Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them

Last week I was asked to write about my Five Favourite Medieval Hybrids for BBC Radio 3. I’ve been pondering the enduring appeal of mythical beings since I started work on a cultural history of the mermaid, but this feature, and the release of the next instalment of the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has got me thinking once again about the powerful place fabulous creatures hold in our imagination and how that maps onto the physical places they are meant to inhabit.

royal-20-b-xx-f76v

Alexander the Great carried by Griffins in London, British Library Royal MS 20 B xx, f. 76v

Hybrid beings like merfolk, centaurs, and sphinxes, reside in a twilight realm. They have a foothold in two worlds – human and animal – yet belong to neither. They often have sentience and speech, yet visually they epitomise chaos, a convergence of opposites, an impossible binding together of body parts that shouldn’t co-exist.

In the Middle Ages, hybrid creatures were frequently used to explain our existence and teach Christians how to live good (or bad) lives. Inherited from the Classical tradition, the sirens and their enchanting song, for example, became an emblem of the devil, ever ready to lure sinners to their destruction with the sweetness of worldly pleasures. The mermaid, on the other hand, might encapsulate vanity. Commonly depicted with a mirror and comb, the accoutrements of pride, she would often appear in manuscripts and churches as a warning against sin. Yet her hybrid body could also be used to represent positive dualities, as the fourteenth-century religious plays known as the Cornish Ordinalia show. Here the mermaid is employed to explain the concept of Christ’s dual nature (part-man, part-god).

Queen Mary Psalter 96v Sirens

Sirens planning an attack on sleeping sailors in ‘The Queen Mary Psalter’, British Library MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 96v

While the bodies of these fantastic creatures could be used to ponder or explain what it meant to live in a fallen world, where corporeal forms could deceive or influence those who gazed upon them, the landscapes inhabited by liminal creatures such as the mermaid, the werewolf, or the centaur, were equally useful for reflecting on the dichotomies of our existence. Typified by duality, the mermaid’s element – the sea and watery regions of the land – could nurture mankind by providing food and connecting cultures, or it could destroy life and civilisation. It was fierce and impenetrable, it was temperamental and unpredictable. It could give and it could take away.

In religious literature and art, the sea often figures as a transitional space: a place of change and transformation for those adrift upon it. Once an individual embarks on a sea voyage, planned or otherwise, they are never the same. A good example is the Middle English poem Patience, which tells the story of Jonah, who must patiently suffer the trails God sends. Another is the breathtaking Anglo-Saxon poem known as “The Seafarer“, which uses the vastness of the winter sea to focus on the isolation of the individual. Even the story of the first founding of Britain, which prefaces the Middle English Prose Brut, begins with a sea voyage. After murdering their husbands to gain independence, 33 Syrian princess are cast adrift on the ocean, only to wash up on the shores of ancient Britain and found a race of giants by copulating with spirits of the air.

The wilderness or dark forests of Western Europe, were equally dangerous environments for medieval folk. Unsafe, uncharted, and unknown, the medieval imagination populated them with sharp-toothed beasts like werewolves, inscrutable fairies, or wildmen known as wodwoses. The creatures in these spaces are always used to test the humans that venture into them and challenge their way of life. The knights of Arthurian romance, like Sir Gawain, are repeatedly  confronted with such trials, as is the eponymous hero of the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.74v

A knight killing a wodwose in London, British Library Royal MS 10 E iv, f. 74v

In thinking about how fantastic creatures and their environments work together to isolate humans and take them beyond the known, the mappable, and the ‘safe’, the literature and art of the Middle Ages can offer us new insights into the medieval mind and how it tried to make sense of the world. In the same way, our own enduring fascination with mythical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and griffins, allows us to exercise the power of our own imaginations and ponder what a world filled with fabulous, and often uncontrollable, beasts might mean for the human condition.

The quest to find fantastic creatures in the wild and secret places they inhabit is also the search for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Five Fantastic Medieval Beasts and Where to Find Them (BBC Radio 3 website)

The Beauty of the Bestiaries (also featured on Being Human Festival Blog)

Beauty of the Bestiaries

As David Attenborough once observed, ‘Animals were the first thing that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But Animals’ (Amazing Rare Things, p. 9). They are there in the earliest cave paintings, they are there in the cultures of antiquity, and in every subsequent age through to the present day, but no period in history has portrayed them so frequently in its art and literature, or attached such a diverse range of meanings to them, as the Middle Ages.

Book of Nature BNF MS Français 22971 f 15v

The Book of Nature: Bibliothèque National de France, Français 22971, f. 15v.

