We’ve always been suckers for good stories of the sea, and selkies are pretty much the best. Ethereal creatures who take the form of seals in the ocean, but then transform into supernaturally beautiful humans while on land: they’ve inspired tales for centuries. Selkies stories tend to be romantic tragedies: female selkies are trapped on land and slowly waste away when men hide their sealskins; fishermen wake to find their beloved wives gone back to the sea; selkie children spirited away to an aquatic life.
But lately people have been tweaking the selkie stories to give them, if not happy endings, at least slightly more hopeful ones. We’ve gathered up a few of our favorite modern selkies below—let us know those we missed in the comments!
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
This one combines every element of the classic selkie story. Wistful Irish kid? Check. People living on a misty, faraway island? Check. Sad family backstory? Checkity Check! Fiona goes to live with her grandparents on the western coast of Ireland, and soon learns that one of her ancestors may have had a tryst with a selkie. As if that weren’t magical enough, at least a few members of her community think that her baby brother was spirited away by the creatures. When she visits a lonely cove and spots an unusual seal, she needs to decide whether to trust the myths. Could it be her brother?
Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (2013)
I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.
Sofia Samatar’s touching story tells us of a different side of the selkie myth. Our narrator is the daughter of a selkie who has to stay behind and take care of her father, while also dealing with the emotional fallout of not only losing her mother, but of being tied so tightly to the world of myth.
Mercedes Lackey’s Home from the Sea (2012)
The eighth book in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters Series takes us into the world of the selkies! Mari Prothero lives with her father in a fishing village on the coast of Wales. She’s approaching her eighteenth birthday, and she knows that soon she’ll be expected to marry a stranger of her family’s choosing. She hates the idea of this future, but she doesn’t yet know the truth: she is a descendant of selkies—and to continue her line, she must marry into that magical world.
Neil Jordan, who dealt with semi-magical horses in Into the West, gives us a semi-magical Selkie story in Ondine. If you’re unfamiliar with Neil Jordan, brace yourselves for the full onslaught of Irish cinema I’m about to unleash: Colin Farrell is a recovering alcoholic fisherman, his daughter is slowly dying of kidney failure and has to use a wheelchair, and her mom, Farrell’s ex, is an active alcoholic who keeps messing up their lives.
One day Farrell pulls a half-drowned woman up in his fishing nets, and when she asks him not to take her to the hospital, he decides that’s not suspicious at all and takes her home. Soon he notices that when she sings he catches more fish, and he and his daughter come to care about her…maybe even love her? Obviously, things get complicated, but Ondine is an often lovely modern fairy tale, and a great addition to Neil Jordan’s particular brand of ethereal Irish cinema.
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s The Twins of Petaybee Series (2006)
Selkies! In! Spaaaaaaaace! In the future! The first trilogy in the series centers on Major Yana Maddock, a spy sent to the glacial planet Petaybee. There she meets geneticist Sean Shongili, a selkie who uses his shapeshifting ability to transform into a seal and explore under-ocean caves on the relatively recently terraformed planet. Together they discover that the planet is sentient, and work to defend it from corporate exploitation.
A second trilogy features Shongili’s two children, who also have traits of selkies. Like their father, each can transform into a seal and converse telepathically with the planet’s creatures—but when a visiting scientist becomes obsessed with capturing the twins for study, Shongili sends them away to live in an orbiting space station.
Song of the Sea (2014)
Two children, Ben and Saoirse, live in a lighthouse with their father, Conor. The loss of their mother has shattered the family, and Conor remains inconsolable. Ben is often left to care for Saoirse, who hasn’t spoken even though she’s six years old. When Saoirse discovers a shell flute that used to belong to their mother, the spellbinding music she creates becomes both a means of communication and the key to a magical secret locked deep in their mother’s past. Saoirse and Ben team up to save their family—along the way, she’ll need to find her voice, and he must to overcome his deepest fears. Song of the Sea was created by the same animation team as the equally enchanting Secret of Kells.
John Allison’s Bad Machinery: The Case of the Fire Inside (2012)
Bad Machinery tells the stories of three schoolgirl sleuths and three schoolboy investigators attending Griswalds Grammar School in the fictional West Yorkshire town of Tackleford, England. The mystery-solving teens tackle a number of supernatural cases, and in “The Case of the Fire Inside” one of the boys finds himself accidentally in possession of a selkie pelt. In her human form, the selkie takes refuge with a kindly (and slightly senile) old woman who calls her Ellen, mistaking the girl for her own daughter. “Ellen” tries to hide her mythical heritage at school, but her superhuman swimming prowess and inability to read or write might attract unwanted attention…
Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Tale of the Skin” (2007)
Cat Valente gives us a rare male selkie in her short story “The Tale of the Skin,” included in The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden. Maybe even more rare, we also get a female satyr! The satyr in question is a young girl named Eshkol who visits a skin pedler and is enamored of a dull grey pelt.
After she buys it, she learns that it draws its handsome male owner to her. Knowing the rules of fairy tales, she asks, “If you are a Selkie, and I have your skin, that means you must stay with me and be my lover until you can get the skin back, doesn’t it?” He admits the truth, but then spins the tale of how he came to lose his skin. Will she keep it to win his unwilling love?
This sweet family movie changes the usual story up by transplanting the Celtic legend to Australia! Jamie has a great life: a decent job, a place on the footy team, and best of all, he spends his nights playing lead guitar in a band. Everything’s going swell until his mom lands her dream job. She’s going to be the head of a marine research base, and the whole family has to move to a remote island. Jamie can’t ask her to turn her back on her dream, but what about his life? But all of his every day problems fade into the background once they’re on the island, because he begins to learn the truth about himself. The funny webbing between his fingers? The uncanny pull of the sea? Could he be a selkie?
Cally and West come from different countries and speak different languages in this 1983 novel from Susan Cooper. When tragedy took their parents, they were wrenched into a strange new reality, where they must work together to complete a quest: they must reach the sea. Their perilous journey takes them through lands both wondrous and terrifying, but they learn to survive and to love. Along the way they encounter giant insects, living darkness, dragons, and even selkies, until they finally learn the truth of their journey together.
The Selkie’s Lover (2013)
Set in the Scottish Highlands, this short film is another update on the story. After a selkie is trapped on land in her human form, she finds herself falling for a human fisherman. Can she find a way to stay with him? Or does her heart belong to the sea?
Originally published in February 2015.