A Boy with a Book about Old Men and Seals

I was surprised, reading “Gaelic Stories” when I came across number 2 in the sequence and had to pause for a moment.  Why was this so unbelievably sad?

A story

About an old man

And a seal.

I never thought my childhood would intersect with this class in many interesting ways.  I don’t have any Celtic culture family members unfortunately and have never traveled in the British Isles.  But I did have a favorite children’s book, Greyling by Jane Yolen, about an old man and a seal, which I just learned comes right out of Scottish folk-lore.  The book is about a Selchie, a seal that can shed its skin and walk about on land as a human.  Most of the Selchie myths I’ve found on the internet revolve around romantic encounters between these seal-folk and humans: man meets seal, seal becomes a woman, man steals the seal’s skin forcing her to marry him.  Alternatively woman meets man, they have a child, man turns into a seal and takes the child away.  You can look here if you want a slightly more elaborate retelling.  What was interesting about my book was that it wasn’t a romance at all.  I’m not sure if there is an old myth that it’s based on which didn’t turn up as I was looking or if the author just decided she was sick of human seal love stories.  Nevertheless here’s a quick summary:

An old fisherman and his wife live together in a house by the sea.  They are very lonely and have no children.  One day the fisherman finds a baby boy on the rocks and takes him home.  They raise the child and love him, until one day the man is caught in a storm out at sea.  The boy becomes a seal and goes to rescue him but after swimming his father to shore he returns to the ocean and the couple never see him again.

This may or may not be the Selchie tale that Ian Crichton Smith was thinking of but these wonderfully short and cryptic “stories” leave so much up to the imagination, its exactly what we were talking about when the subject of found poetry came up.  Most of these aren’t really stories at all because as someone pointed out there’s really no verbs, nothing to drive a narrative.  Instead, the space between the objects in each little poem invites the reader to create their own narrative.  The brain is so fun because it won’t ever let you just look at a group of objects without trying to invent a story to connect them, it desperately needs meaning and patterns.

Is there anything innately sad about a man and a seal?  For me at least, I can’t separate these nouns from my own childhood mythology.  Or is it a process that works in reverse?  Is there something universal about old men and sea creatures that we just can’t shake, which keeps writing itself into our stories?  I’m not sure, but these two nouns, seal and man, are painful for me in a way that seems to go beyond the story from my children’s book.  The effects of time and memory have slowly compressed the tale that my parents read to me into a symbol embodied in these two figures and I’m sure its picked up a lot of other meanings as I’ve gone along growing up.  What “Gaelic Stories” gives us are a series of similarly condensed narratives, each constructed using words that in turn carry their own stories wound up inside them.  Is it sad to think that every myth and story eventually erodes down to such small fragments or should we be amazed that so much can be contained within a few surviving words?