Volume XIII, Number 2, Fall 2017

"Seal Skin and Language – Contemporary Adaptations of the Selkie Wife Tale" by Zsófia Márki

Zsófia Márki is a PhD student at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, her interests are in myth and fairy-tale adaptations in modern and post-modern culture. She earned her masters degree in English Literature (with a Semiotics specialization) at the University of Szeged. Her PhD dissertation examines the adaptations of the Electra myth in modern English and American literature, mainly focusing on Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Email:

The selkie wife tale is the most adapted form of the vast intertextual web of seal people’s legends that have been told around the Northern British Isles for hundreds of years. This tragic, romantic tale between a human and a magical shape-shifting creature has captured the imagination of twentieth and twenty-first century fantasists alike. Even in the past few years a considerable number of literary works and films have adapted the story, placing their retellings in a contemporary context in a variety of ways. The most recent adaptation is an animation film entitled Song of the Sea (2014), by Tomm Moore, who creates a captivating visual gem that revisits the selkie wife tale in a surprising and innovative manner. This animation is the second part of a trilogy that adapts Irish folklore. The first of the series, The Secret of Kells (2009), just like Song of the Sea, was nominated for an Academy Award. The second film had a just as astoundingly positive reception all over the wold as the first one. In this paper I aim to contextualize this postmillennial cinematic adaptation of the selkie wife tale within the framework of other adaptations featuring selkies, commenting on the changes of this particular type of animal bride fairy tale subgenre, and argue that Moore’s revisioning of the selkie wife story opens the way for post-structuralist reinterpretations of an age-long tradition. It reflects on the intersection of humanity and bestiality while problematizing limits and potentials of linguistic and corporeal communication, and examining hereditary and culturally constructed nature of interspecies ties.

The adaptation strategies of myths and fairy tales constitute a heterogeneous corpus: neither does their making follow a standard formulaic pattern, nor does their reception invite a consistent interpretive method. As structuralist literary critical analyses of the 1960s suggest, many adaptations use recurring thematic and plot structures that can be stripped down to a simple form, such as archetypal characters and universal human conflicts permeating all myths and fairy tales (Sanders 82). However, stripping down all stories to their core narratological elements might make us forget the fact that these stories used to have differently-performed oral versions or a variety of textually-recorded originals, despite their identical core structure. The disadvantage of contemporary textual and visual adaptations is that they delimit the indefinite openness of the oral tradition by pinning down plotlines (sometimes radically deviating from source-texts) which soon become canonized as original. As Linda Hutcheon has highlighted, the question of originality is often a central debate for adaptation theoreticians arguing for or against criteria of fidelity (3-4). On the other hand, the plethora of ever-expanding postmillennial fairy-tale adaptations resonates well with the oral circulation of folk- and fairy tales, sagas, myths, and legends preceding the era of mass book production.

Tales of shape-shifting seal people seducing humans have numerous variations in northern countries and the North American continent where seals can be found. The magical creatures featuring in stories of Norse, Inuit, Irish and Scottish folklore, especially on the Shetland and Orkney Islands, are called selkies (silkies, selches). They appear in the form of seals, but underneath their seal skins they have a human body (Monaghan 411). Some link these creatures to the Finnfolk, a name that was synonymously used for Sami people in Scandinavia, who lived in small communities in the northern parts of Europe. The Sami were believed to have magical powers. It was believed their spirit could leave their bodies or they could appear in animal forms (Jennings). Walter Traill Dennison, a collector of selkie stories, claims, however, that selkie tales constitute a separate branch of the stories of the Finnfolk, and should be considered an independent genre in their own right, as the latter’s protagonists were usually considered malevolent, while selkies were believed to bring good luck to sailors and fishermen (Dennison 174). Selkie folk and Finnfolk have been typologically distinguished as two separate species despite their common origins (see Orkneyjar). My present study focuses on the selkie as a leitmotif and, more specifically, on the significance of the seal skin in the selkie wife tale and its film adaptations. Though the epidermis plays a symbolical significance in all the filmic adaptations of the selkie’s mythological narrative, Tom Moore’s Song of the Sea is particularly noteworthy in its portrayal of it, as Moore attributes to the skin unprecedented new layers of meaning.


