Due to slight technical difficulties this week, we are going to take this opportunity to cross-promote our friend @greekhistorypod and his podcast on “The Two Goddesses”–Demeter and Persephone, one the goddess of the harvest, the other the goddess of the seasons. One can’t exist without the other, right? Enjoy!
As we read in K.P.’s post, crops and harvest were inescapable concerns of life in ancient civilizations. Today, unless we’re farmers of some sort, we think about the harvest less, but it’s no less important. However essential it is to human life, it’s not exactly the stuff of heroic sagas. Unless they’re writing about a farming family or community who might be devastated by a bad harvest, authors tend to stay away from this theme. Usually, the closest fantasy comes to mentioning it is by making the protagonist an idealistic farm boy who’s somehow the long-lost son of the king and therefore is “the chosen one.”
All of that is to explain why this month, I had to get a little creative when it came to keeping with the theme. I’m going to look at Soul of the World, the first book in the Ascension Cycle, an epic fantasy series by David Mealing. The world is inspired by the European settlement of North America. On the coastline are the colonies of Sarresant, including the capital city of New Sarresant, whose culture is reminiscent of France. To the south are the colonies of Gand, reminiscent of England. To the west of the colonies is the Great Barrier, which separates them from tribes indigenous to the land, among them the Sinari, from which one of the protagonist hails.
Crop harvests are certainly of concern to characters in the story. In fact, the New Sarresant colonies are experiencing food shortages, which help foment the growing revolution against the monarch in Sarresant proper. Although this is an important aspect of the world-building, I’m focusing instead on the harvesting of magic. The book deals with multiple systems of magic instead of the standard single system. The main system I want to look at is one wielded by Erris, one of the three main protagonists.
Erris is a binder, which means she has the ability to “bind” different energies found along leylines to either herself or others. Here’s an excerpt from her perspective: “Beneath the camp she saw the familiar network of leylines, a crosshatch of energy pulsing with colors and forms. Three she recognized: the green pods of Life, the red motes of Body, and the inky clouds of Death. All the others were gray haze, indiscernible from one another and useless if she tried to bind them. There were six known leyline energies: Body, Shelter, Life, Death, Mind, and Entropy.”  And each binding offers specific gifts. Of the bindings Erris can use, Life enhances her senses and heals wounds, Body enhances her strength and speed, and Death enables her to sever enemy bindings, thus rendering them ineffective.  The more energies a binder has access to, the more powerful and sought-after they are.
There are a finite number of energies, and binders can use only what they find in the natural world. There’s no creating bindings, but it is possible to discover them, and that’s part of what the colonies of Sarresant and Gand are fighting over. “Conquest and colonies brought the great powers gold and trade, but more important, discoveries of new bindings. The academics argued larger claims of territory led to a stronger leyline grid, able to retain a broader spectrum of energies and bolster the gifts of those who could tether them. It had proven true, though, even in her lifetime. The Thellan War, five years before, had resulted in a select few of Sarresant’s binders gaining access to Entropy.”  Part of Erris’s challenge is that the Gand commander has found a new energy, which Erris refers to as Need or Hope. When Erris realizes she, too, is one of the rare binders who can access it, she has to learn to control it on her own with no one and nothing to guide her.
What I think is interesting about this magic system is exactly why I chose to write about it for this theme. In many fantasy books, the causes and conduits of magic are relatively intangible—incantations, mysterious power only certain people or races can tap into, abilities given by the gods. But here, Mealing uses the natural world to influence this magic system. Body is plentiful where there are mass crowds of people, Entropy is caused by decay and chaos within the natural world, and Life is found near men and beasts. The energies don’t simply exist in nature; they arise from within the environment itself, which means binders like Erris basically harvest what nature offers to them. Only in this case, instead of crops, it’s energy.
In a different storyline concerning a different magic system, we learn that these energies aren’t the only things that can be harvested. A Sinari woman named Llanara gains the companionship of a kaas, a dragon-like animal who has access to magic based on a color system. For lack of a world-specific term (at least in book one), I’m calling it “color magic.” Toward the end of the book, during an attack on a neighboring tribe, she finds out about a new color. When the women of the village retaliate against her attack, Llanara’s kaas, Vekis, subdues them with merely a thought.
“What was that?” [Llanara] whispered to her companion. “What did you do to stop her?”
