Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’

Chasing a thought as it darts amongst the ripples left by Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea, here’s another telling of a selkie tale; this time in song form – not told through the ‘lilts and hissings’ of Eilean o da Freya’s strange ‘language of…singing’ – but via, once more, the beautiful voice of Heather Dale

This is her version of The Maiden and the Selkie, written by Emily Holbert-Kellam (from Heather Dale’s album The Green Knight):

I must, must get myself a copy of David Thomson’s The People of the Sea. It’s been on my wish list for too long now; ever since I first heard a piece on the radio about Thomson’s vital work, undertaken during the middle of the last century, to collect and record the old selkie stories before the tellers and traditions passed from memory.

I can’t remember when or what radio programme it was… just that what I heard was magical and earthy and connected to deep pasts. David Thomson was a writer and producer of radio documentaries for the BBC from 1943 to 1969 – and the warp and weft of the voices with which he made such empathic connection during his folklore-gathering travels, reached out beyond his radio work to become bound into the pages of his book. The poet, Seamus Heaney, was a friend of Thomson and has written the introduction to Canongate’s reissue of the The People of the Sea. (You can read The heart of a vanished world, taken from Heaney’s introduction, on the Guardian website).

In it he writes that:

‘David Thomson’s book is luminously its own thing; it had its origins in one man’s rambles round the highlands and islands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, in search of stories and folklore surrounding the “selchie” or grey Atlantic seal. It was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and – most important – gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form.’

Heaney relates how, as he re-read the book, Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper kept coming to mind. Also written after a tour of Scotland, the poem was inspired by an incident recorded in the notes of Wordsworth’s friend Thomas Wilkinson – and is, writes Heaney, ‘…about the experience of listening to one of the local people express herself unforgettably in her native Gaelic’ :

‘Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.’

This final stanza of The Solitary Reaper, Heaney goes on to say, ‘…manages to shift into the eternal present of song-time an incident that might otherwise have remained part of the accidental record.’ Heaney likens the ‘poetic achievement’ that is The People of the Sea to this Wordsworthian fixing in ‘song-time.’ What he describes as Thomson’s ‘Total respect, intuitive understanding, perfect grace and perfect pitch’ create a similar surety that ‘what was heard in the “chaunt” of the storyteller gets fixed on the page, only to rise in all its formality and down-to-earthness at each re-reading.’

As I read Seamus Heaney’s evocation of the character and effect of the man and his work; how Thomson’s The People of the Sea ‘…makes the reader a kind of dual citizen, at once the inhabitant of a poetically beguiling world of pure story and of a realistically documented world of fishermen and crofters’; of how Thomson’s ‘…writing combines a feel for the “this-worldness” of his characters’ lives with an understanding of the “otherworldness” they keep a place for in their consciousness,’ I felt again those ripples of deep story-time I experienced in Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea – and in the musical cadences of The Maiden and the Selkie.

The song-time of the selkie tales, echoing from somewhere between (to re-apply Heaney’s words) the ‘here-and-nowness’ and the ‘there-and-thennness’ seems, to me, to abide most powerfully in a concept Seamus Heaney beautifully apprehends when he writes that The People of the Sea ‘…at the mythic level presents us with an image of ourselves in those amphibians we have evolved from, all of us (to quote Wordsworth again) “inmates of this active universe”…’

Inmates of this active universe’. It says so much. It is the kind of phrase in which Wordsworth’s worth to the world most shines – a stepping stone phrase, helping to pave the pathways of poetry with gold.

And Heaney’s poet’s heart cannot resist scattering extra shimmer by layering alongside it the words of another poet, emphasising how the ‘fundamental understanding’ of the characters within The People of the Sea ‘…is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed “that long lost, archaic companionship” between human beings and the creatures.’

And, building on his own golden stepping stones of insight and expression within the book’s introduction, Heaney adds: ‘Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative.’ He describes the selkie stories as possessing an ‘irresistible holistic beauty.’ They are not, he says: ‘…escapist fantasies but a form of poetry, especially if we think of poetry in terms of its definition as a dream dreamt in the presence of reason.’

In song, in story, the figure of the selkie reminds us of relationship: vital, life-and-death interrelationship between human and all other animal life – and between land and sea.

They sing of interdependence, these selkie tales; of the give and take, the not knowingness of beginnings and endings, the impossibility of defining where land and sea retreat or extend. They sing of the blending of past, future, present in cycles of belonging and leaving; and of how each of us exists in our own moment of shifting nows, thens and tomorrows; living as part of nature’s fathomless shaping of her own mysterious tale.

And – to bring us, appropriately, darting back along those cyclical ripples – just such an instance and endlessness of relationship shifts into ‘the eternal present of song-time’ in Seamus Heaney’s own poem Lovers on Aran (another shimmering offering to grace the golden pathway…):

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

– Seamus Heaney

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Story, Legend and Mordred’s Lullaby

The power of story – and its importance in our lives and endeavours – is an abiding theme here on Bookish Nature. Myth and legend are at the beating heart of a deep human need; the storyteller by the fire an essential part of any culture.

The Arthurian legends linger in Britain’s mists like memories rising from the land. They are an essence of something felt, but not articulated directly – something that is released in language only in the form of poem, symbol and tale; darting through an alchemy of words, lithe as a fox.

Susan Cooper says of the fourth in her The Dark is Rising sequence of children’s novels, so steeped in ‘the mythic history of the land’ and the legends of King Arthur:

‘….Above all, I owe ‘The Grey King’ to the power that’s been singing for centuries out of the land itself; the ancient, haunted mountains and valleys of Cymru, Wales.’

Both timeless and mutable, myths are passed on and inherited; blended, shaped and reshaped by many tellings, many hands. Time past, present and future, they address our deepest concerns about human nature and contain the elemental moods of the land, the spirit of place; who we feel we are in relationship to it, and how it shapes us…

My daughter and I stumbled upon Heather Dale’s music on the internet, and instantly felt we had found something wonderful. Many of Heather’s songs are inspired by myth and folklore, and are infused with storytelling and explorations of Arthurian legend.

In her album The Trial of Lancelot, Heather Dale crafts her telling of the tale through various voices. This song, Mordred’s Lullaby, is from the first person perspective of Morgan le Fay. Haunting and dark, it tangles its fingers in the themes of betrayal, hatred and corruption, the toxic nature of vengeance, the turning from the light – and keeps sight of the complexities inherent to the ways in which light and darkness glimmer…