[In August I visited Shetland, making Scalloway my base and adding to the rich tally of remarkable islands and island systems we’ve encountered over the years: the Inner Hebrides, Rathlin, Sark, Stradbroke, Gont, the Dream Archipelago and many more. My soundtrack was the fiddle music of Shetlander Kevin Henderson, my verse the work of Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield, and my fiction the fantasy novels of Inverness-shire resident and Shetland devotee Maureen McIlwraith, known to her many admirers as Mollie Hunter. This post is the outcome of that trip.]
For me the word ‘selkie’ has always referred to seals who can slough off their skins and transform themselves into people: beings entirely distinct from ordinary folk like you or me. In Shetland, by contrast, the term refers to seals of any kind; the potential for transformation is part and parcel of what makes them seals. Mollie Hunter’s celebrated children’s book A Stranger Came Ashore (1975), which is set in Shetland, contains selkies of both kinds: a seal which can shed its skin and become a man, and seals which remain implacably themselves, marine mammals with mass and fur and teeth of their own, fiercely resistant to being tampered with by humans of any stamp. It’s this interplay between two ingredients – the solidity, weight and texture of everyday things and the indecipherable strangeness of wild beasts and supernatural entities, inhabitants of elements we can only ever skim the surface of – that makes Hunter’s book so potent. It’s a novel for middle-grade readers written in short, well-crafted chapters told in plain English, but the collisions between competing worlds it delineates (between sea and land, between the material and the supernatural, truth and fiction, childhood and adulthood, life and death) make it a work of great complexity as well as a gripping narrative. I’d like here to unpick some of its complexity.
In the middle of the book – chapter nine of eighteen – a young human boy named Robbie Henderson, a Shetlander, heads down to the voe (a ‘long sea inlet’, as the Museum of Shetland glosses the term). Here he hopes to fulfil an ambition of his: picking up a baby seal. His grandfather, Old Da, has always warned him off such foolishness, conscious that selkie pups are born with a head full of pointy teeth well suited to defending themselves against the indignities posed by curious boys. But by this point in the story Old Da is dead, and Robbie feels free at last to put his ambition to the test, despite his deep respect for his grandfather’s words of wisdom. Old Da is the source of young Robbie’s store of island stories, including stories about the shapeshifters known to non-Shetlanders as selkies; but the boy doesn’t let this hold him back from seizing one of the pups and testing its weight in his arms and hands. It’s the pup’s unexpected heaviness – all that protective blubber concealed beneath a deceptively soft-looking surface of white fur – together with the strength of its small front claws and the heat it radiates – which makes it clear to him soon afterwards that the stranger of the title shares the nature of these singing, swimming creatures of sea and shore. The stranger has a seal’s mass in his body, a seal’s heat in his flesh and a seal’s strength in his hands, and for all his charm – because of his charm, in fact – is far more dangerous than any seal to the little fishing community in which he appears one stormy night. The fiddle music he plays is the music sung by a mother seal to her pup; his love of music in general is shared by the seals who gather round men’s boats whenever they sing; his large dark eyes are a seal’s eyes, and his agility on shore is a seal’s agility at sea. At the same time, his desire for Robbie’s older sister, Elspeth, is the desire of a predatory man, and his methods of seducing her – with gold and compliments and smiles – are innately human. Hunter weaves together the familiar and the strange, the human and the nonhuman, the fantastic and the intensely real, so that one element in each case gains strength, substance and emotional heft from another, nowhere more strikingly than in this central chapter. In doing so she demonstrates the processes by which folk knowledge constructs itself from the disparate materials available to any given culture.
The interplay of the real and the supernatural at each point in the narrative is governed by the changing human influences that dominate Robbie’s life. Consistent presences throughout the story are his mother and father, but they are distanced from him by the difficult work they do and the practical everyday needs by which they are motivated. Their influence is overshadowed by that of three other adults, who compete for Robbie’s attention in three successive stages of the novel. Old Da dominates the first third of the story, but falls ill and dies in chapter six, exactly one third of the way through Hunter’s eighteen chapters. At this point the menacing stranger, Finn Learson, becomes the dominant presence in Robbie’s life, and the boy’s suspicion of him – which he once shared with his grandfather – now threatens to isolate him from the rest of the island community, as Finn charms his way into its hearts and minds. Chapter twelve, however, marks another change, as the gloomy schoolmaster Yarl Corbie assumes the role of Robbie’s chief ally and Finn’s chief antagonist. Chapter twelve also marks the point when Robbie starts to take action on his own account, enlisting Yarl Corbie in his struggle against Finn and playing a central role in Finn’s defeat. The last six chapters of the novel, in other words – from twelve to eighteen – represent a new stage in Robbie’s development as well as in the novel’s structure. But Hunter is careful to stress the foundational role played in this development by Old Da’s stories from the first six chapters, which continue to resonate with his grandson as the boy grows to adulthood and becomes a storyteller and traveller himself. The storyteller Old Da, the man of learning Yarl Corbie, and even the menacing traveller Finn Learson, each helps to shape Robbie as a man, so that no one stage of Robbie’s three-part adventure ends up entirely suppressing or displacing the rest. Their threefold influence makes of Robbie himself a kind of selkie – a creature who inhabits more than one element; and Hunter implies, I think, that every human being could be said to participate in this selkie nature.
The three parts also trace Robbie’s changing relationship to belief in the supernatural. In the first six chapters, he is unsure whether or not to believe his grandfather’s tales about the Selkie Folk, and unsure too whether Old Da himself believes that Finn Learson is one of them. His uncertainty extends into the second six chapters, but in chapter ten – one of the two chapters that stand at the centre of the novel, the other being chapter eleven, in which he cuddles the seal pup – he becomes convinced of Finn’s identity, not just as a Selkie Man but as the Great Selkie himself, the malicious wizard-king of the sea. The last third of the novel sees his suspicions shared at last by one of his fellow islanders – Yarl Corbie, the schoolmaster – which permits Robbie to focus his energies on working with his new ally to stop Finn from abducting Elspeth. The trajectory of scepticism leading to conviction leading to action fits perfectly within the framework of the novel, whether one thinks of it as being divided into three parts or two halves or both. Conviction occurs in those central chapters, nine and ten, and the final six chapters – the final third of the narrative – is simply packed with incidents that draw on Shetland folklore, not just as a set of picturesque customs but as practical magic worked against the potentially malignant beings who share the Shetland archipelago with its human occupants. The narrative has the meticulous construction of a tune played by one of the legendary Shetland fiddlers; so it comes as no surprise to find that Robbie’s father plays the fiddle, or that fiddle music plays a crucial role in the action of the last six chapters.