The medieval interest in animals extended from the real relationships that man had with them in day to day life – the ox that pulled the plough, the cat that kept the mice away – to the view that they were allegorical pieces in a divine jigsaw that helped define what it meant to be human in a fallen world.

Man was God’s favourite creation, but he had to work hard to redeem his sinful state. For many this meant pondering the wonders of creation and looking at nature for insights into how to live and die well. To the medieval mind, animals had been there from the start, even before Adam was created, so for the wise men and women who studied their appearance, their characteristics, and their activities, these little pockets of wisdom running across the face of the earth, swimming in the depths of the ocean, and soaring in the heavens, were constantly revealing God’s secrets.

holkham creation

Creation in the Holkham Picture Bible: British Library MS Add. 47682.

Of all the medieval artists and writers that took delight in drawing, writing about, and contemplating the secrets that animals could expose, the authors and illuminators of the Bestiaries, or Books of Beasts, were the most influential. Imbued with Christian symbolism, and blending biblical exegesis, natural science, fantasy, and humour, these encyclopaedic books were packed with descriptions of real and fantastic creatures. Each entry outlined an animal’s supposed appearance and characteristics, then provided a moral interpretation of what the beast represented. In this way, the Bestiaries functioned as schoolbooks, homiletic source material, and devotional aids in monasteries and noble households to help man unlock the secrets of creation.

Here’s an example of an entry for the (rather grumpy looking) elephant below.

elephant Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 54r

Grumpy elephant in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, f. 54r.

‘Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls. Unable to rise, the beast cries out, and a large elephant tries to lift it up, but fails… Finally a small elephant comes and succeeds in raising the fallen one… Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant’s enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool. The elephant’s life span is three hundred years. They travel in herds, are afraid of mice, and courteously salute men in whatever way they can.’

elephant Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 114v

Elephant giving birth in Bibliothèque Nationale deFrance MS Lat. 14429, f. 114v.

‘The elephant and its mate provide an allegory of Adam and Eve. When they were still without sin in the Garden of Eden, they did not mate, but when the dragon seduced them and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and gave some to Adam, they were forced to leave Paradise and enter the world, which was like a turbulent lake. She conceived, and ‘gave birth on the waters of guilt.’ The big elephant represents the law, which could not raise up mankind from sin… Christ is the small elephant who succeeded to raising the fallen’. Source of description here.

That’s a lot of hidden meaning in one grumpy elephant!

Here’s another for the wolf.

wolf British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 29r

Man and Wolves in British Library Royal MS 12 F xiii, f. 29r.

‘If a wolf sees a man before the man sees the wolf, the man will lose his voice. If the man sees the wolf first, the wolf can no longer be fierce. If a man loses his voice because the wolf saw him first, he should take off all his clothes and bang two rocks together, which will keep the wolf from attacking.

The wolf lives from prey, from the earth, and sometimes from the wind. When the wolf sneaks into a sheep fold, it approaches like a tame dog and is careful to approach from upwind so that the farm dogs do not smell its evil breath… If a wolf is caught in a trap, it will mutilate itself to escape rather than allow itself to be captured.

Wolves have strength in their feet, and anything they trample dies… Their eyes shine in the dark like lamps. At the tip of a wolf’s tail is a tuft of hair that can be used for love potions; if the wolf is about to be captured, it bites off the tuft so that no man can get it… Wolves mate only twelve days in the year. The female gives birth at the beginning of spring, in the month of May, when it first thunders.’

wolf Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 62r

Wolf in Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS KB, KA 16, f. 62r.

‘Like the wolf, the devil always sees mankind as prey and circles the sheepfold of the faithful, that is the Church. As the wolf gives birth when thunder first sounds, so the devil fell from heaven at the first display of his pride. The shining of the wolf’s eyes in the night is like the works of the devil, which seem beautiful to foolish men… Like the man who, because of the wolf has lost his voice, can save himself by removing his clothes and banging two rocks together, so can the man who is lost in sin be saved by stripping off, through baptism, his worldly self and then appealing to the saints, who are called “stones of adamant”.’ Source of description here.

Gorgeously illuminated, the Bestiaries shaped subsequent depictions of animals in literature, sermons, art, tapestries, church architecture, sculpture, furniture, wall paintings, stained glass, and heraldry. Though some of the real bestiary animals bear little resemblance to their living counterparts (many of the artists had never seen the beast they were drawing!), they continue to captivate and delight audiences today.

