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Manuscript vs Myth: Ingo

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

Helen Dunmore’s beautiful children’s novel, Ingo creates a beautiful and enchanting world that draws on traditional British folklore, and the authors own imagination to create a gripping novel. The story begins with protagonist, Sapphy, and her father, Mathew Trewheller, in a church looking at a carving of a mermaid. This carving does actually exist and can be found in the local church in Zennor, a seaside village in Cornwall. In the novel, Mathew is telling his daughter about the local Cornish legend of the Zennor mermaid.

The myth of the Zennor mermaid tells the story of a beautiful young maiden who would attend church at Zennor. Despite the years passing her beauty never faded and she never grew older. Eventually, she grew enchanted with a young man from the church choir, said to have the sweetest voice in the village, and he grew enchanted with her in return. One day, he followed her home and was never seen again. The mystery of his disappearance would have continued forever, were it not for a ship dropping anchor in a nearby cove. The young maiden appeared as a mermaid and asked the sailors to remove their anchor, as it was blocking the door to her home and she could not return to her children and husband. The husband was the young chorist. And according to legend, his name was Mathew Trewheller.

Much like his namesake, the Mathew Trewheller of the Ingo novel was a beautiful singer and, he too disappeared into the sea, shortly after telling his daughter this story. Sapphy and her brother Connor refuse to believe that he is dead, and one day, when she is by the sea, Sapphy meets a boy named Faro on the rocks. A boy with a tail instead of legs.

The mermaids that Helen Dunmore depicts are not quite the long-haired, fish-scaled image that is popular. For one thing, as an indignant Faro tells a stunned Sapphy, they are not ‘maids’, for he is certainly not a girl. Instead, they refer to themselves as Mer. Rather than bearing a glistening tail of colourful fish-scales, Faro and the rest of his kind have powerful seal tails. This makes sense as grey seals are frequently seen in the waters of Cornwall, so a Mer with a seal tail would be more likely to blend in than one with a glistening tail in tropical colours. It also allows Dunmore to allude to another popular British myth – that of the Selkie.

Often depicted as beautiful women, selkies are beings capable of transforming into seals and moving between the sea and the land with the help of their seal-skin cloak. Popular selkie myth claims that if a selkie’s skin is stolen they are unable to transform. These unhappy women are frequently trapped into marriage by the thief. Legend tells that these women will forever feel a longing for the sea, and if they find their skin will instantly return to it – leaving their half-human children behind. In the novel Ingo, Sapphy and her brother, Connor feel a similar longing. The ocean calls to them, inspiring a wanderlust that can make them forget all about their home, their mother, and even each other. Like selkie, Connor and Sapphy are able to move between the land and the sea passing through the ‘skin’ or the surface of the ocean with the assistance of their Mer friends. Eventually, they even learn that they have Mer blood, descendant from the first Mathew Trewheller, who gave their father his name.

The concept of fairies or mermaids having half-human children is not a new one. The children of selkies or mermaids were said to have webbing between their fingers that must be clipped, or cracked, scaley skin, or even flippers. It is likely that these myths came about as a way to explain certain genetic conditions. Syndactylism, for example, is when people are born with excess webbing between their fingers and toes, or even with some of their digits fused together. The legends of people having scales for skin may be a reaction to people with Ichthyosis – a skin condition which causes patterns similar to fish scales to appear on a person’s skin.

Unlike the myths that such conditions likely inspired, for the most part Connor and Sapphy look entirely human. It is only when they feel the call of the sea that this changes. Sapphy’s eyes become dark and unnerving, and her hair is described as tangling around her like seaweed.

Dunmore draws not only on legends of mermaids and selkie, but other facets of British folklore to create the world of Ingo – a fantastical but dangerous, and slightly chilling, world beneath the waves. The longer that Sapphy and Connor spend there, the harder it is to return.

A recurring theme in British fairy-tales is of time moving differently in fairy realms, with minutes in magical realms passing as hours on the outside. In Ingo, this is especially true when Faro is there to show Sapphy such wonderful things and distract her from thoughts of returning to the surface. Like many guides and otherworldly companions of British folklore, Faro is friendly, but simultaneously sinister. He is not human, and so does not have human values – something that is easy to forget. He is not evil, but he does not have the same values and morals as humans do. He is like the sea, subject to change on a whim.

Another aspect of British folklore evident in Dunmore’s novel is the idea of ‘fairy food’. It is said that if you enter fairyland and eat any food there, human food will forever fail to sustain you. You will wither away from the craving of fairy food, while normal food turns to ash on your tongue. After she returns from Ingo, Sapphy finds normal food unpalatable. She cannot even stomach the water. It is not until she adds salt that she is able to drink. Excess salt might make her capable of consuming human food, but it would also make her sick. As local wise woman (and suspected witch), Granny Carne reminds them, she is human too. And humans cannot drink salt-water.

All of these aspects come together to create an enchanting world that is at once familiar and unknown to the reader. Dunmore draws on traditional British myths, ingrained into the national consciousness in ways that allow to her to both create something new and remain true to the original mythology. Even the slightly sinister nature of Ingo plays into this genre – after-all, what is a fairy-tale without a wolf in the woods? A kindly old woman in the woods could be a saviour, or an evil witch. A mermaid and a magical world beneath the waves could be a miracle, or a danger. Although it is a children’s book Ingo is a fascinating read at any age – and remains very true to the myths and legends that inspired it.


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