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Review by Timothy Lawrence
The first words of the Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea are a quotation from Yeats’ poem "The Stolen Child":
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
In the poem, a group of fairies entice a young boy to forsake the world of humans and live with them on their “leafy island” in a lake. They speak of the wonders of nature that are always at the fingertips. Hidden in their words is the thought that, in the wild, there is peace and comfort from all the cares of the human world, a world which is, “more full of weeping than you can understand.”
And yet, throughout the poem, the reader still feels a sense of danger in the fairies’ words; their world may not be so immune to weeping as they think. Indeed, they are often the cause of the sorrow they disdain. After all, they are stealing a human child (a common occurrence in fairy stories), a child with parents, siblings, and grandparents who love him. And they beguile the boy with visions of “vats full of berries and the reddest stolen cherries.” They are tempting him with stolen fruit, which shouldn't strike the reader as the least bit innocent.
It seems to me that in that one line of the poem, the true meaning of what the fairies are saying is revealed. They, like the serpent in Genesis, tempt an innocent do to that which is harmful. In Genesis, the desire was for knowledge, in Yeats’ poem, it’s a desire for a type of naivety, a complete avoidance of pain, suffering, and “weeping.”
Both the fairies and humans in Moore’s masterpiece are afflicted with this second desire, and the film is a fairy tale in refutation of it, a gorgeous and weighty argument for why the right response to pain and suffering is not avoidance, but love.
In another work by Yeats’, his introduction to Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, he describes the eyes of one Paddy Flynn, “the most notable and typical story-teller” that he knew. “Assuredly,” he writes, “some joy not quite of this steadfast earth lightens in those eyes…A melancholy there is in the midst of their cheerfulness—a melancholy that is almost a portion of their joy.” This joy mixed with sorrow that Yeats describes finds, I think, a further expression in the nature of love. Another Irishman, C.S. Lewis, once wrote that love itself is a mixture of the two, a joy inextricably linked to sorrow. In his great work The Four Loves he explains that “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
In the beginning of the film, we see how each character responds to the tragedy of losing Bronach by denying the full force of their suffering, and thus also of love. They do not speak their pain, but hide it in various ways. Conor becomes quiet and inattentive, remembering the anniversary of his wife’s departing by going to the local bar for a beer. Granny’s house and car are littered with plastic containers of medicine, which she takes whenever she seems to feel anything beyond a kind of melancholic stupor. “It’s not safe in this awful place,” she says, “I need to take my medicine.” On the car ride back to her house inland, she tells Ben, who had just left his home, his father, and his best friend Cú that there will be “No tears in this car or my house.” It should be noted that she is not cruel in a vindictive way, she simply denies any emotion, and thus becomes stony, cold, and hard. Ben reacts to his mother’s death in yet a third way, though like the others he denies the full weight of it. His grief causes him to be fearful and angry. He treats his sister poorly, seeming to hold her responsible for his mother’s death, and, in one particular scene, is afraid when Cú drags him into the ocean, even though it’s so shallow that there is absolutely no possibility of drowning.
A similar story concurrently plays out in the world of the fairies. Macha, the terrifying owl witch, attempts to solve the problem of suffering by sucking out all emotion from the world. Her son, Mac Lir, had lost someone that he deeply loved and cried an ocean through his tears. To save him from himself, Macha captured his grief, and he was turned literally into stone. Macha, like to grandmother, isn’t motivated by evil, rather her motivation is simply a warped expression of love. “I couldn’t bear to see my son suffering so much,” She tells Ben, “I couldn’t bear it.”
Caught in between these two worlds are the selkies, Conor’s wife and Saoirse, his daughter. In Irish legend, a selkie is a type of fairy creatures able to change shape from a seal to human. In the film, Saoirse acts as the key to saving both her human family and the fairy world, which are visually intertwined in remarkable ways.
