I am fortunate this term to be teaching seminar called “Folklore Goes to the Movies.” In it, we are exploring the ways in which folklorists can and do approach films. In planning the course, I could have focused on the most obvious way—i.e., the making and use of ethnographic films—as I explored in the seminar “Transposing Experiences” last fall. But this term, we are looking at films that describe themselves as fictional and that seek not so much to edify or inform as to entertain. My examples are all recent films from the Nordic and Celtic regions.
To get the course rolling, I selected two classic films that each engage with well-known cycles of legends and use these as the basis for spinning a narrative of a character’s growth and search for belonging. The two films are Nils Gaup’s 1987 Ofelaš (Pathfinder) and John Sayles’s 1994 The Secret of Roan Inish.
Legend is a term that folklorists use for stories told as true, i.e., stories that people believe did happen, or could have happened, sometime in the past. Sometimes they seem unlikely, or uncanny, or just plain unbelievable, yet often aspects of the visible world seem to confirm to listeners or tellers of legends that they are true. Gaup draws on a set of legends widespread in Sámi culture about roving marauders known as čuđit. In variants of the legends classified by folklorists as ML8000, an outnumbered and unlikely hero—sometimes a boy, sometimes a lone man, sometimes an old woman—manages to defeat powerful enemies by tricking them to their deaths. At a place called Ruostefielbmá on the Deatnu (Tana) river in Northern Norway, for instance, a Sámi convinces the čuđit to follow his torch as he supposedly leads them to a village located alongside the river. When he reaches the top of high precipice above the river—the cliffs that tower over the east side of the river just north of the village, now also above the highway 890—he throws his torch down, leading the čuđit to run forward over the side of the cliff and to plummet to their deaths below. The stones of the place are said to have gotten their rust-red hue due to the blood strewn as a result.
Drawing on Rosalie K. Fry’s 1959 children’s novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, Sayles adapts Scottish legends of seal-human hybrid beings—the selkies—a tradition known in Irish, Scottish, and North Atlantic Nordic legendry. There are both male and female selkies and in either case, their beauty when in human form is said to fill beguile or entrance all who see them. In a widespread legend, a human man manages to get hold of the discarded seal skin of a female selkie when he finds her sunbathing on the shore. For reasons seldom clear in the legends, the man stores the skin in a chest or attic or other hiding place, while the transformed selkie becomes his loving and submissive wife. But at some moment years later, the selkie happens to find the hidden skin, immediately pulls it back on, and makes her joyful escape, to live out the rest of her days in the sea, albeit with some sadness toward the household of human children she leaves behind. In Roan Inish, the Conneelly family is said to have a selkie in their past, and this fact links them with the local seal population that saves or abducts the infant Jamie and eventually returns him once the family agrees to settle again on the island that they had long made their home.
There are many ways in which these two films can be compared, but one that jumped out at me watching them this time was the notion of place and home and the longing to protect and sustain it. In Ofelaš, the intricacies of the local landscape combine with a spirit being—who takes the form of a reindeer bull—to save both the place and the community from the marauders’ attack. Gaup introduces elements of Sámi noaidevuohtá (shamanism) into his film’s narrative, making a mysterious reindeer the trusted advisor and apparently the spirit helper of both the community’s present noaidi (shaman) Raste, and his eventual successor Aigin. The details of shamanism are not spelled out in the film, although Raste’s use of his drum for divinatory purposes is depicted in connection with the community’s ritual bear hunt. Nature and its often unseen spirit emissaries side with the Sámi against an encroaching enemy bent on stealing and destroying what belonged to the place before. In Gaup’s film it is not difficult to see the čuđit as stand-ins for the rapacious agents of what Kristina Sehlin MacNeill, in her important 2017 dissertation, calls “extractive violence”—forces aimed at clearing people off the landscape of Sápmi (or Australia) so that the places can be exploited for minerals, hydroelectric power, ski slopes, or other commodities in a process of colonization that continues to the present.
The background story for the narrative of Roan Inish, as reworked by John Sayles, is the historical evacuation of islanders from remote western islands of Ireland like the Blaskets in the late 1940s and 50s. The “plight” of villagers in places like Bun a’ Bhaile on Great Blasket became known to the Irish government when villagers themselves wrote to Taoiseach Éamon de Valera in April 1947, pleading for help in the aftermath of a devastating storm. De Valera, himself a transplanted Irishman who’d been born in NYC , set in motion a process of “evacuation” that would resettle the islanders on the mainland in government-built homes, “saving” them from the way of life that had sustained them on the islands for generations. A wider world public became aware of the situation through a syndicated newspaper story written by Liam Robinson and photographer Donal MacMonagle in the winter of 1948. Entitled “The Loneliest Boy in the World,” the story focused on an 18-month old Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin, the sole young person living at the time in the village of Bun a’ Bhaile.
In a fascinating memoir written by an adult Ó Catháin with the assistance of Patricia Ahern, and ably reviewed in a 2014 piece by Áilin Quinlan in the Irish Examiner, Gearóid notes that his life on Great Blasket was anything but lonely: as a young child he was surrounded by adult and elderly islanders who included him in all the activities and adventures and struggles of daily life. But the notion of Gearóid as the world’s “loneliest child” seized the popular imagination across the world, and masses of toys and other gifts poured in to cheer him up. A wealthy man in Minnesota sought to adopt the boy, and a couple in Iowa offered to import the entire family to work in a grain elevator operation. In the imaginings of the postwar West, in Ireland or the United States, nothing could seem more tragic than living a life lived in the rural hinterlands, far away from the comforts of modern technology, modern schooling and easy access to shopping and church. Any acts to save a child from such an existence—even if they entailed a wrenching relocation and cultural reeducation—were seemingly morally justified. In 1953, Gearóid’s family was among the first to accept the government’s offer of resettlement to the village of Dún Chaoin on the mainland, where Gearóid’s other siblings were eventually born and where all the rest of the Blasket islanders came to live from then on. Gearóid eventually went to school in Kilkenny and now lives in a suburb of Cork, far away from an abandoned island that he still fondly remembers but seldom visits.
