Have you ever read a book so beautiful that the thought of it lingers long after you have reached the end? The Merman’s Children, by Poul Anderson, is just such a tale. At around page fifty, I began to feel a growing sense of sadness knowing that I would–in a few days–reach the end of the book. This is not one of Poul Anderson’s most well-known works, but it is one of his most inspired. The language is beautiful, rich and evocative. It is the kind of writing that can inspire a writer; a little literary jewel that I encourage you to experience.
While wrapping up The Tendrils of Fate, my mermaid inspired the novel; I decided to see what other books were out there on the subject. I found a few poorly written indie titles, erotica novels promising naughty mermen and a slew of YA that simply didn’t interest me. Out of this batch, I picked up The Merman’s Children and The Moon and the Sun, which I have yet to start. I admit that my first impression of The Merman’s Children was not favorable. The prologue was convoluted and didn’t sound at all like the kind of story I wanted to read. Based on that, I shelved the book for a few months.
When I returned to it, I was determined to read the first chapter. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the rest of the book read nothing like the prologue. In fact, it seemed like two different people had written these sections. The first chapter hooked me, and from there I could not put this book down. Anytime I could devote 15-20 minutes; I dove into its pages. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt this way about a book. It had been a while.
Poul Anderson’s Inspiration
Written n 1979, The Merman’s Children is a historical fantasy novel inspired by ancient Danish legends of mermen and mermaids. In his “Author’s Note,” Poul Anderson states that he derived his inspiration from the old verse of “Agnete og Havmanden” (“Agnete and the Merman”). The tale, likely Slavic or German in origin, inspired Matthew Arnold to write the poem “The Forsaken Merman” in the 19th century.
Of his inspiration, Poul Anderson writes:
“I feel no guilt at having taken a few liberties of my own. The home of Agnete and her lover has been moved back to Denmark, where it belongs, and their time, somewhat arbitrarily, to several hundred years ago. Contradicting the ballad, I have her bear him daughters as well as sons; after all, that seems more likely than seven boys in a row. As for the plausibility of the entire narrative: by definition, fantasies make certain assumptions which we take to be factually untrue. The background here is Catholic, but the religion does not conform to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rather, it is the naive, half-pagan mythology of peasants and seafarers in the early fourteenth century—when Denmark was enjoying a brief respite in a long period of foreign and civil wars.”
Set at the end of the Medieval period, The Merman’s Children tells of the fate that befalls the merfolk who dwell in the underwater kingdom of Liri. The merfolk, led by King Vanimen, have coexisted with the villagers of Als for centuries until a zealous priest intent on destroying “the devil’s work” upsets the balance.
When Magnus Gregersen, the new archdeacon arrives in the backwoods of Als, he makes a disturbing discovery. A maiden named Agnete, who had twenty years prior been wooed by a merman, has returned to the village. When she does not return to the underwater kingdom, King Vanimen, her husband, comes in search of her. The merman is broad and tall, soft-spoken and endowed with a preternatural faerie beauty. As soon as the Liri King sets foot in the church where Agnete is praying, the idols and images turn away from him.
Convinced that the soulless underwater dwellers pose a threat to Als, Magnus rides to the Bishop of Viborg and pleads for the right to perform an exorcism over the waters. With the bishop’s blessing, Magnus arrives in Als with a contingent of men-at-arms. Against a backdrop of church bells, he begins to chant his prayers in the Lord’s name.
Beneath the waves, the beautiful city of Liri begins to crumble as the exorcism renders the waters uninhabitable for the faerie folk. King Vanimen gathers those that survive and flees, leaving his son Tauno behind to care for the rest of his half-mortal offspring. The story follows King Vanimen and the adventures of his halfling children as they seek to find a safe place to call their own.
Readers are whisked to locales as varied as the dying Norse colonies in Greenland to the bottom of the sea and the coastlands of Dalmatia. Along the way, the merfolk meet a colorful cast of characters, fall in love, experience loss and even fight a kraken. From steamy love triangles to high-seas adventure and supernatural hauntings, this book has it all. What’s more, this book is a joy to read.
Tauno is one of my all-time favorite characters. Neither human nor merfolk, he is forever an outsider in both worlds. He is courageous and passionate; even idealistic, but the series of trials that he undertakes soon take a dark toll on his demeanor. Tauno is no Mary Sue. He is real; visceral and memorable–the kind of character every writer hopes to create.
By definition, fantasies make certain assumptions which we take to be factually untrue.
Themes in the Book
Religion grapples with paganism at every turn in this book; a theme that grows more worrisome as the novel draws to its epic, if somewhat sad, conclusion. Reading this book, I was reminded of Frazer’s the Golden Bough, a treatise which proposes that humanity has progressed from magic to religious belief in order finally arrive at scientific thought.
Nowhere is the struggle between magic and religion more evident than in the emotional torment Tauno experiences with Eyjan, his free-spirited sister. Eyjan eschews lady-like behavior often refusing to conform to human ways. She shares her bed with who she pleases and has the heart of a warrior. She embodies the tenets of paganism–values that make her as alluring as she is forbidden to Christian folk. Unlike Eyjan, Tauno keeps an open mind choosing to base his decisions on observation rather than dogma. In the end, Tauno and Eyjan are forced to choose between paganism and Christianity and each of them makes a very different, albeit unexpected, choice. Poul Anderson does an admirable job of revealing his personal opinon on Paganism and Christianity without resorting to heavy-handed tropes.
I could go on and on about why this book is great, but I rather you gave it a try. I will leave you with an excerpt that I feel really personifies the mood of this book:
PS: I was able to get a first edition of The Merman’s Children signed by the author. At first I was going to list the book for sale, but after having read the book, I’ll be keeping it.
If you have read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Drop me a note.
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