Thursday, May 26, 2005

Great Selchie of Shule Skerry: Part 1

In Norway, there sits a maid
By lou, my baby, she begins
Little know I my child's father
Or if land or sea he's livin' in

Then there arose at her bed feet
And a grumbly guest
I'm sure it was he
Saying here am I thy child's father
Although that I am not comely

I am a man upon the land
I am a selchie in the sea
And when I am in my own country
My dwellin' is in Shule Skerry

And he hath taken a purse of gold
He hath put it upon her knee
Saying give to me my little wee son
And take thee up thy nurse's fee

And it shall come to pass
On a summer day
When the sun shines hot
On every stone
That I shall take my little wee son
And I'll teach him for to swim in the foam

And you will marry a gunner good
And a proud good gunner I'm sure he'll be
And he'll go out on a May morning
And he'll kill both my wee son and me

And lo, she did marry a gunner good
And a proud good gunner I'm sure it was he
And the very first shot that ere he did shoot
He killed the son and the great selchie

A "selchie" is a seal, I think in Gaelic dialect of Scotland. That, at least, is my understanding. The song is originally British, of that I'm sure. The reference to Norway is probably a sign of transliteration from dialect to more standard English over the years. At any rate, it is one of my favorite songs, and Judy Collins' version of it is as poignant and aching as the story itself.

Post-Enlightenment, especially post-Industrial Revolution and medical science revolution (someday the discovery of antibiotics may properly be ranked with the wheel, fire, writing, and the Industrial Revolution as true major shifts in human existence), we have quickly lost touch with the fatalism that pervades most of world literature before the "change." We call it fatalism, itself an anachronistic term in this arena. For most of human existence it was not fatalistic to expect death, death with no reason or purpose or aim, except to pronounce the end of life. It was not fatalism to face such things, it was simply the nature of existence. It was the condition that prevailed. It underlines particularly the elgiac tone of Old English poetry like "The Wanderer" and "The Wife's Lament." Death was not something feared so much as inevitable, as sure as doom and loss. Nowhere is this clearer than in Beowulf. When he is young, he is chided at Heorot for his brashness, for taking chances by coming to the mead hall to tackle Grendel. But when he is an old man, and a king himself, he is faced with a dilemma. A dragon has been aroused, sleeping on his hoard of gold, and how flies at night destroying the homes of Beowulf's people (if you've ever wondered where Tolkien's Smaug came from, it's right here). Beowulf is finally faced with Hobson's choice: fight the dragon himself (his best thanes prove afraid to face the worm), and die; or let the dragon destroy his people. Either choice means the end for his people. When Beowulf finally falls in victory, the people lament both his loss, and the knowlege that they are now lost, that the next king over will be by soon, having heard the news, and plunder their land, and destroy their village. It's not an ending that would win approval in the movies or on TV today, but it was standard fare in the mead halls for centuries. Homer's Iliad and Oddyssey are only slightly less fatalistic in their presentations of human existence. Neither lightly nor for nothing did Shakespeare observe that: "As flies to wanton boys/ are we to the gods."

Christianity, ironically, set out to change that. Nietszche would later misread it as a slave's philosophy, accepting death precisely when death should be challenged. But Christianity is not about accepting death; it is about understanding that we live not in the kingdom of death, but in the kingdom of God.

What does this, then, have to do with a selchie? It's a beautifully elegiac poem, one about inevitability, a fatalism underlined by the repetition of the open stanza at the closing: a cycle, that will endlessly repeat itself. It's a magical poem: "I am a man upon the land/I'm a selchie in the sea." But the fantasy underlines the connection between humanity and the rest of creation, how the two are bound together in the same cycles. The only difference is: the animal knows the secrets of the cycle, and can explain them to us. And the animals accept what we must come to accept: that death is an inevitability. And also, that individualism doesn't matter: the cycle of life and death and mystery rolls on, and we can only accept our place in it. The maid in the song is as helpless to avoid her fate as the selchie. Both face wonderful gains and terrible losses; and both must take them as they come.

The proclamation of the kingdom of God was meant to change all that.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:36 AM

    thid was a greeat poetry story