With critics praising THE LADY FROM THE SEA as a “pre-Freudian folktale” (The Guardian), some Ibsen fans may be wondering how folklore plays a role in Ibsen’s play. Read on to learn about the myths surrounding mermaids and selkies and how they influenced Ibsen’s writing.
The mysticism surrounding The Lady from the Sea originates largely from the palpable influence of folklore, not only on Ibsen’s creative process but also on modern readings of the play as folklore’s presence in popular culture colors interpretation. Ibsen reportedly drew influence from the natural beauty of his native Norway and was most certainly influenced by myths from his homeland. In modern reframings of Lady, audiences often interpret Ellida as a mermaid-esque figure due to her intense bond with the sea (and her direct characterization as a sea creature).
Although this connection is undeniable, Ellida does share certain properties with mythical figures beyond the mermaid. In Scandinavian, Scottish, and Irish folklore, selkies are seal folk who, when wearing a sealskin coat, turn into seals and live their lives in the sea. When they shed the coat, they appear to be human and can go on land. Several legends feature selkie maidens trapped on land. In legends, a man lures the selkie to land, steals her coat, and then marries her so she can never return to the sea in her natural form. She spends her life in deep sorrow, her liveliness eclipsed as the joy of the water’s song is muted to her. In several tales, she often dies shortly thereafter as her constricting life on land is something her soul cannot bear. Yet, in a few other stories, she chooses to stay on land, forever locking away her selkie coat and staying for the family she has built.
The striking parallels between Ellida and these mythological figures are apparent not only in their shared love of the water but also how marriage inevitably traps them on land and forces them to confront their situation. Ellida was, in a sense, lured in by Wangel and became trapped in a marriage. Though he did not force marriage upon her, the arrangement was practical at the time so she did not have another socially acceptable reason to deny him. In their marriage, she feels trapped, her daily forays into the sea providing a much-needed outlet, just as the selkie looks longingly at a possible return to their underwater home. When Wangel gives Ellida the freedom to decide for herself, she begins to understand that she is actually valued by both him and her stepdaughters. In essence, she has her selkie coat back but, as it is returned to her and not threatened by force, she gains a measure of clarity in what she now values more. Choosing to stay is akin to when the selkie gives up the coat of her own volition and willingly mutes the tantalizing call of her past underwater home.
These connections to folklore lend Lady a degree of enchanting mysticism as it explores more serious topics about social expectations and resulting identity struggles. They also reveal how deeply such tales are ingrained in cultural consciousness and their pertinence to literature and reapplying texts to our own cultural contexts.
Previews to Court’s production of this mysterious Ibsen play begin February 25, 2022. Learn more about The Lady from the Sea →
Photo of Chaon Cross by Joe Mazza.