream so that Mark can have it. He draws a helicopter which arrives before Marianne can dream again, but leaves a message promising to make it come back for her: in the end trust prevails.

Everything seemed to be resting; content; waiting. Mark would come: he would take her to the sea. Marianne lay down on the short, sweet-smelling turf. She would wait, too.

‘Marianne Dreams’ can be genuinely frightening, nightmarish even; but the children’s bickering yet supportive friendship enlivens the story and makes it accessible to young readers.

          Lastly, I cannot resist mentioning James Mayhew’s much-loved and utterly charming series of picture-books which introduce younger children to art. ‘Katie’s Picture Show’ was the first, published in 1989 and followed by several others in which little Katie jumps into various famous paintings, meets the characters and has age-appropriate adventures.

Pictures, especially representative pictures, are like windows. We simultaneously look at them and through them. John Constable’s ‘The Cornfield’ lures the viewer in, past the young boy drinking from the brook, past the panting sheepdog and the donkeys under the bushes, past the reapers busy in the yellow corn, and on towards the far horizon. In imagination we enter not only the picture but also the long-departed past of 1820s Suffolk – in much the same way as little Kay Harker clambers into his great grandfather’s portrait and sees his home as it used to be, generations before.

Who knows when the first person looked at a picture and imagined being inside it? We cannot know, but it’s a natural thought and I would guess a very old one. In his remarkable analysis of prehistoric cave art, ‘The Mind in the Cave’ (2002), David Lewis-Williams suggests that ‘one of the uses of [Paleolithic] caves was for some sort of vision questing’ and that ‘the images people made there related to that chthonic [subterranean] realm.’ Adding that sensory deprivation in such remote, dark and silent chambers may have induced altered states of mind, he continues:

In their various stages of altered states, questers sought, by sight and touch, in the folds and cracks of the rock face, visions of powerful animals. It is as if the rock were a living membrane between those who ventured in and one of the lowest levels of the tiered cosmos; behind the membrane lay a realm inhabited by spirit animals and spirits themselves, and the passages and chambers of the cave penetrated deep into that realm.

                   The Cave in the Mind, David Lewis-Williams, p214 

Locating lines, shapes and holes in cave walls reminiscent of animals or bits of animals, these early people painted in eyes, nostrils, identity – making them emerge out of the rock.

Here is a ‘mask’ from the deepest passage of Altamira Cave in Spain. It could be a horse, but it remains ambiguous. Lewis-Williams quotes an American archeologist, Thor Conway, who visited a Californian rock art site called Saliman Cave:

Red and black paintings surround two small holes bored into the side of the walls by natural forces. As you stare at these entrance ways to another realm, suddenly – and without voluntary control – the pictographs break the artificial visual reality that we assume.... Suddenly, the paintings encompassing the recessed pockets began to pulse, beckoning us inward.

          Painted Dreams, Native Americal Rock Art, T.Conway, p109-10 

Lewis-Williams comments that certain South African rock paintings by the San, that 'seem to thread in and out of the the walls of rock shelters' may 'similarly came to life and drew shamans through the ‘veil’ into the spirit realm.’ So is it possible that the notion of paintings as portals may go back all the way to the Paleolithic? That’s quite a thought.


Picture credits:

The Snake-Charmer by Henri Rousseau, 1907, Musee D'Orsay,  wikipedia 

The Voyage of The Dawn Treader: illustration by Pauline Baynes

Marianne Dreams: illustration by Marjorie Ann Watts

Katie's Picture Show: illustration by James Mayhew

The Cornfield by John Constable, 1826, National Gallery

Photo from Altamira Cave: David Lewis-Williams, 'The Mind in the Cave'

Friday 1 March 2024

Seal songs and legends


Stories about selkies are ambiguous, evocative, sad.

