March 4, 2011

Selkies: The Next Big Thing?

        While at the Arisia convention in January I went to a panel of this name, amused by the idea of  coming up with a new mythological creature to take over the mantle of faddishness from vampires, werewolves, and zombies.  And of course having seen how I feel about vampires, you can imagine that I'd be much more interested in a wave of new selkie stories than in seeing yet more tales of teen romances involving blood-sucking monsters.  (Although I'm sorry to say I suspect a new fad will require something even more shocking, rather than merely something new of interest.  I hope I'm wrong.)
        So, selkies are seal people from the folklore of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and British Isles.  Unlike were-creatures of various sorts, they can control when they turn from seal to human form and back, usually by taking their sealskin off or putting it on.  Nor are they under enchantment, like another genre of people of animal form.
        The most common type of the myth involves a man taking a selkie for a wife by hiding her sealskin so that she's stuck in human form.  Eventually, though, she always finds the skin, often through her unwitting children.  As soon as she sees it, she's away to the ocean forever, leaving home, husband, and children behind.  Sometimes she might come back and visit with the children in the shallows.  Sometimes she might rescue the husband from a storm at sea.  Sometimes her selkie family might be killed by hunters, driving her to revenge...  As for male selkies, they are usually extraordinarily handsome and charismatic, and tend to seduce human women.  Humans of selkie descent can be identified by their webbed fingers and toes.
        Seal people are all well and good, but I like to draw the concept a little wider.  Similar tales of creatures that can shift between animal and human form occur in legends from around the world.  Perhaps the most similar are the northern European swan maidens, who can also be forced to marry the human who steals their swanskin.  There are buffalo maidens in Africa and various bird wives from Italy to Japan.  A variant I like comes from a southern Chinese fairy tale in which it's a fox maiden who marries the man who hides her skin.  The part I particularly liked was that she turns a somersault
into and out of her foxskin.  I gave this ability to a character in my book Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom.  Tuzi is a magical rabbit who can somersault out of her rabbit skin and take the form of a girl.  She remains rabbit-sized, though, and I gave the rabbit skin one more bit of magic:  when Tuzi stretches it over the children's shoulders, they, too, shrink down to rabbit size, while retaining their human form.
        In any case, the idea of being able to switch forms from animal to human is an entrancing one, especially when the switch involves an animal that is master of another environment.  Who wouldn't be fascinated by the possibility of being able to command the abilities of two different creatures?  But the fact that the legends about selkies and shapeshifters are so often tragedies may point to another truth: as appealing as the thought of having two sets of abilities might be, it can never be easy living in two worlds.  Selkies and their ilk generally seem happy enough in their human lives, but when the opportunity arises to return to their own worlds, they never can resist.  Perhaps the selkies are a reminder that being a bridge is a difficult and often unappreciated role, much more than just a fun adventure.
        So much of fantasy is about encountering new worlds, or realizing that our own world is not what we thought it was.  No wonder we have a fascination with the shapeshifting beings who symbolize the whole idea of switching between worlds.  There are so many interesting stories yet to tell to explore this concept.  So, will selkies really be the Next Big Thing?  I have no idea, but I say, "Bring on the selkies!"

[Pictures: Common seal, copper (intaglio) engraving signed T.W. Wood and Ferrier (Presumably one is the artist and the other the engraver), p 137, Vol. II, New Natural History by Richard Lydekker, 1901;
Seal, woodcut by Jacques Boullaire (1893-1976), from Heatons of Tisbury gallery;
Tuzi in human form, colored pencil by AEGN, p 22, from Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom, 2009.]


Nan said...

There's the recent film, "Ondine," but we loved "The Secret of Roan Inish." Have you seen it?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Yes, I enjoyed "The Secret of Roan Inish," too. Apparently it's based on a book called "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry" by Rosalie Fry, but I haven't been able to find it. I also haven't seen the newer movie "Ondine."