The Ireland is a country of ancient myths and traditions whose magical stories are emotional and appealing. Those narrations are always a mixture of love and hate, sufferings and pleasure, joy and grief. The myth about the Selkies narrates about the seal people who have all the qualities of the Irish mentally thus disclosing the emotional contrasts of life. Swimming in the cold depth of the dark waters, the seal people could shed their skin and turn into their true appearance that was a human one. Hence, the book, The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend by David Thomson discloses a beautiful myth about amazing creatures capable of love. However, the book is a realistic novel about human testimonies about seal legends.
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The stories of Selkies, half-people and half-seal are rather familiar and popular among the inhabitants of the Celtics coastlands where many people bear family names that show their direct connection to the seal inheritance. Thus, in his work, Thomson narrates,
Walk on their lonely beaches, climb on their rocks with the knowledge that …for thousands of years people believed what you now feel – that you are at the uttermost edge of the Earth, and when all is quiet and except for waves and sea birds you hear an old man gasp. You turn towards the sound. It is a seal, which has broken the surface of the water to take breath, and very often seeing you will raise whole torso and stare at you …than disappear silently (Thomson unpaged).
These legends acquire a more in-depth meaning for the Irish people; it is not just the fictional narrations about amazing creatures being in a desperate search for true love. Those legends are framed in the culture of the people, in their perception of and attitude to life. Thomson’s book is a brilliant collection of separate realistic stories narrated by the Irish people who strongly believed in the existence of seal people. Many families were strongly inclined to regard to the myths as to the part of the Irish history.
In the book, the author also investigates the legend about the great Atlantic seal that lived in near the Northern Ireland. According to Thomson, those seals have the huge liquid eyes and mournful voices. The animals seemed to have more affection for humans rather than for the marine animals thus swimming under the waves. Such legends are also perpetuated in the songs and plays gathered in this book from the Irish people. The documents of Thomson also narrate about the legends from his own observations and from the accounts of the witness about the great sea mammal with its supernatural powers and profound influence on the local coast inhabitants. In his narration, he begins with his childhood when he
Thomson’s work also embraces a poetic view on the selkie myth, including ancient historic and Celtic lore about the seal people rooted in the Hebrides, the Shetlands, and Orkney Islands. The stories about selkies reflect on the strong connection of the selkie and the sea, thus showing the important tradition of possession and belonging. A female selkie, thus, embodies the meaning of the dispossession, and displacement and the loss love and identity. Here, the inevitable connection to the sea deprives those half-women since their true essence is human.
The fantastic sense of love is also revealed in Henry James’s poems that focus on the eternal topic of romantic love. In the article Henry James and the Seal of Love, Hirch shows that the poet often inserts the topic of separation of love and the love against death (42). In the Song of the Song, James also interprets the notorious myth about dispossession and grief of inevitable loss of half-people and half-seal who are already torn apart upon their origin. In the poem, lovers are separated by death where the maiden wishes to be a close to his lover “as his seal” (Hircsh 42). The author of the article notes that the theme of love and separation from death are typical for James poetry where “love is described in the image of a scorching desert wind that overpowers the sweet air of the garden.” When referring to the legend, the love is presented as something magical and imaginary, as it is a love for a mythical creature.
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The Celtic legends have an outright impact on the theatrical department where the plays’ plot was based on the stories about the seal-people. Hence, a Celtic opera by Majorie Kennedy Fraser and Granville Bantock , The Seal Woman, is a fishy tale about a humanized creature that were turned into a seal. The opera also contains another legend about the sea-ladies that ware sealskin that disguised their female nature. They are prohibited to come back home to their father, the king because of their jealous stepmother. Finnally, though The Seal Woman does not explicitly interpret this story, still, it could be associated with the legend about an angler who fell in love with a sea-lady and persuaded her to shed her sealskin forever to marry him (Musical Times 994). The same story is depicted in Thomson’s collection of the legends in the beginning of his narration:
People said her mother was a seal. They said her father met a woman wondering about on the beach somewhere on the west coast, and he got married to this woman. But people said the woman was really a seal disguised as a woman. And so when they had a baby it turned out to be half a seal and it grew up to be Mrs. Carnoustie” (Thomson 6).
