Silkie, Robot, and Alien : The Interpretation and Analysis of Human and the Otherness in Experimental Silkie Stories.

Thought experiments are traditionally associated with science, they are the hypothetical or theoretical experiments that human can imagine, but are very difficult to carry out due to material limitations. These thought experiments are important because they allow scientists to critique and analyze scenarios that never happen and think through the repercussions. In the same way that thought experiments allow scientist to imagine ‘what if?’ scenario, literature is a form of thought experiment that allow storyteller and the audience to experience unusual scenario with different set of logic, ethics, morality than normal reality (Goldschmidt). This notion of literature as a form of thought experimental are largely connected to the genre of science fiction and fantasy. However, folklore and oral history, which are the predecessor of those two genre are also full fabulation, critical imagination, speculative narratives. Therefore, this paper revisited the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry story with the comparative thought experiment approach developed by the art theorist, Arthur Danto. By experimentally changing the character silkie to other characters (normal seal, normal human, robot, and alien), and analyzing the repercussion of those changes, we can further understand the specific characteristic of the selkie as the “otherness” in the human society and tease out ethical and moral dilemma in the story.

The Silkie story is a story within an animal shape shifter motif. This motif appears in many folklore across the world from the story of the fox spirit in Asia (Issendai) to stories of werewolf in Europe (Brent A. Stypczynski). Shape shifter interact with human in different way from being a spirit helper, antagonistic monster, to having a romantic relationship with human. The central element of this tale is the “Silkie” (“Selkie”, or “Selchies”), which are fantastical creatures that live as seals in the ocean, but become human on land by shedding their skin. The stories frequently found in Icelandic folklore, which revolve around a man captures a selkie in female form by hiding her selkie skin. The selkie begs him to give the skin back to her, but he refuses to do so, and forces her to stay in his house as his wife. The selkie in the female form reluctantly agrees to become his wife, trying in vain to find her skin in his house. She finally discovers her skin and metamorphoses back into her selkie form, and returns to the sea forsaking him and human family (Kobayashi). The Silkie story has influenced popular culture from film (The Secret of Roan Inish, 1994) to 3D animated movie (Song of the Sea, 2014)

In the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, the story are told in musical way. The written lyrics below is the contemporary lyrics from Maddy Prior in 1999 under her album Ravenchild (Zierke) :

An earthly nourris sits and sings
 And aye she sings, “Ba lily wain
 And little ken I my bairn’s father
 Far less the land that he dwells in.”
Then one arose at her bedfoot,
 And a grumbly guest I’m sure was he,
 Saying, “ Here am I, thy bairn’s father
 Although I be not comely.
“I am a man upon the land,
 I am a silkie on the sea,
 And when I’m far and far frae land
 My home it is in Sules Skerry.”
And he has ta’en a purse of gold
 And he has placed it upon her knee,
 Saying, “Give to me my little young son
 And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.
“And it shall come tae pass on a summer’s day
 When the sun shines bright on every stone,
 I’ll come and fetch my little young son
 And teach him how to swim the foam.
“And you, you shall marry a pround gunner,
 And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
 But the very first shot that e’er he shoots
 He’ll kill both my young son and me.”

In the story, a mother was nursing her baby without knowing the child’s father and where he lives. A strange man shown up to tell the mother that that he is the father and he is a selkie that live on a remote island called Sule Skerry. He gave her a purse full of gold in exchange for his son. Before the selkie left, he told a prophecy that the mother will marry a gunner, who will eventually kill both the selkie and their baby.

Since the detail giving to the story is minimal, there is large room for imagination and speculation. One of the approach is to use comparative thought experiment approach developed by the art theorist, Arthur Danto. Danto had created a thought experiment on the definition of art begining with the series of red squares. The first one is the painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, where the Israelites had already crossed over, and the Egyptians were drowned. The second is the painting by Danish portraitist, who has immense psychological penetration, and produced the work. The third one is a canvas grounded in red for the artist to paint in the future, and the final piece is a random red surface that looks exactly like the rest of the painting. The question Danto asked then is “why do we only consider some of these red squares as art pieces while all of them are materially identical?” to demonstrate the ambiguity of the “art” (Danto).

In order to further understand the relationship between human and the selkie, specifically in the context of the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry story, this paper took Danto’s comparative thought experimental approach by introducing other characters to the story. The selkie is the fantastical creature, so we experiment by introducing other imaginative characters instead of the selkie (aliens, and robots) and having normal human and normal seal as the control character. These characters can be mapped to the graph based on their superiority compare to human and their similarity to human as displayed in figure below.

