With a Little Help from the Hempstocks

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman – I’ve had mixed feelings on other books of Gaiman’s that I’ve read before, but I have to say this one really clicked for me. The protagonist is a boy I could identify with, in that he’s very fearful and nervous and escapes from the real world by losing himself in books. Gaiman has said that the boy’s family’s experiences were somewhat based on his own growing up. I’ve been reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence (I’ve just finished The Grey King, and will probably do a post on the series as a whole once I’ve read the last one), and I found there to be a definite similarity to those, with magic and mythology at work in the British countryside and of seemingly ordinary people with deep secrets. Unlike Will Stanton, however, the unnamed first-person narrator in Gaiman’s book never really does anything heroic, although he does overcome some of his fear. When a miner who is boarding at the narrator’s house commits suicide after gambling away his friends’ money, it lets a parasitic creature into the world. This being, called a flea by the supernatural Hempstock family, thinks it’s helping but only creates misery. In one of the darkest parts of the story, it disguises itself as a nanny, seduces the narrator’s father, and influences him to abuse his son. The Hempstocks themselves are a magical grandmother, mother, and daughter, more or less equivalent to the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. They protect the narrator and help him to grow up. The title, which made me think of Clive Barker’s Abarat series in which a lighthouse stands at the end of a seemingly landlocked town, refers to a pond that Lettie, the youngest Hempstock, claims is an ocean. It doesn’t have a happy ending so much as an existential one, suggesting that life goes on despite its hardships.

I wondered if there was something to the real name of the flea-being, Skarthach of the Keep. Searching for the name on Google, I found that Irish mythology has a war goddess named Scáthach, who was Cuchulainn‘s teacher.

The warrior defeated Scáthach’s rival Aife, and had an affair with her daughter Uathach. Her home was Dun Scaith on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland. While there doesn’t appear to be any direct correlation between this warrior and the flea in woman’s clothing, the fact that her name meant “shadowy” might have had something to do with why Gaiman chose a variation on it for his character. I don’t know of any significance to the name that Skarthach took while in human form, Ursula Monkton, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any.

This entry was posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Celtic, Mythology, Neil Gaiman and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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