“Black,” she murmured to herself. A new gift. “It takes away the magic of others?”
“Vekis, I would know more. You harvest it from killing our enemies?”
More silence. A maddening trait. It meant she was close, so close to understanding. 
Vekis and the other kaas are reluctant to reveal their secrets, but if Llanara is correct, his black power doesn’t come from nature. Rather, it comes from draining the magic of others. Vekis’s color magic and Erris’s power to bind are similar in their operation—in that the user needs sources of energy to draw upon—and yet vastly different in their targets. In this respect, they form a dichotomy—if not of good and evil, then at least of neutrality and evil. When Erris and other binders draw upon energy within the environment, they’re using the available natural resources, which can replenish over time. When Vekis and other kaas use their power, though, we infer that it’s less than natural and, consequently, negative. Through the use of both, Mealing creates an interesting shorthand for readers and makes it clear that the heroes are ones who ally with the natural world instead of abusing it.
 Mealing, David. Soul of the World. Orbit, 2017. Loc. 3089.
 Ibid. Loc. 672.
 Ibid. Loc. 294.
 Ibid. Loc. 6824
By K.P. Kulski
Harvest is a time of celebration and plenty. It is a time when the wealth of a civilization pours forth, is stored, stacked, preserved and consumed. For many ancient civilizations, the crop itself was an embodiment of the death of the god, the sacrifice of a male deity in order to feed the masses. Leaving a mother goddess, who is represented by the earth to go through the winter months solitary. In the ancient Greek world, the mother goddess Demeter must relinquish her daughter Persephone to the underworld for the winter. The world transforms from fruitful to barren for the season.
As desolate as this sounds, there is more to it. According the Hymn to Demeter, a text important to the Eleusinian Mystery cult, the goddess was indeed desolate without her daughter. She was in great mourning when Hades stole away her daughter Persephone. When Demeter later stayed at the hall of a great queen, she remained depressed and despondent, unable and unwilling to find joy in anything. “Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink, she sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter…”[i] This story is horribly tragic. This is about a mother’s loss, one that she could do nothing to change.
You’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about partying. The feast of Thesmophoria was exactly that, a party that was meant to reenact the exchange between Iambê and Demeter. Oh, and this party had one very specific guest list – no one else but adult women.
Seeing Demeter’s state, Iambê, true to her nature began to tease the mother goddess by telling jokes. Her use of humor brought a smile to Demeter, then eventually the mother goddess found herself laughing and enjoying herself. “Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun. Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction, making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos.”[ii]
How does this fit together? How can a mother, stricken with sorrow over the loss of her daughter, find it alright to laugh, to find some measure of happiness?
The ancient Greek women who attended the Thesmophoria reenacted Iambê’s actions by telling jokes of their own. The feast was meant to be fun, a place to let go of social graces and to bring laughter, including raunchy jokes. It was a moment to let go of pain, responsibility and burden. Temporary release, but a release nonetheless.
Without the presence of men and children, these ancient Greek women were free from labels that were defined women’s roles by men and family. She is a woman, among women. In the Hymn, Iambê demonstrates camaraderie with Demeter and dearly wishes to please the mother goddess. She wishes to give Demeter some joy, any joy in a difficult time. Today, there is plenty of scientific evidence of the healing effects of laughter, it is even used by counselors and psychologists as a technique to help patients. Modern humorist Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Most comedy today hits on painful experiences, with witty observations that reveal how absurd the truth really can be.
So each year, women in the ancient Greek world got together, had a party and sought to make each other laugh. There is much more to the rituals and celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a great deal of it remains…well, a mystery to us. However, the Thesmophoria remains my favorite. Perhaps it’s because a part of me wishes we had something just like it today.
I grew up in a rural farming community so harvest time has always left an impression on me. It’s when all the lush, green crops disappear and suddenly you can see through a corn field again. I’ve always loved summer for the fresh produce, and there’s something about harvest that always makes me a little sad. Another cycle has ended…and it’ll be a few months before it begins again.
