For my last installment on this topic, I will conclude with the animation which is, for me, perhaps the most compelling. The Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore is an interesting mix of history, cultural conflict, and spirituality, and its visual approach alone expresses these themes without words. The plot receives additional dimension by the inclusion of Aisling, the forest sprite. She injects an air of mystery, and her supernatural friendship with the boy, Brendan, is compelling.
The artistic style is based on the ornate style of the real Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript that is regarded by some to be the greatest national treasure of Ireland. This marvelous document is on permanent display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin and can be viewed, page by page, in digital form on their website. I myself spent a fair amount of time admiring the workmanship of every page when I visited that site.
Another animator who has captured my attention is Tomm Moore. His work was recommended to me by my youngest daughter, Heather Irene Jones, who is a professional artist, living in Brooklyn, New York. This week, I will comment on Song of the Sea, his tale of a selkie and her role in restoring her family as well as the spiritual world. The concept behind the animation is advanced: frames drawn by hand with a childlike quality yet superior technique. It is very abstract, and I honestly saw methods of presentation I had never before seen on a screen. Also, the individual characters hover between a two-dimensional and three-dimensional quality while the overall scenes retain a very definite sense of visual depth. Finally, the choice of colors beautifully fits the theme and the plot, turning warmer and brighter during and after what I like to call the restoration sequence.
It is this sequence that moved me the most, which I imagine was the director’s intention. Characters that seemed comical and at least a bit hapless became nobler and more dignified while remaining identifiable, and the imagery provided an understated and spiritual abstraction. This scene also makes some endearing allusions to the significance of family and the restoration of character and relationships. Next week: a look at Tomm Moore’s other feature length animation.
Moving toward the acceptable end of the spectrum mentioned in my last post, I would like to consider female characters who are part human and part divine. Typically, they are the products of unions between gods and mortals. That the vast majority of ancient offspring from such unions were men should not surprise us, given the historical context. Whether male or female, such children often did not turn out well. Take, for example, Helen of Troy (also called Helen of Sparta). Though accounts vary, she is sometimes said to be a daughter of Zeus and Leda. The circumstances of her conception are at least slightly disturbing, her immortal father taking the form of a swan before procreating with her mother.
Her life from there does not particularly take to higher moral ground. Helen’s main (and perhaps only) attribute is her beauty, and throughout her life she is good chiefly for… well, you guessed it.
So how, exactly, does this qualify her as a positive example for the role of women in mythology? Uh, good point. Actually, it underscores another point I made last week. Older mythologies show a paucity of female role models, and newer constructions can be used to fill the social void. Jumping back into our own century, consider the title character from Ponyo by Hayao Miyazaki. She is the daughter of a wizard and a sea goddess and is stubborn and strong-willed. Her devotion to Sosuke is pivotal to the plot and to a touching depiction of friendship between young children of opposite sexes.
Another compelling example from animation is Saoirse, the daughter of a selkie and a lighthouse keeper in Song of the Sea by Tomm Moore. This is a truly admirable character who is redemptive to those around her, especially after her transformation.
Next week, I need to take on what could turn out to be a tougher assignment: finding positive examples of “normal” women in mythology.
A writer is something of an absolute monarch. In the domain of the author, literary legislation may be unilaterally enacted to improve the lives of women in created myth. This is not necessarily novel if the female character is divine or otherwise supernatural. Homer wrote reverently of “clear-eyed Athena” (the goddess of wisdom) in The Odyssey, and her assistance to both Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, was instrumental in driving the plot forward.
Fast forward, and switch media to Ponyo, the animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki. The sea goddess, Granmamere, is wise, kind, benevolent, and powerful. She has an uplifting and restorative effect on other characters in the story.
In another beautifully made animation, The Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore, there is the wood sprite, Aisling. She is a loyal friend who aids a boy in the completion of a righteous task despite dangerous opposition. She is also an interesting and well-conceived character.
By now, someone reading this has probably cried foul. I became aware in the 1960s that many feminists objected to the so-called “goddess image” as being a restrictive presentation of female identity which carries with it the burden of meeting unrealistic expectations. Their complaints did and do have merit, but it is important also to keep in mind that fiction is fiction. Such devices can be good for a story as long as they are handled responsibly. There is a literary spectrum in the presentation of women. If positive portrayals are limited to goddesses, excuses might be made for denying this respect to feminine characters who do not possess divine powers and who therefore more closely resemble women encountered in real life. Moving across the spectrum, I will address additional categories of female characters in my next two posts.