Are mermaids having a comeback? Last year we featured Beth Cartwright on the show for Feathertide and this year we’ve already featured Aimee Ogden and her retelling of The Little Mermaid. Now we have the extraordinary Angela Slatter to weigh in on the subject!
Is the tide turning on the representations of mermaids in contemporary fantasy fiction? Originally mermaids were frightening monsters of the sea before they became tales for children along the lines of unicorns – but now it feels like adults are reclaiming their dark past. Why do you think this is happening (if it is)?
I think the tide’s turning for the mermaids, yes. It’s hard going for predators to, well, Ariel.
Fairy tales never go away and are cyclical. I’ve written before about how they are the ultimate shapeshifters: stories that are passed on over time and across locations, being retold and changing a little with every new telling. They reflect the society they come from and the society they’re retold into, and address changes that have occurred and also bring up changes that are needed. The old storytellers used to finish with something along the lines of “This is the tale you asked for, I leave it in your hands”; Emma Donoghue adapted that in Kissing the Witch to “This is the tale you asked for, I leave it in your mouth” – and I think that summons up the nature of the fairy tale and, by extension, fantasy. It’s told and retold, shaped and reshaped, and it tastes different on every tongue. Now mermaid tales are having a chance to do something new – or indeed, old – in reclaiming their position as terrifying sea creatures.
I think the mermaid has been in this weird place for a while where she’s not just the fishy friend for kids, but also part wish-fulfilment fantasy (can’t run away without legs) and also an object of fear (has teeth, will bite). “The Little Mermaid” is actually a terrifying story and it’s not because of the sea-witch – it’s because this girl willingly gives up her voice – her ability to communicate, protest, complain, sing – all for the idea of “love”. She negates everything she is, has been or has the potential to be for someone who doesn’t know she exists. This is not a healthy model for love, but it’s often one that is fed to women in modern fairy stories.
But I definitely believe the merfolk and their tales are being re-examined and reworked in some amazing ways. Rivers Solomon’s magnificent novella The Deep takes an entirely new look at mermaid lore – trust me, just go and read it. The Polish film The Lure – described as a “horror musical” – is a modern on “The Little Mermaid” in which the prince gets what he deserves. Cassandra Khaw’s short story “And in Our Daughters, We Find a Voice” is a brilliant and bloody and vengeful story. I wrote a short story myself called “The Little Mermaid, in Passing”, which is actually about the sea-witch and how she came to be, her choices in life – and the ones that were taken from her. So, yes, I think the mermaids are reclaiming their teeth.
Why did you want to address the fairytale trope of promising to give children away? This sort of bargain has always unfairly impacted women – mothers who had to give up their children, as well as the girls who were given up (boys would be kept, the girls given away, generally speaking). What do you hope readers will take away from reading your take on this kind of trope?
It’s such a pervasive trope and one I’ve used more than once in my own work. Essentially children are currency – the loss or gain of them can be a reward or a punishment, or the way to pay for something. It impacts so many characters in fairy tales: Rumpelstiltskin thinks he’s got the right to demand a child in return for his help, and the witch in “Rapunzel” demands the child as atonement for the parents’ sins against her garden.
If you’re a barren wife, then you’re in trouble and likely to be “set aside” in favour of someone who does/can get pregnant. Occasionally the boys are given away, but it is more often the girls as they’re considered “spare”: they might get a dowry but generally kingdoms don’t pass to them (only through them). And again, if a woman can’t get pregnant, it’s as if her entire worth is rendered null and void because she can’t reproduce, can’t provide the longed-for and essential son and heir.
The idea I particularly wanted to work with in All the Murmuring Bones was that of children having fates imposed on them. Whether being used as currency as for marriage bargains they’ve got no choice in, being given away for one reason or another, being punished for who their parents are or aren’t. Kings’ sons will rule, kings’ daughters will be married off to the guy who provides the best alliance for the realm. They get lumbered with lives that aren’t their choice, and for girls this is especially awful because the options for them are so limited anyway. If you’re not a chosen girl destined to become a princess or queen, and wife and mother, then what are your choices?
