Sorry if I’m overdoing the mermaid stories lately (check out my last much shorter post for the other one), but it seemed not only a handy coincidence, but also very appropriate for my own particular specialty that the story emailed out (and posted online) by Daily Science Fiction tonight is JY Yang‘s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt,” a nice little story (very short, as that is how DSF does it) inspired by Scandinavian folklore about the “Havsmannen”, or the merman–though there is a bit of a twist here (will try to avoid any spoilers though). And actually, not that it particularly matters, you may want to read the story before reading the rest of my bit below. Ready? Go! ….
Done? OK. In the “author’s note” JY Yang says that she was inspired by Swedish folklore in which the havsmannen (literally “man of the sea”, = mer-man) will visit a sailor’s wife while she is gone, in the form of her husband, sometimes leading to the birth of some fishy progeny.
To be honest, while some parts of my academic work have revolved around folk narrative (the relevant genre here is legend), I’m realizing right now that I haven’t really spent very much time with folklore of the sea at all–I know a few stories of mer-women driving their cattle up on land (apparently they have legs, as well as cattle, which humans can sometimes gain by means dastardly or fair, making them very similar to the hidden-folk or other varieties of supernatural communities in Scandi folklore), or a mer-man getting a glove from a fisherman, things like that, but when it comes to water-beings, I’m more familiar with the Swedish näcken, aka bäckahästen (creek-horse), a fresh-water male nature sprite. But there are some interesting parallels to other Scandi folklore that I think are worth mentioning in this context. One is the way JY Yang’s story starts out as a story of the return of someone drowned at sea–a common motif all the way from the sagas up through the rural folklore of the early 20th century, and an understandable one, as the dead tend to return when something is either left unfinished or they are not buried properly–ie, no ritual is performed to conduct them safely from one mode of existence to the next (actually an exemplary case of something left unfinished, now I think on it…). [spoiler alert] The mer-person in JY Yang’s story is obviously aware of this, and initially passes as such.
As I noted above, the mer-person folklore does have some similarities to legends of the communities of supernatural others in general. When the supernatural others (again, the hidden folk, the under-earthers, etc) are represented as living in communities, they are often also represented as living parallel to the human community, as well as living very human-like lives. Sure, when you take something from one world to the next (for example, if they give you gold or food as a present), it may turn out to be some symbolic inversion of itself (dirt or crap), but there are stories where (somewhat) typical neighbor-problems come up between the two communities, and with both the mer-folk and the hidden folk we sometimes see one of their girls driving their cattle near the human community, or being given as a reward to a human.
That said, it seems to me that the stories of solitary nature-beings are a bit more relevant here. As opposed to the supernatural beings that live in community, these solitary supernaturals live alone out in the forest, and tend to be gender specific–some are always female, some are always male (not always though–trolls and giants, for example, can be male or female, and could fall into this category to some degree). We see (as noted in a book by Jochum Stattin on näcken) that the ways in which human men and women encounter these creatures can be pretty different–men tend to encounter these representatives of “wild nature” further out from the human community, which may be taken as a socially normative aspect of the legends, associating men with access to the wider and wilder world. Näcken, for example, shows up as a male humanoid figure (or not at all) for men who go to his hideaway at a stream to learn to play the fiddle from him (actually, näcken‘s legends overlap with Satan’s a bit when it comes to sinful pleasures like [shudder] music and dancing), and many a hunter has, wittingly or not, carried out a tryst with a skogsrå, a female forest creature who is beautiful from the front, but if seen from the back is hollow (or has a tail, or is a monster if seen after you cross yourself, whatever)–point being, men get to go out in to the realm of these creatures and treat with them, successfully or not. Women, on the other hand, do not meet the skogsrå, and when they meet näcken it is generally in a threatening way–in the form of the bäckahästen running around the farm (human space) attempting to trick women (or children) onto his back to then dive into the lake with them. The threat of the supernatural Other is often sexualized as well, more or less explicitly, and while men may successfully carry on trysts at times, for women the end result tends to involve a distancing from the human community (unless saved/recovered), including abduction.
The inspiration behind this story that JY Yang shares seems to fit this pattern as well–while men meet the havsmannen out at sea, and may even engage with him in some way (giving him a glove or a sock when he is cold, receiving cattle in return), women meet the havsmannen as an intruder at home–though perhaps even here the folklore is more concerned with the invasion of the “man’s” space–his house, “his” womb, his lineage. But hey, while much of the legend tradition of rural, patriarchal Sweden of the 1800s and earlier was pretty normative, there is still room for debate and dissenting voices at times–for example, differing opinions show up with regard to the potential salvation of the non-human (and therefore non-Christian) supernatural Others. JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt” is also nicely subversive of the patriarchy, moving from zombie-story to invasive-merman-story to a story of a woman embracing an unexpected opportunity for a mutual and authentic relationship after an unhappy and undesired marriage (and yeah, a little gender-bending here as well). Nice to see that Swedish legends are still “alive,” and in flux, as legends always are–and also nice to see that they have some purchase in Singapore as well. 🙂
And one more note–looks like Swedish novelist Carl-Johan Vallgren has a recent novel titled Havsmannen out as well–I will have to get my hand on a copy. Maybe someone will hire me to translate it… hint hint. Though I hear translating fiction really pays like crud. Or otherworldly gold, maybe.