The three-part structure of Hunter’s novel is no accident. All the fantasy books of hers I’ve read are constructed in multiples of three. The Bodach (1970) – later reprinted as The Walking Stones – has nine chapters, and begins with the arrival of no fewer than three mysterious strangers in an isolated highland glen, all of them called Rory. The Haunted Mountain (1972) also has nine chapters. Her later Shetland novel, The Mermaid Summer (1988), has twelve, or four times three, and helpfully explains the significance of the many multiples of three that structure its narrative: as the Howdy or wise woman puts it, ‘three is the number […] that is at the root of all magic’. The halfway point of each novel, too, involves a major shift in the plot, as it does in A Stranger. The chapters of The Mermaid Summer are divided into two groups of six, and it’s exactly half way through – at the end of the sixth chapter – that the ‘mermaid summer’ itself begins, this being the point at which the central figure in the novel, Anna the fisherman’s daughter, turns twelve. The same break occurs in The Haunted Mountain, where young Fergus MacAllister reaches his twelfth birthday in the middle chapter of nine, which divides the book into two neat halves, the first half dominated by his father’s feud against the fairies or sidhe (pronounced shee), the second half dominated by Fergus’s attempt to rescue his father from the sidhe’s dominion. In fact the main action of all Hunter’s fantasies takes place when the protagonist – Anna, Robbie, Donald Campbell in The Walking Stones, Fergus in The Haunted Mountain – reaches the age of twelve. Hunter is an admirer of well-executed work of all kinds, from the fiddle music of A Stranger Came Ashore to the crafts represented by the nine gifts sent by Eric Anderson to his grandchildren in The Mermaid Summer: a shawl, a compass, a brooch, a necklace, a conch shell, a piece of silk, a silver mirror, a knife and a comb, three times three gifts in all, the last three of which play a crucial part in the struggle waged by Anna and her brother Jon against the mermaid who threatens their grandfather’s life. Each of her novels is a work of craftsmanship, and their numerical composition serves as a clue to the meticulous artistry that went into them.
Each of these novels also inhabits two elements, like the selkies. These are the everyday element we live in – the world of hard work, of ploughing and fishing and cooking and making and mending with limited resources – and the magical ‘Otherworld’, that is, ‘the world of seal-men, kelpies, urisks, and all the other creatures of Highland legend’. Kelpies occur in Hunter’s early novel The Kelpie’s Necklace (1964), urisks (creatures half man half goat) in both that and The Haunted Mountain, and selkies, of course, in A Stranger Came Ashore. The central child character in each novel also occupies two elements, like Robbie; caught between childhood and adulthood, thanks to their age, they also occupy a space between pragmatic modern materialism and belief in the supernatural. And in each case this latter belief is instilled in them by an older mentor like Old Da: the Bodach or old man in The Walking Stones, who practises magic as well as telling stories about it; the Skeelie Woman in The Haunted Mountain, whose knowledge of the sidhe Fergus learns to respect; the Howdy or wise woman in The Mermaid Summer, along with the Oldest Fisherman, her male equivalent. Hunter’s narratives are designed to impart a double vision to their young readers, acknowledging the inevitable changes that come to communities as time goes by while urging them to preserve old knowledge in the face of those changes.
The starkest confrontation between old and new takes place in The Walking Stones, in which young Donald Campbell and his parents are all too delighted to move from their traditional but-and-ben cottage in the glen to a modern townhouse with central heating, and to give up their lives as shepherds for easier work in the new pine forests being planted on the hillsides around their new home. At the end of the novel Donald returns from an encounter with strange and ancient magic – endowed with magic powers himself – to take his place in the world as a thoroughly modern boy, as fascinated by the engineering of dams and reservoirs as by the mysteries of the walking stones of the novel’s title. There’s little sentimentality about the past in Hunter’s work; the old creatures of the Otherworld are often malevolent, and the sidhe of The Haunted Mountain, the mermaid of The Mermaid Summer and the Great Selkie of A Stranger are each of them terrifying forces which must be disempowered if ordinary working human beings are to take control of their lives and livelihoods. It’s worth noting, too, that each of these supernatural beings is associated with hereditary royalty. Finn Learson claims to have a royal palace and great riches, the mermaid seeks to be queen of her people, at least in terms of her appearance, while the sidhe are clearly aristocratic, their fine clothes and lavish lifestyles setting them apart from their human neighbours, who scrape a strenous living from the poor soil of the Cairngorm valleys. At the same time, the young protagonists’ involvement in old stories brings them that much closer to the seas and shores and mountain landscapes among which they live, encouraging an equal, intimate partnership with these spaces which may well be lost in the strictly hierarchical business of planning and building dams (which happens in The Walking Stones) or in the bustle of migration (which happens at the end of The Haunted Mountain). Selkie folk, mermaids, fairies and trows (the Shetland version of the sidhe) manifest in their bodies the fusion of humanity with the local ecosystem. Half seal half human, half fish half woman, human-seeming adults the size (Hunter tells us) of the twelve-year-old local children who love to roam across the hills, they are wholly at home in the land- and seascape in a way no adult human could replicate, inviting us to dream of and yearn for a similarly intimate involvement with mountains, waves, wild animals, and the changing seasons and weather.
There’s a binary quality, too, about Hunter’s prose style in her fantastic novels, which present themselves both as oral narratives and printed texts. This is especially true, I think, of A Stranger Came to Shore. The list of chapters with which the book begins – like all the novels I’ve mentioned, apart from The Mermaid Summer – and the headings with which each chapter opens, seem to me specific to the printed narrative, whose identical page numbering across multiple copies makes such contents pages possible. But the informal, singsong language in which it is written associates it with oral storytelling, of the kind that’s best exemplified in print by the ‘silkie stories’ of the Argyll-based traveller Duncan Williamson, as transcribed by his wife, the folklorist Linda Williamson. And the interweaving of print and the spoken word can be detected in A Stranger from the very first page.
In its opening paragraphs, Hunter makes cunning play of the novel’s status as a publication, the product of a time when oral storytelling has been devalued and largely discontinued. ‘It was a while ago,’ she writes,
in the days when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk.
A stranger came ashore to an island at that time – a man who gave his name as Finn Learson – and there was a mystery about him which had to do with these selkie creatures. Or so some people say, anyway; but to be exact about all this, you must first of all know that the Selkie Folk are the seals that live in the waters around the Shetland Islands. Also, the Shetlands themselves lie in the stormy seas to the north of Britain, and it was on a night of very fierce storm that it all began. (p. 9)
The opening of that first sentence, ‘It was a while ago’, gives the impression of taking up a story that has been spoken about and promised before the novel’s opening. The imprecision of that sentence – ‘a while ago’ – invokes the famously imprecise fairy tale formula ‘Once upon a time’, linking the narrative to a wider stock of stories of which this is only one example. That this stock belongs to a community, not to a single storyteller, is confirmed by the phrase some people say; there are plenty of people, it seems, who have opinions on the tale we’re about to hear, so many that they can be divided into competing groups. What follows, then, is implied to be common knowledge, with a known geographical setting (Shetland) and certain known details, such as the name Finn Learson. Implied too, however, in this opening passage, is the presence of a specific speaker and a specific listener or group of listeners who are probably strangers to the speaker, since the speaker knows the story she’s about to tell, while the listeners (‘you’) need to be apprised of certain facts before the tale begins.
At the same time, the practice of oral storytelling is implied in this passage to be under threat. The past tense of the phrase ‘when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk’, and the fact that the term ‘Selkie Folk’ needs explaining, cut off the story from the time and place of its publication. This makes the nature of Finn Learson a matter for conjecture rather than certainty, a man with a ‘mystery’ about him which only ‘some people’ will be willing to attach to seals. So even as the story gets linked to oral storytelling, the oral tradition is slipping into the past, and must be shored up with ascertained facts: the location of Shetland, the little village of Black Ness where the events took place, and the name of the story’s protagonist, Robbie Henderson, whose identity and age are known to his community, even if what happened to him is not so certain. At the time when the tale is set Robbie was ‘a lad of twelve years old, according to all accounts’ (p. 9, my emphasis). Only ‘some people’ connect Finn Learson with the seals, but everyone in Black Ness, it seems, is in agreement on Robbie Henderson, and it’s from this springboard of historical precision (which we need, it seems, in order ‘to be exact about all this’ [my emphasis]) that the tale takes its starting point – in direct contravention of the folktale spirit of ‘a while ago’ or ‘once upon a time’.
