(in all this I am likely taking myself far beyond the intentions of Tomm Moore, but it’s his fault for making such a good movie)
It is often said that the advent of Darwinism effectively bridged the gap between humans and nature: we can no longer view ourselves as special or separate from other animals when we recognize our common biological origin.
But the curious thing is that, in the years since Darwin, modern western civilization has if anything become increasingly alienated from both the natural world and our own nature as humans. This is because western civ has been playing out the consequences of intellectual developments that stretch backwards in time a few centuries.
In the ancient and medieval worlds, it was generally understood that natural things had discreet essences; the natural world was charged with meaning. The task of the natural philosopher was to understand the essence and causes of things.
As natural philosophy began to develop into what we now recognize as modern science, two major developments occurred. William of Ockham denied that the essences of things could actually be known, and felt that this sort of language was at best a sort of shorthand for talking about aggregates of irreducibly unique individual things. This is often called nominalism.
The second is that philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon decided that, regardless of what your take on essences was, it would be best if we could bracket our consideration of them in favor of focusing on the quantifiable and manipulable aspects of reality. Thus we have the scientific experiment: intervene into the natural world and tease the secrets of its mechanical workings out of it. This knowledge then allows you to better predict and control nature. Hence why the early modern period is also something of a heyday for magic, which also operates under a motive of exercising control over things – it simply chooses methods which are highly problematic.
Anyway, the uptake of all this is that the idea of nature (including human nature) as being inherently meaningful gets gradually brushed aside, and wisdom-knowledge is largely replaced by knowledge as (technological) power. So progress becomes increasingly measured in terms of how we increasingly come to assert our own personal meaning over meaningless nature, which we slowly rise above through technological mastery and political reform. Compared to this, the development of Darwin is something of a red herring.
What does all of this blather have to do with Song of the Sea? Well, this progressive alienation is, in essence, also an alienation from any sort of mythos. For the folk tale or the myth are all predicated on the assumption that humans live in a world of symbol and meaning that is larger than us, and to get by, we need to, like the natural philosopher, discern the essences and causes of things in order to play our part well. Song of the Sea, I’d argue, expresses this alienation we feel quite well. We find it harder to believe in selkies – not because we’ve grown to a better understanding of marine biology, but because our use of symbols feels arbitrary.
As I have stated in the past, I am of the view that our modern alienation and disenchantment is less a reflection of how reality really is and more of a spell that has been cast on us. And, indeed, Song of the Sea postulates that it literally is magic that is keeping all the faeries hidden from us.
You see, the goddess Macha couldn’t bear to see her son suffer, and so she drained him of his emotions. This had the side effect of turning him into stone, but no matter – soon enough she had fallen into a habit of sucking all the supernatural creatures of Ireland dry until very few were left. Now there are two striking things about Macha’s plan of action: the first is that it is very therapeutic in nature. The second is that, since the therapy reduces its patients to inanimate objects, it is in effect saying that the only way you can be “cured” is to not exist. Macha peddles the vice of despair.
Yes, despair is a vice. It is not an emotion; it is a state of being. It is, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, the sickness unto death. Yet, as the Danish philosopher said, the most subtle of states, which people can gradually succumb to, unbeknownst to themselves.
The virtue which despair is a privation of is hope. In the Christian tradition, hope is seen as the second of the theological virtues: the first theological virtue of faith is infused in the soul by grace, and the knowledge that this gives allows the believer to hope that he can attain eternal beatitude with God. These (along with the third virtue, charity) are called theological because they require the direct operation of God to be present in the soul.
It is often said that it is stronger to do without hope. Belief in God, heaven, etc. is easy; much more profound is to recognize that one’s own existence is like a candle that will one day burn out, that the world is an unsolvable riddle which is utterly indifferent to us, that you will do a better job of living your life and making the world a better place if you don’t have your head in the clouds like that.
I disagree. The man without hope has far less of a stake in things because all paths lead to the same grave. The temptation to take the easiest path, to take the road of compromises, is that much greater. On the other hand, the man who has a destiny really has been entrusted with a terrible responsibility. The one who believes that future generations have a fighting chance is the one who can put greater stake in them.
Back to the story: the world of Song of the Sea is a world that has slipped into despair. The human family at the heart of it is in despair, having lost their selkie mother, Bronagh, to Macha’s curse. Her half-selkie daughter Saorsie must be reunited with her selkie coat in order to be able to sing the song that will redeem both the faerie world and her family. She succeeds, but the faeries still have to leave the human world. Bronagh still must be separated from her family.
Most of this action takes place on Hallowe’en, a holiday where the borders between the mundane and the mysterious are often seen as getting a little blurred. And, of course, Hallowe’en is All Hallows Eve, or rather the vigil before All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day, the Church’s commemoration of the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. Indeed, by the climax of the story, the feast of All Saints has technically begun.
This three day period of All Hallowtide is seen as a particularly acute time to pray for the dead, that they may be released from purgatory. Indeed, the image of all the faeries, fully restored, triumphantly leaving the world behind is particularly apt.
But All Hallowtide is also a reminder that the dead are not cut off from us. The Church on earth, the Church in heaven and the Church in purgatory all form one Body of Christ. If the lines feel a little blurred on Hallowe’en, it is because they are in a sense always blurred. The dead are always with us.
In the denouement of Song of the Sea, hope has been restored to Saorsie’s family, even though the pain of loss remains – for hope is not an escape from suffering, but rather helps in its redemption. Even as the faerie world passes away into invisibility, its presence is paradoxically more operative in the world than it was before. Christ remains present even after his ascension into heaven, as are the saints who dwell with him. The essence of things has been restored. “Behold, I make all things new.”