Little Toller is a publisher I have a lot of faith in (never failed to be enchanted by one of their books yet) so I was very pleased when my sister gave me 'Mermaids' for Christmas. It's been a treat to look forward to for the last few months but I really couldn't wait any longer. It more than lived up to expectations.
Sophia Kingshill has co written a couple of books on Scottish, and coastal, folk lore so I'm slightly ashamed that I hadn't heard of her before (or read either of those books, both of which sound very much my cup of tea), but never mind, I'm getting there now. 'Mermaids' is a short (well, shortish at around 140 pages) exploration of the mermaid in our history and culture.
It starts at the end, which is to say in the present day with some graffiti Kingshill saw in Madrid in 2013 where a mermaid both feminist and feminine exhorts the passer by 'Don't give up on your life, take centre stage!' As motivational slogans go its not such a bad one. From there we follow a trail of mermaids back 3000 years to Homer and The Odyssey.
It's a fascinating journey, mermaids have been a potent symbol of desirability and danger for centuries. They've been a popular subject for artists, especially perhaps Victorian artists, for much the same reasons with the added bonus that you get to paint a topless girl whilst staying just the right side of decency. They probably say a lot about Victorian attitudes to women and female sexuality as well.
Curiously it seems there is currently a vogue in young adult (or maybe I mean tweenage) fiction for mermaids too, I haven't come across any of these books, but I'm intrigued by the idea. I doubt that young girls see mermaids as dangerous, and on that note I could never understand why The Little Mermaid wanted to leave the sea, especially for such an unsatisfactory prince.
Personally I was most interested in the Selkie myths common along the Atlantic coast from Ireland up to Shetland - I don't know if they're such common currency around the North Sea (I must try and find out) but I grew up with these stories and love them. There is a wonderful anacdote about some folk singers serenading some seals in the western isles, and the seals singing back. I am not a singer, but I would really like to hear someone try this. Truly though the whole book is fabulous, full of avenues to explore and odd stories to enjoy, so thank you again to my sister for this one.
I should also say it's lavishly illustrated with all sorts of mermaids!