Conor is often shown in the same pose and the stone Mac Lir, and in one particular scene, his shadow cast upon the wall is in the exact same bowed pose. In the same scene, Saoirse’s shadow looks like a seal. Granny and Macha share an owl-like appearance, and Granny is frequently bringing with her a caged bird. Her license plate reads OW45. Where Macha is surrounded by glass jars which she uses to trap her emotions, Granny is surrounded by pill containers, which metaphorically serve the same purpose. Young Ben, like Mac Lir, is best friends with his dog. The fairy mound in the middle of the city is similar in shape to the holy well the children use for shelter. The ferry boat’s name is Caol na Mara, which is Gaelic for song of the sea, and we eventually see that, while the ferry transports people, the song transports fairies. The transmission towers seen when Ben and Saoirse are finding their way home look like owls.
The visuals in the film, though, are not merely present to show connections between the worlds, they are also charged with emotional cues. When the children are forced to leave their father and their island home, it begins to rain. The color during the majority of the film is blue and purple, the color of sorrow. During Saoirse’s song, though, the color changes to a comforting gold and red.
I have never seen a film that is so iconic. Icons in Orthodox tradition are described frequently as “windows into Heaven.” They are a representation, but also more than that, of a reality that is beyond our current vision. In some ways, they are very similar to the Celtic idea of “thin places,” locations in the natural world where the physical and spiritual realms meet, a place where a sense of the divine is more tangible than usual. Present in both icons and thin places is the idea that what we can see with our eyes is not really all that is there.
For the characters in the film and also the viewer, Song of the Sea is, in some ways, just like this. It is a visual representation of a story, but also more than that. Through what is seen, a greater understanding of intangible ideas is possible. In this case, the ideas explored are sorrow, pain, and most especially love. What the film has to say on those subjects to the viewer, and what the characters in the film learn of them, is truly remarkable.
The viewers, as well as the grandmother in one scene, are given a visual prodding that love is the right response to pain and suffering. On the wall of the grandmother’s house is a Catholic picture of Jesus of the Sacred Heart. In such pictures, Christ is usually seen with his wounded hands pointing toward his heart, which is itself wrapped in a crown on thorns.
It is no wonder that humans try to hide grief in all manner of ways, because grief is, in this fallen world, a negative consequence of love, and love is the most powerful force, idea, action, or emotion, in the world. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that love was greater than faith and hope. Christians believe that love is bound up in the very nature of God. Perhaps it doesn’t strike us as profoundly as it ought simply because of the overuse of the particular statements, but reflect, for a moment, on how extraordinary the claims are that “God is love” and “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Such a sublime thing as love is bound to be attacked furiously by evil, as exemplified in the act Christians consider love’s purest form. Christ’s act of love laid him open to the worst pain and suffering ever experienced. Indeed, in following his example, all our best loves are, in an earthly sense, temporary and coupled with sorrow. We will eventually have to say goodbye to each and every person to whom we say, “I love you.”
Song of the Sea aims to understand the nature of love and grief more fully. Is a shrinking of ones ability to love worth taking away any kind of pain? “If someone said they could take the that pain away, would you let them?” Macha asks Ben. The film’s response is nothing more or less profound than Bronagh’s tears which, prayer-like, float up to Heaven.
A film such as this, one that refuses to be cynical in an all too cynical culture and gives something as beautifully strong and tender as love freedom to roam in a magical world, ought to be celebrated. At the risk of sounding sentimental myself, I will say that the best films are the ones that leave the heart full, and Song of the Sea is one of the very best. To quote Yeats again, fairy and folk-tales “are the literature of a class for whom every incident in the old rut of birth, love, pain, and death has cropped up unchanged for centuries: who have steeped everything in the heart.” Song of the Sea is just this kind of story. Each “incident in the old rut” is beautifully present. The film, perhaps better than any I have seen, gives voice to the longing in each Christian for the world to come, when all will be perfect and the “old rut” no more, a world in which love, in its full expression, cannot be attended with sorrow.