Superheroes, Selkies, and Social Commentary

Not long ago, Daniel gave Anna a guitar lesson and taught her to read the chord poster in his room. She hasn’t slowed down since. She promptly confiscated Daniel’s acoustic, downloaded about a zillion chord charts, and diligently practiced several hours a day. Not surprisingly, she has made rapid progress.

One evening, she perched on the top of the kitchen island and played and sang a song she’d written, called Above the Skyline. I listened and thought, This is good. The chords and melody have a haunting, melancholy quality, and the lyrics resonate. The theme of superhero angst is subtle, but never ambiguous. If there were a good recording of this song available on iTunes, I’d buy it.

Her next offering was called Bride from the Sea. Imagine my pleasure at realizing that my daughter had written an Irish folk song. It’s a ballad about a young man who catches himself a selkie for a wife. A selkie, you may know, is a mythological shapeshifting creature found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore, a seal that can temporarily take on human form by shedding its seal skin. A typical selkie story involves a human man who sees a selkie woman in human form sunning herself on the shore, falls in love with her, hides or burns her seal skin to prevent her from returning to the sea, and forces her to marry him.

Anna explained that she’d started out planning to write a song about Tam O’Lin, based on a traditional poem, but changed her mind after looking up the poem online (she didn’t like the structure of uninterrupted consecutive couplets, and another artist had already set the poem to music). But her online research got her on a tangent about selkies, which started her thinking about the luminous movie, The Secret of Roan Inish (based on Rosalie K. Fry’s novel, The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry), with its rich themes of family, community, and the toll taken on both by industrialization. One thing led to another, as it often does, and Anna’s ballad came together.

Myths and fairy tales are deep wells of psychic symbols. Clever younger sons, poor but worthy lovers, imprisoned princesses, envious queens, wicked regents, all have their counterparts in the ordinary world. The selkie myth seems to mirror a real-life scenario I see now and again, of a woman who is in some way extraordinary, and a man who loves her, though he knows she doesn’t belong in his world and never will. The only way he can possess her is to diminish her, to cut her off from that which makes her special. So he does. And it works, for a time. She bears his children, keeps his house, and appears for decades to be a dutiful wife. But the marriage’s foundation is unsound, and soon or late, things will hit the fan.

Sometimes I see a beautiful, accomplished woman tied to some loser of a guy and wonder, Just what power does he have over her? I’m not talking about trifling inequalities of looks, education, or economic background, but a situation in which the woman clearly outclasses the man across the board. And yet, there she is with him. He has stolen her skin, denied her very identity, trapped her in an alien world. Often he belittles her accomplishments and keeps up a steady flow of cutting words. It is a disturbing and frightening thing to see.

When a song is this thought-provoking, the songwriter has tapped into a rich vein. Such an accomplishment by a fifteen-year-old girl is truly commendable.

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