The siren's call

Arousing fear and desire (they may be beautiful, but their tails remind us that they are also grotesque misfits), they are aligned with all those other idols of perversity that have been identified as seeking the downfall of men.

The Globe and Mail
September 2, 2006

The siren's call
Maria Tatar

A Mermaid's Tale:
A Personal Search for Love and Lore

By Amanda Adams
GreyStone, 192 pages, $32.95

Oddly, it was not until lap 17 that it dawned on me what had moved me to go swimming just hours after finishing Amanda Adams's The Mermaid's Tale. The crawl may be an ordinary part of my fitness routine, but without knowing it, I had fallen under the author's spell, drawn unconsciously to the watery depths about which I had been reading, even if my ocean was indoors and chlorinated.

Amanda Adams — who took an MA in anthropology at the University of British Columbia and works as an archeologist and ethnographer in Minnesota — combines in rare fashion the three roles that Vladimir Nabokov assigned to the writer: storyteller, teacher and enchanter. Her meditation on mermaids weaves together lore from the taletellers of old, historical and anthropological background, and poignant reminiscences about her own coming of age. Engaging less in what Angela Carter called de-mythification (breaking the spells cast by our cultural stories) than in re-mythification in the manner of Joseph Campbell, she finds redemptive power — colour, enchantment and glitter — in the deep mysteries of mermaid fantasy and fact.

Adams wonders why mermaids "never disappeared beyond the shores of our collective imagination," and how they could have "swum around the globe, netting the fascination and adoration, the fear and devotion, of people and cultures ranging from the Arctic Inuit to those who live along the coast of southern Africa." Determined to track down the origins of mer-lore, she discovers in the Babylonian god Oannes a merman king with a humanistic agenda that included plans for a peaceful, intellectual utopia. His wife and daughters seem to have been written out of the past, and their descendants resurfaced, not as philosophers and saviours, but as seductive femmes fatales more deeply committed to the death drive than to the push for civilization.

Dorothy Dinnerstein's Mermaids and Minotaurs (1976), a landmark study of gender and social arrangements, reminds us that mermaids are "treacherous" creatures, "seductive and impenetrable female representatives of the dark and magic underwater world from which our life comes and in which we cannot live." Linked with the sinister and irrational, they loiter on rocks, under water and in the waves, waiting to lure voyagers to their doom. Arousing fear and desire (they may be beautiful, but their tails remind us that they are also grotesque misfits), they are aligned with all those other idols of perversity that have been identified as seeking the downfall of men.

Adams allows the stories of the ancients and the moderns to pulse with renewed energy. She revives European Melusinas and their dark secrets, resurrects Scandinavian selkies who leave their sealskins to settle down with men, conjures visions of the Arctic sea goddess Sedna, and evokes the powers of Yemaya, protector of women and children. Her mermaids are domestic angels rather than imps, goddesses rather than demons, and saints rather than sirens. They can do no wrong.

Or can they? The Assyrian Atargatis, who jumps into the sea and grows fins and a tail after an affair that proves deadly to her mortal lover, is probably the first written story of a mermaid and her murderous ways. Heinrich Heine's Lorelei casts powerful spells that dupe sailors into thinking they are rising up above, rather than sinking down below. Merciless cruelty is, in fact, not uncommon among mer-creatures, ranging from Homer's sirens, whose sweet song is also fatal, to J. M. Barrie's mermaids, who may be playful but are not above trying to drown Wendy.

Adams is so determined to draw attention to the beauty of mermaids that she steers clear of their many pathologies. She is not only loathe to dwell on the seductive and sadistic, but also shuns the saintly, going out of her way to avoid bringing up Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and Oscar Wilde's The Fisherman and His Soul, more than likely because silent suffering is not part of the magic and enchantment.

Conceding that she prefers to avoid becoming too dry or too deep, Adams declares her allegiance to the spiritually uplifting, and declares mermaids to be "blithe spirits of women untamed." These creatures are "enchantresses, goddesses, mothers, girls," women who are willing "to play and to love but who keep themselves ever so slightly unattainable." Adams is clearly writing for women who want to swim with the selkies.

The Mermaid's Tale gives us the poetry of sea creatures: haunting verse, enthralling images and captivating narratives. It stops short of a poetics that might engage the less attractive features in our cultural understanding of mermaids. Some years ago, Starbucks changed its logo after customers complained that the split tail of the topless siren was too sexually suggestive. The image was cropped to hide the mermaid's breasts and to conceal the split in her tail. Adams, for all her spirited identification with mysterious sea creatures, seems at times to be falling into the Starbucks trap, constructing a serenely attractive new cultural icon, but failing to reveal what disturbs and unsettles us about these hybrid creatures at a deeper level.

Still, the effort to identify the "rich and pure mermaidenly allure" of stories we live by yields many bonuses. Today's film culture reveals the mermaid to be a powerful cinematic symbol of the rite of passage leading to womanhood. I Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), Mermaids (1990), La petite sirène (1990) — like Disney's Little Mermaid — all take up painful growth experiences and model rites of passage both positive and negative. Adams navigates our rich cultural archive of mermaid myths, poems and images to fashion her own story, revealing the beauty, depth and magic of our lore and how we mould it in our own image, even as it shapes us in ways that we cannot always fathom.

Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and dean for the humanities at Harvard University. She is the author of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, The Annotated Brothers Grimm and The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales.


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