            This is largely because of the way seals themselves affect us. Bobbing curiously up around boats, they seem to feel as much interest in us as we feel for them, and there is something human about their round heads and large eyes. Basking on sunlit rocks they are part of our world, yet are also natural inhabitants of an unseen, underwater world in which we would drown. For most of our species' co-existence, only in imagination could we follow them there.

My mother used to sing a lovely song called Song to the Seals (words by Sir Harold Boulton, music by Granville Bantock) about a sea-maid who sits on a reef calling the seals in a lilting, melancholy refrain: ‘Hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oiran eero… hoiran oiran oiran ee la leu ran…’  You can listen to it here, sung by boy treble Sebastian Carrington.

And the sheet music includes a introductory note: ‘The refrain of this song was actually used recently on a Hebridean island by a singer who thereby attracted a quantity of seals to gather round and listen intently to the singing.’

            With so much inter-species interaction and fascination going on, it’s no wonder there are many legends and songs about selkies: seal-people who can cast off their thick pelts and appear in human form. The ballad of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry exists in a number of variants, but the earliest was written down in 1852 by Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas of the Royal Navy, and it was dictated to him by an old lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland. The ballad tells the tragedy of a woman who has borne a child to a unsettlingly Other selkie man, ‘a grumlie guest’ who brings a waft of salt-sea terror as he appears. ‘I am a man upo’ the land, he announces,

            ‘An’ I am a Silkie in the sea;

And when I’m far and far frae lan’

            My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’ 

As Lieutenant Thomas explains: 

The story is founded on the superstition of the Seals or Selkies being able to throw off their waterproof jackets, and assume the more graceful proportions of the genus Homo… Silky is a common name in the north country for a seal, and appears to be a corruption of selch, the Norse word for that animal. Sule Skerry is a small rocky islet, lying about twenty-five miles to the westward of Hoy Head, in Orkney, from whence it may be seen in very clear weather…

And he tells of coming in from the cod-fisheries on a foggy, windless morning, rowing ‘for nearly a mile through the narrow channels formed by a thousand weed-covered skerries’ and hearing the seals’ ‘lullaby’: ‘groans and sighs expressive of unutterable torment… followed by a melancholy howl of hopeless despair’.

A few years ago, wandering the fractured rocky shore of Longstone Island off the coast of Northumberland, I too became aware of this eerie sound. Keening, moaning, huff-huff-huffing – hooting like children who make long quavering ghost noises – a group of twenty or so seals were crying to one another as they lay on a ridge at the edge of the tide.

The unnamed woman in The Great Silkie is destined to lose both her half-selkie child and its selkie father: the Silkie predicts she will marry a mortal man, ‘a proud gunner’, who will shoot them while they play together in the bright summer sea.

The Sule Skerry selkie is male, but the best-known selkie tales tell of a seal-woman captured by a fisherman who sees her dancing on a moonlit beach. He steals her discarded skin, preventing her from changing back into seal form. Such stories generally end when the selkie bride recovers her hidden sealskin and returns to the sea, abandoning her human husband and children. ‘I loved you well,’ she sometimes calls, ‘but I loved better my husband and children in the sea.’ Unions between humans and faerie creatures rarely turn out well. These are disturbing tales of constraint and capture, power and powerlessness. And they are haunted by loss: the selkie’s longing for her own element and the heartache of man and children left behind.

I was thinking about this story while I was writing Troll Mill, the second of my fantasy trilogy for children set in a Viking-Norway-that-never-was, and I found within it a metaphor for post-natal depression. (That’s not to pin it down; folk and fairy tales are open to many interpretations.) But the thought gave me the heart of my book. Kersten is a seal-woman stolen – and named – by Bjørn, a fisherman. She lives with him in apparent content until one stormy evening she finds her sealskin cloak, races to the shore and thrusts her new-born child into the arms of the young hero Peer, before hurling herself into the sea. Left literally holding the baby, Peer cannot catch her; he yells a warning to his friend Bjørn, who runs to intercept her –

And Kersten stopped. She threw herself flat and the wet sealskin cloak billowed over her, hiding her from head to foot. Underneath it, she continued to move in heavy, lolloping jumps. She must be crawling on hands and knees, drawing the skin closely around her. She rolled. Waves rushed up and sucked her into the water. Trapped in those encumbering folds, she would drown. ‘Kersten!’ Peer screamed. The body in the water  twisted, lithe and muscular, and plunged forward into the next grey wave. 

