Disclaimer: In accordance with FTC Guidelines for blogging and endorsements: The book reviewed has been purchased by me and the opinions I have expressed are my own. All quotes from “The Mermaid Bride” are the property of Tom Muir©.
Short summary:This is a well-researched, varied collection of folk tales retold by the author and is as entertaining as it is informative. It’s a hidden gem among the many books about Scottish folklore that line the mythology section of bookstore shelves. I highly recommend it to serious students of UK folklore who wish to learn more about Orkney's stories and traditions as well as children who love fairy tales. The pages are filled with fantastic tales of magic, Selkies, Giants, ghosts, Fin Folk, Mermaids, Trows (fairies) that will leave you completely enthralled. If you are familiar with Norse mythology, you will notice its influence on some of the legends. Vikings had invaded the Isles and lived there for a time among the natives long ago. You will even find that Christianity plays a role in some tales. I fell in love with the illustrations or Bryce Wilson. They are all done with a black pen using the stippling technique. They are incredibly detailed and give his artwork a nice texture as well as a three-dimensional impression due to his excellent shading method.
Book Contents: The book begins with the “Acknowledgements” page, followed by an introduction by the author, Tom Muir. He explains that his purpose of writing this book was to preserve Orkney's heritage and compile as many folk stories as he could find into one place for fear that all the ancient tales would be lost in time. I believe that he has not only achieved his goal, but also composed a classic that will lay on the bedside tables of many Orkney children for their mothers to read to them for years to come. Following the introductions is “The Creatures of Orkney Folklore” section which provides short descriptions of the mythical characters featured in the tales. I recommend you read this section if you are not familiar with Orkney folklore. Otherwise, it will be difficult to understand who or what the author is portraying in the tales, which follow right after this section. After the main text, the collection of folk tales, there is a small segment titled “Short Stories from Old Lore Miscellaneous” and one labelled “Ernest Marwick Papers, Orkney Archives of the Orkney Library, D31” and finally the “BBC Radio Orkney Archives” before the bibliography which is designated “Notes and Sources.” As you can see, the author has provided an abundance of resources as well as explanations at the beginning and end of the book for readers to make the concepts of the folk tales easier to grasp and for those who wish to further their study of Orkney traditions and folklore.
Writing and Analysis of Tales: The language is simple, but combined with the author’s unique style, a natural a story-telling voice which captures the essence of the settings in which the stories take place and forms authentic dialogues between the characters, gives a certain kind of charm to these tales as well as a faithful ambiance to the originals. They invoke emotions of love, loss, wonder, caution and even a bit of humour. Some tales are short, less than a page long, while others exceed three pages. I found that the narration is similar to that of fairy tales. Most stories have a theme or lesson which is conveyed either directly or subtly. My favorite sayings are: "A close tongue keeps a safe head" and "She shaped her own cloth, now let her wear her ill-fitting dress!" The tales are more plot-driven and the protagonists generally do not play a large part and are not particularly well-rounded. The choices these characters make, external supernatural forces and/or entities are what move the story forward. Supporting characters are not mentioned much and rarely influence the events which occur. If you keep in mind that you are reading a book of folktales, not a collection of short fiction, you will enjoy the book regardless. There is plenty of adventure to be found: discoveries of hidden islands and an underwater kingdom, the exploration of the wild, rich and untamed Orkney landscape, which is depicted in Mr. Muir's brilliant execution of story-telling.
I would have given the book five stars, had it not been for some minor details:
Toward the end of the book, there was an increase in common grammatical errors (misuse of punctuation, not capitalizing the first words of sentences, etc.). Also, the language in the tales also did not seem to flow as smoothly as they did earlier in the book. Everything felt somewhat rushed. Also, some factors in the tales were difficult to comprehend and made no sense at all to me. I understand and appreciate that they were told this way years ago, but one wonders if the original storytellers at the time had not been experiencing some drug-induced episode similar to a bad acid trip. A good example to support my opinion is the story "Good Neighbours of Greenie Hill." When a stampede of pigs suddenly appears out of nowhere in your house and starts squealing next to your feet, then one carries you off to see fairies, you know something is out of whack. I will say no more on the matter
Verdict: I genuinely enjoyed every moment I spent reading this book. I also learned a lot about the folklore of Orkney and a little about the customs of the people who lived there in the past. I loved the stories toward the beginning of the book most of all, which are creation myths that portray how Orkney came to be, as well as stories of Mermaids, Selkies and Fin Folk. But my absolute favorite tale was by far "Lady Odivre;" it was one of the most epic folk tales I had ever read. A oath made by Odin, a heartbroken lady, a brave knight in a faraway land, a Selkie King, a scandal... I will not spoil it for you. You have to read it.
Recommended for: anyone interested in foklore, particularly the folklore of Scotland and Ireland. The stories of the Orkney Isles are not as well-known as those from the rest of the UK, but they should be. If not for the sake of scholarly research, then for the pure joy that they will no doubt bring you. In the future, I may edit my review, adding and omitting material to elaborate on my views more thoroughly as well as provide recommendations for further reading. But for now, I believe this will suffice.
Quick note: if you decide to purchase this book, you should know it is printed by The Orcadian Limited (Kirkwall Press), and Orkney is an outlying group of Islands to the North of Scotland, it is a bit difficult to obtain a new copy in the US unless you order it online directly through the Orcadian Bookshop or special-order it through Waterstones or Blackwells. Otherwise, you can find used copies on amazon but they are more expensive.