Figure 1


The story of The Goodman o’ Wastness is a typical tale told on the Orkney Islands, and records the tale of a fisherman taking a seal woman as his wife. Patricia Monaghan’s encyclopaedia states that many northern European communities ate seal meat, but this was not the case in Ireland and Scotland, where seals were considered to be relatives of humans, and consuming their meat was regarded as cannibalism. Seals were held in high respect, and were thought to bring good luck to fishermen. Many families claim to have selkie ancestors, thus to them the tales of seal wives and husbands qualify as origin stories (Monaghan 411) or even family legends. David Thompson’s book The People of the Sea contains a vast collection of selkie-related stories told by people Thompson met during his journey around Scotland, some of which are versions of the above-mentioned The Goodman o’ Wastness (Thompson 125). They differ from Dennison’s account only insofar as the Goodman, anonymous in the other versions, is one of the narrator’s relatives and has a real human name.

The selkie wife tales all have a similar plotline. A single man, who is not interested in women and marriage, finds by chance on the seashore a selkie in human form with her skin beside her, and he immediately falls in love with her. The man steals the skin of the woman and tells her that he will give it back provided she accepts to become his partner for a few years. The man deceives her and hides the skin, so the selkie becomes his wife, and they usually have half-blood children. The seal woman becomes an ideal wife: an amazing cook, a loving mother, a singer with a beautifully melodic voice who sings magical stories about the life under the sea. Selkie wives are enchanting creatures even in their human form, distinguished by dark hair, dark eyes, and sometimes even dark skin. Local communities never fully accept the selkie wife, because of her other-worldly strangeness, but the husband refuses to let her go. Though she loves her offspring and her husband, her longing for the sea never ceases. One day with the help of one of her children she finds her seal skin and goes back to the sea, to leave her entire human family behind. After her departure she may make occasional contact with the family, but only in a seal form. The half-blood children are often able to communicate with the creatures of the sea, although they do not have seal skin but are commonly believed to be born with webbed fingers. Many adaptations focus on selkie children who inherit some of their mother’s magical abilities, and their half-human, half-animal hybridity makes them odd outsiders as regards their appearance and behaviour.

This narrative, though quite rudimentary in its plotline, as most fairy tales are, has a very specific crisis which resurfaces in each adaptation. One predominant theme is the power struggle between a woman and a man, centred around the magical force of the seal skin that can lend both human and seal the empowering ability to control events. The skin’s wondrous ability proves to be instrumental in the organization of every selkie tale’s plotline. The skin is the largest organ of the body of any living creature. In fairy tales the skin may gain further metaphorical significance as an essentially bestial part of a chimeric being, and the instrument of her shape-shifting transformation (Connor36). The animal hide’s removal is a decisive step towards her definition as a non-animalistic human being. The seal skin constitutes a liminal borderline territory between inside and outside, between realistic and fantastic, between the animalistic, magical realm and the mundane, human world. The husband’s theft of the skin is a desperate attempt to civilize and anthropomorphize the chimerically undefinable, miraculous creature. However, this effort at ‘taming the beast’ is doomed to fail: the selkie skin cannot be kept hidden forever by the human mate and must always find its way back to its original owner, to whom it physically belongs. In the following I will explore the changes in the roles and functions the selkie skin fulfils within various versions of the selkie wife narrative.

It is noteworthy that there are gender-bent versions of this enchanted love story featuring a female human protagonist and a male selkie. Though the tales of selkie husbands are much less common, male seal creatures often become the elusive lovers of lonely women. An interesting distinction between the differently-gendered story versions is that while selkie wives are mostly wed by force, falsity, or cunning manipulation – like the theft of the skin – male selkies come freely to lonely women if the maidens’ tears fall into the sea. C. B. Lee’s book Seven Tears at High Tide (Interlude Press, 2015) is a gender-fluid take on the selkie lover tale: a heartbroken man sheds seven tears into the sea after which a selkie boy appears and becomes his sweetheart. Sofia Samatar’s award-winning short story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (2013, Strange Horizon) focuses on the distress a child feels when abandoned by its mother.