The narrator, then, straddles a boundary between the tellers of folktales, like Old Da, and the historian, who deals as far as she can in ‘exactness’ and attested facts. And the first third of the novel – which concerns Old Da and his relationship with Robbie – continues to straddle this boundary with real dexterity, immersing us in Robbie’s thoughts and feelings while at the same time distancing us from the context he inhabits, its folk beliefs and practices. We learn in the first chapter, for example, that the old man’s head ‘was simply full of the superstitions of those days’ (p. 10, my emphasis), a statement that once again distances his period from our own. These ‘superstitions’ mean that when he sees a solitary peat standing upright and still burning in a near-extinguished fire on a cottage hearth he identifies it at once as a sign or portent, ‘something which seemed to him the true cause of [the family dog’s] uneasiness’ (p. 10, my emphasis). Hunter is careful to stress, with the phrase ‘which seemed to him’, that some people even then might not have shared Old Da’s perspective, and the term ‘superstitions’ also suggests a certain scepticism on the writer’s own part about his beliefs or half-beliefs. Yet the event for which the upright peat may stand, in Old Da’s opinion – the arrival of a stranger in the family home – does indeed come to pass, and lends its title to the novel as a whole. The structure of the novel, too, tends to endorse Old Da’s perspective, even if its title refrains from wholly endorsing it (since the ‘stranger’ is simply that – a stranger, not necessarily a selkie) and the reader is invited to consider the evidence both for and against the stranger’s supernatural status throughout the novel. For instance, the first chapter shows both how Robbie’s father is right in assuming that there has been a ‘shipwreck in the voe’ (p. 10) and that the stranger may have come from it (p. 11), while also planting seeds of doubt as to whether or not he is really a survivor from the wreck: ‘it’s a miracle he managed to get ashore,’ as Old Da points out, ‘for it would take the Selkie Folk themselves to stay alive in such a sea’ (p. 13). The same chapter makes it clear that Robbie leans towards his grandfather’s point of view, since he takes careful note of the old man’s comment (p. 15), while at the same time Robbie’s own ‘very noticing kind of mind’ (p. 15) picks up additional clues about the stranger’s personality, above all the disconcerting nature of his smile, which seems to corroborate Old Da’s suspicions. A smile may of course be disconcerting without there being anything supernatural about it; but the stranger’s smile serves to ward off awkward questions about the wreck, to provide a silent commentary on the stranger’s acknowledgment that he has been ‘very lucky’, and to hint at something left unsaid – a lacuna which leaves Robbie feeling ‘uncomfortable’ though ‘he had no time to think why this should have been so’ (p. 15). Robbie, like the reader at this early stage in the narrative, hangs suspended between a supernatural and a natural explanation of the stranger’s identity, underlining the fact that there will frequently be more than one way of understanding the tale that follows.
As the narrative goes on, Old Da’s bond with Robbie itself serves to raise questions as to the old man’s reliability. Robbie, after all, is a boy of twelve, poised on the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Children are expected to listen to stories, the stories told them are not expected to be always factual, and Old Da as the purveyor of these stories finds himself marginalised in the adult world, poised like his grandson on the threshold between one sort of life and another – in the old man’s case, between his earlier life as an active adult member of the fishing community and a second childhood of tale-telling, perpetuating quasi-outmoded folk customs, and light work within the limits of his waning strength. According to Robbie’s parents, the bond between the boy and Old Da poses something of a threat to the boy’s transition to maturity. ‘Old Da was a great talker’, Hunter tells us in chapter four,
and although they were […] glad enough of his stories around the fire in the winter time, Janet and Peter were inclined to complain that Robbie took all this kind of talk too seriously. “Letting his imagination run away with him”, they called it; which was a foolish habit, in their opinion, and therefore one which should be checked before it got too strong a grip on him. (pp. 28-9)
Similarly, Old Da’s hold upon the boy devalues the old man’s stories, which themselves become tainted with foolishness thanks to their fostering of Robbie’s ‘foolish habit’. Knowing the difference between the fantastic and the real is for Robbie’s parents a sign of maturity, and they are confident that they themselves have made this transition successfully (although as the novel goes on it becomes clear that they have retained some of Old Da’s ‘superstitions’, as we shall see). Hunter’s narrator, meanwhile, maintains her balanced stance between perspectives. Being too imaginative, she tells us, is ‘in their opinion’ a foolish habit, and opinion may not always have much to do with careful reasoning. Old Da’s opinion about the peat in chapter one, for instance, was linked to outworn ‘superstition’, and at the end of chapter one he chooses to keep his ‘own idea’ about Finn Learson to himself (p. 33), presumably conscious that it will be dismissed as unfounded ‘opinion’ unless he backs it up with stronger evidence than he has. Robbie, meanwhile, has his own opinions on Finn Learson, but these ‘swithered and swayed’ in response to unfolding events and the boy’s conflicting emotions (p. 29). For Hunter’s narrator, then, practical people and imaginative woolgatherers are equally vulnerable to opinions based on prejudice or conjecture, and the question of which kind of thinking is most useful tends to get muddied by the fact that both may work very well as an explanation of certain stories – including Hunter’s.
Robbie spends much of his time in Old Da’s company, and chapter five, ‘The Selkie Summer’, neatly summarizes the mixture of practical learning and folkloric wisdom their companionship imparts to the boy. Old Da supervises Robbie as he scales the island cliffs in search of eggs; identifies mosses for him, to be used in making dyes; and shows him how to feather his oars (that is, to acquire ‘the trick of holding the boat so steady in one place that [the seals] lost all fear of it’, p. 37). Meanwhile he entertains him by telling him ‘one story after another’ (p. 36): concerning the trows or ‘creatures of the Otherworld which is not human’ (p. 36), who live in mounds all over Shetland and work their magic only at night; tales of the Selkie Folk who gather on lonely beaches and cast off their skins to dance (p. 37); and the story of the Great Selkie himself, who roofs his undersea palace with the golden hair of the mortal girls he persuades to join him in the deep, girls who invariably drown in a vain attempt to make their way back to their former homes above the waves (p. 39). Robbie is sometimes sceptical about these stories (‘I don’t believe that,’ he objects at one point, p. 39) and sometimes credulous, and his suspension between these two states marks him out again as a kind of selkie in his own right, a creature of two elements. After all, as Old Da tells him, in ‘real life’ the seal pups undergo a metamorphosis almost as remarkable as the change from seal to human. They have a lengthy childhood (‘believe it or not, these same pups are all four weeks old before they even start learning to swim’), yet ‘they still grow up’, he points out, ‘to be the most travelled of any sea creatures’ (p. 39). Old Da’s stories may seem foolish, but they are no more wonderful than the facts of the natural world in which they are set, and Robbie’s interest in supernatural wonders is only enhanced by his interest in the natural world in which he grows up.
Later in the book, Finn Learson similarly bridges the gap of wonder between ‘real life’ and the supernatural, as he tells stories of his own travels in the second six-chapter section of the book:
‘Once, on the shores of Greenland,’ he told Robbie, ‘a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound on my shoulder…’
Then on he went, spinning many another tale of strange adventure in far countries. (p. 63)
It’s at this stage in the novel that Robbie begins to study navigation at school, eager to fit himself for similar ‘adventures in far countries’; and this yearning is clearly fuelled by what Old Da told him about the far-travelled seals, as well as by Finn Learson’s tales, since it at once inspires him to seek a more limited kind of adventure by going off to hold the seal pup in chapter nine. When Robbie grows up in the final chapter of the novel he becomes as famous for his seafaring as for his extravagant stories, including the story of Finn Learson; and someone who knows him observes, as they might have observed of Old Da or Finn Learson himself, that ‘nobody can ever tell how much of Robbie Henderson’s stories are true, and how much of them are made up’ (p. 134). As with Old Da or Finn Learson, however, there is material evidence to back up Robbie’s tales; and his account is corroborated by people who knew the mysterious stranger as well as he did, such as his sister Elspeth and her fiancé Nicol Anderson (pp. 134-5). At every point of Hunter’s novel, in other words, the observable facts of bodily scars, or animal behaviour, or animal-human relations, help to underprop a supernatural reading of her tale as well as they justify a wholly natural reading of its component elements. Facts themselves can be selkie-like in their ability to lend themselves to utterly different interpretations, depending on the inclination of their interpreters.
