MARCH 30, 2020
WHEN DISNEY ANNOUNCED in 2019 that Halle Bailey would be playing Ariel in a forthcoming live-action remake of the classic 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid, #NotMyAriel quickly began to circulate on social media. The notion that a canonical fairy-tale mermaid would be played by a nonwhite actress apparently unsettled many people. Yet those same people might be surprised to learn just how many nonwhite mermaids — and mermen, and snake-tailed water-dwelling people of all genders — exist in global folklore.
The Penguin Book of Mermaids brings together 60 such mermaid and mermaid-adjacent stories; the collection is notable for its wide scope, both in terms of region and time period. Linguistically, as well, the collection provides novelty: 20 of the tales appear for the first time in English (translated from Japanese, Estonian, Persian, and other languages). Editors Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown bring their expertise in a variety of academic areas to the assembled texts as well as to the book’s highly perceptive introduction, which weaves together insights from the study of literature, folklore, narrative, postcolonial theory, and more, while nevertheless remaining accessible to lay (nonacademic) readers. In their consideration of mermaid stories’ continuing appeal to audiences, they muse on how
[w]e humans do not deal well with betwixt and between — liminality makes us anxious. We prefer our world organized into well-ordered and sharply defined categories, and we prefer to be in charge of it. Nonetheless, we are strangely drawn to the other who is in part a mirror image of us and appears within reach, even if mentally ungraspable.
Indeed, many of the mer-creatures mentioned in the collection are actual aliens. A story published in China in 1801 tells of a mermaid captured by a fisherman: “Her features and limbs were in all respects human, except that her body was covered with fine hair of many beautiful colours. The fisherman took home his prize and married her, though she was unable to talk and could only smile.” While this multicolored hairy mermaid is, admittedly, a new one to me — just one example of the breadth and novelty on offer — the fisherman’s behavior is typical of men in stories of mermaids, selkies, seal wives, heavenly Japanese maidens, and so forth: more interested in their “prize” — as it were — than in an emotional connection with their captive spouse.
Those aware of the mid-19th-century fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen on which Disney’s animated film is based may associate mermaid stories with fairy tales and children’s literature. To complicate this assumption, Bacchilega and Brown contextualize many of the stories as myths and legends — tales told as true about the natural world, the origins of humans, and about recent historical events — with folktales and fairy tales (fictional, formulaic stories) only emerging as the vehicle for mermaid lore in the last two centuries. As examples of this last category, Bacchilega and Brown include a folktale from the Grimms’ collection (early 1800s) about a water nixie, a freshwater mermaid in German folk belief, as well as tales of mermaids from the Child Ballads (late 1800s). Indeed, the editors’ careful attention to detail in their headnotes helps readers better understand the cultural context of these stories. A favorite example of mine, related to the narrative songs categorized by Francis James Child, comes in the remainder that “in early modern England ‘mermaid’ meant ‘prostitute,’” providing important context for stories like Child Ballad 42A, in which one Clark Colven is tempted away from his wife by a mermaid.
While the texts are not arranged entirely chronologically, ancient classical encounters with sirens open the book, with the remaining sections devoted to mermaids in European lore, literary stories, and global tales. As expected, the first section introduces us to Odysseus and the Sirens — but we also encounter the Babylonian fish-god Oannes, the Hindu serpent king Kāliya, and the supernatural Polynesian eel-husband of Lake Vaihiria. Reminders that merpeople are far more diverse than ancient sirens and singing mermaids continue throughout the book.
Bacchilega and Brown astutely draw out a number of themes in their introduction — the coast as “contact zone,” the dangerous and often sexual Other, the primacy of water to human life — and further categorize the three main plots of the tales they showcase. In the first, a human has a fleeting encounter with a piscine being. A tale from the Philippines, “The American and the Sirena of Amburayan,” is one example of this plot, with a mermaid deciding she likes the looks of an American worker there; he, however, is driven off her by fishy stench before she can abduct him underwater. In the second type, a human marries a piscine (and this rarely goes well). For instance, a tale from Northern Australia, “Karukayn (Mermaids),” has a man swimming into crocodile-infested waters in order to drag out a mermaid. He smokes her tail off and claims her as a wife, but she seizes the first opportunity possible to return to the water and desert him, leaving him “heart-broken.” In the final plot type, the piscine abducts a human; this plot type — perhaps surprisingly — often ends better for the human than the previous one. The Hawaiian tale “The Mermaid of Honokawailani Pond” exemplifies this type. In it, a young girl goes missing, but in a dream reveals the name of the pond where she now lives with her merperson suitor. That way, her mother can properly say goodbye to her.
Even as a folklorist, I was surprised at how much mermaids resemble other folkloric critters in their persistent connections to death, haunting, and morbid terror. The collection includes a story from the Khasi ethnic community of northeast India in which a clan ancestress asks a vengeful favor of a river deity: killing the family of a woman who offended the ancestress. However, after the deity grants the favor, the clan members dishonor the deity: “[S]ince then, we have paid the price of the dishonor. Our family is broken and there are always bad deaths, misfortunes, and sickness. This is the reason.” In Japan, tales are told of a child who eats the flesh of a mermaid, which she believes will grant immortality. Eight hundred years later, the immortal woman gives up on life and asks to be buried under a camellia tree. As long as it blossoms, she lives while entombed.
But then, these connections make sense given the relationship between folklore and the history of colonialism. In one sense, these stories are a eulogy to precolonial, precontact cultures, to what mermaid lore might have looked like before European governors and militaries and missionaries showed up on the shores of those they would colonize. But on the other hand, the book amasses so much evidence of mer-creatures in indigenous contexts — from Native American tribes to Australian Aboriginal culture — that mermaid lore cannot reasonably be ascribed to European colonizers alone. Indeed, the editors go to great lengths in their headnotes to clarify the colonial roots of, for example, African water spirits’ prominence in Caribbean narratives, or the remarkable similarity between Filipino and Spanish water spirits. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if mermaid narratives flourish especially in contact zones precisely because of their ambivalent nature, which might signal shifting attitudes toward foreignness and Othering.
To the #NotMyAriel crowd: pick up this book with an open mind. The same goes for everyone else. We may no longer be the gullible audiences that P. T. Barnum fooled with a half-monkey, half-fish, all-hoax mummified mermaid, but, in the words of my fairy-tale colleague Claudia Schwabe, we still crave supernatural creatures. The Penguin Book of Mermaids definitely satisfies that craving, drawing us into their narrative depths with alluring promises.
Jeana Jorgensen lives in Indianapolis, where she teaches college courses in anthropology, folklore, and gender studies; teaches and performs dance; and writes poetry, scholarly articles, and blog posts about everything from the history of sex education to sexual violence in fairy tales.