Sunday, 30 August 2015

Song of the Sea: Silence, Suffering, and Sibling Bonds

Note: I began writing about the voices of Saoirse and Ben before my computer crashed and died, and I only discovered recently that I hadn't lost all my work (hurray!) However, the film is no longer fresh in my mind and my train of thought has very much been broken, so I apologise if my thoughts do not seem so fully formed. Also, this will contain spoilers.


There is a lot of buzz about Song of the Sea at the moment, and rightly so: it is rich in folklore, deeply emotional and visually stunning - not that you would expect anything less from the creators of The Secret of Kells.

I will straight up admit that I am somewhat biased with my adoration of this film, because selkie tales in any form fascinate me. But Song of the just 'got me' in that way that art grabs you sometimes. Certainly this was partly down to the distinctive artistic style, transporting us through the tale in a gentler way than the bright and flashy 3D animation we are used to these days. That haunting melody also completely captivated me. It gave me shivers.

But the film lingered with me, and made me think a lot more than most films about what it could be saying, and the wider issues it brought up for me.

One thing I was particularly interested in was the significance of Saoirse being unable to speak. Her silence is integral as a plot device because it gives Ben's human voice more importance in the world of faerie, but I'm curious about what it means symbolically too. The two relevant tales that spring to mind are Six Swans or Twelve Brothers, where a sister must not utter a word while she sews shirts made of nettle leaves in order to restore her brothers to human form; and of course The Little Mermaid, who trades her voice for legs in order to be with the man she has fallen in love with.

Both the sister in Six Swans and Andersen's Little Sea Maid are also in a state of constant pain along with their silence, the sister from handling nettle leaves and the sea maid from walking as if on knives. Although Saoirse is sick later on in the film, that particular physical suffering isn't part of the condition with the silence - I believe her pain is internal, from not knowing who she is or how to belong. She is a young girl who doesn't understand why she is different (a mythical struggle) or why her brother resents her and her father sends her away ('mundane', family struggle). Like the heroines in the other tales it is great love that spurs her on in her silent pain to overcome these challenges, and it isn't until the end when she reconciles with her mother and is able to make a decision of her own to remain with her father and brother that she begins to speak more freely.

Saoirse's freedom of choice is the big thing that differentiates her from the other two heroines, who both freely enter into magical contracts that require transitioning into their silence and pain from previous states where they enjoyed the reverse. Although these contracts have been interpreted in completely contrasting ways as signs of strength of will or symbols of female subservience, I think the lack of this initial reversal means we can overlook both of these in Saoirse's case if we choose: we can view it as growth, as a coming into the true self, and moving from a state of ignorance to knowledge of oneself and one's position in the world/family. 

Ben's voice is mistaken for the selkie's

Saoirse's silence allows the siblings to embark on the adventure together on a more even ground: she is a mythical creature who cannot speak and doesn't know the songs and stories she is expected to know, while Ben is a mundane creature with the faerie knowledge his sister requires. They are yin and yang, opposites that combine in a perfect whole.

His knowledge is also what keeps him safe. Selkie mother notwithstanding, Ben is a human child and would not under normal circumstances have such 'safe' access to the world of faerie, because, as well we know, fairies are dangerous and fickle creatures and an encounter with them can be deadly.

Anybody with a brother will have this family photo!

The human story of family ties and tragedy intertwines beautifully with the traditional folkloric elements, and you don't need to be an expert in Irish folklore to understand that. Selkie and water spirit tales often involve tragedy and heartbreak, and looking at Ben, I wonder if selkies are able to better connect on an emotional level rather than a purely imaginative level with children today in comparison to your classic wolves, witches and fairies. 

Ben's voice seems to be the voice of folklore in modern times, recalling the stories nostalgically at the same time as they breathe life into a new story, and a new moment of existence. His voice speaks for Saoirse, for the memory of his mother, but it is also our voice and the subtle reminder that we are constantly in dialogue with these tales, weaving them into our modern existence one way or another.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Marina Warner speaks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Today I had the great privilege of hearing Marina Warner give an inspiring and engaging talk on The Fairy Way of Writing as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The event was sold out, and a diverse queue of people had already snaked around half of Charlotte's Square, home of the festival, when I arrived. Conversation in the queue was excited, lively and intelligent, and at the end of the talk audience members asked very insightful questions; I don't think I've ever been in a room full of so many people passionate about fairy tales. What a buzz!

crowds gather in Charlotte's Square at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Square. Image source: Edinburgh International Book Festival
After a glowing introduction, Warner began by talking about the 'territory of enchantment' and the language of imagination. She highlighted the importance of children in the transmission of stories, as historically they would have been the ones to more easily pick up new languages and introduce their stories to the new places they arrived in. The transmission of fairy tales can be mapped like trade routes in this way. And yet, despite this, it is impossible to know how and where they started.

She played us a beautiful ballad by Emily Portman, 'Two Sisters' (The Glamoury, 2010) based on the story of the singing bone. This was used to show that the story itself is not only a fairy tale, but the singing bone (in the form of a harp) is transmitting its own fairy tale, sharing its learned experience to a new audience. The act of the tale within the tale itself.

Warner took us on a whirlwind journey through time to link the tales to the tellers and the situation of the telling, from the 15th century, through the familiar names of d'Aulnoy, Perrault, Grimm (and most pertinently to her audience today, Lang) right up to the present day where we have women at the helm in Disney's animation studios. Particular note was given to Jennifer Lee, screenwriter and co-director of Frozen.

girls react positively to female empowerment messages in Frozen
image source: incredible gifts

Some good points were made about Frozen; it is the highest grossing Disney film of all time, and girls have reacted positively to the messages of female solidarity. I do wonder why, then, we're still seeing the girls dress up and idolise Elsa rather than Anna (the rescuee rather than the rescuer) ...but then my less sceptical side reminds me that Elsa has magic powers, and that must be pretty awesome and factor into the equation somewhat!

One thing I never would have expected was an interpretation of Frozen as a commentary on our state of mind in the digital age. Elsa is stuck in the idea of her own image, and that limits her abilities socially (like the obsession with how we come across on social media platforms such as Facebook) until with a little bit of passion and dynamism she is able to live life fully in the moment (not worrying about how it will later look uploaded!) and she thaws and is able to enjoy herself more because of it.

platform 9 3/4 is the gateway to the territory of enchantment and wonderment in the universe of Harry Potter
image source: collider
I was also pleased to hear her critique Richard Dawkins and his comments last year, when he berated parents for reading fairy tales to children. You can read her full counter attack on The Observer website. Without going into that argument (we've all done it already), Warner reiterated her counter argument on behalf of team fairy tale perfectly: we don't all go and queue up in King's Cross Station because we believe that if we push that luggage cart handle we'll be transported to Platform 9 3/4; we do it because we believe it will be fun to pretend.

And it is that belief that makes us come back time and time again to the territory of enchantment and wonderment. We may not know how it started, but I'm pretty sure it will never end.