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The Seamaiden’s Odyssey

The Seamaiden’s Odyssey will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. Preorder from Amazon.

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Published by UCLan, 5 September 2024, ISBN 978-1916747197.

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Cover of The Seamaiden’s Odyssey by Berlie Doherty and Tamsin Rosewell

… her whole body seemed to freeze in the air, a shimmer-shape that was neither fish nor girl nor water nor flesh, yet all these things, held for a breathless moment; then turned into a shower of glittering scales that floated like stars across the water.

The seamaiden tells her extraordinary story

An extraordinary and beautiful female sea-creature is brought into a marine sanctuary and is cared for by Sasha, a young marine biologist. Scientists and curious visitors flock to see the new arrival, but Sasha befriends her and is able to communicate with her. She knows that all the sea creature wants is to return home, but first, before she can help her, Sasha wants to know about her life and her community in the deep oceans of the world.

Ever since I went to live in Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District over thirty years ago I have been fascinated by the landscape of hills and lonely, windswept moors, deep caverns and waterfalls. Many of the local names suggest tales that have been wondered at for hundreds of years, and one of these is a lonely stretch of water known as Mermaid’s Pool.

Why a mermaid?

Why an inland pool, miles from the sea? And why is its very name so haunting?

And the legend persists. A beautiful mermaid lives there, far from the sea. And she’s not the only one. Another inland mermaid lives in Black Mere (also known as the Blake Mere Pool or Pond) in the Staffordshire Peak District.

Locally, their stories are not connected. I suspect there are many water creatures lurking below the surface of the tarns and meres, lakes, pools and ponds, loughs, lochs and lochans of the British Isles, and they are here to enchant and mystify and terrify, to explain the song of the rushes or the ruffling of the water’s surface, the shadows and drifts of reflected light; the mysterious drownings.

The story is set

So when Tamsin Rosewell and I decided to create a new book together, it was her suggestion that I set it in one of the local places with legends. She was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of basing our book on the mermaid’s pool. So I climbed up to the Kinder Mermaid’s Pool, and let my imagination hover there. That was in February 2023.

Berlie Doherty by Mermaid's Pool in the Peak District
Berlie by Mermaid’s Pool. Photo: Alan Brown.

The odyssey

An odyssey, according to the concise Oxford dictionary, is a long, adventurous journey.

As related in the marine sanctuary to Sasha, the odyssey is a story of how and why a seamaiden of long ago came to be in a mountain pool, and of her desperate search for her true home. It is a story of growing up, as the journey she makes is not only physical but emotional, testing her loyalty, her strength and her courage.

The development of The Seamaiden’s Odyssey

When Tamsin and I first put the idea to our publisher, Hazel Holmes of UCLan Publishing, we were thinking of perhaps creating a mermaid story for young readers. Gradually, as the idea grew, so did the book. We already knew that we didn’t want any of the illustrations to make our sea creature a pink and sequined figure. We rejected the term word mermaid in favour of seamaiden.

She had to be a strange, beautiful and mysterious animal, and yet emotionally she had to be someone that an older reader might identify with. With much encouragement from Hazel and from the inspiring fiction editor, Kathy Webb, the simple magical story grew into a coming of age novella for all time.

Her sisters, Edyn and Tesh, had secrets of their own that they no longer wanted to share with her.

The research

I began by researching local explanations for the naming of the pool, which lies on the Kinder plateau not far from the waterfall known as Kinder Downfall. It is said that a mermaid lives in the pool, which is far from the sea but ‘possibly’ connected by tunnels to the ocean. There are other mermaid pools in the Peak District and elsewhere, each with their different explanations of how she arrived there (eg deposited by a sailor who had fallen in love with her), and how she behaves (eg threatens to drown the inhabitants of the nearby village if they won’t leave her alone).

