Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood. The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions From Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland. Random House, 2012.
This volume marks the last in a trilogy devoted to the legends of the British Isles; the other being The Lore of the Land and The Lore of Scotland, co-written by the late Jennifer Westwood. The sea has always been a realm of mystery and superstition, and this volume collects a wide variety of tales of haunted coastline. There are tales of the dark side of the community, the wreckers, smugglers and pirates, of supernatural forces, such as the witches who could summon or bind the wind and waves, of ghosts and phantom ships, of sea serpents and mermaids, of saints and sinners, of fabulous lands just beyond the horizon or buried beneath the deep, dark ocean.
This folklore emphasises the hazardous nature of the life at sea, especially in the days before modern technology and medicine, when sailors never knew whether they would ever return from a voyage, and the various stratagems developed to deal with this profound uncertainty.
Our old friend Magonia gets a due mention, as an example of the belief in a super-celestial ocean, on which ships sailed, and whose crews might drown in the dense atmosphere of the lower world, a parallel to the belief in lands and cities below the ocean, into which sailors might fall or be seduced. The authors note the similarity to modern stories of UFOs, which, under their superficial space age modernity continue the old themes. One wonders whether those 1950s tales of UFO occupants wearing ‘diving suits; were not envisaged as UFO writers did, as astronauts, but of being actual divers from that super-celestial ocean.
And what are today’s abductees who give birth to hybrid children but the successors of those who gave birth to children sired by the merfolk and seals, such as the Great Selchie of Skule Skerrie, as part, perhaps, of shamanic traditions of otherworld lovers. Perhaps modern abduction stories also have their counterparts in tales of sinners being dragged away in phantom ships, riding on the storm clouds. The equivalent of the “other worlds” of modern lore thus being the magical islands and undersea otherworlds of tradition.
The line between folklore and Fortenea is so thin as to be non-existent, ancient tales of rings and other items lost at sea being found in fish and miraculously returned are still echoed by similar stories in twenty-first century tabloids, the ancient sea-serpents enter into modern cryptozoology, and there are a number of nineteenth century stories of encounters of things that look rather like the merfolk.
Ultimately perhaps the sea is a sort of reflecting glass onto which the human imagination can be projected, always part of the wilderness beyond the edge. I imagine there are already tales of haunted oil rigs (though none are presented here) and before too long there may be stories of phantom wind farms that only be seen by the privileged few, from wild and lonely promontories. – Peter Rogerson