Dreaming A Dark Dream

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


A man in crows’ feathers a man with a drum

He carries a bag it is filled with songs

He carries a spear his talk is crooked


She is dreaming a dark dream.


These lines comes from a poem of mine called  "She Is Trying to Get Back to What She Was", and it was the circumstances that led up to the writing of that poem that also eventually led to my writing of this novel.  It's interesting, I think, when a work has been finished, especially one that's taken up so much time and become all-consuming, to look back at where the whole thing started, unearth those roots that led to its growth. And the root of "The Hunt for the Great Bear" - one of them at least - is a simple myth from the Arctic, the story of Sedna.

Some time ago I was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write a book of three folktales and myths on theme of water and the sea for young readers. I knew already some stories that would fit the theme, but I wanted, for my own interest as much as anything else, to find one that I didn't know. And I wanted each story to represent a different world culture. I had one from Britain, and one from India, so I began to research myths and folk tales from other parts of the world. It was during that research that I came across the myth of Sedna.

The story comes from the Arctic circle, an Innuit myth. And of course, as with all myths and folk-tales, there are several, often many, different versions. The story I eventually wrote for the book was adapted from two or three of them, and was much simplified for a young audience.

It tells the story of a girl, Sedna, who marries a mysterious stranger from across the sea. When he takes her in his kayak to his home, she finds herself in a filthy nest on a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, and that her husband is gigantic crow. Through the the power of her dreams she calls to her father to come and rescue her. But as they're escaping in her father's kayak, the crow chases after them and whips up a storm with its wings. The waves wash Sedna overboard. She clings to the side of the boat but the freezing cold turns them to ice, and they snap off and Sedna sinks beneath the waves. The crow turns back and Sedna's father returns home. Then further disaster strikes. The seas become barren of fish, and the people, Sedna's father among them, begin to starve. Then he dreams that his daughter is calling to him again, and he goes out to sea in his kayak. He finds himself surrounded by strange and terrifying creatures he has never seen before - they are in fact seals, walruses and whales. They mass about his kayak and tip him into the water, dragging him down to the bottom of the ocean. There he finds Sedna, transformed into the goddess of the sea. The new animals are the creation of her snapped-off fingers and thumbs. Her message to him is simple. She is enraged at being abandoned and lost, and in her rage has emptied the seas of fish. She knows she cannot return to being what she was, but longs for some comfort and kindness from the upper world, to have her long hair brushed and combed as it was when she was a girl. Her father does this for her, she grows calm, and fills the seas once more with fish. Her father returns to the land. But ever afterwards, someone from the human world must travel from time to time to the bottom of the sea to comb and brush Sedna's in order for the sea to thrive. If not, she will grown enraged again.

One of things that struck me about this myth, and that appealed to me, apart from its strangeness, its mixture of cruelty and beauty, was that implicit in its story, firmly embedded into it, was a deep understanding of the delicate relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world, an acknowledgement that what we take from Nature demands a price, a giving in exchange. That if we ignore that give-and-take relationship, if we don't treat the natural world with respect and care, it can easily turn against us in all its savagery and wildness.

It was after I'd finished writing the story for my children's book that I realised I wasn't done with it yet, or that it wasn't done with me, and that there was more I wanted to explore about the myth and its arctic landscape.

The first chance to do that was when I took part in a poetry workshop. We given a variety of photographs to choose from, and to use those photographs as the starting point for a poem. A very simple exercise, but those are most often the best, I find. And among those photographs was one of an arctic landscape. The poem I eventually wrote from that exercise was filled with imagery from the story,as if somehow it was a stripped down version of what I felt were its most vital elements. By then the whole world of that myth and its landscape had really taken hold, and I knew that what I wanted to next was to go even deeper into it and to write something much more expansive. It wasn't long after that, that the idea of writing this novel began to take shape. I didn't know at first, of course, exactly what kind of novel it would be. But whatever it was, I wanted it in some way to remain true to that ancient tale, and to embrace not only its fierce an unforgiving landscape, but also its strangeness, its cruelty, and its beauty.

Here's the full poem that's quoted above, which first appeared in an anthology of environmental poetry called "We're All in it Together" published by  Offas' Press (http://www.offaspress.co.uk/)


She is Trying to Get Back to What She Was


She is howling a loneliness


It is the shriek of the polar wind across blasted spaces

It is the deep-under-ice lamenting of whales

The throat-cry of seals, shadows in a blizzard


She is howling a loneliness.


She is folding the ocean into her body


It lifts a great hump it shoulders the sky

It glitters with creatures their frozen voices

Then cracks and splits and falls back empty


She is folding the ocean into her body.


She is dreaming a dark dream


A man in crows’ feathers a man with a drum

He carries a bag it is filled with songs

He carries a spear his talk is crooked


She is dreaming a dark dream.


She is combing her hair into the sky


She pulls at the knots they bleed a sunset

It is filled with stars and the northern lights

Its nuclear glow spreads across the world


She is combing her hair into the sky.


She is eating her father


His skin is the flag of his last kingdom

She is stitching his ghost into the emptiness

The needles she uses are made of his bones


She is eating her father.


She is trying to get back to what she was.












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Jan Page
Jan Page says:

Very interesting myth, David. When I was researching my novel, 'Selina Penaluna', I read a lot of sea myths, especially about mermaids (Selina Penaluna is the name of a mermaid in an old Cornish tale), but didn't come across Sedna. Ancient myths can have an extraordinary, contemporary resonance. The poem is beautiful too. Thanks. Look forward to reading more of your blog.

December 17, 2015

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