Old Da’s death – which takes place, as I said, in chapter six, exactly a third of the way through the novel – brings the collision between imaginative stories and ‘real life’ to a fitting climax. In the old man’s final illness he summons Robbie to his side, desperate to tell him something important about Finn Learson before it’s too late. Robbie later concludes that Old Da believes the stranger to be the Great Selkie, come ashore to beguile a new victim to take to his palace beneath the waves: and that this victim is none other than Robbie’s sister Elspeth, with her ‘sandy-gold hair’ (p. 14). This, at least, is what the boy deduces from the breathless hints the old man gives him: ‘It has to do with the gold, Robbie, and dancing, and the crystal palace under the sea’ (p. 43) – a palace roofed with the golden hair of the Great Selkie’s female victims. Old Da also tries to tell his grandson about a similar episode that happened in the past, when another predatory stranger came ashore and brought about a tragedy, but runs out of breath before he can explain. Robbie’s mother Jean comes in as the old man struggles to describe this earlier incident, and at once assumes that Robbie has been pestering him for another idle tale: ‘What’s this, Robbie? Have you no heart at all that you can let your poor Old Da waste his last breath on stories for you?’ (p. 44). For Jean these tales remain foolish fantasies, whereas for Robbie they are crucial pieces of new evidence in forming his own opinion of Finn Learson. But whatever Old Da failed to say with his ‘last breath’ might just as easily have been guessed at by a realist like Jean as by a fantasist like her son; the difference being that Jean does not give herself a chance to do the guessing. Old Da might be warning the boy against a sexual predator, using terms he knows a child will understand; or he might be seeking to link Finn Learson to the lore about the Selkie King, which is how Robbie understands the fragments he lets drop. Or of course he might be doing both, since the Selkie King is first and foremost a sexual predator. If the old man’s head is dwelling on stories at the time of his death, this could be a consequence of his fever, or it could be because he thinks them important, or it could be both. The narrator is careful to withhold her judgement, while providing the reader with evidence to sustain all these perspectives.
Hunter’s withholding of judgement has a crucial role to play in the final scene of chapter six. On the day of the old man’s death Robbie finds himself suddenly alone with Finn, who approaches him to ask what his grandfather said about him when the two of them were alone together. Finn’s approach fills the boy with nameless dread – ‘a fear he could not understand or explain’ (p. 47) – although Hunter is careful to stress the stranger’s relative size and power (he stands ‘dark and tall against the sun’) and the stark contrast between his young, handsome face and the hardness Robbie detects in his ‘dark eyes’, both of which supply reason enough for apprehension in themselves. At this point all the supernatural possibilities represented by Finn’s appearance (does his unusual height hint at his status as an undersea king? Are his eyes dark because they are a seal’s eyes?) seem to vanish from the boy’s mind, leaving him with a simple practical question: ‘What did he have to fear from Finn Learson?’ One of Old Da’s phrases provides a kind of answer – ‘Don’t trust him, Robbie. Don’t trust him’ (p. 47) – but the reasons for distrust remain unclear. The only things that are certain at this stage is that the boy can’t be sure of the stranger’s nature or motives, that Finn has the physical capacity to damage Robbie, and that Robbie has only Old Da’s stories to go on, none of which has been specifically linked to Finn. In telling Finn Learson, then, that ‘my Old Da told me nothing’, the boy is speaking no more than the truth – though he is also telling a half-truth, since his suspicions of Finn are rooted in the foolish nothings Old Da did tell him. The storyteller may have died, but his stories live on, and can be applied – emotionally, if not rationally – to real-life situations, perhaps to the benefit of the listener. There may be something in their nothings, after all, even if they are merely works of the fantastic imagination.
The middle six chapters testify once more to the fine craftsmanship of Hunter’s novel. In the first three of the six (chapters seven, eight and nine) the stranger succeeds in integrating himself fully into Black Ness society, while in the last three (chapters ten, eleven and twelve) Robbie finds himself increasingly isolated from it, seeking and failing to convince Elspeth’s fiancé Nicol Anderson and Elspeth herself that the stranger is the Selkie King, before finding common cause with another loner, the schoolmaster Yarl Corbie. As I’ve already pointed out, the middle two chapters of the six – also the middle two chapters of the novel – see Robbie himself confirmed in his belief that Finn Learson is indeed the Great Selkie, marking a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the novel; from this point onward all Robbie’s efforts will be bent on frustrating Finn’s attempts to seduce Elspeth. In the first of these two central chapters Robbie sets out in his boat with the aim of holding a seal-pup; and having held one, he moves on to another voe to count their numbers. When he accidentally falls from his boat, Finn Learson rescues him, and in the midst of the rescue the boy notes how closely the stranger’s body resembles the seal’s:
There was warmth like a furnace heat in the body pressed against his own, and the hand gripping him had fingertips that probed like steel into his flesh […] – yet how could that be? How could there be selkie warmth in a man’s body, and selkie strength in a man’s hands? (p. 70).
Having encountered both seal and man, Robbie quickly concludes that both beings can be contained in a single body – that of Finn Learson; this is now his ‘truth’ (p. 72), and for him all doubts have been put to rest. In the second central chapter, chapter ten, Robbie lays out in full the evidence for Finn’s double identity as he seeks to persuade the fisherman Nicol Anderson to accept this ‘truth’. The evidence includes the stranger’s careful prevarication over whether or not he was a sailor from the shipwreck on the night of his arrival (p. 74); the ‘selkie music’ he played on Robbie’s father’s fiddle at night (p. 74); a gold coin he offered as payment to Robbie’s parents for putting him up – a coin that could only have come from a ‘sunken treasure ship’; omens on the day of Old Da’s funeral (p. 75); Finn’s quasi-miraculous evasion of the naval Press Gang (p. 78); the way Finn’s body feels (p. 77); Finn’s love of deep water (p. 77). The accumulated evidence, each element of which has been shared with the reader as they occurred, reinforces Robbie’s conviction that Finn is the Great Selkie; but for Nicol they amount to no more than a verbal game: ‘You’re talking in riddles, boy,’ the fisherman declares (p. 73). Even as Robbie makes up his mind about the stranger, we are reminded that every element of his argument is susceptible to alternative interpretations. Riddles are games of obfuscation, transforming something ordinary into something deeply strange – a fish, for instance, into an undead mail-clad ghoul, time into an all-devouring monster, an egg into a treasure box. Old Da’s stories, too, could be read as riddles, with simple but important lessons hidden inside them; and Hunter’s narrative too has a riddling quality, its key moments haunted by puzzles, paradoxes and doubts.