Take the crocodile for instance. If the beauty tip in the bestiary’s account of the crocodile isn’t enough to make a reader want to delve further into its secrets – to enhance your beauty, smear its excrement (or intestinal contents) on your face and leave it there until sweat washes it off – then perhaps the strange image of its bird-like beak, upside-down head, or lizard-like spikes might do the trick.

croc Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429, Folio 110v

Crocodile in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 14429, f. 110v.

croc Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, Folio 64r

Crocodile in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 76 E 4, f. 64r.

croc Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, Folio 24r

Crocodile in Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764, f. 24.

croc Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v

Crocodile in Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, f. 12v.

In Genesis the privilege of naming the animals is reserved for the first man, who is given the task of assigning them identities. This special gift to Adam, his sovereignty over all living creatures, is reflected in the opening pages of the Aberdeen Bestiary, whereby the parallelism between the three images depicting God’s creation of the animals and Adam’s naming of them, underlines the closeness of God to animals, man to animals, and man to God. Together, they form a perfect trinity: divine, human, and animal.

Animals then, were seen as being imbued with certain characteristics because God intended them to provide examples of proper or improper conduct to reinforce his laws. At first, man and animals were created to live in harmony, but after the Fall, new creatures, such as lice and fleas, were believed to have appeared to trouble man and make his life on earth uncomfortable. Animals became something to be feared if they could not be tamed. Two divisions appear with regards to the medieval view of animals, they could either serve man or hurt man: be tame or untame. This is similar to medieval perceptions of the landscape, whereby civilised, controlled spaces were (for the most part) considered to be safer places, while untamed landscapes, wildernesses, forests, and wastelands were perceived to be marginal, liminal places were wild, bad things dwelt. Living in a world full of threat and danger (physical and spiritual) became part of what it meant to be human.

There will inevitably be aspects of our ancestors’ use and love of animals in stories and artwork that we will perhaps never be able to fully understand, but we can be certain that they were used exhaustively in medieval culture to offer another view of the world. In attempting to elucidate aspects of the human condition through animals, the bestiaries express our fears and desires; they speak to man’s insatiable quest for knowledge and comprehension of the world he lives in. Perhaps this is why their influence is still widely felt today in the accepted ‘wisdom’ that lions are the king of beasts, elephants are scared of mice, dogs are loyal, or foxes are cunning, and, more spectacularly, in the creatures that inhabit the imaginary realms of popular series like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.

Read more about Bestiaries and their animals here.

View the Aberdeen Bestiary here.

View English Bestiaries in The British Library here.

Medieval Maps of Scotland

Today Scotland votes on whether it should become an independent nation or remain part of the United Kingdom.

The issue of Scottish independence is an old one, dating back to the Middle Ages when various English kings attempted to claim dominion over the land through military and diplomatic campaigns. A Scottish succession crisis in the thirteenth century led to The Wars of Independence, which continued into the late fourteenth-century and were swiftly followed by the Anglo-Scottish Wars. The latter continued, on and off, until 1603 when Scotland and England became united under a single (Scottish!) monarch, James VI of Scotland, also known as James I of England.

Capture of Wark Castle in British Library Royal 18 E i.

Capture of Wark Castle in British Library Royal 18 E i.

For me, one of the most powerful representations of the historical conflict is the first map to focus solely on Scotland. It was produced during the Anglo-Scottish Wars of the fifteenth century by an English soldier called John Hardyng, who was sent to Scotland as a spy by Henry V. Hardyng’s mission was to obtain documentary evidence of English hegemony and map the country, finding the best routes for an invading army.

For three and a half years Hardyng gathered intelligence for his king, creating detailed maps, plans and documents to support England’s supremacy. Though Henry V never lived to use them, Hardyng later incorporated the materials into his Chronicle of British history and presented them to Henry VI and Edward IV. The map surviving in the earliest copy of Hardyng’s Chronicle, British Library MS Lansdowne 204 (which we can date to 1457), has the accolade of being the earliest independent map of Scotland.

Hardyng's Map of Scotland in British Library MS Lansdowne 204 (orientated with west at the top).

Hardyng’s Map of Scotland in British Library MS Lansdowne 204 (orientated with west at the top).

Though it’s compellingly accurate for an early cartographical representation of the realm, and is clearly informed by sound knowledge of Scottish topography, its function is largely symbolic. Accompanied by a detailed itinerary that outlines Hardyng’s invasion plan and offers information on distances and geographical points of interest, the map depicts Scotland as an attractive country, packed with impressive castles, religious houses and walled towns. Its purpose is to show Scotland as a prosperous realm that the English king would benefit from ruling.

