|From Arthur Rackham's Undine|
I have just finished reading a wonderful book about the seal people of Ireland and Scotland. It is a journal of a journey, mainly through Ireland, and the stories collected of the Selkie, the Kane, Silkies, Selchies, Selchidh; the shape shifters. The stories are of another time but not that long ago. The book was printed in 1954, and some stories were told 'in living memory', the rest as ancient as the creatures themselves. There is something special, timeless about the tales of the seal people.
My brother gave me the book for my birthday this year and it is one of those rare books that are an easy read which do not lose the richness of language. The writing, the narration, has an easy gait to it, but I did not want to rush through it. The stories needed to be savoured, so I would dip in and read a chapter, then sit there and mull it over. I felt I was traveling with the author, David Thomson. My brother had given me a first edition and the pages are now delicate, the dust jacket worn. It is a treasure to enjoy slowly. Sometimes I would look up words I was unsure of, words describing clothing I had not heard of, like bawneen, or the pronunciation of those tricky Gaelic words. Life of the islanders in the 1950's had the old ways upon them; the old men had certain ways of life and attitude the younger folk had started to lose. It was similar in that way to reading Mary Webb's 'Precious Bane'. She wrote of a time passing and the old ways just about hanging on, but a generation earlier in England. 'The People of the Sea' by David Thomson, is a book I will treasure for a long time.
There is something very magical about what I call the Old Stories and Ancient Stories - the folk and faerie tales, the myths and sagas of long ago, but there is something even more magical, or deeper to the Selchidh, Selkie stories. I often wonder what it is. My mother, I think, told me the story of the Woman of the Sea when I was young, or someone did when we visited the Isle of Aran in my very young days. I rediscovered the story in Kevin Crossley-Holland's wonderful book 'Northern Lights, Legends, Sagas and Folk-tales' when I bought it in 1987. It was a great rediscovery. I have been sharing the tale since then. That book got me into folk and faerie tales as an adult in my 20's.
There are many fun tales to be told, some stories which beg for humour. There are those filled with depth, and those with meaning, but the Selkie tales for me stand out. Is it because of the shape-shifting ability? (My son likes werewolves!) Does this dual life appeal to us because these tales offer a hope of something else when things get rough, life gets tough? Could some of us, the dark haired of us, walk to the coast, dive in and take form of a seal?
I was having lunch with Papa Joe a couple of days ago and we were talking about stories and how there are different types of tales that come to you. I am not talking about motifs or the
Aarne–Thompson tale type index, I am talking about how a story finds you. When I come across a tale I love, there are times the story is immediately lodged into my head and never leaves, like, for me, the Woman of the Sea; and The Goat from the Hills and Mountain, collected by Alma Flor Ada and Isabelle Campoy. There are other stories which I know I want to tell but stay dormant in my mind as I process them, mull them over. Sometimes years pass before I tell them, like Beowulf (still mulling around!), or those which have not yet given me their voice yet like Little Red Riding Hood - she is out and about now! Although Woman of the Sea sank in immediately, but I did not tell it for years. I would share it, but not tell it. As I said to Papa Joe, it is like buying a brand new pair of very good, expensive, leather hiking boots - you would never go hiking the same day, you would break the boots in over days and weeks. The Selkie stories, all of them, to me are like that. I have them in my mind and could tell them, but they need, no, I need to be broken in with the story. The tales need to tell me how to share them, how I personally can best serve the stories and those who listen. Some stories are like sneakers and you can jump into them and start running; some are like dress shoes, you polish them up and keep them polished; and some are like hiking boots that need to be worn for a good while before taking them out. Maybe that's why I like the Selkie stories so much, once you have worn them for a while they will last forever, and will take you to places you never thought you would go.
For a source of Selkie stories, or books with the stories of the seal people, go to my website.