Book Review: The Penguin Book of Mermaids ed. by Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown

The Penguin Book of Mermaids

There’s something about mermaids that fascinates the human mind. Even if we don’t really believe in them, we all kind of want to, don’t we? Interestingly, mermaid or water-spirit myths are found worldwide, as this collection highlights. As someone who is willing to believe that there’s plenty we haven’t discovered in the depths of the sea, I was excited to read this compilation of mermaid stories.

The book is organized in four sections – Water Deities and Sirens from Olden Times, Mermaids and Other Merbeings in Europe, Literary Tales, and Merfolk and Water Spirits Across Cultures. While I found this collection interesting overall, it bogged down for me in a few parts. The first two sections are mostly tales that will be familiar to readers of European stories and fairy tales. Many of them are similar and they begin to feel repetitive. The “Literary Tales” section was slightly more interesting as it introduced some more modern re-tellings but, again, the influence is very Eurocentric and so the stories all begin to blur together.

It wasn’t until I reached the final section that my interest was once more peaked. While many of the previous mermaid myths were familiar to me, these were all new, several of them translated into English for the first time. These stories show a lot more diversity as well as highlighting the cultural differences of the various people groups who tell these stories. There are a lot of cross-cultural similarities but also differences, such as the versions of stories where the water spirit is a cross between a human and a snake rather than a human and a fish. Some spirits are seductive, many are dangerous, some can live peaceably amongst humans, at least for a time.

The connections between various cultures were apparent in some stories, as well as the variety. I was intrigued to learn, for example, that amongst the various languages spoken in the Philippines, stories of mermaids appeared much more predominantly in one language than the others. The answer according to the translator is that the waters in this region are much rougher and unpredictable than others. This speaks to how, worldwide, stories of water spirits seek to answer the human uncertainty and fear surrounding bodies of water.

While some editorial and translator notes added to the reading, such as the one above, overall I found that the editorial notes for each story were really too much. While the background information on various cultures and characters was informative and helpful, many of them provided a synopsis for the story I was about to read. And since none of these tales are particularly long, it added to the repetitive nature of the book.

If you’re someone with a strong interest in mermaids, you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I’d recommend skipping to the end to read something new.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Penguin Book of Mermaids ed. by Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown”

  1. This sounds really interesting – I’m always on the lookout for books on mermaid mythologies. It’s frustrating that so many of these types of books are curated badly/repetitively, though. Great review!

    1. You’ll probably find this interesting then! I definitely enjoyed the stories from other cultures (and apparently about a third of them are newly translated into English!). It ended up feeling uneven to me because there were more stories from European legends/myths, most of which are pretty well known, I think.

  2. This sounds like a textbook for a mythology class. The funny thing about mermaids is they have noses but don’t need air, and they have skin but they don’t get waterlogged and rupture.

    1. Interestingly, there is a lot of cultural variance in the appearance of mermaids. In some places they’re more like snake-human hybrids. Sometimes they have scales all over while others look exactly like humans but live under water (which makes even less sense!) And in one case, the mermaid is a fish on top.

    2. Oooh, these variations in mermaids sound very interesting, especially with the one with a fish on top! (I’m curious—is the bottom legs or something else…?) I also enjoy reading about mythology, but admittedly all I know about mermaids are the Disney version. The last part would have been an entertaining read for me.

    3. The last part is definitely the most interesting. And yes, there’s at least one versions that seems to be fish on top and legs on bottom!

    1. I know they’ve done Penguin Book of (various kinds of short stories) and google tells me there is a Penguin Book of the Undead about zombies. It’s an ARC I never got around to last fall; it came out in October.

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