Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ The problematic tale

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Not in any specific way. Yet I’m still inclined to proclaim that I’m going to come back as a seagull. I just love the way seagulls ride the air currents. I’m wooed by the haunting sound of their call, how it always speaks of the sea even as it flies over land.

On Thursday in North Pembrokeshire, I was watching the tide rippling onto the foreshore down at the little harbour of Abercastle, (Abercastell in Welsh). The ocean beyond distinctly heaving, I watched a seagull on the wet, stony beach. It stood among the reflections for ages, its eye sometimes turned out to sea, sometimes onto the spot where it stood.

Watching the seagull has brought back to mind a story I once came across in a collection of stories from Wales. It’s a ‘How the Seagull Became’ kind of story. Details in the version I read, including the names given to its characters, have long since gone from my mind. This has never bothered me. Because I feel deeply unhappy with a central aspect of it, it’s not a story I’ve ever felt inclined to retell. Yet – and doesn’t this happen sometimes? – the story still holds me a bit in its thrall.

The problematic tale:

The king of the deep was lonely. Late into the evening, he’d often hear the sounds of singing and harp coming from a house on the cliffs. He yearned to be where the music was.  Then sometimes in daytime when the weather was fine, he’d see the two lovely young women who lived in the house working outside in their garden. He longed to know them.

One rough stormy night, the king’s need for company overcame him. Riding in on the surf, he reached the door of the young women’s house, went in and seized them as they made their music. Each in his grasp, he carried them with him into the sea and brought them down into his undersea palace.

Every evening from then, the king of the deep would ask his hostages to make their music for him.  Seeing his loneliness, they did as he asked. Yet more and more as time went by, they yearned for the life they’d known on land. Their faces lost their look of wellbeing and their music became sadder and sadder as they begged the king of the deep to return them to what they had lost.

Finally, the king of the deep agreed that he would let them go. But before he did that, he turned them into seagulls, knowing that now they would eternally be creatures of both land and sea, their cry forever linking both.

The problem:

Well, I suppose it’s obvious that it’s the undercurrent of sexual ambiguity in the story that I don’t like, the sense that this is really an abduction, maybe a rape. Yet as I’ve said, the story haunts me in the same way in which I am haunted by the seagull’s cry, speaking always of the sea when it is over the land.

Perhaps it happens to other people than me? A story you challenge and wouldn’t retell nonetheless sticks in your memory bank? Whether the problem ever resolves itself is probably not crucial. More important maybe is to recognise what is in it that is unacceptable and how, nonetheless, the story haunts you because it combines with something you love.

PS: I hope my two photos from Abercastle this week speak for themselves of one of the pleasures of being by the sea again, noticing all the intricate detail of shells and seaweed in how they fetch up on the foreshore.

PPS:  This now is my fortnight off in between the surgical treatment for my breast cancer (all done) and the three weeks’ radiotherapy still to come. Thanks again to all blog readers who have sent such kindly messages of support.

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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ The problematic tale”

  1. Karen Says:

    It would be interesting to know what stories of the land the two seagulls tell when they are flying over the sea? And does each of the Seagull Sisters have a different take on those land stories? Enjoy your wee break in Wales.

  2. Fiona Says:

    Ah! You’ve reminded me of how I felt when I first heard you tell the story of Ibanang in one of the Drill Hall workshops all those years ago. I was really shocked by the image of the swallowing drum and couldn’t get it out of my mind.
    What a horrible thing! I thought to myself. What a terrible image – I would never tell this to children. Yet, just as you describe about your story, something about this story stayed with me and I think in the end I understood the importance of that savage capture to show even more brightly the bravery of Ibanag’s mother, who goes into the forest, knowing exactky what is waiting for her, to rescue her daughter. That’s how it speak to me now, anyway. And, yes, I do tell it to children!
    I don’t know what secret message to you is hiding in the seagull story, but maybe you will find it as you walk the beach and watch the gulls.
    Glad to know your treatment is going well – and due to finish on your birthday!
    Much love Fiona

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