Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Evolution of Selkies

(Note: this is not a post about how seal-humans might have evolved. I'm sorry.)

(src)
(links to a post with interesting connections to Pallawah women of Tasmania)

Over the weekend, I read my first selkie story: The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan. Beautifully written book, much recommended, took the whole "selkie bride" idea to its logical conclusion. Also interesting for taking on the perspective of the witch at the beginning to show her psychology.

But you know how you can only ever seem to focus on the things that weren't awesome?...*

*I see nothing wrong with this attitude, in moderation. Improvement depends on fixing problems, after all.

...where was the seal-women's perspective?

Caveat: I greatly enjoyed the book and will seek out more of Lanagan's work in the future. However, because I try to hone my inner reader by noticing things that I don't *quite* like about awesome books, I will focus on the gaps.

Beside, my argument is not with TBoRI specifically, but rather, the entire suite of selkie/animal bride stories. Because it seems as though practically all of them are about a man somehow coercing a wild woman into becoming his wife, through stealing her skin or something, and she escapes without a backward glance once she gets it back.

Does this seem wrong to anyone else?

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Background reading:


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The versions of fairy tales that we encounter are usually deeply screwed up. Not just in terms of the violence and gore (in the original Princess and the Frog, the prince transformed when the princess threw the frog against a wall...to use the mildest example), but in terms of their gender politics and other messages.

(I'll leave the post about reclaiming the fairy tales' original messages to people like Justine Musk and Windling. My ignorance in this territory is mighty.)

Selkie stories are among the worst offenders, as Miller explains:
The old selkie story is both about the relationship between lovers, and our relationship to the wild. In the way that sometimes humans in our weakness try to control our loved ones, through manipulation, through emotional blackmail, sometimes even through abuse and coercion, because we fear that their independence means they will leave and betray us, or that their self-sovereignty implies faithlessness, in the same way we have been doing things wrong in regards to animals, and so have trapped ourselves: keeping animals in tanks, in enclosures, jars, bowls, corrals. We seldom do this out of purposeful cruelty, or even sheer profitable callousness, but so much oftener out of misguided love. So since the story is made of love, it is malleable, it can be reoriented, rewritten, redeemed.
(emphasis mine)

She also proposes a new version of the story:
But what if there were a new selkie story? One in which she chooses the man? One in which the man courts her, makes himself loveable to her, that she wants to come to him; that he loves her for being what she is, part seal, and knowing that, loves the wild part of her? And when she needs to, she runs to the ocean, pulls her skin back around her, swims with her family. She comes to back to land. Back and forth, as seals do anyway. While she is gone, he does man things.

The story has drama, just not the inevitability of failure. The crux of the new story is its inner quarrel, the bit of resistance in the man, her uncertainty with him, and the back-and-forthing within them that gives way to purer love. Such would be a new possibility, and a new way.
(emphasis mine, again)

I'm at that age (high school) when many people around me are or have been in relationships. Some couples seem more permanent than others. These pairs, which might still fall apart later, generally arise when both parties involved were friends before they got together, when they respect one another, when they don't disappear into the relationship.

It's the same with any relationship, from the little I've observed. The strongest friendships are the ones built on mutual respect, on understanding the other person--or at least trying--the ones that don't necessarily need daily checking in to maintain. By contrast, the most stressful "friendships" are the ones in which you're missing respect, or appreciation as a person, or kindness, or a willingness to give one another space.

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What is the point of reshaping stories? To retell the new myths.

(You knew this would circle back to writing eventually, didn't you?)

I read Miller's essay during a phase when work on UM was going terribly, terribly slowly, and it set off fireworks in my brain. Hey, I thought, I've never written a romance. What if I took a shot at it, and followed these lines?

Shortly thereafter, the UM ball began to roll and I let the idea fall by the wayside. But I'm thinking of ways to put together this idea, of the new selkie story, with everything that bothered me about otherwise compelling stories like TBoRI, with my observations of high school relationships, with my need to write something with dragons in it.

Because the dragon myth is something else that needs to be reshaped. While browsing Tumblr the other day, I came across this gem:


(The full post describes a story that must be written and then distributed across the land.)

I still don't know what the details are. I have exactly two characters so far (the female and male romantic leads), a punny conversation at the beginning of their acquaintance, and the vague idea that the dragon-girl in human form looks like Dovima:

Dovima in Balenciaga(src)

I can promise nothing of the story as yet. At the very least, however, its bones will not be twisted to suit obsolete social constraints.

Powerful myths, those fit to their environment, endure. The selkie story's longevity speaks to its relevance. However, everything must evolve to adapt to changing circumstances, and in an age that places value on individualism and freedom, or should, the old story falls flat. Miller's proposed revision--of a love story founded on respect, on trust, on space--resonates.

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