But that’s just me being poetic, I suppose. And thinking about harvest and all the farmers I know back home also makes me think about the history of women in agriculture. I don’t know of a single farm that’s a one-person operation, and I know many women who are proudly involved in that work today. So this week, I’m offering a post from Successful Farming about women’s roles in agriculture through the ages:
Try to imagine the terror of it: It’s dark, near midnight, and you sit beside the bed of an ailing family member. Through the window comes the sound of a woman in the grips of deepest grief. She is unrestrained in her keening, raw with sorrow. It is not merely the mysterious sounds that fill you with fear, but also the knowledge that in the day that follows, a member of your household will pass from the world. The source of this wailing is a banshee. She is a fairy, though she is far from what a modern American imagination might summon up at the word: this is no mischievous winged sprite, but rather an omen given a woman’s form.
The banshee evokes an even earlier tradition of feminine warnings of death: in pre-Christian Celtic mythology, the badb, an aspect of the triplicate death goddess known as The Morrígan, was said to appear as a crow predicting the imminent death of an individual or the outcome of a battle. These omens are self-evidencing of a tie in the pre-modern Celtic world between death and womanhood, and an examination of the social forces at play give some insight as to why.
In order to examine the tie between femininity and death in the Celtic world, one must first understand the concept of liminal spaces. Deriving from the field of anthropology, “liminality” is usually used to denote a ritualistic space in which participants cross from one stage of life to another. The experience of liminality occurs right at the threshold between the two, when the participant is neither one nor the other.[i] Though often associated with coming-of-age rituals, liminality has strong ties to concepts of morality and death. Essentially, in entering the liminal space of ritual, the person who entered effectively dies and a new one is reborn.
Because of the frequency in which women died in childbirth in the pre-modern world, women had a unique relationship with this life-and-death liminality. Every time a woman entered the process of labor, she faced the very real risk that in striving to bring new life into the world, her own would be made forfeit. Women also inhabited a liminal space in the familial structure. Celtic society was organized into clans, built upon kinship lines. In order to sustain the lineage, which was traced patrilineally, women had to be brought in from outside.[ii] As such, the wife was both a vital part of her family structure and an outsider.
This duality of familiarity and strangeness may also have contributed to the concepts of witches and witchcraft.[iii] The Celtic wife would have been responsible for the management and feeding of the household, and even as she worked to sustain the family and continue it’s lineage, an unhappy wife with a certain amount of knowledge of plant lore could make her family very sick—even to the point of death. We can only speculate about the source of fears associated with witchcraft, but perhaps the witch served as a focal point for anxieties around this familiar/foreign liminal state.
Like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee too is a liminal being. Banshees usually appear at midnight, the liminal moment between two days, and represent a person’s passage into a sort of pre-death space in which they continue to live but are known to be near death. They also were heard from outside of homes, but never seem to enter them—the inverse of an ordinary woman, who would be strongly associated with hearth and home. Also like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee has strained but important ties to the line of kinship: certain families were believed to be “followed” by a banshee. To be from a family followed by a banshee may have been a symbol of a certain rank and a point of pride.[iv] Despite the sorrow and darkness they represented, they remained important and valued.
The lore of the banshee carries with it a lot of the contradiction of life as a pre-modern Celtic wife—life and death, familiarity and strangeness. She is both a man’s fear at the potential damage his wife could do to the family line, and a woman’s grief at the suffering she must endure. Though any modern scholar can only guess at the societal forces behind mythology and lore, the shared liminality between the banshee and the Celtic wife does present a strong rationale for the persistent ties between death and femininity in ancient Celtic societies.
In the ancient world, centuries of oppression lent a certain darkness to femininity—after all, why shouldn’t the husband fear the wrath of a woman taken from her birth family and constrained to the hearth, doomed to watch her brothers and sons die in wars entirely outside her control? There is power in a woman’s rage and a woman’s grief. Perhaps fear of that power is what gave rise to the prevalence of the badb and the banshee.
[i] “Liminality – Oxford Reference”. Oxfordreference.Com, 2018, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100106133. Accessed 23 Aug 2018.
[ii] Lysaght, Patricia. “Irish Banshee Traditions: A Preliminary Survey”. Béaloideas, vol 4244, 1974, p. 94. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/20521375.
[iii] Kimpton, Bettina N. “”Blow The House Down”: Coding, The Banshee, And Woman’s Place”. Proceedings Of The Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol 13, 1993, p. 39. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557254.
[iv] Ibid., 44
by K.P. Kulski
In ancient mythologies, goddesses dominate the dark depths of the Earth. Early civilizations based particularly in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean and Europe strongly associate the Earth with primordial forces of creation. In past articles I’ve discussed the ancient associations with wombs and the underground. Yet these are extremely cyclic and dualistic. Essentially, in the eyes many ancient belief systems, one cannot have death without birth, birth without death.
