Saturday, March 05, 2005

BOOK: David Thomson, "The People of the Sea"

David Thomson: The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-Folk. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2001. 1841951072. xx + 229 pp.

Apparently, many legends concerning the seals used to exist among the Celtic inhabitants of the north and west of Scotland and Ireland. Thomson writes about his travels through those areas in the mid-20th century, about the people he met, and records the conversations he had with them, in which they told him many stories about the seals.

What makes the book particularly fascinating, I guess, is that it provides a glimpse into an older way of life which has passed away only relatively recently (in historic terms), practically within living memory. (When I say "way of life", I mean it not only in the material sense but also as a way of seeing the world and one's place in it, as one's reactions and attitudes to the things and events around one.) If you read a book about something that took place 300 or 1000 or even more years ago, you can't help feeling that those people were in a way total strangers to you; their history may be interesting, but it seems somehow unrelated to us and to our present time. It's different with the people about whom, and about whose folklore, Thomson writes in this book. Although the old rural way of life, with its poverty, physical harshness and strong ties to nature is now irrevocably a thing of the past — the farmers are now effectivelly small businessmen with college degrees, and the main characteristic of their barns and stables is their almost clinical sterility and the sort of mechanized efficiency that would traditionally have been associated with factories rather than with agriculture — yet the old way has not yet slipped completely into history. It is still within living memory; one can still have grandparents who, in their youth, drove the cattle to pastures and went everywhere barefoot for most of the year. The old rustic world is gone, firmly beyond the reach of a younger person such as myself, but the fact that people whom one knows or knew at first hand, who are still alive or at least used to be until fairly recently, still remember those times and experienced them in their youth, makes this old world appear to be not quite so distant; it is out of reach, but only tantalizingly so: out of reach, but not by much. One cannot hope to really understand the world and lives of the people who lived three hundred or a thousand years ago; but this world, which has only passed away within living memory, one feels to be close enough that it might be worth trying to understand, and that makes a book such as this one, with its glimpses of this vanished world, so fascinating. Thomson's travels took place fifty or more years ago, when much that is now quite gone was still present (if on its last legs), and much that is now almost forgotten was still remembered.

One aspect of the book which particularly delighted me were the conversations with the inhabitants of the areas which Thomson visited. Thomson retained many traces of their style of conversation and their dialect in the discussions he quoted, which makes for some wonderful reading. It gave their words a curious, old-worldly quality (maybe this impression is not entirely inappropriate; Heaney mentions on p. xiv that the scene on pp. 32-3 reminded him of a passage from Homer); it took much effort for me to resist imagining the speakers as stereotypical peasants seated around a heavy wooden table, fire crackling in the fireplace, the men stroking their beards and pronouncing their sentences slowly and deliberately, with much thinking and pausing before each sentence. It's just a silly stereotype, of course, but the dialectual conversations in the book often evoked it for me, which made them even more fun to read. To illustrate this, here's an example from p. 86; some men were lost at sea, and after a few days were given up for dead, and a wake held for them: "'It's a terrible thing,' said a slow voice somewhere, 'to be at a wake and no corpse.'   'Five of them gone and no corpse,' said the man in the corner." Is this not the very stereotype of slow-witted peasantry, and isn't it quite delightful to read?

The Canongate edition of the book also has a preface by Seamus Heaney; I haven't read much by Heaney, but from what I did read I have the impression that this preface is quite typical of his style. It is marked by the rich, somewhat uncommon vocabulary of a poet. Heaney's enthusiasm for the rugged northern things is apparent in every sentence. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if he doesn't go too far; he sees the book as "an elegy for certain salvific elements which 'progress' and modernity were bound to destroy". I guess I must show myself to be an insensitive clod once again, but I just can't see what is salvific about a harsh life of poverty, backbreaking work, lack of medical care, running water, etc., etc. Maybe the problem is that, since I am not religious, the whole notion of salvation is quite foreign to me. Of course I fully agree that progress has its negative aspects as well — in fact I hate and oppose most of what passes as progress nowadays more than a large majority of people — but at the same time it would surely be silly to put progress into scare-quotes and pretend that it is all just a sham. Nor do the people with whom Thomson spoke reject progress; on the contrary, whenever conversation turns to it, it turns out that they are happy about whatever improvements have already taken place in their lives, and are looking forward to more progress in the future.

Heaney also mentions "the benignity and essential justice" of the relations between people and the seals (p. xiv). I don't quite see what he means by that. In the book, there are one or two people who think it bad to kill seals (p. 47, 71, 83), but they are vastly outnumbered by seal-killers; on the other hand we don't see any legends about seals going on manhunting expeditions. The former fact demonstrates a lack of benignity, the latter a lack of justice. In my opinion, if we want to find a benign and "noble-savage" type of attitude towards wildlife, we shouldn't look for it among settled agriculturalist populations; we must go farther back to genuine hunter-gatherers. They may be the people who apologise to the animal before they kill it, and explain to it that they are only doing it for the food. The farmers and herders, by and large, have no such scruples; they don't usually think of themselves any longer as a part of nature, but as its masters; they are the ones who divide all animals and plants into useful or harmful; they are usually the practical people who don't see why an animal should be left to live if there is no very obvious benefit to be had from its continued existence, and especially if there is some possible benefit to be had from its premature death. (Incidentally, fans of that well-worn graphic pun, "I ♣ baby seals", need look no further than pages 67 and 92 of this book, although strictly speaking the club is used in neither of these cases; it's a mattock in one case and an oar in the other.)

