Under the Sea: The Merman’s Children by Poul Anderson
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
If Poul Anderson avoids the fate of so many other Silver Age science fiction writers, it won’t be for his science fiction writing. They, especially the swashbuckling tales of space trader Nicholas van Rijn and super spy Dominic Flandry are smart and exciting. Anderson was an incredibly gifted storyteller, one of the very best, in fact. Nonetheless, his science fiction yarns, even the later ones, might be too out of date and creaky for many modern readers (to their great loss). His fantasy, however, much of it summoned from the darkest reaches of Nordic legend, I believe, will not be forgotten and will continue to attract attention and great praise for years to come.
Anderson’s most well-known fantasies are The Broken Sword (1954) and Hrolf Kraki’s Saga (1973). Both are grim, brooding works reflective of their Viking Age settings. Rape, murder, betrayal, and incest are some of the more brutal elements these books are woven from. The Merman’s Children (1979), while possessing disturbing moments, is primarily an elegiac story (with monsters) of a fading age, of the triumph of Christianity and the death of Fairy.
Inspired by the Danish ballad, “Agnete og Havmanden (Agnete and the Merman),” the book describes the adventures of the survivors of the merman kingdom of Liri. When a new archdeacon in the Danish town of Als discovers a colony of mermen live nearby, he is outraged. Nearly immortal, they are also soulless, and when they do die, usually from shark or orca attacks, they simply return to the elements from which they were formed, much like the Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. They live free of any moral strictures. They sleep with whomever they desire, some even venturing onto land in search of mortal companionship. Learning a woman, Agnete, had lived for many years under the sea with Vanimen, King of Liri, and born him several children before returning to the land, outrages him even more and he exorcises the waters off the town.
“The houses of Liri rocked as in a quake. The crystal dome on the hall shattered and rained down in bright shards. The stones trembled and began to slide from each other. That crumbling, of what had stood here since the Great Ice melted, sent its shuddering through Tauno’s flesh.
Dimly he saw his father come forth, astride the orca which had its airspace in the hall and which no one else dared mount. Otherwise the king had naught but his trident; and he was clad in naught but his majesty. Yet somehow his call was heard: “To me, my people, to me! Quickly, before we die! Seek not to save any treasure beyond your children – and weapons – come, come, come if you would live!”
Liri ruined, Vanimen and most of the survivors struggle to find a place they can seek refuge from the thinning of the magical world and the encroachment of Christianity. Eventually, they find a home on the Dalmatian coast, one of the few places left in Europe where the fairy realm hasn’t been eradicated. In time, though, at the urging of newfound human friends and realization that their kind can’t hold out forever, they accept Christian baptism and are severed from much of their past.
Meanwhile, Agnete’s children, not as affected as their full-blooded kin by the exorcism, are separated from the other survivors. Tauno, Agenete and Vanimen’s oldest son, his fierce sister Eyjan, and younger brother Kennin, decide that their youngest sister, Yria, is too frail to survive in the wild sea. They manage to bring her to a kindly priest who in turn gives her instruction and ultimately leads her to baptism.
Once baptized, Yria gains a soul and forgets her past. When Tauno learns from Ingeborg, a human woman he sleeps with regularly, that Yria, now christened Margrete, is to become a nun, they set off to recover undersea treasure to give her enough security to avoid what they see as terrible fate.
Much of the first portion of The Merman’s Children was published under the same title in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords #1 in 1973. With the aid of a despicable captain and crew, Tauno, his siblings, and Ingeborg set out on the not-very-good ship Herning to recover gold and jewels from the ruins of what’s clearly Atlantis. Protected by a terrible guardian, its recovery is no easy task.
“And sprawled at the middle was the kraken. Eight of his darkly gleaming arms reached into the corners of the eight-sided plaza that bore his mosaic image. His remaining two arms, the longest, twice the length of Herning, were curled around a pillar at the north side which bore on top the triskeled disc of that god he had conquered. His terrible finned head sagged loosely over them; Tauno could just glimpse the hook beak and a swart lidless eye.
The halfing snapped back the shutter and started to rise in lightlessness. A throbbing went through the ocean, into his bones. It was as if the world shook. He cast a beam downward. The kraken was stirring. He had awakened him.“
Once having provided for their sister and forged an alliance with certain powerful Danish figures, the siblings continue their search for their lost kin. The book’s third chapter appeared as “The Tupilak” in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords #4 (1977). A tupilak is a creature made by a Greenlandic Inuit shaman to destroy an enemy. Here, the merman’s children find themselves caught between an Inuit tribe and the struggling survivors of Vestri Bygd. Savaged by the increasing cold of the Little Ice Age. Drawing from what Anderson admits are the controversial theories propounded in Farley Mowat’s Westviking (1965), he recreates the desperation and despair of a town unwilling as much as unable to adapt to their environment but too proud to surrender. Again, the siblings find themselves forced to work with humans.
“The tupilak had hooked a flipper, whereon were a bear’s claws, across a rail. Its weight was less than a live animal’s, but the boat was still canted so that men must struggle to keep afoot and aboard…At the end of a long neck, the head of a long, whipping neck, the head of a shark gaped and glassily glared. The limb jerked, the boat rocked, a man fell against the haws, they sheared. Now blood spurted and bowels trail. The wind blew away the steam of their warmth.“
Eventually, the children find their now Christian relations and the ensuing conflict, both personal and theological forms the real heart of the book: what is to be gained – survival, safety, salvation – versus what is to be lost – utter and absolute freedom from any morality or obligations. It’s a headier book than I expected. Through Vanimen, Tauno, and Eyjan Anderson digs into what motivates, as well as what frightens them and the other survivors of Liri to make their ultimate choices. This is without a doubt the most deeply felt and emotionally tangible characters I’ve read in any of Anderson’s stories.
If you are a newcomer to Poul Anderson, I’ve always recommended The Broken Sword as an excellent introduction. Now, I can just as readily suggest The Merman’s Children, too.
Header artwork by Wayne Barlowe