Female selkies and their stories proved to be favourites of the twentieth century film industry. There are at least four notable adaptations from the past twenty years, and all of them contain the narrative of the seal bride mentioned above, though sometimes focal plot turns appear in a different order, or the story is presented in a fragmented, episodic manner within the film.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1996), directed by John Sayles, takes place in a small fishing village in Ireland, and follows a little girl, Fiona, who is looking for her long-lost brother with the help of her grandparents. She realizes that one of her ancestors was a selkie. The selkie blood was more dominant in her little brother, so in his infancy he was swept away by the sea in his crib to be rescued and raised by the seal folk, who have been looking after him. The selkie wife tale is told to Fiona by her distant cousin, who is also a “dark one,” a boy with dark hair and dark skin that might signal the emergence of the genes of the selkie ancestors. The young man’s story very accurately follows the Orkney island folk story of The Goodman o’ Wastness. The skin represents the family-ties between the selkie-wife ancestor and the filmic diegesis’s present-day children. The seal skin in Sayles’ film adaptation holds the same function as in the original story version where it was used by the human man to capture the selkie woman, who later managed to recover her hidden skin – though it is only manifested narratively in the family legend. In line with myths of feral children – human foundlings raised by animals, like Mowgli – the little boy, who spent his life among the seals, can understand human language, but does not know how to speak the articulate discourse of mankind. Hence it is the boy child who carries on the matrilineal animalistic blood-line/tradition.

Sayles’ film and John Gray’s The Seventh Stream (2001) are similar: they both take place in an Irish fishing village in an indeterminate place, sometime around the Industrial Revolution. The latter includes the motifs of the selkie and its skin – however, it does not employ the selkie wife myth per se. The seal woman in the story, Maidred, can see into the hearts of humans, and her magical powers bring revelations to the main characters. Her background story is much more elaborate than in any other adaptations; we learn that she comes from a land where “her people” live, a place that is not clearly defined, but surely is distinct from human spatiality and temporality. The selkie’s world does not have a notion of past or future. Instead of transmitting communal wisdom by writing books, they share “knowledge of the heart,” regarded as the only true and most important knowledge, according to Maidred. It is never really specified what this poetic expression stands for, but the assumption of an affective wisdom enhances the mysterious strangeness of the mythical creature. In this version of the myth, selkies can only shed their skin to become humans at a period called the “seventh stream,” that is during the nine days of the highest tide, which happens twice a year. They can walk on earth during this short period of time between the two seventh streams. This temporal limitation on the human shape the selkie can take contradicts the other stories told by a wise old man, Eamon, who informs Owen, the young protagonist, that descendants of selkies can be found all over the islands. (Since the film does not focus on selkie’s biological specificities, it ignores this temporal confusion and the fact that the time between two seventh streams would be too short for the seal woman to bear human children during her transitional anthropomorphic state.) The captive selkie, commands a sort of atavistic wisdom that makes her akin with a ‘primitive’ tribal native and endows her both with an exotic lure and a radical cultural difference that makes her untameable and impossible to be integrated within the civilized human realm. This cultural difference between the mundane human and the magical animal world, in addition to the taboo of transgression, constitutes one of the main themes of the film.

Neil Jordan’s Ondine (2009) was a popular fantasy romance film that recycled the selkie wife tale with a modern twist enriched with political implications. Throughout the film the heroine, Ondine, an attractive young woman, is presented as a magical creature whose song in an unknown language helps to fill the fishing nets with seafood, yet in the end we find out that she is actually an illegal immigrant, a drug mule from Romania, who is hiding from the Coast Guards at her ‘adoptive family.’ The hidden seal coat is replaced by a bag of heroin, and the mysterious foreigner faces an inevitable deportation in the end. The selkie wife tale is told by the fisherman’s daughter, Annie, a disabled little girl, as a fictionalized life narrative, an alternative version of truth she invents to deal with the unknown, and to substitute the harsh reality of social marginalization with the soothing fantasy of a fairy tale. In Annie’s imagination, her father and the selkie can marry and live happily ever after, but in a more realistic understanding of the story, we learn that the fairy tale belongs only in her compensatory fantasy.


