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Authors: Poul Anderson

The Merman's Children

BOOK: The Merman's Children
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The Merman's Children

Poul Anderson

To Astrid and Terry

Author's Note

Scotland and Russia have from the Middle Ages as rich a heritage of folk ballads as Denmark. Elsewhere, most has perished. It's a pity that so few people outside that country read Danish. No doubt you admire as much as I do “The Battle of Otterbourne”; but the same steel is in “Marsk Stig.” For lusty humor we have both “Get Up and Bar the Door” and “Lave and Jon”; for cruelty and bleakness, both “The Twa Corbies” and “Valdemar and Tove”; for death and judgment, both “A Lyke Wake Dirge” and “The Death of Queen Dagmar”; for love that reaches beyond them, both “Clerk Saunders” and “Aage and Else” (with the latter also holding the motif of “The Unquiet Grave”); for a terrifying glimpse of the supernatural, both “Tam Lin” and “Germand Gladensvend”; for one more gentle, both “Thomas the Rhymer” and “The Mermaid's Prophecy.” These matchings omit a number which are just as fine.

That is especially true of those dealing with the Otherworld, the halfworld, Faerie, whatever you want to call it. There the Danes have many splendid old verse tales. A jewel among them is
“Agnete og Havmanden”
(“Agnete and the Merman”; the given name is a version of “Agnes”).

It happens to be of late date; in his classic essay on these collections, Axel Olrik calls it post-medieval. He adds that it is not of native origin either, but has a German source which in turn draws on Slavic legend. The Northern singer moved the setting of the story to England. Otherwise, though, his (or her) work was no mere derivative, but a creation new and uniquely Danish. In the nineteenth century it inspired Matthew Arnold to write that beautiful poem “The Forsaken Merman.”

In view of all this, I feel no guilt at having taken a few liberties of my own. The home of Agnete and her lover has been moved back to Denmark, where it belongs, and their time, somewhat arbitrarily, to several hundred years ago. Contradicting the ballad, I have her bear him daughters as well as sons; after all, that seems more likely than seven boys in a row. As for the plausibility of the entire narrative: by definition, fantasies make certain assumptions which we take to be factually untrue. The background here is Catholic, but the religion does not conform to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rather, it is the naive, half-pagan mythology of peasants and seafarers in the early fourteenth century—when Denmark was enjoying a brief respite in a long period of foreign and civil wars.

I have tried to be accurate about humans and their societies. Two persons, Bishop Johan Kvag and Ban Pavle Subitj, are historical.

Those who have visited Yugoslavia will recall that the Dalmatian area is nearly treeless. However, its woodlands were famous in medieval times, even as the cedars of Lebanon had been in Solomon's.

Climate everywhere was colder than it is today and getting steadily worse, to culminate in the “little ice age” that prevailed from about 1430 to 1850.

In describing the locations and fate of the Norse settlements on Greenland, I have in large part followed Farley Mowat's book
. His reconstruction is controversial but, to my mind, makes a good deal of sense. While people of the Dorset culture appear to have reached Greenland at an early date, they were replaced—or displaced—by the Eskimos, and there seems to be no doubt that the latter arrived well after the Norse, who found no inhabitants (unless possibly a few Irish) when they themselves first came to the southern end of that country. For the initial scene in Book Four, Chapter I, I am especially indebted to Peter Freuchen's account of similar occurrence in his
Arctic Adventure

I know of no direct evidence for the class of ships called hulks or for ratlines bent to shrouds and crow's nests aloft before the end of the fourteenth century. Yet mariners have always been very conservative, not without reason. It strikes me as likely that such innovations would have been in use here and there, by owners of pioneering temperament, some generations before they became so widespread that artists depicted them. Likewise for other items such as spectacles.

For help with certain technical questions and for good advice I am grateful to Karen Anderson, Mildred Downey Broxon, Dorothy Heydt, and Jerry Pournelle. They are not responsible for whatever errors and infelicities remain.

The rest of this note deals with spellings and pronunciations. That is, inevitably, lumpy stuff; you may or may not wish to study it.

Those Danish names which are important in the story go approximately as follows:

Agnete, ow-
-teh; Asmild,
-meel; Dagmar
-mar; Ingeborg,
-eh-bor; Knud, cnooth,
as in
food, the
as in
; Kvag, kva,
as in
Margrete, mar-
-teh; Ranild,
eel; Roskilde,
-keel-eh; Viborg,

In general: The combination
may be rendered, inaccurately but recognizably, as
. The combination of
would be written as one character in Danish but for convenience it is two separate letters in this book; the pronunciation resembles
. Terminal
is not silent but is sounded, as you will have noted in some of the names above.
is like the English consonant
, as
in yet. Y
itself is equivalent to the German
or roughly, English

I have modified some other spellings for your convenience and the printer's: notably the patronymic suffix, meaning “son of,” which is here given in its modern form

Even more have I transliterated Croatian in order to eliminate diacritical marks, though this means that numerous spellings are well off target. For present purposes, they follow English rules, with these exceptions:
as in
father; i
as in
machine; o
caught; zh
like z in
and both
and terminal
are employed as they are in Danish, i.e. like our

Hence the surname “Subitj”—which is written differently in its own language—is spoken as “Soo-bit'y,” with
as in “nor
Readers may find it easier just to say “Soo-bich.”