For instance, even as Robbie makes up his mind that Finn is a malevolent selkie and his personal enemy, the middle six chapters of the novel see a strange bond begin to grow between boy and stranger. It is first forged by Robbie’s suspicions that Finn is the only person who shares his knowledge of the supernatural ‘Otherworld’ that could be taken to explain Finn’s actions. But the bond is intensified by the fact that Finn is in many ways an attractive figure. He is tall, strong and handsome. He is ingenious in his ability to endear himself both to the local minister, who dismisses local folk customs as ‘superstitious nonsense’ (p. 51), and to Robbie’s family, who sustain those same folk customs by incorporating them into Old Da’s funeral. He is physically powerful, too. Finn evades the brutal Press Gang of the British Navy – formed to forcefully recruit seamen during the Napoleonic wars – with the laughing, athletic nonchalance of a folk hero, saving Robbie’s father and his fishing crew in the process (pp. 56-59). Later he saves Robbie’s life with heroic flair, diving into the waters of the voe from a ledge on a high cliff and heaving the boy into his boat with the strength of an animal or a god (p. 70). He is eloquent, proving more than capable of taking over the role of community storyteller after Old Da’s death. Up to this point in the book Finn has been mostly silent; afterwards he becomes both talkative and sociable, boosting Robbie’s interest in navigation with his stories of ‘strange adventures in far countries’ (p. 63) and thus filling the gap left in the boy’s life by his mentor’s demise. Finally, he is something of a riddlemaster. When asked by Nicol Anderson to decipher a riddle which is said to be unanswerable by anyone but a Shetlander, ‘What head is it that wears no hair?’ – he answers it at once, since he has lived closer to the answer than anyone on dry land: ‘There is no hair on the head of a fish; and so that is the reading of your riddle – the fish!’ (p. 32). Finn’s success makes him a riddle, too, as Robbie himself points out: ‘There’s no one outside the islands has ever managed to read that riddle[.] […] And so how did he guess the answer?’ (p. 33). Finn is both a stranger and a local, both an outsider to the fishing community and a native of the deep water in which it plies its trade. Robbie works out his own answer in the middle two chapters, even as he works out that Finn is not as admirable as his many qualities make him seem.
For Robbie, all these qualities merely serve as the perfect cover for Finn’s plans for abducting Elspeth. In addition, they mean that Robbie’s family and friends cannot condone the boy’s mounting hostility to the stranger – above all because he is indebted to that stranger in the deepest way imaginable. ‘You should think shame,’ Nicol Anderson tells him at one point, ‘for even wanting to speak against a man who has just saved your life’ (p. 73). Meanwhile, Robbie’s own double vision of Finn as both hero and villain – as a replacement for Old Da, as a substitute for Robbie’s often absent father, as a role model for the boy’s dreams of becoming a worldwide traveller, and as a menace to his older sister – confirms the stranger’s dual identity as man and seal.
The six middle chapters, then, serve as a kind of two-way gate in Hunter’s novel. They look backwards to Old Da’s stories, as one by one they are implied to have solid foundations in reality, and they look forward to Robbie’s eventual showdown with Finn Learson, and to the time of greater scepticism which the reader inhabits. The Roman god of gates and doorways was two-faced Janus, who lent his name to the first month of the New Year; and the novel builds up to a January climax in its last six chapters. Robbie has his final showdown with Finn at the Up Helly Aa fire festival – traditionally held on 29 January, 24 days after Aald Yule (the Shetland Christmas) on 5 January. So it’s appropriate that Robbie should be joined in his January showdown by another two-faced enigma, the schoolmaster of Black Ness, Yarl Corbie. In the last six chapters of the book, Yarl Corbie comes to stand for the fundamentally double nature of the islands Robbie inhabits, a doubleness that makes the islanders well capable of tackling the double-natured stranger who threatens their children.
That double nature was already clear enough from the middle six chapters, in which the most sceptical of the islanders – the ones most resistant to the notion that Finn Learson might be a supernatural being – nevertheless manifested their commitment to a supernatural perspective through their actions. Robbie’s father and mother, who half disapprove of Old Da’s influence on Robbie, nevertheless incorporate old superstitions into his funeral ceremony: the ritual burning of his bedding and the discovery of traces of the future in the resultant ashes (pp. 49-52). The formally-educated minister scoffs at these rituals, but neither Robbie’s parents nor his equally sceptical sister are prepared to dismiss them; indeed, Elspeth faints when she finds that the footprints which appear in the ashes perfectly match her own shoe size, which traditionally means that she will be the next in line to die. Nicol Anderson refuses to accept Robbie’s claim that Finn is King of the Selkies (pp. 75-78); but later he reluctantly agrees to incorporate certain magical elements into his ritual performance at Up Helly Aa, despite his conviction that they will be ineffectual and therefore pointless (pp. 103-105). Robbie’s sister Elspeth, meanwhile, rejects her brother’s suspicions of Finn not so much out of scepticism as out of a desire to retain her own more positive perspective on the stranger’s supernatural powers. When the ashes of Old Da’s bedding seemed to suggest that she would die, Finn insisted that they predicted something different: that Elspeth ‘will live to wed the man of [her] choice, and […] will be rich when you wed’ (p. 52). In chapter eleven the young woman embraces this rival vision of the future, which she associates – as Finn intended – with Finn himself: ‘if I marry Finn Learson, I’ll be a lady with servants, and live in a great house like a palace, with walls of crystal and a golden roof’ (p. 82). Her scepticism, then, is highly selective: she accepts a stranger’s prophecy, but refuses to believe that this same prophecy aligns with one of Old Da’s stories, which foretells that if she marries a rich husband she will perish. The community that resists Robbie’s warnings nevertheless contrives to inhabit the double space – touched everywhere by traces of the supernatural – which they claim to have left behind them.
The schoolmaster embodies this double space in both his appearance and his name. Dressed in a gown, which represents his formal academic accomplishments, he resembles a raven, a bird of ill omen among the Shetlanders which is closely linked with a very different kind of knowledge: the marginalised folk knowledge of the island wizards. His birdlike appearance matches his nickname, Yarl Corbie, which is the Shetland term for the ominous raven (Jarl or Lord of the Crows). The schoolmaster’s double knowledge is quickly revealed in his own sensitivity to the meaning of names; with a teacher’s instincts he helps Robbie to understand that Finn Learson’s name, too, betrays his supernatural identity:
‘Finn, Lear’s son – that is the proper sound of the name, for the Great Selkie is the son of the sea-god, Lear. As for “Finn”, that is simply an old word for “magician”. And so there you have the full measure of the bold way that name told everyone exactly who he is – the Magician, who is also Lear’s son, the Great Selkie.’ (p. 88)
This explanation draws on the academic field of philology – the study of words and the way their forms and meanings have changed through history. Tolkien famously described himself as a philologist, and for Corbie, as for Tolkien, this branch of learning yokes the present with the deep past, the material with the supernatural, since words have folk meanings and ancient belief systems embedded in them. By virtue of his academic training as well as his folk knowledge Corbie at once understood the meaning of Finn’s name when he first heard it, as the other inhabitants of Black Ness did not. For the schoolmaster, then, formal learning and folk knowledge are closely linked, and both have intimate links with the material world, as Yarl Corbie’s physical appearance links him to his mastery of two very different knowledge systems.