Figure 2


Tomm Moore’s animated adaptation of the selkie wife story, Song of the Sea (2014), is just the opposite: the target audience of children are invited to immerse themselves within the magical realism of the diegesis, without the need for an alienating social commentary. The mythical, magical aura of the film comes from the generic conventions of children’s fairy-tale films, the “willing suspension of disbelief.” It functions in a more convincing manner than other fantasy adaptations, which apply technologically advanced visual effects like the Australian youth film Selkie (2000), which used CGI to present an authentic transformation of a boy into a seal. Animated images give the creators more freedom to play with visual and aural effects, and create an intermedially layered fictional realm filled with mythical creatures whose existence is simultaneous with the human world without any demands for mimetic verisimilitude.

Moore’s film starts with the departure of the selkie wife, who leaves behind her husband and two half-blood children, Saoirse and Ben. The plot continues six years later, when, as the offspring grow, Saoirse’s difference becomes clear: not only is she mute and oddly dark-haired, but also a selkie. Her strange looks and behaviour is not obvious at the beginning, but we learn about her selkie characteristics throughout the film. The story mainly focuses on the kids’ relationship with each other, their heritage, and their broken father. We learn about the nature of seal people and the history of the children’s mother from Ben’s memories. Soon they realize that Saoirse is also a selkie. Her brother,as the only one who has the knowledge about the magical maternal realm of selkies passed on to him through stories, is able to save his little sister when she becomes sick after being separated from her seal skin. On their journey, the children gradually immerse themselves in the parallel magical world: they find out that elves live under the hump of the roundabout, and owls, assisted by a witch, turn magical creatures into stone. The initial subtle allusions to mythical objects gain increasing reality-status. As the story proceeds and the siblings get closer to gaining Saoirse’s skin back, the viewers realize that magic is actually everywhere in this narrative.


Figure 3


Song of the Sea is peculiar in its construction of parallel mythical and profane worlds, and a storyline intertextually tied to the network of Celtic legends. The importance of intertextual connections is often emphasised by adaptation theorists, like Linda Hutcheon (7), who argue that with each myth and fairy tale adaptation the fairy-tale web expands further, eliciting a transmedia entertainment experience (see Kérchy 2016). A narrative that has been adjusted to a new context creates an additional network of signifiers that can be later associated with the original work they gradually overwrite in a palimpsestic manner, challenging the validity of the notion of the originality of myths and fairy tales – even if we can often find our way back to the first written materializations of stories. Fully mapping out this intertextual network would be a gigantic enterprise, but in the case of selkie stories, there are a number of records from the previously-mentioned sources that we can work with.

Moore admittedly used Thompson’s book People of the Sea to learn more about the tradition of selkie folk, but as an Irish native he most likely has been in contact with the orally transmitted folk tale tradition, too. Song of the Sea meets all the criteria of Linda Hutcheon’s definition of adaptation: it is an “announced transposition of a particular work or works” (6); it involves a shift in the medium – a transition from the page to the screen; and its audience supposes the existence of a prior written source that acted by means of a source of inspiration. Moore’s revisioning of the selkie wife tale is indebted to the many oral versions preceding it. However, it is a matter of national belonging and shared cultural background knowledge whether the audience will be able to activate the source-text meanings the director had in mind on making his movie. While for an Irish child the selkie tale resonates with a vast number of folk tales they could have heard from their families willing to socialize them through the sharing of their cultural heritage, Eastern European children will have different associations in mind, possibly linking the figure of the selkie wife to the folkloric figure of Rusalka or even Andersen’s Little Mermaid, whom they have grown familiar with through their upbringing.