In addition, the opera also implies the idea that those legends have a logical and historical ground. Perhaps the origins of these fictional tales lie in the love of the sea that all Irish women have in the blood (Musical times 995). It is explained by the fact the depth of the sea often symbolizes freedom and independence, which is often desired by women. In that regard, women could then often identified with marine creatures so that the legend about the seal and the man is quite reasonable.
In The People of the Sea, Thomson also emphasizes the mystery and bias of those stories thus searching for the origins of those fisher tales. The author concluded that those stories were the narration of the lonely fishers who longed for the love; a natural human desire. As his most of their lives was connected with the sea, its spirit could inspire the men to create those captivating stores.
There are a great number of other works that draws inspiration from the Celtic myths, especially narrating about the man and the seal woman. Those myths were rather popular in the Victorian Era, particularly in Keary’s poems where the seal myth was treated as “the plight of women”. In her poems the women are regarded as the victims of the men: “So the fisherman had his way, and seven years of life passed by him like one happy day; but, as for this sea wife, she sorrowed for the sea always” (Ellis 387). This proves the idea that the sea for the women was a kind of rescue from being dependent and pressured by men so that the seal legends, like all other mythical stories, have a rational ground.
The above explains the Irish traditions and culture that is mostly associated with the spirit of the see attached to their philosophical concepts about love, marriage, and male-female relations. The legend about the seal women, hence, manifest about the feminist power and the women’s domination over the men. The fact that women are allotted with the supernatural powers and beauty prove their desire to be independent and individual. In Liza Keary’s book Little Seal-Skin she also displays the verity of Thomson’s sources unleashing the plot of his stories about humans masked as seals. However, she is more inclined to imagine those creatures of female origin where men are depicted as mere mortals thus disclosing feminine superiority. In Thomson work, the selkies are referred to both gendered, as if it is in a true legend.
Both Thomson and Keary reveal the essence of the fish tales as the stories of hardships of marriage and separated love. Perhaps such stories are also intertwined with reality when women waited for their husband going to the sea. Women who failed to stand the parting turn into the seals in order to be closer to their lovers. The hardest fate was for children who were torn apart by the sea: “Then we three Daddy, Ran after, crying, Take us to the sea! Wait for us, Mummy, we are coming too!” (Keary 8) Referring to the seal legend, it narrates that after the seal and the man having two children, the seal woman had to leave them, as she had to put her magical skin again and to dive deep into the see. The selkie wife, unfortunately never returned to her children.
After a thorough consideration of the Thomson’s stories, it should be stressed that his great work contributed to the enrichment of the Irish literary inheritance and fostered the people’s understanding of Irish culture and traditions through the perception of the seal legends. The author’s narration is about the peculiar relation between the seal and the men where he depicted the Irish land as the birthplace of the captivating stories about the power of the see. In the book, he gives us the outcome of his research, the narrations from the first source about the women, men and children, as well as they place in the history of Ireland. Thomson managed to render the meaning and the value of the Celtic legends heritage and its influence of the life of real humans; the author also preserved the peculiar way of narration in the book so that the reader could comprehend the real magic of the seal myths.
Ellis, Paul. “Radical Myths: Eliza Keary’s Little Seal-Skin and Other Poems.” Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002): 387.
Hirch, David. H. “Henry James and the Seal of Love” Modern Language Studies. 13.4 (Autumn, 1983): 39-60.
Keary, Eliza Little Seal Skin.US: Kessinger Publishing. “The Seal Woman” The Musical Times. 65.981 (1924): 994-995.
Thomson, David. People of the Sea: A journey in Search of the Seal Legend. US: Counterpoint, 2002.