Most interesting is the way in which Scotland is cut off from England. The sea surrounds the country on three sides and two rivers seem to sever Scotland from England near the Anglo-Scottish border (shown on the left of the image) .

Matthew Paris's map of Britain. British Library

Matthew Paris’s map of Britain. British Library Cotton Claudius D vi (f. 12v)

Matthew Paris's Map of Britain in British Library Royal 14 C vii (f. 5v)

Matthew Paris’s Map of Britain in British Library Royal 14 C vii (f. 5v)

Although Hardyng’s map is the first to chart Scotland by itself, representations of a physically independent Scotland, or one almost detached from England, are common in earlier maps. Matthew Paris’s famous depictions of Britain in British Library MSS Cotton Claudius D vi and Royal 14 C vii show ‘Scocia’ precariously balanced on top of ‘Anglia’, while the image of the British Isles on the stunning Hereford Mappa Mundi shows Scotland floating alongside its neighbour. Another fifteenth-century map in Harley 3686 separates the countries once again.

Britain on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (left).

Britain on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Scotland separated left).

Britain in British Library Harley 3686 (f. 13).

Britain in British Library Harley 3686 (f. 13).

Even when Scotland is firmly joined to England, as it is below in British Library MS Harley 1808, medieval artists rarely added the kind of detail found south of the border, giving the country an empty or sparsely populated look.

Map of Britain in British Library Harley 1808 (the map is orientated with South at the top).

Map of Britain in British Library Harley 1808 (the map is orientated with South at the top).

This is presumably because few medieval people south of the borders had any real contact with, or knowledge of, Scotland to complete the gaps in earlier representations they might have seen. One notable exception is the incredible Gough Map in the Bodleian Library.

The Gough Map, orientated with east at top.

The Gough Map, orientated with east at top. Bodleian Library MS Gough Gen. Top. 16.

Even Hardyng’s map, which is to be treasured for the information it contains, depicts the Scottish highlands as terra incognita: wild, unknown territory best avoided by travellers or invading armies. The earliest version of the map shows this space empty apart from vegetation, much like Harley 1808, but later versions fill the extreme north with the image of a large castle representing ‘The Palais of Pluto, king of Hel, neighbore to Scottz’ [The palace of Pluto, king of Hell, neighbour to Scots].

Pluto's Palace of Pride in British Library MS Harley 661, f. 188.

Pluto’s Palace in British Library MS Harley 661, f. 188.

Blending various traditions that associate the devil with the north and Pluto with wealth, this cartographical feature takes us beyond real geography into the realm of anti-Scottish propaganda; Hardyng draws on the animosity that had grown out of centuries of conflict between the two nations to produce a map that speaks to the political and ideological concerns of his own troubled times.

For more on Anglo-Scottish relations in Hardyng’s Chronicle see my article in The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity, 1300-1600, ed. by Mark P. Bruce and Katherine H. Terrell.

My short BBC film on Hardyng’s Scottish mission and why he incorporated the maps into his chronicle is here and here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens' Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. Even the hope of her gaining an immortal soul as she transformed into a Daughter of the Air failed to console me. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing efforts to write A Cultural History of the Mermaid, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research manifested itself in a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my book comes closer to publication, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. Even the hope of her gaining an immortal soul as she transformed into a Daughter of the Air failed to console me. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing efforts to write A Cultural History of the Mermaid, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research manifested itself in a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my book comes closer to publication, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

On His Majesty’s Secret Service: Henry V’s Spy and Scottish Independence

One of the highlights of being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker this year has been making a short film with BBC Arts. The film offers a little taste of my work on John Hardyng, a fifteenth-century solider who fought in Henry V’s army during the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Three years after Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, Hardyng was sent to Scotland to obtain evidence of English sovereignty over the realm, and to map out an invasion route, should the king wish to assert his claim of overlordship. My film explores the connection between Hardyng’s espionage and the Chronicle of British History that he wrote several decades later during the Wars of the Roses.

On His Majesty's Secret Service: Henry V's Spy and Scottish Independence

One of the highlights of being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker this year has been making a short film with BBC Arts. The film offers a little taste of my work on John Hardyng, a fifteenth-century solider who fought in Henry V’s army during the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Three years after Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, Hardyng was sent to Scotland to obtain evidence of English sovereignty over the realm, and to map out an invasion route, should the king wish to assert his claim of overlordship. My film explores the connection between Hardyng’s espionage and the Chronicle of British History that he wrote several decades later during the Wars of the Roses.