Story of the Selkie

by Erin on March 19, 2012

I am trying really hard to honor my promise of no spoilers from the book The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden. Yes, I know you’re waiting for the “but”, so here it is. The one exception is the story of the Selkie. Sorry, I can’t resist sharing this tale here. It starts with “The Tale of the Satyr and the Selkie”, in which the origin of the relationship between the pair of mythological figures is revealed. Let’s begin with that chapter.

We learn that our protagonist, the lovely young Satyr Eshkol, encounters a mysterious figure who visits her one day in the Forest. The creature tempts her with his wares, which are skins of all shapes and varieties. The only skin she can afford is a dull, grey, unappealing thing, but she wants it so badly that without thought or hesitation, she rips two pieces of bark from her grandfather tree and offers them to the strange seller.

Eshkol is completely enamored with this skin. She holds it close, she treasures it. It is something that is hers. One night, she hears a sound. The owner of the skin has come to reclaim what is his. This prompts the Satyr to say to him:

“If you are a Selkie, and I have your skin, that means you must stay with me and be my lover until you can get the skin back, doesn’t it?”

The Selkie, who we learn is named Shroud, sadly acknowledges Eshkol’s rightful claim. After all, there are rules in fairy tales.

This leads to the story of Shroud the Selkie, in the chapter called “The Tale of the Skin”. Early in the tale, Shroud admits that “It is the chief activity of Selkies to have their skins stolen.” You see, Shroud was a happy seal. He lived the life of a sea animal, frolicking in the waves, sunning himself on the rocks, and keeping careful watch not to fall into the trap so many of his kin had, by losing his seal skin. But alas, the skin seller managed to take Shroud’s seal form by force. This left the Selkie in a predicament, since the skin seller wanted the skin but not the man underneath.

Selkies lose their independence when they lose their seal forms. As humans, they are subject to human emotions. Like love. Apparently, it’s part of the contract that the Selkie falls in love with the person who has their skin. And so it was with the Selkie and the Satyr.

Okay, that’s all that I am going to say about the story. I did not do it justice, obviously, with my clumsy description. Catherynne M. Valente, the author of this book, writes so beautifully, so eloquently… well, you will just have to read it for yourself. However, I do want to comment on the innovative interpretation of myth at some point here. I mean, a female Satyr? Ah, but that is a tale for another day…

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