Adaptations’ re-creative process involves “appropriating or salvaging the original material” (Hutcheon 7) by “re-using or recycling” archetypal stories for different ages and cultures, tailored to the needs of the new audience, as Julie Sanders puts it in her Adaptation and Appropriation (82). Contemporary children’s cinema is too often characterized by radical revisions whereby the appropriated original stories become simplified, sanitized, hence largely unrecognizable. Disney adaptations are notorious for their willingness to meet consumer demands for happy endings and a censorship of uncomfortable taboo topics. However, director Moore went against this Disneyfication trend by suggesting that “children understand more than people give them credit for” (Collin 2015). His adaptation of the selkie myth is far from an idealization of a safe fantasy status quo. It thematizes harsh social realities and traumatic experiences, depicting the turmoil of a broken, dysfunctional family, a depressed father, a mysteriously disappeared selkie wife mother, a disabled mute younger sibling, and a rational grandmother figure lacking compassion. Moore presented the pains of abandonment and separation realistically, faithful to the original selkiewife tale versions. The humanimal mother, though she comes back for a brief moment at the end of the film, must leave her family behind and never come back. The selkie wife’s character is not explicitly in the focus of the story; however, her features surface in her children’s gifts: Ben’s knowledge of the mythical plain and Saoirse’s animalistic nature. Although a subtle sexism permeates this division of maternal features (in line with Le Couteur’s analysis) – as the female child becomes feral, whereas the boy is distinguished by wisdom – through this gendered pattern Moor simply reiterates a decisive leitmotif of the selkie wife myth, associating the female seals with suffering and violence. All the selkie-themed films mentioned above draw from the intertextual cloud of selkie myths, with explicit references to the narrative of The Goodman o’ Wastness. However, their different attitudes to the original work may inform us about the changing ways we relate to human-animal relations today. Paul Wells, in his study on the representations of animals in animations, agrees with Bruno Bettelheim, famed for his psychoanalytical reading of fairy tales:

The animal is an inherent part of the human sensibility, and part of its intrinsic ‘wholeness’; psychologically and emotionally, right from the earliest years, human kind uses a ‘creative’ interpretation of the animal to clarify something in itself, and achieve an embeddedness of the animal in the human personality (Wells 98).

Human-animal hybrids hence might be interpreted as reflections of animalistic, instinctive aspects of human nature. Jungian psychology thinks of animals as archetypal representations of states of mind permeated by atavistic memories. According to Jung, the human collective subconscious has gone through a similar evolutionary development as the body; the homo sapiens has preserved traces of desires, drives, dreads, even emotional and cognitive relationalities that connect us to our animal kin, regarded by Darwinian theory as the human species’ predecessors (Jung 67). Selkies are beings who remind us of this ancient connectedness and strange kinship: as skin-changing creatures, they possess human and animal characteristics alike. They are both mammals and amphibians, both land-creatures and sea-folk. All selkies must return to the sea after a while, because if they stay too long on land, they become grey, ‘dry out’, and die, while the skin they had shed must be kept wet, according to some tale versions, because that is the only way to keep the creatures alive in human form. Hence, paradoxically, the protection of the animal hide guarantees the preservation of humanity. Their unbreakable bond with the infinite sea connects them to the unknown depths of the unconscious. They represent the inexplicability of emotions: they are devoted mothers but willing to heartlessly leave behind their offspring once nature calls them back to the sea. In Song of the Sea, once they touch their seal skin, both Bronach, the seal mother, and Saoirse, the half-seal child, become magnetically drawn to the sea, overwhelmed by animal drives replacing human rational or affective considerations. Eventually it is familial love that can reconnect the ruptured interspecies ties, and bring the selkie changeling back to humanity’s domain. Saoirse’s sudden language use indicates this surprising departure from the bestiality constituting an essential aspect of her self.