In the same vein, mother goddesses are just as prevalent as goddesses of death. Whether it be the womb or the grave, both sides have dark overtones. But understandably, goddesses of death also reign over the underworld, therefore have direct a connection with darkness. We tend to see death/dark goddesses as counterparts to goddesses that represent life or the living. I’d argue that we are thinking about it in reverse and instead those goddesses of life are counterparts to death. In some cases, such as Nyx (which I will discuss more below), dark goddesses are not directly linked to death, but instead with the lack of life and light. Or even a state that existed before creation. So importantly, these are goddesses that existed and reigned long before life itself.
The Sumerian Ereshkigal is one of the earliest examples of an underground death goddesses. She is featured prominently in the Descent of Inanna, as her sister who ultimately slays Inanna and hangs the body on a meat hook along the wall of the afterlife. Inanna’s journey to the underworld is a process of stripping away parts of herself, culminating eventually in the stripping of her very life. Ereshkigal slays her sister because all those who enter the underworld must experience death. “She who receive the me of the underworld does not return. She who goes to the Dark City stays there.” It hits on the great mystery almost all of us wonder, what happens after life? If anything? Of course, the answer to this comes with great cost.
The Norse goddess Hel, dwells in Niflheim where she presides over the dead who were not chosen for Odin’s Valhalla or Freyja’s Fólkvangr. Meaning, she presides over the dead who did not die in battle or do not have what would qualify as a noble death. Hel’s realm doesn’t offer the feeling of continuance like Valhalla and Fólkvangr, it is a rather final, inglorious, an eternal state of dark. Even Baldur, one of the most loved of the gods cannot easily escape Hel’s realm. When the gods sought his return to the living, Hel declared she would only allow it if all things grieved for him. Note, she held dominion over death and not even the gods could make demands of her. Of course, someone wasn’t all that big of a fan of Baldur and did not grieve, so he continued to be quite dead.
The Greek goddess Nyx mentioned above, is an excellent example of a goddess of darkness, or in this case, specifically the goddess of the night. While she is not specifically linked to death, her nature is ultimately both primordial and dualistic. She existed before the world was created. Her identity is both the absence of light as well as the absence of order and one can further compare a symbolic connection to life and death cycles. Interestingly enough, Nyx is believed to have been the mother of the incarnations of light and day. Again, the dualistic existence is prominent. Cycles are of utmost importance as one exists alongside the other.
The Greek goddess Persephone contains this dualistic nature within one figure. She is both the goddess of spring (and therefore renewal and life), but cyclically dwells with her husband Hades in the underworld. Her absence on the surface brings the seasonal “death” of Autumn and Winter. (Check out other Unbound articles on Persephone here and here.)
These goddesses held such power that even the other deities in their pantheons were not immune from them. Burial of the dead is much like returning to the womb, to the dark sacred space of mystery.
To the ancients, the two states weren’t much different.
 Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, eds., Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 61.
Featured image credit: Demonic Paradise
Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.
Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.
Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.
When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” . And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:
Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. 
Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.”  What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?
I think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology , but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” . As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.
A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.
 Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 “Questions about The Star-Touched Queen.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/questions/766624-is-there-an-indian-myth-or-fairy-tale-this. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.
 Chokshi, Roshani. The Star-Touched Queen. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 171.
I am taking a hiatus from blogging this month so to kick off our “Lady Midnight” theme for August, I’ve decided to bring you three of my favorite “modern” books featuring women who walk on the dark side…
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
I’ve mentioned these books before in my post on the Morrigan. They’re loosely based on the Welsh Mabinogi, but one of the chief antagonists is a woman named Achren.
I say “antagonist”…but she isn’t always. One of the things I love about this series is that it shows motives may be marbled. Achren is a powerful sorceress who’s been upstaged by her former pupil, and she wants revenge. She’ll do anything to get it, even if that means killing the protagonist…
These books are more in the middle grade set (I first read them at age 12), but they’re also books I go back to again and again and again because the story and characters are just that compelling.
“It was then Taran saw [Achren] held a weathered branch of driftwood. She lifted it high and Taran gasped as in her hands it blurred and shimmered. Suddenly in its place was a dagger.” (The Castle of Llyr)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
This one just got re-released with a new cover design! And Carrie did a post on Attolia not too long ago.