Yarl Corbie’s character, like his learning, is ambiguous or double. He is a menacing as well as a useful ally, both because stern schoolmasters naturally seem menacing to their pupils and because of his association with the ominous raven. When first approaching him for help, Robbie is put off by the island rumour that Corbie is a wizard as well as by the fact that ‘deep, deep down in his blood there lived the Shetlander’s ancient fear of the raven and its croaking cry of death’ (p. 85). Robbie’s fears are borne out at once; when he tells Yarl Corbie of his suspicions about Finn Learson, the schoolmaster quickly turns violent, lifting a knife as if to strike at the boy before plunging it into his desk so that it stands ‘quivering in the wood’ (p. 91). The blow is not meant for Robbie; Corbie picked up the knife as he told the story of another encounter with the Great Selkie, when the Seal King stole a man’s fiancée from him (she was ‘never seen alive again’), after which the man tracked him down to Greenland and stabbed him there ‘with a blow that was meant to kill’ (p. 90). At the climax of this tale the schoolmaster rose to his feet, ‘his face suddenly all twisted with rage’ (p. 90), and struck with the knife; but his action is meant only to emphasize his own active role in the tale he told: ‘this is the knife that made the wound,’ he declares, ‘and I am the man who struck the blow!’ (p. 91). At the same time, the action confirms the potential threat posed by Corbie himself, so that when the schoolmaster later tells Robbie not to breathe a word about their meeting, his warning that any disobedience will be punished rings disturbingly true: ‘That had better be a promise […] or I will be revenged on you also!’ (p. 94). Corbie represents the boy’s best hope of defeating Finn; but he also represents the boy’s worst fears of the mysterious forces that haunt the Shetland landscape, such as the trows that bedevil his walk to school on dark winter mornings – fears that skew his perception of the schoolmaster who awaits him at the end of those dark walks (p. 85).
Corbie, then, comes across as a double of Finn Learson. His association with ravens makes him as much of a mysterious force as the troublesome stranger. Finn threatens Robbie just as Corbie does, warning him to steer clear of the place where he rescued him from drowning (‘keep out of this geo in future, do you hear? It’s high time you learned to leave deep waters to those who can swim in them’, p. 72). Like Finn, Corbie is a traveller – he has been at least as far as Greenland with the whaling ships. Like Finn, he is a wielder of magic; the schoolmaster soon confirms the islanders’ view of him as a wizard – with a book of magic written entirely in mirror writing – and it’s also Corbie who points out that ‘Finn’ means ‘wizard’ in Shetland lore. Like Finn, Corbie shares an uneasy bond with Robbie. And like Finn, he is capable of changing shape, both in Robbie’s imagination and in real life. When he first enters Hunter’s narrative he is described like this:
There, as usual, sat Yarl Corbie hunched at his desk with his gown drooping like black wings from his bony shoulders. There was his dark and beaky face, seeming all bones and hollows in the candlelight. There was the glittering eye with its knowing stare. (p. 86)
At this point the resemblance between the schoolmaster and a raven is metaphorical (with a pun, in the word ‘beaky’, on the old slang term for schoolmaster, ‘beak’). But before the end of the novel the metaphor has been made concrete, with the schoolmaster changing into a raven to make his attack on the Selkie King (p. 131). In the section of the book dominated by Corbie, what was earlier merely implied becomes materially present, what was imagined becomes embodied, what was spoken of becomes enacted; and certain material objects confirm this new phase of embodiment of folk knowledge in Hunter’s text.
The knife Corbie wields is one of these objects. It provides a material link between the schoolmaster and the stranger, by way of the story Finn told Robbie in chapter nine about how he came by one of his scars: ‘Once, on the shores of Greenland, a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound in my shoulder’ (p. 63). This is the same story, of course, as the story Corbie tells Robbie in chapter twelve, about his attack on the Great Selkie on the Greenland coast; and both stories gain traction from the presence in Hunter’s narrative of both knife and scar, providing physical ‘evidence’ in support of oral tales – giving historical and archaeological exactness to folkloric narratives. Thanks to the knife and the scar, the material and the supernatural come closer than ever at this point in the novel; and the wielder of the knife, Yarl Corbie – himself a native of the islands – serves to cement the bond between the supernatural and the natural in island culture, thereby confirming the islanders’ power to confront and defeat the selkie threat to their homes and families.
The same is true of another object wielded by Corbie: the book of magic in which he finds the spell which he later uses to defeat Finn Learson. Robbie first sees the book in chapter fifteen, recognising it for what it is thanks to Old Da’s stories:
A book lay open on the table, a big book with pages so yellow in colour that he guessed it must be very old.
Moreover, these yellowish pages were covered with writing that was all back-to-front – mirror-writing, in fact, and he remembered Old Da had told him this was the kind of writing wizards used for their spells! (p. 107)
Through this new object, Old Da’s stories are again given material support, as they were by the knife and the scar. The book of magic also shows how Hunter’s novel itself taps into a literary tradition that challenges official knowledge as strongly as any oral tradition does. Before Robbie sees the book, the schoolmaster has already confirmed that his natural enemy on the island is the minister of the local church or kirk, the embodiment of official knowledge, itself embodied in the Bible – the Holy Book. ‘You heard the way he raged against superstition on the day of your Old Da’s funeral,’ Corbie reminds his pupil; ‘And so what do you think he would do if he heard I was indeed practising the unholy arts that people say I do practise?’ (p. 94). The book of magic finally confirms Corbie’s claim to be a practitioner of the ‘unholy arts’; and the term ‘indeed’ – that is, in truth, in action – dispels the hesitations and uncertainties with which supernatural things, such as magic and selkies, have been hedged in since the opening sentences of Hunter’s novel. At this point in the story we are given the strongest indication yet that there are other ‘truths’ besides the official ‘truth’: a magic book which provides the knowledge that changes the shape of Hunter’s book through the efficacy of the spell it supplies to its wizardly reader. And by the time we encounter the book of magic, another object has dispelled all Robbie’s remaining hesitations over Finn’s identity.
That object is Finn’s discarded sealskin, which Robbie concludes must have been hidden in the cave at the voe where the stranger saved him from drowning, and from which Finn afterwards warned him to stay away. In Duncan Williamson’s oral tales about the Selkie Folk they wear their sealskins even when in human form, as long coats that cover them up from neck to heel, made of a substance which feels like fur but is not fur. A better-known tradition, followed here by Hunter, says that Selkies hide their skins when they leave the sea, and that whoever finds those skins will have power over their owners. The moment when Robbie and Corbie find Finn’s sealskin – in chapter thirteen – marks the moment when conjecture, wayward imaginings and superstition finally find themselves made substantial, embodied, or realised, in the sense in which Tolkien uses it in his essay On Fairy Stories; that is, ‘made real’. Hunter is careful to make this moment memorable, indeed almost tangible:
The sealskin was there, lying spread right out to cover a wide rock shelf a few feet from the floor of the cave. The fur of it was the colour of Finn Learson’s hair – dark, almost black, streaked with silvery grey – and it shone so richly that it seemed to turn the whole pool of candlelight into gleaming black and glittering silver.
Yarl Corbie and Robbie stood staring at it, both of them struck quite dumb at the sight. The empty sockets of the head on the selkie skin stared back at them, and after a few moments of this, Robbie found he could no longer face the eeriness of that empty stare. He turned his head away, and the movement broke the spell of silence in the cave. (pp. 97-98)
The passage forges links both to the narrative we have been reading, by way of the reference to the colour of Finn’s hair, and between Finn Learson and his human enemies, by way of the stare they exchange with the empty eye sockets of his sealskin. It concludes, too, with the notion that silence itself – being empty of sound – has a supernatural quality, weaving a ‘spell’ to mesmerize mortals subjected to it; in other words, that we are all of us bound by spells many times a day. A moment later, Corbie symbolically takes this eery object into his power by making it ordinary: ‘Then, much to Robbie’s horror, he reached up and pulled the skin down from the shelf as casually as he would have pulled a blanket off a bed’ (p. 98). In the process he draws the supernatural into the everyday, confirming the interrelationship between them which has been implied but not confirmed throughout the novel up to this point. And the gesture effectively grants power to the ordinary, the familiar, the known. Up till now, most of the power in the book has been wielded by the strange, and by the threatening stranger who chiefly embodies it. From this point onwards, the strange is made captive by the familiar, which contains the strange – or binds it – by means of a series of riddles whose answers cannot be parsed or ‘read’ by the stranger, unlike the riddle of the fish. Shetland takes possession of Finn Learson, bringing him comprehensively ashore, where his power is diminished. And Shetland itself becomes a selkie as a result.
