Ideas

Ideas | Con Chapman

The return of the mermen

One of four Tritons in the Fontana del Moro in Piazza Navona in Rome.
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One of four Tritons in the Fontana del Moro in Piazza Navona in Rome.

The success of “The Shape of Water,” up for 13 Academy Awards this year, has revived interest in a mythical male type that had long suffered by comparison with its female counterpart: the merman.

Male water spirits are as old as the Greek myths — Triton, a son of Poseidon, is probably the first in Western literature. The Greeks believed that mermen had beards and green seaweed-like hair — think Mickey Rourke between annual shampoos. They were repulsive, not attractive; in Matthew Arnold’s 1849 poem “The Forsaken Merman,” a woman dumps a merman and returns to her human kinfolk rather than lose her “poor soul.” Mermen, according to professor Sarah Peverley of the University of Liverpool, who has written on both male and female sea humanoids, “were frequently depicted as aggressive opponents of mankind, carrying clubs, swords.”

Mermaids, on the other hand, were typically portrayed as attractive creatures who used feminine wiles to lure sailors to their doom. In 1493 Christopher Columbus reported that he saw three female creatures in the Caribbean. Perhaps the first male “lookist” in American history, he resisted their charms, saying they “were not as beautiful as represented” in legend.

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Somewhere along the line, the polarities were reversed; the mermen turned metrosexual, and became attractive to human females. The watershed point was probably “Mrs. Caliban,” a novel by Rachel Ingalls, born in Boston, raised in Cambridge.

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In “Mrs. Caliban” a woman falls for a 6-foot-7 inch humanlike amphibian named Larry who eats health food and has an insatiable sex drive. The book didn’t sell at first, but in 1986 the British Book Marketing Council improbably named it one of the 20 greatest American novels since World War II, and it was thrust into the literary limelight, drawing praise from the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Joyce Carol Oates.

That first wave of the book’s fame ended soon, but it left a strange imprint in the sands for others to follow, Robinson Crusoe-like. Beginning around 1990, a new sub-genre of romance novel began to appear — call it the aquatic bodice ripper — that echoed Ingalls’ highly original work; a young woman encounters a merman, and they become passionate lovers. The relationship is complicated by the inter-species nature of the relationship, which inevitably ends with one or both parties returning to the sea, not buying a house in the suburbs and raising little fishes.

The theme of the sea-male as the lusty savior of a frustrated land-bound woman has now devolved from Ingall’s wildly inventive work to a romance novel formula — Goodreads lists 41 titles in the “Mermen in Romance” category, all written by women. To borrow a line from Karl Marx, literature repeats itself, the first time classic, the second time schmaltz. At the same time, the romantic profile of mermaids has remained relatively flat since the 19th century. The most widely-known mermaid character at present, Disney’s Ariel, star of “The Little Mermaid” movies, retains the character she had in the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson.

In a 2017 interview with Daniel Handler (better known as “Lemony Snickett”), Ingalls said that while she was “incensed by institutional misogyny” she didn’t consider herself a feminist, and the lack of an overarching theory on which to stretch her plot like a canopy over the bed of Procrustes (another son of Poseidon) enabled her to create a believable humanized character out of an amphibian. But what are we to make of the males in those latter-day works for women that so dominate fish-human literature today?

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They appear to be variations on mythical creatures of the North Sea called “selkies,” beings who live as seals in the sea but shed their skin and become humans on land. Male selkies are typically handsome in human form and seek out women who are dissatisfied with their lives, such as fishermen’s wives waiting for their husbands.

We have art, according to Nietzsche, so that we may not perish by the truth. According to Lee Upton, a writer of poetry and fiction who has championed Ingalls’ work, “Mrs. Caliban” “does something next to impossible: create a compelling contemporary love story about a lonely woman and a sea creature. The ending never fails to make my throat close.”

The growing market for fiction in which women escape with mermen to a wordless environment of love suggests that their daily lives on land are, so to speak, rather dry.

Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges.”