You might remember watching the film Harvey, “a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull. The story is about a man whose best friend is a pooka named Harvey—in the form of a six-foot-3.5 in. invisible rabbit.” Harvey is a Pooka or púca. Something very old, a magical creature of Irish, and indeed of all Celtic traditions, though under other names.
“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’—she always called me Elwood—’In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
“Did I tell you [Harvey] could stop clocks? Well, you’ve heard the expression ‘His face would stop a clock’? Well, Harvey can look at your clock and stop it. And you can go anywhere you like, with anyone you like, and stay as long as you like. And when you get back, not one minute will have ticked by. You see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space, but any objections.”
The Nix (or singular masculine: Neck; feminine: Nixie) are water spirits living in calm waters, which like pooka may appear as human or as animals (especially horses) and are known for their beautiful songs that lure people to water. Stories of such beings interacting with humans are found throughout northern Europe, from Holland to Sweden. The Rhinemaidens of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen, are Nixie. The nykur of Iceland and Scottish Kelpie are also horse/human shapeshifters.
Though stories about them do not consistently see them acting malevolently, they can be problematic tricksters. Sometimes they are helpful or very dangerous. Iron is sometimes seen as a way of neutralizing the powers of such creatures.
The Orkney, Irish, or Scottish Selkie is related but a human/seal shapeshifter, and the the song, “The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry” is a reversal of a more common story of magical brides stolen from the sea.
I am a man upo’ da land;
I am a selkie i’ da sea.
An’ whin I’m far fa every strand,
My dwelling is in Shöol Skerry.
That used to be one of my favorite songs out of Joan Baez’s songbook. I played the guitar and sang it when I was young.
This post began because Neil Gaimon has a new book out of Norwegian folktales and the cover features a painting by Theodor Kittelsen. I have a book someplace that contains Kittelson’s illustrations because I was fascinated by trolls when I was ten or eleven years old. My father took me to the University of Washington’s largest library and there we found three books with information on trolls, in Norwegian. Gaiman claims that when he begins rereading the stories in his collection he completely forgets why and is immersed in the tales.
“I keep trying to write a measured and sensible introduction to this book, and I keep failing. I keep failing because in order to find out what I think I pick up the proofs and start to read—or rather, at this point, to reread and to rerereread—any one of the Norwegian folktales waiting between these covers, and then I’m swallowed by them. I don’t read them critically. I don’t even put my compare-this-story-from-this-tradition-to-this-other-story-that-it-somehow-resembles hat on. I just start to read, and I’m following the adventures of Ash Lad, or the Girl Whose Godmother Was the Virgin Mary, and I feel satisfied.”—“Neil Gaiman on the Good Kind of Trolls”
Ursula K. Le Guin found Gaiman’s first book of retold Norse mythology a bit bloodless but I do not have those or these more recent retellings before me, and I am lost instead in the work of the illustrator, in the connections between these stories from many seas and waterways, and in my own history and passion for them.
Lost and found in story.