The first riddle by which Finn Learson gets bound is conceived by his rival wizard, Corbie. Describing the place where he intends to secrete Finn’s sealskin, Corbie refers to it in terms that sound like a verbal game:
‘Nowhere on sea,’ said Yarl Corbie […] ‘because that is the first place Finn Learson would search for it. Nowhere on land, because that is the second place he would search. We will hide it in a place that belongs neither to the sea nor to the land, a place that is open to every eye, but secret from all; a place which Finn Learson may enter as a man, yet which he cannot leave again except as the Great Selkie.’ (p. 100)
The place in question is a hole in the turf at the top of the cliffs above the voe where they found the sealskin. The sea has cut a tunnel through the rock of the cliffs to a cave directly underneath the hole, and the skin, we later learn, has been stowed in that tunnel. Hole and tunnel could, then, be described as belonging to neither land nor sea, and their inaccessibility makes them secret to all, though the mouth of the hole is ‘open to every eye’. The double nature of the location makes it selkie-like, and thus a suitable site for foiling a selkie. And by the time we are introduced to it in the narrative, we have encountered a number of other riddling double spaces peculiar to the mortal inhabitants of the islands, all of which, crucially, are strange or unfamiliar to the Selkie Folk, those immortal denizens of the ocean.
The most potent of these riddling double spaces is the folk custom of ‘guising’, which is practised by Shetlanders at Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year and Up Helly Aa. In Hunter’s version of the practise, the guisers are men dressed up as women, in ‘long petticoats made of straw, with tall, pointed hats of straw, white shirts, and everything all covered with bunches of coloured ribbons’ (p. 102). Their identities are hidden behind ‘white handkerchiefs tied like masks over their faces’ (p. 101), and they are led by a man called the Skuddler, who takes them from house to house throughout the community, dancing wildly to fiddle music and bringing symbolic blessings to all the families who let them in. Old Da, we learn, has explained to Robbie that there is an ‘ancient magic’ behind this guising (p. 101):
‘They are supposed to be earth-spirits – the spirits of corn, and fruit, and flowers – and the Skuddler himself is the god of the earth commanding them to dance in honour of all the good things he has created […] The dressing-up was a sort of spell. The dancing was another part of the spell, and the whole thing made a magic that turned them into the creatures they were supposed to be – the earth-god and his spirits…’ (pp. 116-117)
The guisers, then, are both actors playing their parts and somehow also the things they play; they resemble both men and women, both mortals and the immortals they invoke. Finn’s ignorance of these land-bound folk customs (he asks many questions about them, but Robbie refuses to tell him what he knows) conceals from him some of the many meanings behind the Skuddler and his crew, especially their link to the earth-god who is the rival of Finn’s father and patron, Lear, the god of the sea. As a result Finn cannot ‘read’ or solve this non-verbal riddle, and knows nothing about the advantage the Skuddler will have over him if he fights him above the waterline, on land that is sacred to the earth-god, as against water, the province of Lear. Finn also cannot guess the identity of the man who plays the Skuddler; Robbie persuades Nicol Anderson to take on the role, so that the Skuddler will gain yet greater strength from the fisherman’s determination to wrest his fiancée from the stranger’s grip, while Robbie himself is given strength by his knowledge of the Skuddler’s dual identity as both god and man. In the chapters dedicated to guising – chapters sixteen and seventeen – Finn is rendered not more powerful but weaker by his status as a stranger, and the borderline between sea and shore proves crucial in his defeat, despite his own seemingly double nature as a creature of both shore and sea.
In the first half of the novel, Finn was the master riddler, keeping to himself the secret of his own identity and easily solving the riddling secrets of his human hosts. In this final six-chapter section it is the humans who are master riddlers. Even children have their riddles, as Robbie finds when he follows the guisers from house to house at Up Helly Aa. Yarl Corbie has told the boy to keep his eyes on Elspeth to prevent Finn from spiriting her away to his maritime home; but at one house Robbie loses sight of her, trapped by boys of his own age into staying behind to answer a riddle as his sister disappears into the night:
Wingle wangle, like a tangle,
If I was even, I’d reach to Heaven.
Luckily Robbie thinks of the answer before he loses track of Elspeth altogether, suddenly remembering her footprint in the ashes at Old Da’s funeral and shouting ‘Smoke!’ before following her out into the darkness. The boys’ riddle invokes another element besides earth over which the stranger has no power – the element of fire; and both fire and air seem to strengthen the guisers’ performance as they dance wildly across the island. Dancing with them are the Northern Lights, known in Shetland as the Merry Dancers (p. 118): ‘the light seemed sometimes to roll in great green waves over the sky, and sometimes it was like long searchlights of green shooting brilliantly out from a huge and starless black dome’. Finn may be lord of sea and shore, but the islanders’ lives are bound to sea, shore, fire and sky, making them twice as many-sided as the Selkie King – twice as rich as him too, perhaps, despite their relative poverty and the harshness of their lives.
Finn does his best, of course, to retain his shifty double nature and the power it gives him in the last six chapters. Several times Robbie directly confronts the stranger’s shiftiness: first when he spots him staring at Elspeth hungrily, and Finn’s human mask slips a little: ‘For a moment […] the young and handsome appearance of his face would slip aside like a mask, and another face would look at Elspeth – a watchful, old, and cunning face that held her fascinated’ (p. 110). The mask slips again when Finn is fighting the Skuddler – played by Nicol Anderson – and finds himself forced above the high water mark in the course of the struggle. When this happens the Skuddler seems to tower over him, as if possessed by the spirit of the earth god, while Finn’s identity as the ancient son of the sea-god Lear comes to the fore: ‘The skin of his face was withering, falling away to wrinkles. His hands were becoming an old man’s hands […] The youthful lines of his body were sagging into something twisted, and evil, and very, very old’ (p. 126). And the mask slips for the final time when Robbie leads the triumphant stranger to the edge of the hole where his skin is hidden, and sees ‘at last the true face of Finn the Magician’ (p. 129):
The face hovered over him, and it was not old, or young, nor yet anything in between, but simply a shifting blur of features that changed with every nightmare moment of his stare at it. It was no face at all, in fact, and yet somehow it was still every face that had ever haunted his deepest fears and his darkest dreams. (pp. 129-130)
In the first two thirds of the book, as we’ve seen, Finn showed himself capable of being all things to all people: a good churchman to the minister, a hero to Robbie’s family, a dream lover to Elspeth, a fine dancer, an eloquent storyteller, a rebel against the unjust naval authorities and a strong and capable pair of working hands to the community of Black Ness. Robbie’s terror in this passage makes it seem as though Finn’s power is greater than ever; but there is a difference in the boy’s attitude in the last third of the narrative. Despite his fear he now knows for sure that he is looking at ‘the true face of Finn the Magician’; Finn’s concealment is over, his riddle solved, his identity exposed for all to see. The hesitation over whether or not he is meant to be a truly supernatural figure has been dispelled, from the narrator’s prose as well as from Robbie’s mind. This renders his true face vulnerable as well as visible; it’s a single, identifiable target, despite its changefulness; so it seems only right that Yarl Corbie should direct his attack at Finn’s exposed face when he manifests himself for the first time as the raven whose name he bears.