Research acknowledgements

I contacted John Widdowson, renowned linguist and folklorist living in the Peak District, who has donated his collection of over one thousand books and pamphlets to Sheffield Hallam University. I asked him what he could tell me about our local mermaid pool, and he gave me several references and the following quote:

In the Reader’s Digest Association’s Myths and Legends of Britain, London, 1973, p. 32, there is a very brief mention of the Pool as part of a general article on mermaids. The relevant section reads as follows: “Mermaids, usually associated with the sea, were also believed to be guardian spirits of inland waters, from where they would keep an eye on the affairs of men”.

John also directed me to a novel by a Victorian author, Mrs Humphry Ward, The History of David Grieve. I managed to get hold of a digitised version of the novel, which is well worth a read – romantic, atmospheric and dramatic, especially in the early part, where the young hero climbs up to the pool below Kinder, determined to find the mermaid for himself, and is sorely tricked by his sister.

I am also very grateful to Catriona Nicholson, former lecturer in English and Education and Trustee of Seven Stories (National Centre for Children’s Books), who encouraged me with her enthusiastic interest in the progress of my tale, and who put me in touch with Neil Philip, writer, folklorist and poet. Neil was extremely helpful and gave me many helpful research references, quoted below. Neil’s most recent publication is a beautifully presented The Watkins Book of English Folktales.

KM Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies mentions a few freshwater mermaids in the entry on mermaids, all from Scotland, I think. There is a kind of English water fairy called an asrai, that melts away when caught; again Briggs has an entry. There are also hags that live in ponds and rivers to lure unwary children to their deaths, such as Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Peg Powler in the river Tees.

The Briggs Dictionary of British Folk-Tales has a number of mermaid stories (Part B, vol 1: 317–324, with references to other tales). The same volume also has Ruth Tongue’s Asrai story (177–8), which can also be found in Tongue, Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties.

Simpson and Roud’s Dictionary of English Folklore notes that “The mermaids of the Welsh Border area do not live in the sea but in lakes and rivers. At Marden (Herefordshire) a church bell once fell into a deep pool in the river, where a mermaid seized it (Leather, 1912: 168-9).”

At Child’s Ercall (Shropshire) a mermaid from a pool was about to give some men “a lump of gold, big as a man’s head, very near”, but one swore in amazement, and she shrieked and vanished (Burne, 1883: 78).
The references are to EM Leather’s Folklore of Herefordshire and Charlotte Burne’s Shropshire Folklore.

A more general reference is to Gwen Benwell & Arthur Waugh, Sea Enchantress, 1961: 140–150. Both of the tales are also in Jacqueline Simpson’s own Folklore of the Welsh Border: 25-6.

Silhouettes, Seamaidens and Shell-pigments – by artist Tamsin Rosewell

Illustrator Tamsin Rosewell

The right shade of blue

There is a colour called Blue Verditer. It is a copper-based rich bluish-green, first made in the 17th century. A sea blue, if you like.

When Berlie first sent me the early ideas about The Seamaiden’s Odyssey, I knew that I’d need to find a colour that could indicate our heroine, Merryn’s, safe place. She faces great danger, despair and true horrors, so to have a beautiful and brilliant colour that can visually represent home could be a way for Merryn to keep her hope and her memory alive during her darkest times.

I made my own blue verditer paint, using pigment boiled in water and lemon juice, a drop or two of gum arabic and a little clove oil. And I store my blue verditer in a shell (not as eccentric as it sounds – ‘shell gold’ gets its name from artists using shells to store valuable gold pigments, they make great little paint pans!).

Blue verditer is Merryn’s blue, and it forms the foundation of all the colour images for The Seamaiden’s Odyssey. The colour images in this book are all ink and papercut work on canvas, and the black and white vignettes are ink and papercut work on heavy watercolour paper.

Fairy tales and silhouettes

Berlie and I to’d and fro’d about what our Seamaidens looked like – we knew we wanted to step away from the ‘Disneyfied’ image of a mermaid with a purple, sparkly clam-bra and a generic fish-tail. We talked about the other-worldly elegance of some tropical fish, with their frills and tendrils, and so the idea of delicate and strangely beautiful creatures entered our conversation.