I wanted there to be an element of doubt. Is Kersten really a selkie, or is it simply a story the other characters make about her, in an attempt to explain what she did, and why? Years earlier, the daughter of a friend and work colleague of mine had killed herself in the grip of post-natal depression, and a great part of the book – I realised after I’d written it – turned out to be about motherhood and what it does to you, and the different ways people cope or don’t cope. I didn’t plan this, it just came out that way. There was Kersten, the mother who goes missing, lost or dead. There was Gudrun, older, capable, hard-working, the nurturing but sometimes short-tempered mother. There was a troll princess, drama-queen mother of the sort of spoiled brat other mothers dread. And there was Granny Greenteeth, my version of the dangerous English water-spirit Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into the green depths of the stagnant water she inhabits. She claims the motherless half-selkie baby, Ran, as her lawful prey even though the child will drown. She is the destructively possessive mother. 

Peer saw her, or thought he did: Granny Greenteeth in human form, sitting at the bottom of the millpond with Ran in her arms. A greenish light clung around them. Granny Greenteeth’s hair was waving upwards in a terrible aureole and she bent over Ran, rocking her to and fro. 

Granny or Jenny Greenteeth is a fresh-water spirit, a nixie not a selkie, and her origin in English folklore is likely to have been as a bogey to frighten children away from dangerous ponds. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology (1835) says that the Danish water spirit, the nøkke, wears a green hat and that ‘when he grins you see his green teeth’. Grimm adds that ‘there runs through the stories of water-sprites a vein of cruelty and bloodthirstiness which is not easily found among daemons of mountains, woods and homes… To this day, when people are drowned in a river, it is common to say: “The river-sprite demands his yearly victim,” which is usually an innocent child.’

Unlike nixies, selkies are not cruel, though they sometimes take revenge on those who have mistreated them. They are not spirits, but creatures of flesh and blood like ourselves, as the Shetland and Orkney islanders who told selkie stories in the 1940s to David Thomson for BBC radio (and published later in Thomson’s book The People of The Sea) knew full well. One story Thomson heard in the radio age was told by Shetlander Gilbert Charlson, and it couldn’t be plainer about the physicality of the selkie race. A band of men land on the Ve Skerries (the ‘Holy Skerries’) to stun the seals there and skin them alive: 

‘Ye’d no sooner stun your seal than you’d set to and skin him, you understand, for if you left him there he might come back to life and go back into the sea while you turned around. T’was hard to be sure if they were dead or no, for it’s very hard to kill them…’ 

The tale was already over a century old, for it is also found in Samuel Hibbert’s Description of the Shetland Islands (1822). Hibbert’s account is just as graphic: 

They … stunned several of them and while they lay stupefied, stripped them of their skins, with the fat attached to them. They left the naked carcasses lying on the rocks, and were about to get into their boats with their spoils and return to Papa Stour, whence they had come. 

As they prepare to leave, a huge swell rises; the men all leap for their boats… The Ve Skerries are the very ones through which Lieutenant Thomas RN rowed in the 1850s  coming back from his cod-fishing expedition, and he described them as “almost covered by the sea at high water, and in this stormy climate, a heavy surf breaking over them generally forms an effectual barrier to boats.” So the men are swift to leave: but one is left behind. Unable to bring the boats close enough for him to jump, his friends give up and row for home, knowing he’ll be washed away.

            And now the seals return to the skerry, moaning and crying for the deaths of their kin; crying even more for those still alive, who without their skins can never return to their home in the sea – this glosses the truth of actual, living, skinned seals still writhing on the rocks... The the one crying the loudest is a female selkie called  ‘Geira’ – or ‘Gioga’ in the older version – for her son Hancie has lost his skin and must now be forever exiled. 