This is, technically, a series. And Attolia–as Carrie pointed out–does undergo character development (to be fair, so does Achren in The Prydain Chronicles). However, her portrayal in this first book is nothing short of chilling. The thief of the title, Gen, works for the King of Sounis, but she offers him a chance to work as her thief…or be executed for stealing from her lands. So, not much of a choice. She’s used to getting what she wants.
“‘You are promised to someone?’ said the queen in disbelief.
‘I am, Your Majesty,’ I said firmly[…]
‘Surely I am a better mistress to serve?’
‘You are more beautiful, Your Majesty.’ The queen smiled again before I finished. ‘But she is more kind.’
So much for discretion. The smile disappeared. You could have heard a pin drop onto the stone floor as her alabaster cheeks flushed red. No one could ever accuse the queen of Attolia of being kind.”
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Okay, so this one isn’t fantasy, but it is a bit historical. I do not want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read it, so I won’t spend much time here except to say that this book is an excellent look at the evils of hypocrisy.
“She didn’t want to die.
She couldn’t imagine wanting to die…
Death was for–the other people…”
Of course, if you want more historical takes, there’s always anything Arthurian, The Oresteia, The Aeneid, etc. But since I’m always sharing the ancient/medieval works, I thought it might be fun to share some modern classics, too! What about you? I’d love to hear some of your favorite books that feature some “lady midnights”!
by K.P. Kulski
If I had to sum up the tales of the female selkie, it would go something like this….
Dear Mythological Fisherman,
Please don’t assume a woman you stumble upon (whether she is clothed or nude) wants to become your wife/girlfriend/lover. Maybe ask next time or you will only cause yourself and those around you a lot of heartache.
I happen to love stories of the seal people, known as selkies in Scottish lore and there are many ways we can analyze them. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to stick with
one interpretation that discusses the importance of consent. If you’ve never heard of the selkie, let me start with an overview of the tale. Keep in mind there are some variations, including stories of male selkies, but we’re (of course) taking a good look at the traditional story that features a female selkie.
A fisherman is lonely. One day he ventures to the beach, in a state of sorrow and there he spots a beautiful woman perched on a rock and nude. He falls in love and although she is strange, he doesn’t ask too many questions. Questions that most people in healthy, whether they be supernatural or normal relationships might ask…
Why are you naked?
What are your dreams?
I’m interviewing for the position of wife. What are your short term and long term goals?
Or even maybe,
“Hey wanna get married?”
He loves her so much that he whisks her away, believing he is saving her, after all she was naked and alone and clearly wants to marry him. (Because why else be naked on the beach, isn’t that the usual husband getting method?) Eventually they have children. At some point, she begins to pine for the ocean and becomes very sad. The fisherman who’s known all along that his wife is not human and is in fact, a creature known as a selkie, returns her seal skin to her. Without the skin, she remains trapped in human form. Once she gets the skin back she immediately transforms into a seal and returns to the sea. In most tales, she is never seen from again.
There are variations on this tale that can be found in Orkney, Shetland and Faroe, as well as some Scandinavian lore. Sometimes the fisherman doesn’t return the skin, but hides it, or doesn’t even know about it. But she ultimately finds it and returns to the sea. Not all tales make mention of children as products of the human-selkie union. In some, she returns to visit the children at specific intervals and for only a short time.
It’s a lovely tale, no matter the variation until we look at it closer. What could this tale really be telling us? I spend a great deal of time examining the myriad of symbols used in mythology concerning women. I’ve written quite a few Unbound articles on this, particularly highlighting Greek mythology. But the Celtic tale of the selkie is something else entirely. Unlike the Ancient Greeks, this is not a warning of what a beautiful woman can do to harm, mislead or even kill a man. The tale of the selkie is certainly a warning to men, but a warning concerning female consent.
We don’t get the selkie’s side of the story, sometimes she isn’t capable of even speaking. Her nudity tells us she is vulnerable. That vulnerability is intensified with the inability for her to return to her form as a seal without her skin and therefore is perpetually unable to return home. She lives life for the fisherman as he would wish her life to be, not a life that she chooses for herself. The fisherman seems to get everything he wishes. The beautiful wife he loves, children and the removal of loneliness… or has he? There continues to be a sense of solitude about the fisherman and he spends a good deal of his time attempting to prevent his selkie wife from obtaining her skin. There is little sense of other players and that loneliness from the beginning of the story that launches him forward into marrying the selkie in the first place remains despite this.