Nevertheless the preface is interesting, and contains a very nice definition of a poet, by Wordsworth, and a discussion thereof.

I was sometimes slightly unhappy with the fact that the book is not arranged as a sequence of stories, but as a sequence of chapters without titles; it follows Thomson on his travels and conversations, sometimes coming to the same place or visiting the same person more than once, etc. In a way this is of course interesting and means that the book contains not only stories about seals but also shows something of the people who told the stories and of their way of life; as I mentioned above, I think this to be one of the great positive aspects of the book. But this also means that it requires somewhat more careful reading if one doesn't want to lose one's way. And if one wanted later to return to some particular story or legend, there's no easy way to do it, except to leaf through the book and try to read a few words here and there to see if one might notice what one is looking for. Here are pointers to some interesting passages: "The seals were the people o' the sea", p. 154; a female seal nurses a human baby, p. 107; a seal lets a hurried traveller ride on its back, p. 121; wounded seals healed by the very same people who had hurt them, pp. 18, 195; a woman mates with a seal (temporarily changed into a man), pp. 151-2 (the children, of course, have webbed hands, p. 147); seals take off their skins to turn into people, and a man hides one of the skins, thereby preventing a seal-woman from turning back into a seal, and marries her, p. 166-9, 175, 179, 191. An Irish princess mates with not a seal but an otter, p. 52. The curious sounds and melodies made by the seals, p. 75, 221-3. Some curiously human-like characteristics of the seals; their eyes, the ability to weep; they kiss each other, pp. 137, 142-3, 171. "The notion that seals and fairies are somehow connected" (p. 228), pp. 67, 84, 133, 169, 174-5, 180. A pet seal, p. 104. Orkneymen in the London police force, p. 145. "'It was the will of God, Michael, and she made a beautiful corpse.'" (P. 101.) "'Well now, the seal and the mermaid are both mammalians, you must understand.'" (P. 105.) "'A knife is a very good object to throw at a mermaid.'" (P. 175.) On not helping drowning people: "What the sea will take, the sea must take — that's what my father would say", p. 201. The fate of the Irish language, p. 42. Apparently, the Irish words for "South" and "good" are the same, p. 76.

On p. 133, the talk turns to "trows, the little people": "there's no doubt the little people were in Shetland at one time", which the speaker backs up with a reference to excavations at Jarlshof! I almost can't help feeling sad that this easy transition between fact and fiction, between history and myth, is no longer open to us. Or is it? After all, I've yet to see a single newspaper article about Homo floresiensis that fails to mention hobbits. We may not believe in the existence of hobbits, but we are still delighted to see that something somewhat similar to them in at least one aspect, i.e. in size, may once have truly existed.

Two enemies of king Cormac getting ready to attack him exhibit an amazing sense of fair-play: "'We must give the king time to get his soldiers ready.' [...] 'Let it be a month from to-day then. [...] I'll send word to him.'" (P. 57.) Later in the same tale there is a mention of a school that both boys and girls went to (p. 60). I am impressed by the idea of coeducation having been practiced in the Middle ages. I don't know if it really was, or the tale acquired this detail in more recent times.

King Conn kills a storyteller every morning, somewhat like in the Arabian Nights, p. 62.

On the belief in old legends: "'On the mainland they wouldn't believe them.' 'No.' 'Not even the old people?' 'Very few of them would. But they believe in lots of other things, just as strange.'" (P. 172.) How very true this is! How many very weird things people still believe in! Truly we have no reason to think that folklore is dead; its contents may have changed, but its character is the same as ever. It consists either of falsehoods more comfortable than the truth, or of made-up things (with us neither knowing nor caring if they are true or false) more comfortable than ignorance.

Thomson's very reasonable attitude to the legends: "I don't think of the stories that way — as lies or truth. I like to hear them; that's all." (P. 171.) Perhaps this points to the reason why much folklore is eventually forgotten by the people whose ancestors used to maintain it for centuries, unless it is written down in time by collectors of folklore? The people used to think of the legends as truth; eventually, due to progress, they cease to do so, but then start thinking of them as lies, falsehoods, mere incorrect claims, instead of as things which one may enjoy hearing even though one doesn't believe in them; and consequently they don't think of them as something worth maintaining, just as one who has discovered that he was mistaken in a particular belief will now gladly abandon it for a more correct one if he has the opportunity, and won't think the old belief worth keeping in mind. It's a great pity, I think, that people only start treasuring their folklore after most of it is firmly gone and only a few scraps remain, preserved in old books. It's a good thing that books like Thomson's preserve at least something of it.


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