The figure shows all the characters that are introduced in the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

Normal scenario

First, we revisited the normal Great Silkie of Sule Skerry. By putting the selkie in the center of the story, there are fours major relationship that happen : the relationship between the mother and selkie, the relationship between the selkie and the future husband, the relationship between the mother and her future husband, and the relationship between both parents and the baby. These four relationships reflects the notion of conflicts in different level. The first relationship between the mother and selkie is a kind of human and half human creature affair motif. This motif can be found in many cultures from the story of a man who fall in love with mermaid such as “Den lille havfrue” in Germany to stories of demigod and his/her lovers such as the love story of “Hercules and Megara” in Greek. These type of relationship are justified by the fact that half human creatures tend to posses special features that human do not have. The separation between the mother and the selkie due to their different habitats (land and water) symbolizes a gentle conflict between human and nature, where the reason for conflict is not by choice, but by nature. The second relationship between the selkie and the mother’s future husband represent a violent conflict between men and nature, where human intentionally or unintentionally harm nature. The third relationship between mother and her future husband is a typical relationship between human and human, which follow the norm of human society where one human is married to another human. The forth relationship between both parents and the baby represent the conflict between the two separated parents and their child. The fact that the baby is half human and half selkie can be interpreted as the justification for the baby to stay with the selkie as they share more similarity in term of being hybrid. All together, this story reflects a complicate moral dilemma, where the mother need to decide whether her half human and half selkie baby should live in the place that is more suitable to the baby’s nature, but could potentially be killed, or live with the human society, which is different from the baby. This symbolize the complex love/hate relationship between human and nature, where human need prioritize whether they should do thing that is best for the world, or best for themselves.

With the comparative thought experiment, let consider the following scenarios :

What if the selkie is just a normal human?

Imagine the same storyline with one twist that the man that come up to the mother is only a normal human being. By changing the selkie to a normal human, the complex moral dilemma between human and nature is reduced into a typical human conflict. The prophecy that the new husband would kill the baby and the his father can be understood as an act of jealously, without the conflict that symbolize the complex metaphor.

What if the selkie is just a normal seal?

This scenario raisea a different ethical consideration. The intimate relationship between human and normal animal (not a half human half animal) is considered a taboo in different cultures. In theory, it is impossible for the fertilization between human and animal, but if it is possible the baby would become a target of hatred in society as he/she has been born from the forbidden practice. Therefore, the act of the future husband killing the seal (animal lover) and their baby can be interpret as an act of restoring morality to society.

What if the selkie is the cyborg?

By changing the selkie to another imaginative creature such as robot, raise another ethical complication. Unlike the selkie, robot is a machine with intelligence. Therefore, its existence as a lifeform can be argued. Thus, the intimate relationship that the mother has with the robot can be interpret as a human-human interaction or human-object interaction. In this case, the act of the future husband is ambiguous whether he is killing a human body or destroying an object. The alternative interpretation of this is that the mother had a baby with other man, and the robot just show up for some reason to claim the baby. This twist open many interesting possibilities : 1) what if the real father come back to claim the baby that is raised by the robot, would the baby goes back to live with human family? 2) what if the future husband was the real father of the baby? What if he kill the baby without knowing that he is the father?. 3) If the robot is not the real father of the baby, why would the robot think that he is?

What if the selkie is an alien?

The final modification is to replace the selkie with an alien. There are modern folklores around alien abduction, and unintended pregnancy due to the alien experiment, which add dimension to the story. The similarity between the selkie and the alien is the fact that both of these characters share some characteristic with the human and they are both fantastical creatures. However, there is a notion of superiority in term of technology and knowledge which tie to the alien, which selkie does not have. Therefore, the act of the human husband killing the alien and the baby could potentially create a major conflict between human and alien that lead to a war that pose a threat to the existence of human civilization. By only changing one character — the selkie to the alien, the notion of family tragic shift into the notion of intergalactic war.

From the comparative thought experiments, different interpretations arise by changing the nature of the character — the silkie without changing the storyline. This demonstrate that the selkie holds certain characteristic that allow the story to be interesting such as 1) the selkie is a fantastical creature that symbolize nature, which creates a metaphor and richness in the story. Thus, preventing the story to be reduced in to typical husband- wife conflict, 2) the selkie can change the shape between human and animal, which prevent the story to deal with taboo issue of the sexuality between human and animal, 3) the selkie is relatable and not threatening, so the act of killing the selkie allow human to emphasize and create a romantic tragedy moment in the story. These characteristics of the selkie represent the “Liminal space” or the space of “in between” in the Celtic culture, which lead to different interaction and interpretation. Other potential thought experiments that can be used to tease out more about this story is : 1) what if there is a gender switch between the selkie and the mother. By having the female silkie claim the baby from a human father? Would that change interpretation and symbolism in the story? Or 2) What if the mother and the baby both go with the selkie to live in the ocean, would that change the notion of romantic tragedy in the story?

To conclude the essay, the comparative thought experiment on the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry story by changing the selkie into various characters without changing the main storyline allow for the careful consideration on the character choice. It allow us to reflect on where and how the values that we attach to these fantastical creatures come from. At the end, why does “killing one life” has different meaning when the target is a regular seal vs the shape shifter seal, or robot vs human? How we treat “otherness” reflect how do we treat ourselves and position ourselves in the ecology of imaginative creatures. After analyzing many relationships from both original and experimental stories, they remind me of the quote by the famous feminism theorist, Donna Haraway. She says : “We need to make kin symchthonically, sympoetically. Who and whatever we are, we need to make-with — become-with, compose-with — the earth-bound” (Haraway). I think that we now live in an interesting era, where innovation and technological capabilities allow human to create many possibility. Therefore, it does not matter if human “make kin” with the selkie, robot, or normal human as long as we learn to critically imagine the possibility together.


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