Literary trends: Mermaids – Something fishy in the tale
This article first appeared in Mslexia, issue 53
Sea creatures are replacing vampires as the latest fantasy trend. Danuta Kean investigates
A wave of mermaids and selkies threatens to wash away vampires and angels in popular fiction, as young adults turn from the sky to the sea for literary escape . But forget Disney, these sea creatures swim in the wake of Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series and Liz Kessler’s Emily Windsnap. And they feature a fresh catch of writers, including Katherine Langrish and Margo Lanagan.
The appeal of the sea to writers springs from ancient roots, according to Simon Mason, acting editorial director of David Fickling Books, which has just published Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island (£12.99). It is based on Scottish selkie myths in which seals transform into women. ‘These myths are very powerful creative ideas, so it is no surprise that authors and readers turn back to them again and again,’ he tells Mslexia. ‘I imagine they have been in and out of our consciousness since time began.’
According to Langrish, whose Forsaken (£5.99) was published by Franklin Watts, mermaids and selkies represent powerfully conflicting emotions, including sex and death. ‘In all the folklore I’ve read about mermaids, they have no souls,’ she explains. ‘Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid will disappear like foam on the sea if she doesn’t win a soul: but when she does gain a soul, she stops being a mermaid, she turns into a spirit of the air, a sort of angelic Christian spirit. Writing about mermaids actually offers an opportunity to think about what it is to be human.’
The heady emotional mix of fear, alienation and desire, as well as repressed sexuality, female empowerment and otherness represented by Andersen’s story, explains why the genre is popular with teenage women. US-based author Carolyn Turgeon’s third novel Mermaid, published in the UK last year by Headline Review, was inspired by Andersen’s Little Mermaid. ‘Mermaids are rich pickings because they’re so alluring and strange and multi-faceted and contradictory,’ she explains. ‘They’re gorgeous and sexy, but they live in the sea and are completely unattainable. They might even kill you.’
She adds: ‘They’re associated with death and birth and the subconscious, the depths of the ocean, parts of the world no one has ever seen. And with their bare breasts, curving bodies, fishtails and lack of genitals, they’re just as weirdly sexed as the vampire.’
Mermaids is her latest novel to be inspired by fairy stories. ‘I didn’t intend to write about mermaids,’ she recalls. The book was written after an approach from an editor at Headline asking for proposals. ‘Way down on that list was an idea for a kids book about a mermaid—kind of a random thought—and that’s the idea she bought, though as my next adult novel.’
Readers’ familiarity with original myths helps authors create dramatic tension by defying narrative expectations. A good example of this is found among the Mer in Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series, the fifth of which, Stormswept (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £12.99), was published in January. The Mer have legends about humans that are as accurate about us as our myths are about them. ‘They very much mock the idea of long haired girls with fish tails sitting on rocks,’ Dunmore says. It embodies the clash of two cultures central to the stories.
Sea myths contain another essential ingredient for novels: drama, as Margo Lanagan explains: ‘Most mermaid and selkie stories are tragic romances, in which the allure of these creatures is undeniable, but the consequences of consorting with them are unpleasant and even deadly.’ Readers’ knowledge of the dangers sea people represent stirs strong emotion: fear, hope, and foreboding. ‘Watching people foolishly fall in love with sea-creatures? That’s a story that’ll never get old,’ Lanagan adds.
It is easy to see why these stories appeal to young adults, but what about their growing audience of older readers? The answer is relationships, claims Katherine Langrish ‘For me, this legend seems to be about the difficulty of understanding one another, even in a bond as close as marriage – in a sense, one’s partner is always The Other.’ Looking deeper into the enduring appeal of these stories, she adds: ‘It speaks of the power struggle between couples – and the grief of a failed partnership – and, very strongly, I thought, about the plunge into post-natal depression.’
Landscape is important to mythological fiction. Lanagan’s Rollrock Island is a harsh backdrop to the ethereal selkie women. Zennor in Cornwall is the wild landscape for Dunmore. But Dunmore feels the landscape of the imagination is more important when planning these novels. ‘Before you begin to write you have to be immersed in the world you are trying to create,’ the author and poet advises. ‘Before I began to write these books I had a sense of the landscape, characters and their legends. The characters – Mer, human and animal – had to be extremely well determined if children were going to stick with them over five books.’
Though authors recommend David Attenborough documentaries over a sea dive to research underwater scenes, Dunmore feels that to write convincingly of the sea, one cannot be a landlubber. ‘The sea is different when you are on it,’ she says. ‘The colours and topography are very different, and when you look at the coast from water that is also quite different.’
But what ultimately carries the best of the new mermaid stories is what Katherine Langrish calls ‘emotional truth’. David Fickling’s Simon Mason agrees: ‘What works for one author doesn’t work for another. It is for an author to discover where a story takes them and what a story demands.’ He pauses, then adds: ‘Rules don’t work, apart from one: forget Disney!’
The Reading List
Forsaken by Katherine Langrish (£5.99, Franklin Watts) Haunting story of a young mermaid’s search for her mother that twists the traditional tale into something far more satisfying and interesting for adults as well as children by the critically acclaimed author of The Troll Mill (£6.99, HarperCollin’s Children’s). Although it is a short book, it is as intense as it is brief and resonates with more mundane human relationships.
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan (£12.99, David Fickling Books) A sea witch transforms seals into selkies, ethereal beauties, taken by local fishermen who dump their less attractive wives. But who is the enchanted? The selkie women or the fishermen who have claimed them as their sea brides? Stunning prose delivers a story with depth and poignancy that should turn it into a classic of feminist fiction.
The Ingo Chronicles: Stormswept by Helen Dunmore (£12.99, HarperCollins Children’s Books) Fifth in Dunmore’s Ingo series. Two sisters rescue a Mer boy, but as one tries to return him to his people, the worlds of mer and men collide. Dunmore’s breath-taking prose throughout the series has created a world at once alien and familiar in which readers are able to explore issues of alienation, conflict and integration through a narrative that engages and compels.
Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon (£7.99, Headline Review) The Little Mermaid is transformed into the story of two women and their love for one man after a human princess witnesses the rescue of a prince by a mermaid. The narrative shifts between the two women’s viewpoints. As with her previous book, Godmother: The Sectret Cinderella Story (£7.99, Headline Review), Turgeon plays with a well-loved original bringing to it fresh zest and modern emotional resonance.
The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley (£5.99, Bloomsbury) Award-winning US children’s book that uses the selkie myth to create a wonderfully creepy story. Retold through a diary, it tells of orphan Corinna Stonewall who has been appointed the Folk Keeper. She is responsible for looking after ‘the folk’, spiteful creatures who spoil milk, create havoc and even devour parts of their keeper. But Corinna is not all she seems either…