Peter Le Couteur’s interprets selkie-wife tales as representations of the dreaded yet desired border crossing between the animal world and human culture. In his view, animal bride fairy tales reinforce the taboo on humans having unnatural relationships with animals; and both enforce and challenge the binary opposition between nature and society that separates humans from the creatures of instinct (1). The fact that at the end of each story the selkie escapes back to the sea is the inevitable tragedy that the human has to suffer after breaking the taboo imposed on interspecies intimacy. The husband is an overreacher character, a rightful victim of the elusive seal woman, and falls into his own trap when he tries to bind her to the human world by stealing her skin. In Le Couteur’s reading, the selkie wife tale can be understood as an allegory of abuse and possession, where the female is exploited and subordinated by the male lead character: hence the patriarchal society’s abuse of the gendered distribution of power positions – the male “coercing the female into sexual, domestic and childbearing roles” (Le Couteur 4) – is identified with the arbitrary anthropocentric hierarchization of species, placing humans over animals like abusers over the abused.

Selkie wives can oscillate between humanoid and seal form, as borderline creatures balancing in the liminal realm between the human and the animal worlds, yet their hybrid children cannot, especially if they are male offspring. Both in The Secret of Roan Inish and Song of the Sea, the child of the selkie mother must make a conscious decision and choose between belonging to either of the species in order to be able to return to the human world. Fiona’s long-lost little brother grows up with the seals who act as his foster parents while the sea is a surrogate mother cradling his crib; however, he finally decides to go back to the human world represented by his sister and grandparents who deeply miss him. His separation from the seals is preceded by a painful period of hesitation and followed by a terminal entry into human language, as the matrilineal tradition of bestiality is broken.

The seal skin represents the dividing line between the human and animal realms. The selkie can only become a part of the human symbolic order and take up the socially sanctioned position of a spouse provided her skin remains hidden. The seal skin symbolizes her animalistic abject aspects, the suppressed instincts, aggression, and sexual drives which cannot come to the surface while she is in a human form. The humanoid selkie’s seal skin matches Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytical concept of the abject: it neither qualifies as object nor as subject, it equally marks the absence and the presence of the body, it is a loathsome yet fascinating formless form, and it is a marker of the human’s bestiality and the beast’s humanity (Kristeva, 1-11). In the eyes of the human husband, it is an ominous harbinger of the finiteness of family romance. For the selkie wife, on the contrary, the skin is a promise of freedom, a token of a life beyond social confines, a key to a path that can take her back to her original, natural, non-humanoid state. The seal skin is of a fundamentally dualistic nature: it can mean both death and life depending on who possesses it. In The Book of Skin Steven Connor introduces a Kristevian understanding of the skin as an in-between abject entity: “[n]othing is deader than a skin, peeled, shucked or sloughed. And yet skins are often imagined as containing or preserving life and therefore having the power to restore it” (31). The gendered power positionalities are unstable: the selkie wife can be skinned to a bare human form, but once she recuperates her skin she can regain her liberty. Hence, (hu)man power eventually fails in its attempts to dominate the humanimal otherness, which always escapes back to the sea that represents the familiar unknown.

In Ondine the fisherman forcefully takes away the ambiguous object representing the seal skin from the title character for fear she would abandon them as his wife did: his superstitious gesture is a sign of his dread of her disappearing, fading back into the unknown. Similarly, in The Seventh Stream the selkie woman Mairead suffers both physical and mental abuse from her first captor, but the second man she meets, Owen, rescues her from her victimiser, and in the end lets her put her skin back on and go back to the sea. In Song of the Sea, the selkie wife, present in the beginning of the film, is shown wearing her white seal skin, implying that she might be staying with her human husband of her own free will. One of her children, the half-seal Saoirse, is a little girl born covered in white seal fur that she finds later on accidentally, hidden in her father’s wardrobe. She puts the hide on, goes down to the seashore, and as she enters the water seals come to greet her with squeaks imitated by the girl, seeking interspecies communication. When her skin is taken by her father and thrown into the sea, the abusive domination is transferred onto the father-daughter relationship. Saoirse becomes obsessed with her lost seal skin, and falls ill with longing, given that substitute objects fail (she ruins a leather coat when she stands in it under the shower, thinking that it would work the same way as the seal skin does). With assistance from his brother and new knowledge gained from old myths told by their mother, Bronach (about the selkie’s acquisition of singing and speaking abilities resulting from her repossession of the seal skin), a dying Saoirse wins back her seal fur coat and starts to speak human language after having been mute for most of the film.

