People of the Sea

GOE, and catche a falling starre…Teach me to heare Mermen singing

I think that the first mer-character I really remember was a mer-boy who either rescues Rupert the Bear or who is rescued by the smartly-dressed ursine adventurer. Looking at various stories in which the merboy figures, I can’t say for certain which it was – I remember the putto-like character, the rocky shore, a sea-serpent…. All rather untamed, compared with the donkeys-and-pier seaside I knew in Cleethorpes, but somewhat like bits of Dorset. For me at the time, seaside was not a place of uncanny encounters, but I did recognise that such meetings, on a chilly shore, make for a great read. Katharine Briggs has some good stories of Merrows and seal-people scattered through her books but she does warn that

The mermaids are perhaps of the most ambivalent character. The very sight of them at sea is death to sailors, and it is their habit to decoy people under water, but at times they are benevolent …

K M Briggs: “Forgotten gods and Nature Spirits” in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Human fear of drowning and perhaps a fear of the disruption to a society of a sort of seductive sexuality make the mermaid seem a dangerous creature. Note, however, that Briggs refers here to maids, to dangerous aquatic females – but she is aware, too, of male people of the sea.

While thinking of Mermen, it is worth turning to Walter Map, whose work De Nugis Curialium contains the story of Nicholas Pipe, described as

A true man with no hint of the inhuman in any of his limbs and with no defect in any of his five senses, he had been given, beyond his humanity, the aptitudes of a fish.

Illusions and Resurrections
selected from Walter Map’s De nugis curialium
translated and adapted by M. T. Anderson

but tellingly also less than a human and united with the fishes. (see this edition for all sorts of name-dropping, snarky comments and so on from Walter Map – and occasional folktales and horror stories). It strikes me that what Pipe is, is a creature, like many supernatural creatures, able to move between the accepted world and the unknown. In the book People of the Sea a seal inland worries islanders that it might be something more than a seal. That ambiguity is the stuff of the uncanny.

People of the Sea requires a bit of explanation. I’d seen merpeople in Narnia, read the Little Mermaid with its chilling message about hopeless love, and then was bought David Thomson’s rich and bleak The People of the Sea one Christmas in the early 80s. Here Thomson recounts the classic Selchie Tale of the seal-woman who raises a land family (in this case under duress) before returning to the sea. It’s a haunting tale that gets a beautiful modern retelling in the film Song of the Sea (Trailer here), and a different exploration around sibling bereavement in Brahmachari and Ray’s Corey’s Rock. (NB, I have explored Corey’s Rock before: link here). There are versions of Selchie tales of all sorts, told in almost orientalised contexts in David Thomson’s book, attesting to the power of these ambiguous creatures, and relationships between land people and magic sea people – and earthly seals too, hunted with respect but not sentimentality.

And the latest voices and images to attest to that power belong to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Again drowning is a key dramatic element, and the story draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid – or perhaps the Disney version*. No Prince to be rescued here, but a scruffy-but-nice Fisherman called Ernest; no manipulative Sea-Witch, but a jealous ruler, Pelagios, Nen’s father, a gloriously imperious, almost gilded merman straight from an eighteenth-century fireplace.

The characters are “between worlds” ( a phrase I picked up from the BBC series on the influence of Irish music and this piece by Michael O’Suilleabhain), like the unicorn Findhorn in Alan Garner’s magnificent and threatening fantasy Elidor (a great blog report here). Findhorn walks in high places and yet meets his end in the lap of a virgin not in a glorious, flowery tapestry but on a demolition site in 60s Manchester. Nen, in sharp contrast, lives in deep places, but finds fulfilment in the gaze of a lonely fisherman on a coast of rocks and cottages, and his father begins to wonder whether the two worlds are as different as he had thought.

Just as I like the way James Mayhew depicts the anguished hauteur of Pelagios – and while I promised not to think of Disney, it does match, if not exceed, the wrath of Triton in The Little Mermaid – the eye contact between the merman Nen and his lonely fisherman Ernest is also charmingly warm. The images stand in opposition to each other. The sighing ocean and the violent waves, are calmed by the merman’s song tender and brimming with courage – and Pelagios’ doubts over the human world abate like the storm, so that Nen and his (a little word but worth noting) fisherman are on a rock laughing and dreaming about the future.

It is here that the despair of Andersen is passed over, and the subtexts of abuse and grief from the Selchie stories of the Gaelic islands are rewritten. More tales could be told – maybe should be told – about Nen and Edward as they grow and share their lives. We are not in the world of the uncanny – or with John Donne in the world of fantastic improbability as in the headquote – but in a world of acceptance.

*[And as an aside, I have to say that, tempting though it might be to read this (and write about Ian and James’ book) as a queering of Disney, I’m largely going to leave Uncle Walt to others.]

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