Wednesday, February 24, 2010
My second novel, In Great Waters, treats of the subject of mermaids (as many of you know, and if you don't, oh boy are you missing a treat. Really. Go buy the book. Go on, I'll wait.)
As this rather nice review points out*, I take an unsentimental view of them, seeing them as, well, creatures who live in the sea. And if you've seen The Blue Planet, you'll know that the sea is not a sentimental place. I decided to present them as closer to cetaceans than to fish: if mermaids, or 'deepsmen', as I called them, are social enough to be in any way related to humans, it makes sense to assume that mammals. Which means no underwater cities of pearl or anything like that: for one thing, it's highly unlikely that settling in a particular place would mean anything other than starvation for a large predator, for another you build buildings to keep the weather out and it's a fair bet that somebody who spends their time below the sea surface isn't that bothered about getting rained on, but the main reason was simple: if you're basically cetacean, you need to surface for air regularly. Nomadic, tribal and survival-minded creatures seemed the likeliest. Deepsmen, I reckoned, would be something between chimps and dolphins.
And are dolphins gentle beasties? Well, as this article I just got sent points out, no. If anything, I drew it pretty mild. My deepsman protagonist doesn't get beaten to death in his infancy.
It's an interesting thing: when I was writing Bareback I studied up on the legends a great deal. Partly this was just to check if anyone else was doing what I was doing, which nobody seemed to be, but it also turned up some interesting facts about the historical origins of the werewolf story: in days gone by, people were actually executed for 'being werewolves' as part of the broader moral panic that grew up around witchcraft. Werewolf stories tend to be correspondingly harsh. Mermaid stories, on the other hand, were not something I researched that much; the ones I saw seemed to be rather on the pretty side, which is fine in itself but not the way I write. It's only reading the article on dolphins that it occurs to me where this disparity may come from.
Wolves are land predators; if you were a farmer in 1600, they were land predators that might grab your sheep or your children. We see them close enough to be clear that even if there were magic about them, it wouldn't necessarily be a beneficient, human-serving magic. Wolves have their own priorities, and getting food is at the top of the list, and if serving that interest conflicts with our interests then that's somebody's hard luck, and you just have to hope it'll be the wolf's.
Dolphins, on the other hand, have for most of history only been seen in glimpses, a magical flash of silver at the ship's prow. What happened beneath the sea in the days before scuba and cameras was obscure - and crucially, very few sea animals prey upon humans. A shark may take you, and indeed Jaws made fine fiction out of that possibility, but cetaceans don't have humans on their list of edibles. They may hunt the fish that humans want to eat, but fish aren't like herds: you don't buy and guard them, you just take your boat out and hope to find some, so if a dolphin is competing with you for food it's harder to notice. The result of all this is that the ways in which a dolphin can be aggressive, wanton, violent - the ways, in fact, it can be similar to our worst qualities - were very hard to spot. We could see that they moved in groups and that they liked to play - again, qualities that we share, but among our best qualities - but the darker points of correspondence were, for centuries, below the water-line.
The upshot of new discoveries is that mermaids seem, in many ways, a less fantastical idea than they might once have. Sea mammals, it turns out, aren't really very different from land mammals: all are capable of intelligence, loyalty, play, curiosity and murder. The legend of mermaid as beautiful mystery isn't a bad one, but it comes from an era of limited opportunities to observe; if we'd been snorkelling for our food back in the Middle Ages, it might be very different nowadays.
Will the new research on dolphin behaviour, with its hunting for sport and infanticide, affect mermaid legends of the future? If so, well, remember you heard it here first...
*I've mentioned previously that I try to avoid my reviews, as they mess with my head and are not the best source of feedback, but a cyber-friend pointed me to that one.
I've just started reading Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett, a former missionary turned linguistic anthropologist. He spent nearly thirty years living with the Piraha tribe in the southern Amazon, where apparently "porpoise tag" is a frequent amusement.
Freshwater porpoises come surfacing out of the river near the village; the men jump into canoes and chase after them, trying to touch them with a paddle; the porpoises circle around, managing to keep just out of range. The advantage seems to be all to the porpoises: the men usually tire first, and in thirty years, says Everett, he never saw a porpoise "tagged."
I wonder what kind of porpoise stories the Piraha tell.
(I've just started the book; so far, the author is still struggling with the language, and we haven't gotten to stories, myths or legends yet.)
I haven't quoted Ogden Nash at you lately, but remember that he too took a cheerful view of the species:
I kind of like the playful porpoise,
A healthy mind in a healthy corpus.
He and his cousin, the playful dolphin,
Why, they like swimming like I like golphin.
Now I come to think of it, not all mermaid stories are pretty. Some of the folk songs and legends blame mermaids for storms and sinking ships. A mermaid combing her hair on the rocks may have been a pretty sight, but it was a bad sign nonetheless: you and your ship were likely to make a closer acquaintance with the bottom of the sea than you'd like. So maybe mermaids weren't such direct predators as wolves/werewolves, but a symbol of the untrustworthiness of the ocean, calm and beautiful one moment and threatening your life the next. They represent a threat less personal than wolves--the wolf goes after a specific sheep or man, intentionally, for dinner-- but more mysteriously indifferent-- the ocean doesn't notice or care when the ship goes down.
And then there were the tales about selkies, the ones who were "man upon the land and seal in the sea." Much less horrific than werewolves, but you couldn't count on them to respect ordinary human standards or affections. In human form, they'd get close enough to people to get involved, but you never know when they'll put the sealskin back on and swim away forever, possibly leaving orphaned children or murdered lovers or drowned sailors behind them.
So if we've had enough of werewolves and vampires and zombies in pop culture, yes, it may be time to do more with mermaids than Disney them up. You could have started a trend here!
That's true, and interesting: mermaids and sirens are often presented as embodiments of a weird kind of implacable will. They want something, it frequently involves people drowning, but their desires operate more like laws of nature than like feelings - there doesn't seem to be much thought going on, they just do what they do because that's who they are. So yes, malevolent mermaids as a personification of how the sea will drown you makes perfect sense.
You might like this:
Repeating the Ocean
Yeah, I think mermaid tales can be dark. And although it's not a mermaid song (but does have sirens, I think), this subject makes me think of Alexander James Adams's song "Water's in the Hold." A sexier song about death by drowning I have never heard.
I was just about to show off a review of Benighted that I'd written for my store's website, but if you usually avoid reviews I'll refrain.
Have you seen The Secret of Roan Inish? It's a really lovely film centered around selkies.
I was a couple hours away from Iquitos by boat on an an ecology trip when we decided to do some (quite successful - our guide was really good at his job) dolphin spotting. We followed a couple of pink dolphins, and I was told that some people thought them to be magicians who turned into men and impregnated young women, and who kept their heads covered on land to hide the blowhole on top. When I looked that story up online, it added in an underwater city (Roldan just said they drowned people) and made the whole thing sound much more pleasant and magical (R made the dolphins sound extremely untrustworthy and generally dangerous. Apparently they have a rep for stealing fish,too, and are overall considered Not Safe). It also didn't include the blowhole/head covering bit in other sources that I saw, so perhaps that was his own embellishment.
Check the dolphins and whales page at
a comprehensive catalogue of marine species to sea lovers.
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