I guess I’d like readers to think more deeply about what it means to be giving a child away or up, about keeping boys and throwing away girls. Not just taking it for granted that “that’s what happens in a story”, but interrogating what it says about the value of daughters in the societies that produced (and continue to produce) these tales. And for writers in particular to question if they want to repeat these stories in the same form, taking it for granted that the shape of them will always have void cut out where you insert easily interchangeable characters with girly bits but no other distinguishing features.
Why are gothic stories so good at exploring feminism?
I think part of it is the really strong connection with the Victorian Era for a lot of them. Even women in high society were stripped of most of their rights once they married. It was nearly impossible for a woman to get a divorce. They couldn’t vote. If their husband decided they were an inconvenience he could easily have her committed to an asylum. If you look at Jane Eyre, no one questions what Rochester does to his first wife: hides her in the attic and takes her property and money.
Everything about gothic stories is so representative of the kind of oppression under which women have lived – and continue to live. Society is kind of like a big dark house with lots of scary corridors that you must navigate your way through. Oftentimes you don’t know the rules or the directions – no maps! – And even if you do know the rules, they can change for someone else’s convenience. Gothic stories are replete with all the societal pressures to be a certain kind of woman, and if you fail to reach the required standard, then you’re punished. You might be set aside and replaced, you might be locked up. It’s been observed before that in all likelihood those mad women in the attic generally weren’t mad just very, very annoyed.
So I think that gothic stories, dark as they are, are the perfect way to throw light on the major ill of the female condition: always existing under a vague threat.
What are some of the other problematic fairytale tropes you hope contemporary authors tackle in the current resurgence of fairytale reimaginings?
Oh, how long do we have?
The happily-ever-after. The brooding hero who treats the heroine badly because he’s conflicted by his Dark Past (Christina Sng has a fantastic article on Cinemania about how we’re conditioned by tv and film to accept toxic relationships). The equation of white with goodness and black with evil; the equation of beauty with goodness, and plainness or ugliness with evil. The idea that there can only be the one Chosen Girl, who “wins” the prince and becomes the wife and the princess/queen; all the others have to become loser handmaidens.
There’s a great article about that lack of collaboration between women in fairy stories – “Forever Acting Alone: The Absence of Female Collaboration in Grimms’ Fairy Tales” by Michael Mendelson that I used in both my MA and PhD. There’s also Marina Warner’s article in the New York Times, “Pity the Stepmother”, which is fantastic because it addresses one of the reasons why women were pitted against each other in fairy tales: as a reflection of real life. Women were (and still are in many cases) financially dependent on men and so they were set to compete against each other for the favour of the “man of the house” who controlled the money.
That being said, a lot of contemporary authors are addressing so many of these things. Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches and A Spindle Splintered; Chrsitina Henry is a great reworker of fairy tales, as is Cassandra Khaw. From the Old School, Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, and Marina Warner is no slouch either. Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch remains a favourite reworking of a suite of fairy tales you think you know.
Pitch us All The Murmuring Bones! Why should our readers pick up a copy?
Gosh, I’m very tired and all I can think to say is “My mum says it’s great!” That won’t work – but Alix E. Harrow’s mum also says it’s great!
Or if that ringing endorsement is insufficient, how about:
If you love fairy tales with a gothic twist, then this might be the book for you!
If you love fairy tales nested within fairy tales, then this might just be your jam.
If you love a bold and sassy heroine, plus Very Dangerous Mermaids, plus some elements of a heist, a road trip, a ghost story, and a dash of secret witchcraft, then you should probably read this book.
Besides, my mum and Alix’s mum can’t both be wrong, right?
Angela Slatter is the author of the upcoming All The Murmuring Bones, to be published by Titan Books in March 2021. That will be followed by Morwood in 2022. Both are gothic fantasies set in the world of the Sourdough and Bitterwood collections.
In February 2021, Tartarus Press will publish The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, the third mosaic collection in the Sourdough world series.
Angela is also the author of the supernatural crime novels from Jo Fletcher Books/Hachette International: Vigil (2016), Corpselight (2017) and Restoration (2018), as well as nine other short story collections, including The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, Sourdough and Other Stories, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, A Feast of Sorrows: Stories, and The Heart is a Mirror for Sinners and Other Stories. Vigil was nominated for the Dublin Literary Award in 2018.