More specifically, Corbie directs his attack at Finn’s eyes, which are ‘the one thing about the nightmare that did not change’, remaining the ‘great dark eyes’ of a bull seal through all his facial shifts (p. 130). These eyes have always seemed to Robbie to see everything, which explains the mocking smile Finn so often wears. But by this final chapter of the novel we know that this seeming total vision is an illusion, like Finn’s humanity itself. The stranger had no idea that Yarl Corbie was a wizard or that Robbie was in collusion with the schoolmaster. For a long time he was ignorant that Nicol Anderson was playing the Skuddler. He doesn’t know the location of his sealskin. His vision, in other words, has failed him. When the Raven-Corbie, then, strikes at his eyes, blinding one of them, he confirms this failure of vision, physically depriving the Great Selkie of the dual perspectives that made him powerful – those of sea and land, seal and human – and hence by extension of one of the two elements over which Finn sought control. From this point on, it seems, Finn Learson is confined to his seal form, unable or unwilling to resume his form as a man.
This may be because he can no longer take the form of a handsome stranger – or so Yarl Corbie suggests to Robbie. The extinguishing of Finn’s eye not only affects his own ability to see, but changes too the human view of him. Beforehand, the stranger’s good looks served as one of his most potent weapons, seducing everyone he talks to, especially the women he aims to lure to his undersea home. But as a one-eyed man, Yarl Corbie insists, he will be less attractive: ‘never again will he be able to come ashore in the shape of a handsome young man’ (p. 133). And he will also always be known for who he is, whatever shape he assumes. Wounded and unbalanced by the ferocity of Corbie’s attack, he falls into the hole where his sealskin is hidden and resumes his form as a selkie; and from this point on, his occasional returns to the shores of Shetland can be identified from people’s sightings of a one-eyed seal:
There was one further thing which struck the people of Black Ness then. All of them had noticed a bull seal which haunted the voe from time to time – a huge, old fellow which had only one eye, and which had certainly not been known to come to the voe before the night of Finn Learson’s disappearance.
The seal version of Finn Learson can now be distinguished from all other selkies by its injury, just as the human version of Finn no longer conforms to ableist conventions of human beauty. Finn Learson has been set apart, just as Finn’s seduction of Yarl Corbie’s fiancée turned the schoolmaster into a pariah and a master of ‘forbidden’ lore. No longer a tall dark handsome stranger, he is also in effect no longer a selkie, having lost the power to mingle with human or seal communities unnoticed as he did before.
The Shetland community, by contrast, has been rendered stronger by Robbie’s adventure, its members confirmed in their dual identity as having one foot in the real and orderly, the other in the magical, the marginal, the strange, the shifty. Thanks to their folklore, their specialist skills as fiddlers, dancers, sailors and homemakers, and their intimate knowledge of the windswept place they have made their home, they can face up to any challenge that gets thrown against them, from official press gangs to the Kings of the Seal People.
Yarl Corbie used the old folk customs of the islands to overthrow Finn Learson. In the process those customs were shown to embrace the whole community, as the Skuddler and his men danced wildly from cottage to cottage throughout Black Ness. They were accompanied in their dancing by the fiddle that has come to symbolize Shetland art for the rest of the world, thanks to the seemingly supernatural skills of the Shetland fiddlers. And the victory over the stranger ensures that these customs and skills get handed down to a new generation. In the final chapter we learn that as Robbie grows up his account of Finn Learson becomes a communal possession, like the stories of Old Da. Some people don’t believe it; others, like the former sceptics Nicol and Elspeth, support it with first-hand testimony; but it belongs to all his listeners, believers and unbelievers. Of the children he tells it to, some say they don’t believe it, others embrace it with enthusiasm; but the borderland between belief and scepticism we now know to be profoundly permeable. So long as the stories are alive – and in this book alone they pass down through multiple generations from Old Da to his great-great-grandchildren – the possibility of their being useful remains. They suffuse the Shetland landscape with enchantment; they draw Shetlanders together on Winter evenings; and thanks to Mollie Hunter’s novel, they make of us strangers honorary members of the Shetland community, for a while at least, listening to their stories and hearing their music as we gather round an imagined fire. The hybridity of the Great Selkie affirms the hybridity of humankind, and of the people and animals we share the world with. We all have great need of Hunter’s double vision at this time of climate catastrophe, and A Stranger Came Ashore imparts it to us, wherever in this fragile world we happen to live.
 Mollie Hunter, The Mermaid Summer (London: Lions, 1990), p. 119.
 Mollie Hunter, The Walking Stones (London: Magnet Books, 1986), p. 43.
 A Stranger Came Ashore explains the Scots term but-and-ben as follows: ‘this is the way Shetland houses were built in those days, with only a living room called the but end, and a sleeping room called the ben end’ (‘but’ = outside/here, ‘ben’ = inside). Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (Edinburgh: Kelpies, 2005), p. 13.
 In The Mermaid Summer it’s one of the children who meet the mermaid, Anna, who compares the mermaid to a queen: presenting her with a fine green dress, Anna tells he ‘it’s beautiful enough for a queen to wear’ (p. 92). The comparison may come from the mermaid’s efforts to make herself the fairest mermaid of all, like the wicked Queen in Snow White. For the fine clothes of the Sidhe see The Haunted Mountain: ‘they all wore the same kind of fine clothes made of silk, with ornaments of gold and shoes of fine, soft leather’. Mollie Hunter, The Haunted Mountain (London: Lions, 1983), p. 31.
 ‘They were small, certainly – about the height of a twelve-year-old boy, they say – and they were beautiful; but they were a lordly race, and terrible when angered.’ The Haunted Mountain, p. 10.
 See Duncan Williamson, Land of the Seal People (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2010).
 The setting of such a story should not, however, be too precisely located, as Duncan Williamson insists: ‘now the thing about the silkie stories when you hear them told the teller never gives the name of the island because it’s too close to the people; in case they say you might be telling a lie, this never happened in our island. So they always say in a little island in the Hebrides, and this began long ago’ (Land of the Seal People, p. 24). Hunter follows this practice; for instance the Shetland village in A Stranger Came Ashore, known by the generic name of Black Ness, is located on ‘one of the islands’ (p. 9), but we never learn which one.
 This part of my discussion draws on Tzvetan Todorov’s notion of uncertainty or hesitation as explained in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975). See especially p. 25:
Which brings us to the very heart of the fantastic. In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires [and we might add ‘selkies’ here], there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and [the] laws of the world remain what they are; or else the event has indeed really taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us. Either the devil is an illusion, an imaginary being; or else he really exists, precisely like other living beings – with this reservation, that we encounter him infrequently.
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.
 Note the similarity between this chapter title and the title of Hunter’s later Shetland novel The Mermaid Summer. Both invoke the precariousness of folk beliefs in the supernatural by setting them in the context of the famously evanescent period of summer in childhood. Robbie’s story, however, extends from winter to winter, with ‘The Selkie Summer’ in between.
 These examples come from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), pp. 68-74. See also Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which argues that ‘“the riddle” is a trope for reading itself’, and is especially prevalent in the ‘ironic’ genres of fantasy and science fiction (pp. 5-6).
 The Scalloway Museum suggests instead that the term refers to a race of wizard-like beings, the ‘finn folk’, who ‘can turn themselves into a human, animal, bird or fish, and can even make themselves invisible’, who have ‘a close relationship to the sea’, resent human incursions into their fishing grounds, and love amber. This is not quite Hunter’s version of the Finn.
 See e.g. Williamson, Land of the Sea People, pp. 35, 47, 120, 158-9, 170, 175-6, 180 etc.
 See e.g. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 53: ‘At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realised sub-creative art, which (however it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ [my emphasis].