I had a sort of incomplete revelation the other day about selkies.
An incomplete revelation is where I realize something, but I’m not entirely sure what I’ve realized, how it works. But I generally know what it has to do with. In this case, it has to do with the otherness of the magical animal women in folk and fairy tales. It has to do with another way of looking at them.
It occurred to me that there have always been selkie women: women who did not seem to belong to this world, because they did not fit into prevailing notions of what women were supposed to be. And if you did not fit into those notions, in some sense you weren’t a woman. Weren’t even quite human. The magical animal woman is, or can be, a metaphor for those sorts of women. Perhaps my thinking on this issue was influenced by having just read John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, because Sarah Woodruff is one of those women. She is presented as not quite human, which could be seen as a problem with Fowles’ characterization. Or it could be seen as something else, the fact that certain women are perceived as otherworldly, are not understood, precisely because they cannot be understood according to prevailing codes.
I had gotten an idea, too, for a book about those sorts of women, like George Sand: the women who never quite fit into their societies. Perhaps Sand isn’t the best example, because she does not strike me as particularly magical. And I’m talking about women who are seen as incomprehensible, magical, fay.
Selkie women are the women you don’t understand. They are the women who know they belong to another tribe, in another element. And so they seem as though they don’t belong in yours — and they don’t. They are the women who live by other rules and values, because their rules and values are different from those of this world. They are the women who sometimes seem to be listening to other voices, or music you can’t hear, or the call of distant bells. There is a faraway look in their eyes.
Selkie women are the ones who look as though they came out of fairy tales, because they did. The ones who look at the sea longingly, who look at the sky as their home. They do not fear death. They only fear imprisonment.
Selkie women are the ones you can’t keep.
It is a very bad idea to hide their sealskins. They will always find them again, and then they will leave, specifically because you hid it the first time.
Selkie women are the ones who create things, but those things look as though they came from another world. Men fall in love with selkie women because they see them as conduits to something richer, stranger, more authentic. This is dangerous: wherever they came from, selkie women can’t get you there. You have to get there on your own.
There’s a story in all this, of course. I have so many other stories to write that it won’t get written for a while, and it’s still developing in my head. But now that it’s there, the idea will develop. Tonight, I need to write a rather ugly scene in my current story. That’s one reason I like writing this, about selkie women.