My wonderful designer, Becky Chilcott, suggested that I work with silhouettes; we’d looked at a softer form of silhouette work together when we created the covers for Children of Winter and Granny was a Buffer Girl. I’m not a huge fan of using illustration setting out to define what a character looks like, I think it is important to allow the skill of the writer and the imagination of the reader to combine. Working in silhouette allows the reader still to imagine the characters in their own way, while also providing a visual narrative that works alongside the text.

Silhouette work is a very classical language of fairy and folk tale illustration: silhouette forms tell stories from mythology on the sides of vases from 600BC onwards, and we still see it today in retellings of mythology and folklore. The Greek word for illusionistic painting is ‘skiagraphia’, which translates as ‘shadow-painting’. There is a story that the earliest ever Paleolithic art was created when a young girl, lamenting the departure of her lover, drew around his shadow on a cave-wall to keep part of him with her. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this, but it is a lovely story.

… the other man unslung the rope from his shoulder and flung it like a lasso, so it twisted out like a snake and wrapped itself around Merryn before she could duck away …

A shadowy presence

We see various forms of silhouette work used to illustrate the work of the Perault, the Brothers Grimm, Andersen and Madame d’Aulnoy, from Water Crane, Arthur Rackham and Lotte Reiniger, to Andrea Dezsö and Jan Pieńkowski. Berlie’s new novel really has the feel of a classic, old fairy tale, with its darkness and complexity – something that has been passed down through centuries; so silhouette work seems to fit very well!

As I worked, I also started to think about how the silhouettes were themselves not unlike the idea of a seamaiden or mermaid. A silhouette is a shadow, the absence of a figure, and yet they also really dominate an image; as an illustrator you have to work hard to balance out a dominant black shape on a page, even when the rest of the image is that rich blue verditer. A silhouette is very ‘present’, and you could say the same of mermaids of all types; they are very present in almost all world culture, and yet also, they are demonstrably so very not there that we feel compelled to keep searching for them.

Anyway, I enjoyed intellectualising the use of silhouettes to tell a story of seamaidens, the more I worked, the more appropriate it seemed.

Oceans of ink

I work traditionally, in ink on paper and canvas. I have four cupboards full of inks in every colour you can imagine, from all over the world (I even own a bottle of azure blue ink that has been blessed by the Pope – long story, and a funny one too, but you’ll have to ask me another time!) and, also I often make my ink myself from natural pigments.

I am a very analogue person, and there’s no digital element to my work at all, which is why it is so important that I work closely with designer, Becky. Those who know me, know that I’m the kind of hob-of-the-landscape who doesn’t like technology very much and gets annoyed when I have to try to get a parking app to work. I’ve nothing against digital art per se, it is a perfectly valid medium; it’s just not for me.

Taking illustration into schools

One huge advantage of working traditionally is that at the end of the process I have, in this case, 8 large canvases, and 14 ink on paper images that can be taken into schools, travel to bookshops, to festivals and generally be used to support the book.

I love taking original illustration into schools and allowing children and teachers to really look closely and think about how that image was created, why I might have chosen the colours I have, what can we tell about a story from the image alone: is it a funny story? Or scary? Magical?

I meet so many children who have never had the chance to go an art gallery, and many really don’t have art books at home to explore. So I love the idea of bringing art to them, enabling them to start thinking of the books they read also as a way to enjoy and explore the work of artists of many different kinds.

Even if this, for them, is learning to take a moment to think about why they love a particular book cover, and looking to see the name of the illustrator, it is valuable. I think visual literacy, along with an appreciation of the work of illustrators and designers, is something that’s really missing in the way we talk about books. I love that I can use the paintings to enable that.

My other books illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Tamsin Rosewell is the cover artist of three of my recent books: The Haunted Hills, Children of Winter and Granny was a Buffer Girl.

Cover of The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty
Cover of Children of Winter (2023 edition) by Berlie Doherty
Cover of Granny Was a Buffer Girl (2024 edition) by Berlie Doherty
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