            Seeing the shivering, stranded fisherman fated to die from exposure or drowning, Geira offers to carry him on her back all the way home to Papa Stour, if in return he will find and restore her son’s sealskin. The man is willing, but he is desperately afraid of the turbulent waves. So he asks her permission to cut slots in the thick sealskin of her shoulders and flanks, two for his hands and two for his feet, so that he can hold on firmly ‘between the skin and the flesh’ and will ‘no slip in tae the sea’. So dear is her son to Geira that she agrees, and carries the man away through the storm and all the way back to Papa Stour. The story ends: 

‘And this man went across the island in the night, when he landed. He walked down by the Dutch Loch and on to Hamna Voe. He made sure his comrades were sleeping. And he went there to the skeo [a little stone house used for the curing of fish]. And he chose out the longest and bonniest skin out o’ a’ that lay there and took it to the old mother selkie, Geira. It was the skin o’ her son, Hancie, and away wi’ that she swam.’

            David Thomson: The People of the Sea 

So there’s a tale of co-operation between human and selkie, even though the man was part of a team slaughtering and skinning the seals. The relationship between the two races is not an equal one. The men prey upon the seals in order to live – to sell the skins, and make shoes and garments from them. They use the seals, and also they depend upon them: they owe them. And they’re uneasy about it, uneasy about killing these creatures who seem so much like…  people. One more quotation from The People of the Sea, from eighty year-old Osie Fea: 

‘It’s no wonder they were thought to be like us,’ he said. ‘For the seals and ourselves were aye thrown together in our way o’ getting a living, and everything we feel, they feel, ye may be sure o’ that.’

            ‘I wouldna care to be near them,’ said Margaret Fae.

            ‘I have watched them,’ said Osie, ‘as near as I am to you. I have seen a mother out by the Seal Skerry when the sea was full o’ wreckage. There was a ship wrecked out by and it was rough, and this wreckage was tumbling her young one about so he couldna win ashore. I could see the anxiety gazing out o’ her eyes like a woman’s. The very same. The very same as a woman’s.’ 

It is surely from this sense of identification, of empathy and of guilt, that the stories were born. 


 Picture credits:

The Seal Woman of Kopakonan, Faroes. Read her story on the Faroes website at this link

The Seal Woman of Kopakonan: photo by Annebjorg Andreasen

Friday 26 January 2024

The 'Little Dark People'

In ‘A Book of Folk-Lore’ (1913) the Devon folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould recounts three instances in which he and members of his family ‘saw’ pixies or dwarfs. I’ll let you read them: 
In the year 1838, when I was a small boy of four years old, we were driving to Montpellier [France] on a hot summer’s day, over the long straight road that traverses a pebble and rubble strewn plain on which grows nothing save a few aromatic herbs.
I was sitting on the box with my father, when to my great surprise I saw legions of dwarfs about two feet high running along beside the horses – some sat laughing on the pole, some were scrambling up the harness to get on the backs of the horses. I remarked to my father what I saw, when he abruptly stopped the carriage and put me inside beside my mother, where, the conveyance being closed, I was out of the sun. The effect was that little by little the host of imps diminished in number till they disappeared altogether. 
When my wife was a girl of fifteen, she was walking down a lane in Yorkshire between green hedges, when she saw seated in one of the privet hedges a little green man, who looked at her with his beady black eyes. He was about a foot or eighteen inches high.  She was so frightened that she ran home. She cannot recall exactly in what month this took place, but knows it was a summer’s day.
One day a son of mine, a lad of about twelve, was sent into the garden to pick pea-pods for the cook to shell for dinner.  Presently he rushed into the house as white as chalk to say that while he was engaged upon the task imposed upon him he saw standing between the rows of peas a little man wearing a red cap, a green jacket, and brown knee-breeches, whose face was old and wan and who had a gray beard and eyes as black and hard as sloes.  He stared so intently at the boy that the latter took to his heels.  I know exactly when this occurred, as I entered it in my diary, and I know when I saw the imps by looking in my father’s diary, and though he did not enter the circumstance, I recall the vision today as distinctly as when I was a child. 
In spite of the vivid and detailed nature of these visions Baring-Gould didn’t believe he or his family had seen anything ‘real’. He continues stoutly:
Now, in all three cases, these apparitions were due to the effect of a hot sun on the head. But such an explanation is not sufficient. Why did all three see small beings of a very similar character?  With ... temporary hallucination the pictures presented to the eye are never originally conceived, they are reproductions of representations either seen previously or conceived from descriptions given by others. In my case and that of my wife, we saw imps, because our nurses had told us of them… In the case of my son, he had read Grimms’ Tales and seen the illustrations to them. 