In fact, her lack of choice in the matter is a big problem. This is a story of inevitability.
The selkie is from another world, her hopes and desires are not considered and she is thrust into a domesticated life with little to say on the matter. It is no wonder she looks to escape back into the wild of the ocean with the sense that she was never meant to be bound to the human world in the first place.
For an avid reader, I’ve never been a huge fan of the so-called western “canon.” One of the biggest reasons is that it centers male stories. Consequently, one of the most interesting and wonderful things about contemporary fiction is how certain authors engage with those stories and challenge them by revisiting families tales from a female character’s point of view. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood looks at Penelope’s life before, during, and after Odysseus’s twenty-year absence. In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin takes a minor character from The Aeneid and expands on her story. And in Ophelia, Lisa Klein seeks to give justice to a character who receives none in her original text.
I appreciate Shakespeare. What English major doesn’t? But even though it borders on the irreverent in literature circles, I always found myself drawn more to the comedies than to the tragedies. Not only are they more fun, but they tend to feature more women and to feature them in more prominent roles. Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind—they’re all admirable and enviable in different ways. Ophelia, though? Ophelia is a very different story. She always impresses on me a deep sadness.
My freshman writing course was focused on Hamlet. I’ve seen so many adaptations and interpretations of that play that I can’t count them all, but one aspect consistently bothered me in all of them—Ophelia. She’s really handed a raw deal. Throughout the play, she’s infantilized, mocked, and forgotten. To top it all off, she goes mad and she dies. Specifically, she dies in a horrific way that’s typically coded as feminine—drowning. It’s not shown on stage, but Queen Gertrude recounts to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, what happened:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream….
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. 
Ophelia succumbs to grief and madness after Hamlet kills her father, Polonius. When she’s collecting willow leaves to make into crowns, a branch breaks and she falls into the brook. She sings while her clothes keep her afloat for a bit, not appearing to realize she’s in danger. Then she sinks. It’s a sad fate, even sadder when you realize someone must have been close enough to see this (in order to relay it to Gertrude) but they didn’t step in to help.
In “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction,” Betty Krasne examines why women and water so often go together in fiction. Typically, for male protagonists, water symbolizes destiny and rebirth. For female protagonists, though, water represents both her passive nature and her inescapable, tragic fate. When Ophelia falls, she takes no action either to save herself from drowning or to hasten her demise along. She is no master of her own fate, but nor would we expect her to be when she has no mother to teach her the ways of the world. She is alone, but not by choice. Her death can be interpreted as the result of neglect from the very people who should love her most.
Water also symbolizes purity. After having her virtue questioned by those same people—Hamlet, her brother, and her father—Ophelia is essentially isolated, and that isolation drives her, in one way or another, to the brook. Whereas male characters can be metaphorically reborn in order to find happiness in the world, women “could regain lost esteem, cleanse themselves, by being reborn into the new world”  through drowning, according to Krasne. “Perhaps it follows that there is no woman as pure as a drowned woman—one symbolically purified once and for all.”  Does her death “purify” her in Hamlet’s eyes? Even if it does, he’s not the one I’m concerned about.
The passivity of Ophelia’s death coupled with later statements in the play that suggest it was far from an accident leave us with ambiguity. Did she fall, as Gertrude suggests, and was not in her right mind enough to save herself or even, in fact, realize the danger she was in? Or, as a gravedigger suggests, did she see death as the only way to escape the cage the men in her life had created for her? Either way, her drowning instills discomfort, one Klein attempts to lessen by having her escape it entirely. With her knowledge of herbs and medicines as well as help from Horatio and even Gertrude, she’s able to fake her own death and restart her life in a convent. Though she knows no one outside Elsinore, she can’t get any more alone than she was in the castle. By paying attention to her when no one else does, Klein portrays an Ophelia who is “the author of [her] tale, not merely a player in Hamlet’s drama or a pawn in Claudius’s deadly game.”  And even though it has to smudge the source material in order to get there, Ophelia is finally granted a just ending.
 Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, IV.7.162-163, 169-180.
 Krasne, Betty. “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction.” Anima, 6 no. 1 Fall Equinox, 1979, pp. 5-10
 Klein, Lisa. Ophelia. Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2006.