We have no equivalent of the syllabic
, e.g., in “Hrvatska,” but if you wish you can render it

Names of halfworld creatures and their homes, being imaginary, may of course be sounded in any way the reader chooses. I myself naturally think of them as if they had been transcribed by a Scandinavian.



coast of Dalmatia rises steeply. A bare league inland, Shibenik town stands high on a hill above the river Krka and sees mountain peaks in the east. Here the water forms a broad basin, which narrows as it moves on to the sea. Upstream, however, it tumbles in ringing cascades out of the lake which it and others have made.

In the days when the Angevin Charles Robert became boy-king of Croats and Magyars, the land along those falls was mostly wildwood. Likewise it was around much of the lake, save where the Krka empties into this. There folk had long since cleared it and laid it under the plow. A little farther up the river, about where the Chikola flows into it, Skradin village clustered by the stronghold of its lord, the zhupan.

Nevertheless, even within castle walls, the wilderness came a-haunting. Not only might one hear wolves howl by night and jackals bark by day, or have one's fields raided by deer and wild boar, or glimpse the horned mightiness of elk and aurochs. Uncanny beings dwelt yonder—Leshy among the trees, a vodianoi in the deeps—and lately, it was whispered, a vilja.

Ivan Subitj, zhupan, paid scant heed to such talk among his serfs. He was a stark man, though just, near kin to the great Ban Pavle and thus aware of a larger world than theirs. Moreover, he had spent years outside, many of them in the wars that hardened and scarred him.

Nor did his eldest son Mihajlo fear woodland bogies. Indeed, this youth had well-nigh forgotten whatever legends he heard early in life: for he had been educated at the abbey in Shibenik, had traveled to the bustling ports of Zadar and Split and once across the narrow sea to Italy. For his part, he wanted wealth and fame, escape from the changelessness wherein he had passed his childhood. To that end, with Ivan's help, he attached himself to the retinue of Pavle Subitj the kingmaker.

Just the same, he remained fond of his home country and often visited Skradin. There they knew him as a merry soul, kindhearted if occasionally thoughtless, who brought with him color, song, and vivid stories from beyond their horizon.

On a certain morn in a new summer, Mihajlo left the castle to go hunting. Half a dozen fellows accompanied him. Three were guards and body servants who had come along from Shibenik. Peace prevailed for the moment, both with the Venetians and among the powerful clans; and Ivan Subitj had beheaded the last bandit in these parts several years ago. Still, few men ventured far alone, and no women. The rest of those with Mihajlo as he rode forth were his younger brother Luka and two free peasants who would be guides and do the rough work. A pack of hounds trotted behind.

The party made a brave sight. Mihajlo was clad in the latest Western fashion, green doublet and hose, saffron shirt, silk-lined cape, Cordovan half-boots and gauntlets, flat velvet cap on long brown curls, face clean-shaven. A hanger slapped at his waist whenever his horse grew frolicsome. He sat the beast as if they were one. His own attendants were hardly less gaudy; their spearheads flashed aloft. Luka was in much the same knee-length coat, over tunic and cross-gaitered breeches, as the peasants; his garb was simply of better stuff, with finer embroidery along sleeves and hem, his brimless conical hat trimmed with sable while theirs had rabbit fur. He and they alike bore short, recurved bows, as well as knives of a size to cope with bear.

Hoofs racketed in the street, thudded on paths beyond. Unlike Frankish lords, those who were Croatian generally respected their underlings; had Mihajlo ridden across the tender green of croplands, he would have answered to his father. Passing a meadow, he did frighten a few calves with a joyful blast on his horn, but rail fences kept them from bolting.

Presently he was in the woods, on a game trail. This was mingled oak and beech forest, soaring boles, over-arching boughs, murmurous leaves, shadowy vaults and reaches where sunlight struck through in flecks and speckles, the hue of gold. Birdsong sounded remote and hushed against the quiet that brooded here. The air was warm, yet carried an edge, and full of odors that had naught to do with house or byre.

The hounds caught a scent. Their clamor awoke.

In the next hours the men took a stag, a wolf, a brace of badger; a wild sow eluded them, but they remained well content. Reaching the lake, they startled a flock of swans, let fly their arrows, brought down three. They thought they might return home.

That happened which God allowed.

Another stag trod onto the shore, a hundred yards from them. Late afternoon sunbeams washed aureate and blue-shadowed across him, for he was white, well-nigh the stature of an elk. Already his growing antlers made a tree athwart heaven.

“By every saint!” shouted Mihajlo, and soared to his feet. A pair of shafts missed the deer, which waited until the men were in the saddle again. Thereafter he fled them. Yet he did not seek thick brush where horses could not follow. He stayed on the trails, ever glimmering in dimness. Vainly, the chase hallooed after. Back and forth he led his pursuers, up and down, round and about, while time waned. The mounts were blown, the dogs gasping, when at last he came back to the lake.

BOOK: The Merman's Children
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