Rational indeed – though still a little puzzling that sun-stroke or heat-stroke should in each case have brought on visions of dwarfs or pixies. Perhaps it ran in the family. However that may be, Baring-Gould acknowledges that this explanation only pushes the problem further into the past – ‘Where did our nurses, whence did Grimm [sic] obtain their tales of kobolds, gnomes, dwarfs, pixies, brownies etc? … To go to the root of the matter, in what did the prevailing belief in the existence of these small people originate?’  And he answers thus: 
I suspect that there did exist a small people, not so small as these imps are represented, but comparatively small beside the Aryans who lived in all those countries in which the tradition of their existence lingers on. 

The grim events of the 20th century have taught us to beware of the word ‘Aryan’, liberally scattered in the introduction to many a 19th century collection. Sir George Dasent, introducing ‘Popular Tales from the Norse’ (his translation of Asbjornsen and Moe’s 'Norske Folkeeventyr’) includes a section on ‘the Aryan race’ which according to contemporary anthropological wisdom had spread across Europe ‘in days of immemorial antiquity’.  In 1905, citing the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley as his authority, Charles Squire in ‘Celtic Myths and Legends’ writes confidently of ‘certain proof of two distinct human stocks in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest’. He describes them: the early people who built Britain’s long barrows were ‘Iberian’ or ‘Mediterranean’ in origin: ‘a short, swarthy, dark-haired’ aboriginal race; but ‘the second of these two races was the exact opposite of the first. It was the tall, fair, light-haired, blue- or gray-eyed people called, popularly, the “Celts”, who belonged in speech to the “Aryan” family … It was in a higher stage of culture than the “Iberians”.’ In the illustration below from a history of the world published in 1897, we see how the heroic Celts were imagined, along with an account of the 'Aryan migration'. And they were supposed to have displaced a different race of indigenous people, driving them almost literally underground.
'The Celtic Vanguard' from 'Ridpath's History of the World', 1897

