If you are like me, when someone says “mermaid” images of Ariel from Disney’s The Littlest Mermaid film, or Daryl Hannah from the film Splash come to mind. Though lately the other image might be a creature looking half human, half fish, with piranha-like teeth – from Mira Grant’s excellent book Into the Drowning Deep. But if you are expecting a collection of these sorts of mermaids, you will be sadly disappointed.
Editors Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown have gathered mermaid stories and legends from all over the world. The term ‘mermaid,’ however, is quite loosely defined for the purposes of gathering the stories for this book. Any human-like creature that lives primarily in the water is acceptable here.
It did take me awhile to get used to this concept that the idea of a ‘mermaid’ could be so drastically different from culture to culture. For instance, this book contains a tale from the Passamaquoddy tradition, here titled “Of the Woman Who Loved a Serpent Who Lived in a Lake” in which the ‘mermaid’ is more snake than fish, and male. It’s an odd tale as the woman who interacts with the serpent/mer-being is a vessel for the serpent’s poison, transferring it to her husband’s (multiple, as they die shortly after being with her). My note from the reading is simply: “Mermaid?”
I enjoyed this collection quite a bit, and I enjoyed expanding my knowledge of the mermaid concept, but at the same time, I can’t say that this was overwhelmingly ‘good.’ Only one story/legend stood out for me: “Julnar the Mermaid and Her Son Badar Basim of Persia.” Wait … does this sound familiar? It should … it’s more commonly known as “Julnar the Sea-Born and Her Son Kind Badr Basim of Persia” and it’s the 23rd chapter from Tales from the Arabian Nights.
This is actually one of the things I really appreciated about this book … the research of so many different sources for mermaid/sea-creature stories. I also learned a few things (“Ningyo, the Japanese word for mermaid, has no gender.”) and it did occur to me that the purpose to read a collection like this is not so much for ‘pleasure’ but for knowledge or perspective or cultural significance or social significance (which is not to say some of us don’t take great pleasure in expanding our knowledge or perspective or …).
Looking for a good book? If you are willing to expand your horizons and your concept of what a mermaid is, you should give The Penguin Book of Mermaids (edited by Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown) a read. But don’t expect too many stories that project a Daryl Hannah style creature.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Penguin Book of Mermaids
editors: Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown
publisher: Penguin Books
paperback, 368 pages