For Moore, the relationship between the selkie’s seal skin and human language represents more the power struggle between humans and humanimals. But how is skin related to language? According to Steven Connor the self-identity of the speaking subject is grounded in its skinned being.

Unlike other animals, we have a relation to our bodies, a relation that we invent, and a relation that is our bodies. Our bodies are the kind that are always in question, or transition, are always work in progress. […] Of course, a languaged body is subjected to the orders of discourse. A languaged body can be regimented, cabined, confined, abjected, insulted by language. (Connor 30)

A person’s identity is projected onto the skin of a human being. According to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the creation of the subject’s sense of ego can be chronologically connected to the moment of the mirror stage, which also forms the infantile fantasy of a fragmented body, once the body is recognized in its totality (Lacan 79) held together by the envelope of the skin, reflected by the mirror image. Before the child sees itself in the mirror, he thinks of himself in terms of a continuum, non-separable from the mother or of its animate or inanimate surroundings. The subject comes to being through the recognition of the “I” in the embodied self covered by the consistent surface of the skin, which connects him to his individual self, yet separates him from the outside world.

The selkie has both human and animal skin – mutually incompatible yet integral constituents of her identity. Even when shed, the skin remains an essential part of her. The seal skin is the primary signifier of the instinctual and bestial, as well as the magical and elusive character of the selkie – a representative of the animal nature she must leave behind to inhabit her human skin. When she wears the selkie skin, she is on the liminal borderline of the human world. In the adaptations, particularly in the Song of the Sea, the transitional period of balancing between human and animal selves is almost exclusively associated with the mother, who is the emblematic figure of the Lacanian psychoanalytic theory’s imaginary realm – a primordial phase of psychic development and ego formation before the solidification of subjectivity by symbolization – where the child dwells in a symbiotic relationship with her mother. At the end of the animated film, Saoirse must choose between leaving her seal skin behind and becoming human, or going back to the sea in animal form with her selkie mother and refusing to become a subject. The skin’s destruction is a prerequisite of becoming an autonomous human subject who gains entry into the symbolic order by the mastery of language. (Similarly, in The Secret of Roan Inish the half-selkie boy must leave his seal caretakers behind and start using human language in order to embrace his half-blood humanity.) Tellingly, on contacting the seal skin Saoirse utters onomatopoeic words that imitate seal cries, and later starts to sing. In other words, the animal alterity of the seal skin makes her subvert conventional human discourse, much along the line of Julia Kristeva’s notion of revolutionary poetic discourse (Kristeva 89-136), which disrupts the order of language by foregrounding its irrational, lyrical, subversive aspects. Finally the selkie girl speaks an affirmative sentence to her selkie mother. Her line “I want to stay” functions as a performative speech act: the use of human language as a strategic choice reflects Saoirse’s decision to remain a human subject brought into being by means of discourse. However, after the seal skin is destroyed, Saoirse utters these words dressed in a selkie coat, unable or unwilling to leave her animality behind.

Selkies and their skins are deeply charged with fantastic meanings (dis)located in a vast network of associations ranging from subconscious drives to male domination. Postmillennial adaptations of the selkie wife tale prove that this ancient lore keeps inspiring narratives which can comment on humans’ ambiguous relationship to animals and hybrid humanimal beings while staging the archetypal allegory about the birth of the human in language as a token of departure from bestiality. On a more abstract, metaphorical level the selkie can be connected to Derrida’s notion of “différance;” as an essentially elusive character, it resists fixed formal or typological definitions, an in-between species that belongs both to the real (human) and the magical (chimeric) world. While man attempts to tie her down within the symbolic order of patriarchal family romance by making her a wife, the selkie resists being enclosed within static meanings, and always ends up escaping back to the unknown, unmappable realms.


Works Cited

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