Stories like Gearóid’s and others like it elsewhere in the British Isles became the basis of Rosalie K. Fry’s 1959 novel, originally published by E.P. Dutton but recently reissued in a new edition by Nook Books. In Fry’s novel, the character Fiona is not a Conneelly but a McConville, and she has been resettled not from an Irish island but from one of the Scottish Western Isles onto the Scottish mainland. In other respects, the screenplay for the film, written by John Sayles himself, is much as in the book. Fiona, failing to thrive in the city, is sent back to her grandparents’ home on the coast, where, together with her cousin Rory (Éamonn in the film) she must work to convince the family’s elders that the seals will return the missing child Jamie, whom they have lovingly reared for several years, if the family resettles on the islet of Ron Mor (Great Seal) from which they had been evacuated. That Sayles relocates the story to Ireland probably has much to do with his own identity as an Irish American.
I had the good fortune to drive through the Varangerhalvøja nasjonalpark between Vardø and Hamningberg with Harald Gaski and Britt Rajala in the summer of 2013.
The village of Hamningberg is today connected to the rest of Norway by a one-lane road that hugs the coast, crossing a dramatic landscape of steep cliffs and jagged rocks that Gaup used as the actual backdrop for his film.
Around 1900, the village was home to some 250 people, mostly Norwegian and Russian fishermen using the place as a base for their work. The village was so remote, however, that even the retreating Germans at the end of WWII did not bother to burn it down, meaning that it preserves in its 65-odd houses many examples of North Norway’s earlier architecture that was completely obliterated elsewhere by the Germans’ scorched earth tactic at the end of the war.
When the Fv341 roadway was opened in the postwar era, Britt tells me that the village nearly immediately depopulated: people had been waiting, it seems, all along to escape the village and make it to the world outside. By 1964, Hamingberg was entirely abandoned as a permanent dwelling place: it had become a spot only for summer vacation dwellers and a destination for campers and tourists, much like the Blaskets.
My grandmother Amanda Bourque Dubois was born in 1900 in Québec near the shores of Lac Noir, a deep lake some 3 km long and 1.5 km wide that was so surrounded by hills and forest that its waters looked black. When asbestos was discovered by the lake in 1890, the mining industry took interest in the little francophone village. By 1905, the nearby village of Kingsville had been renamed Thetford Mines, and a mining boom was on. Lac Noir, renamed Black Lake in 1908, was drained and destroyed. Today there is a gigantic, canyon-like crater where my grandmother’s home place once stood. She carried memories of the lost lake all her life, just as she carried with her the asbestosis that plagued her with endless hours of coughing throughout her life, leading directly to the painful lung cancer that finally killed her at the age of 70.
My grandmother Nora Lyne O’Connor was born in Ballinskelligs (Baile ‘n Sceilg) in western Ireland in the County Kerry. She eventually married my grandfather Denis O’Conor from near Cahersiveen. My grandmother’s home place by the sea was bought by a wealthy Dublin attorney when my great Uncle Michael was resettled by the government on a larger piece of land in County Meath, near the village of Trim. In a book I wrote about song traditions in northern Europe, I wrote about my Uncle Mick’s songs, nearly all of which spoke longingly of the Kerry he’d left behind. He loved his farm in Meath, with its 60-odd acres and lots of cattle, but he missed the land and sea and language of his youth in Kerry.
With its two world wars and massive technological transformations, the twentieth century was a time of immense change in small communities. People moved or were moved, villages came and went, lakes disappeared, places depopulated. Both these films in some ways grapple with that process, holding out happy narratives of places that managed to survive through a mysterious coalition of natural place, supernatural help, and willing young people. That is perhaps what makes both films so alluring for viewers today: they offer narratives of communities still connected squarely to their lands and waters and to the wider network of forces and beings that sustain places over time. They make staying put into a heroic act as they lay bare the villainous, or at least heartless, characteristics of the systems that would uproot them.
Of course, film and other media are not entirely lacking in culpability in all this history. It was a newspaper story that made a young Gearóid into the “loneliest child in the world,” and it was probably more newsreel and entertainment films than actual travel that caused the exodus predicted in Sophie Tucker’s 1919 song “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” People traded in lived realities for imagined adventures, headed for the coasts or the cities, and left once vibrant communities behind to become half-forgotten “fly-over zones.”
It’s interesting to wonder how much movies have convinced us collectively to leave our Hamningberg villages behind for the siren’s song of life in a bigger or better place, convinced that the life available to us there was too small, too remote, too lonely, too lacking. Did we learn to leave our Tatooine or Shire behind in order to find “true” adventure? And after we had packed our boat or station wagon and headed away, what happened to the place and the people we left behind? Were they swept away in the interest of hidden minerals, repackaged as vacation components and tourist attractions? Did we bother to care? Or did we only realize what was lost when we saw it on the big screen half a lifetime later?