This notion of ‘two races, two cultures’ has been discredited. Archaologists and geneticists now agree that Europe has been a melting-pot of racial groups from at least the early Neolithic. European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were neither replaced nor suddenly shunted out; instead, over several thousand years, they assimilated both the culture and the genes of a gradually diffusing population of Neolithic farmers. It wasn’t until the Bronze Age (says Professor Barry Cunliffe in ‘Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD1000’) that sea-faring and trading populations on the on the coasts of Europe, Britain and Ireland, developed the Celtic tongue as ‘an Atlantic façade lingua franca’. Isn't that wonderful? The Celts didn’t ‘come from’ anywhere: they were in place already. The Celtic languages evolved because coastal peoples travelled and traded and intermarried and talked to one another. Britain wasn't isolated, it was always an integral part of Europe. 
So the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was wrong. There never was a distinctly different race of ‘little dark people’ living on the edges of a conquering population of tall, fair, confident ‘Aryans’. Nothing to give rise to a belief in a ‘hidden folk’ of pixies, dwarfs or elves. 
You can see why he liked the idea. It seemed to answer a lot of questions, besides lending to folk-lore a kind of scientific gloss: anthropological ‘truths’ preserved in tales. Many a writer has been honestly misled by it. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s tremendous novel ‘Sword at Sunset’, the Romano-British and nominally Christian hero Artos, fighting off the Saxon invasions in the 3rd century AD, takes as his allies ‘the little Dark People of the Hills’, who live half-underground in turf-covered bothies, use poisoned arrows and worship the Earth Mother. Their clan leader, the Old Woman, calls Artos ‘Sun Lord’ and tells him:
‘We are small and weak, and our numbers grow fewer with the years, but we are scattered very wide, wherever there are hills or lonely places. We can send news and messages racing from one end of a land to the other between moon-rise and moonset; we can creep and hide and spy and bring back word; we are the hunters who can tell you when the game has passed by, by a bent grass-blade or one hair clinging to a bramble-spray. We are the viper that stings in the dark –’
And in the same author's if-anything-even-more-magnificent ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord’, the half-Roman half-British ex-gladiator Phaedrus, masquerading as Midir, Lord of the Dalriata (an actual 4th century AD Scots-Irish Gaelic kingdom), lays down his iron weapons to call upon an Old Man of the Dark People who lives like a badger in ‘a tumble of stones and turf laced together with brambles’ with ‘a dark opening in its side’:
[Phaedrus] had heard before of places such as this, where one left something that needed mending, together with a gift, and came back later to find the gift gone and the broken thing mended; it was one of those things no one talked of very much, the places where the life of the Sun People touched the life of the Old Ones, the People of the Hills. Like the bowls of milk that the women put out sometimes at night, in exchange for some small job to be done – like the knot of rowan hung over a doorway for protection against the ancient Earth Magic – like the stealing of a Sun Child from time to time.’  
This Old Man is ‘slight-boned … with grey hair brushed back from his narrow brow, and eyes that seemed at first glance like jet beads…’  Sutcliff was writing in the mid-1960s when the ‘two races’ hypothesis was still widely credited: she wrote with great imaginative empathy. I grew up with these stories and it was easy to be swept along by the idea: these Little Dark People or Painted People, these remnants of the past clinging to the verge of cultures which had displaced them, were the historical origin of the fairies. I was sorry for them. Despite Sutcliff’s sympathetic treatment, these marginalised archaic people seem nearly powerless. Their magic – feared though it is – doesn’t really work on the more advanced Sun People. They are spies, not warriors: they creep through the heather with poisoned arrows, killing by stealth. They are in fact natives, with all the baggage that implied in colonial and post-colonial Britain. They may help the heroes, but they can’t be the heroes.  Their time is past.

Writing in 1913 Baring-Gould doesn’t even allow them the skills to erect dolmens:
They were not, I take it, the Dolmen builders – these are supposed to have been giants because of the gigantic character of their structures. They were a people who did not build at all. They lived in caves, or if in the open, in huts made by bending branches over and covering them with sods of turf. Consequently in folk-lore they are always represented as either emerging from caverns or from under mounds. 

This is to lend to folklore an authority far beyond its scope. Most of the nineteenth century collectors of the fairy tales and folk-lore which we all love so much were driven by nationalist impulses and racial pride. Each sought, as the Grimms did, the pure voice of their own ‘folk’. As the century progressed what they in fact uncovered was the inextricably interrelated nature of European folk- and fairy- lore. Despite the near-impossibility of claiming a particular version of any story as ‘original’, some went on to claim an ultimate ‘Aryan’ heritage for such tales, going so far as to assert that the Aryan master-race originated in Scandinavia – since, clearly, the Nordic peoples were the tallest, blondest and bluest-eyed of the lot. Most of these gentlemen meant only to generate pride in what they saw as their heritage. They did not recognise it as racism - the term had not yet been coined - but racism it was. As folklorists, as lovers of fairy tales, we need to be responsible for the ways we interpret the stories we tell. 

