I was very taken by the blog written recently on this site by Margo Lanagan, author of The Brides of Rollrock Island. I shall have to read the novel in due course. All things Selkie have intrigued and attracted me since the 80’s when I first encountered the Selkie Tales from the northern coasts of Scotland.
My first taste may have come from a picture book version of The Selkie Bride by Warwick Hutton, illustrator. But around this time I also stumbled across a children’s television version done as a voiceover with stills, the voice being supplied wistfully and poignantly by the actor Tom Conti. I had to know more. It is strange how at times in one’s life relevant things crop up when topical. For shortly afterwards I came across a book published by Canongate, called Tales of the Seal People, by Duncan Williamson. Duncan Williamson was a Scots Traveller in origin. These people used to live in boats that travelled up and down the northwest coast of Scotland, sometimes coming inland to make rough shelters to sleep in. Their life was hardy and their economy was survivalist. They took seasonal work and otherwise lived off the land and sea, it would seem. They had a powerful and vibrant culture of storytelling and one of the main strands of this was the tales about the selkie folk, beings who were part seal part human in form, having the ability to remove their outer seal skins to reveal a human shape that could comfortably manage a life on land.
A significant factor often exploited by the stories is that if the sealskin is hidden the selkie being cannot return to the sea. And in some of the tales lonely fishermen use this to gain themselves a bride, a wife, a partner. Which in turn means that the children of such a union are half-castes, part selkie and part human.
The Williamson versions are in fact transcripts, written down by his younger American wife at the time. Williamson, it is said, could neither read nor write, so his stories were all memorised in traditional storytelling style. And the versions in the Canongate volume have a curious, informal, lilting feel to them, mainly the result of this fact, I am sure.
For a while I was obsessed by these stories. They were unlike anything I’d ever encountered in folktales. I dreamed about them, thought about them and had to write about them. My first poetry collection,Plum, contained the narrative poem The Selkie Bride which pretty much tells the story straight, only in rhymed, rhythmed verse, giving it a more literary feel than the Williamson, a more ballad-like feel, though the form is not traditional ballad. I used a slow long-line couplet rhythm which was intended to evoke the slow breaking of waves on a northern shore. At David Fickling’s request I wrote a ballad version of The Seal Hunter, first published as a ‘Story for a Pound’ Scholastic folktale retelling, later included in my The Storyteller’s Secrets, and more recently included in Magic Beans, the dfb anthology. I’ve written adult poems, too, which spin off from The Selkie Bride. Folktales do indeed reach out beyond themselves to create metaphors of relevance to new readers and writers. Bruno Bettelheim made such claims in a book called The Uses of Enchantment. You don’t have to agree with him, nor read his book. But writers continue to use the folk and fairy tales as stepping stones to further reaches of meaning.
My forthcoming book with dfb is Wayland (or : ‘The Heart Song of Wayland Smith’) illustrated by John Lawrence in woodcut and vinyl cut. The text is in ballad-like rhyming stanzas, so traditional in form to match the traditional source of the story. Note two curious factors about this tale :
The first is that Wayland, a smith and maker of great cunning and invention, is imprisoned on an island in a workshop over a maze. He is made to work for a cruel and greedy king, Nidud. How does he contrive to escape? By gathering fallen birds’ feathers and making a pair of ingenious wings to fly him to safety.
The parallel with the story of Daedalus and Icarus is indeed strong. The cunning maker or inventor, the imprisonment on the island by the cruel king. The making of wings to fly to freedom.
But listen. There is another. Wayland and his two brothers chance across three young women bathing in the river near their woodland home. On the bank are three heavily feathered capes, for the three naked women are swan maidens who have removed their feather capes to reveal their human shapes beneath the swan guise. In mythology the swan maidens are sometimes conflated with, or confused with, the Valkyries, though originally they were distinct. But how can one fail to make the connection with the selkie legends, since by keeping the swan maidens’ capes hidden from them the three brothers keep the maidens with them to become their wives. When they find their feather capes eventually, they don them swiftly and fly off to resume their original identities.
This particular, the idea of having an outer and an inner self, or a cloak of identity that can be removed to reveal a further or alternative identity, is compelling to some people, perhaps to most or all. I have always wondered whether anyone truly enjoys an entirely integrated experience of self, for my own experience is that identity, personality, selfhood and such shift and change with time, or even in phases, like the moon or the tide. Perhaps I am unfortunate or fortunate in my difference. But if this is so, surely even the most clearly defined of us must experience such shifts in dreams, when sleeping, in subconscious or subliminal zones.
Fantastical, far-fetched, histrionic, you might say. But what of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey and other such tales that grip the popular imagination? Do we not to some extent, albeit minimally, identify with such narratives?
When you go to bed tonight, as you turn out your light, let your mind play around such fancies as selkie skins and swan-maidens’ capes. And then see if you don’t dream yourself something other, swimming or flying in some other element. Sweet dreams and a taste of otherness. And a rest from the well-worn habit of your self.
Sleep tight, Tony Mitton
Tony Mitton is an award-winning poet, whose gently mesmerising, often humorous poetry is irresistible to both children and adults alike. He is an extremely versatile author, writing story poems and shorter verse with skill and wit. His books include The Storyteller’s Secrets and The Tale of Tales, though keep an eye on Tony’s website for more news of ‘Wayland’.