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The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend Paperback – January, 2002
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Now in paperback: A magical book about an ancient legend-that the seal was once human, and can sometimes resume human form--and about the Celtic fishing families who still tell it, sing it, believe it.
Raised among Scottish fishermen and storytellers, David Thomson was obsessed from childhood by the Celtic seal legend, the body of tales and songs about the "selchie," or gray Atlantic seal. In the early 1950's he took a journey to seek the legend out, in the Hebrides, on the east coast of Scotland, on the west coast of Ireland-places where magic co-exists with reality and pre-Christian traditions and beliefs somehow endure.
He gives us here the fruits of his search as he found it, and tells us something of the men, women, and children from whom he heard the stories. He also tells of his own encounters with seals, and the dreamlike hold that these have had on him. The result is, in the words of his friend Seamus Heaney, a poetic achievement-a work of "intuitive understanding, perfect grace, and perfect pitch."
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An essential reference work for those interested in the oral history of Selkies, and a very rewarding read.
As I read the book I feel as though I'm right there with him...the look, the feel, the smell of the air, the ground, inside the homes...he captured it perfectly.
I can't agree with those who complain that it didn't give enough information---. It's one of those things that people don't talk about with outsiders....and there may even be concerns that to talk about it would cause harm in some way---either to them or the Selkies. The fact that he was able to glean as much info as he did is a tribute to the trust the people felt towards him.
I'm so thankful that he made this/these treck(s) and documented as much as he did---even though the tales were being lost even at that time.
There's a great scene in the movie Local Hero, where the scientest gal is either getting into or coming out of the water; at one point the camera passes across her feet and her toes are quite webbed. It's just a visual, nobody says anything or has any reaction to it and if one didn't have the Selkie background it wouldn't have made much sense.
While he is chasing stories about his little obsession (folklore of the grey seal -- one "people of the sea"), a modern reader may be more fascinated by the fishermen, ferrymen, farmers and families that he meets as he drops in on these rugged coastal backwaters. (A second "people of the sea").
While Thomson listens to an intriguing variety of old stories (some ancient and glorious and others more like the urban myths so much discussed today), the people he meets are amazed at his occasional mentions of modern conveniences like gas stoves.
He meets people who live by peat fires and paraffin lamps. They fish from rowed boats of tarred cloth. There are no telephones, televisions and people still entertain each other with stories.
If you enjoy this book, you might find almost as good a look at fairy tales in context between the covers of a more recent book: Meeting the Other Crowd.