While I was researching Mi’kmaq and Algonkin folk-lore for my children's fantasy 'Troll Blood' (HarperCollins 2007), I came across a salutary reminder of how untrustworthy some 19th century commentators can be when discussing origins: in a compilation called ‘The Algonquin Legends of New England’ (1884) I found the linguist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland with a bee in his bonnet about what he claimed had to be a Norse influence on Mi’kmaq stories. Having decided that the Mi’kmaq tales were in effect too ‘noble’ to have been the product of Native American minds, he made the wildly unsupported assertion that the Norsemen must have told stories from the Eddas to the indigenous peoples of what is now Newfoundland and New Brunswick: that the Mi’kmaq culture-hero Kluskap (‘Glooscap’, in his account) ‘is the Norse god intensified … by far the grandest and most Aryan-like character ever evolved from a savage mind’. I almost dropped the book and was forced to regard it ever after as compromised and unreliable. If there was any contact at all between Norsemen and the Native American population in the 10th to 13th centuries (the likely duration of occasional forays from treeless Greenland for much-needed North American timber), the Greenlanders’ Saga suggests that it was violent and short. But that’s not the point. The point is the mindset which says ‘this is too good to have been created by [insert racial group]’. 

The dwarf Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir.

Returning to the origin of pixies, elves and dwarfs – if they’re not a folk-memory of some once co-existing shy and inferior race, what are they? As Baring-Gould says, the notion must have come from somewhere.  Well, Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe are dotted with burial mounds and barrows. The Irish story of the love of Midir for Étain (the Tochmarc Etaine) states plainly that Midir is a king of the ‘elf-mounds’, the underworld, and the tale is full of instances of death and rebirth. As I argue in an essay called ‘The Lost Kings of Fairyland’ in my book of essays, 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles', fairies have long been associated with the dead. In a fascinating essay ‘The Craftsman in the Mound’ (Folk-Lore 88, 1977) Lotte Motz discusses the figure of the dwarf as a smith and craftsman dwelling in hills, mounds and mountains, who may be heard hammering away in underground smithies. Pointing to the many instances of ‘legends of dead rulers who reside, sometimes in a magic sleep and often with their retinue, within a mountain’, she continues:
A relation to the dead appears to belong also to the dwarfs of the Icelandic documents; so the dwarf Alviss [‘All-Knowing] is asked by Thor if he had been staying with the dead, and a poem in a saga tells of a doughty sword which had been fashioned by ‘dead dwarfs’. I would… assert that the mountain dwelling of the smith holds, rather than temporary wealth, eternal treasures in its aspect as the mountain of the dead. 
As if to emphasise his deathly character, like a ghost fleeing to its grave at cock-crow, the dwarf Alviss (the story is from the Poetic Edda) cannot endure daylight but turns to stone at sunrise. 
‘The day has caught thee, dwarf!’ cries triumphant Thor, who like Gandalf in ‘The Hobbit’ has kept him talking…   

It's always been thought dangerous to see fairies. Like the Furies in Greek mythology, if you talked about them at all, you used flattering circumlocutions – the Good People, the Seely Court, the People of Peace. They came from the hollow hills, the land of death, and it was wise to be frightened of them.  Maybe the visions, the ‘legions of dwarfs’, the little green men or pixies which Baring-Gould and his wife and child separately saw signified something more sinister than folk-memories. 

After all, sunstroke can kill you.


Picture credits: 

Pixie encounter - W. Measom, 1853
Nisse eating barley porridge - Wikimedia Commons
The dwarves Brokkr and Eitri making the hammer Mjölnir - Arthur Rackham - Wikimedia Commons
Alvissmal - Alviss answers Thor - Wikimedia Commons 
The Celtic Vanguard - Wikimedia Commons  
Dolmen, Jersey, 1859 - Wikimedia Commons
Pixies - John D Batten - Wikimedia Commons