Editor Roundtable: Song of the Sea

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This week the Roundtablers succumb to the selkie’s call with Song of the Sea, Kim’s pick for a story that combines Virgin’s Promise and Hero’s Journey structures. This 2014 animated fantasy based on Irish myth was written by Will Collins and directed by Tomm Moore.

 

 

The Story

Global Genre: Action-Adventure-Labyrinth (Life/Death)

    • Beginning Hook –  When Ben’s six-year-old sister Saoirse discovers  a fur coat that transforms into a magical creature a selkie, her father throws the coat in the ocean and sends to them to live with their Granny away from the sea. But when Ben isn’t allowed to bring his dog Cu and begs his father to let him stay, his father yells at him and make him go with Granny, leaving Cu behind.
  • Middle Build – At Granny’s, Saoirse plays the Song of the Sea on Ben’s magical seashell and alerts fairy folk, both friend and foe, to her presence. But when Saoirse is captured by Macha, the Owl Witch, Ben must face the truth. The Great Shenachie gives him a memory that his mother was also a selkie. With Cu’s help, Ben rescues Saoirse and apologizes for not being better brother to her. Together they defeat Macha with the song from the Shell.
  • Ending Payoff – Saoirse’s life begins to slip away and they must get her home to the sea to save her. Ben must face his fear of water in order to retrieve the coat from the bottom of the ocean. Reunited with her coat, Saoirse sings the Song of the Sea and sends all the fairy folk home. Being half human, Saoirse gives up her coat to stay with her father and brother.

The Principle

Kim We are all undoubtedly most familiar with the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s masterwork that he uncovered through studying the myths through the ages, across cultures.

Valerie – The Hero’s Journey is a set of principles governing the world of storytelling – it’s based on the work that Joseph Campbell has done into myths, and myth structure, as well as the psychology of Carl Jung.

Of course, in those works the hero is almost always male and the journey is almost always external, bringing the hero far from home. But what about stories where the protagonist is female, or where the hero stays at home? What happens when the story is about the masculine and feminine aspects that exist for everyone?

Here are a couple of resources you may find helpful:

Story Grid Podcast: Hero’s Journey Archetypes

Story Grid Podcast: Form

Kim – Indeed, Joseph Campbell says, “[the Hero’s Journey] will always be the one, shape-shifting, yet marvelously constant story we find.” And yet for all its constancy, there is another story shape that exists, one that is also constant, and different enough that it warrants its own terms. Author Kim Hudson has coined it the Virgin’s Promise in the 2011 book titled The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual, and Sexual Awakening.

There she describes the Virgin’s Promise as a second story archetype model, related to but distinct from the Hero’s Journey.

“The Virgin and the Hero story patterns are in many ways polar opposites of one another, two halves that make up a whole.”

Like Yin and Yang.

Hudson observed this pattern from within fairy tales that center around female/feminine characters, as opposed to the myths that Joseph Campbell studied that focus on male/masculine characters.

In essence, the Virgin’s Promise is the archetypal journey of coming into being, to become your true self.

  • These may be stand-alone Virgin stories, such as the movie Ever After
  • Stories where the protagonist grows on both the Virgin and Hero levels simultaneously, as in Mulan
  • Or stories with a fully developed Virgin story alongside a fully developed Hero story, as seen in the movie Shrek

I personally found the way Hudson compares and contrasts the Virgin’s Promise with the Hero’s Journey really helpful to better see the distinctions. Here are some examples:

  • Although both must learn to stand alone, the Virgin story is about knowing her dream for herself and bringing it to life while surrounded by the influences of her kingdom (Ever After).
  • The Hero story is about facing mortal danger by leaving his village and proving he can exist in a larger world (Willow).
  • The Virgin shifts her values over the course of her story to fully be herself in the world.
  • The Hero is focused on developing his skills to actively do things that need to be done in the world.
  • The Virgin is about self-fulfillment, while the Hero is about self-sacrifice.
  • They represent the two driving forces in humans when faced with challenges: propelled towards the joy of being in harmony with yourself (Virgin’s journey); or driven away from fear to face hardship and conquer it bravely (Hero’s journey).
  • The Virgin transforms within her kingdom; the familiar domestic setting where people assume they know what is best for her. This setting sets up the task for the Virgin to assert her vision for her life against the psychological pull of her community.
  • The Hero story is set in a foreign land —the more foreign, the better. It can be another country, galaxy or social status, but every thing he experiences is unfamiliar, such as habits, food, customs, and clothing. When he enters this land he is marked as an outsider, vulnerable to any number of unknown dangers.
  • In the Virgin’s Promise, usually some aspect of the kingdom is causing stagnation among its people but they are so attached to order that they go along with an evil force or block individual growth to maintain it. The transformation of the Virgin will result in a change in the way people in her kingdom live, despite their initial resistance. The kingdom of the Virgin represents the parts of a community that are in need of change.
  • The village of the Hero represents what is good in a community and worth preserving. Together the actions of the Virgin and the Hero provide the balance of growth and stability in a community.
  • The quest of the Virgin is to become all she is capable of being and in so doing create joy and happiness.
  • The quest of the Hero is to assert his will against evil and in so doing overcome fear.

The Hero’s Journey has 10 story beats that create the arc, while the Virgin’s Promise has 13.

Valerie – Writers often talk about the hero’s journey, but few have heard of the Virgin’s Promise. Fewer still understand that it is a story form distinct from the hero’s journey. Interestingly, Christopher Vogler (author of The Writer’s Journey), wrote the forward to Hudon’s book. In it he said:

“…there has been a persistent shortcoming in [the hero’s journey] approach to life and literature, in that it has a slight gender bias towards the masculine. …there is more than a drop of testosterone in the assumptions and specifics of the Hero’s Journey…” He continues to say, “What I found in [Hudson’s book] was an eye-opening re-telling of the universal human story from the feminine perspective … The author has taken care to draw parallels and make correspondences with both Campbell’s language and mine, so that the Hero’s Journey is not rejected but acknowledged as part of a larger system that also includes the Virgin’s Promise. The two approaches are seen as complementary rather than confrontational…”

How will knowing the Hero’s Journey and Virgin’s Promise help you tell better stories?

Again from foreword by Christopher Vogler:

“(The Virgin’s Promise is) in keeping with Joseph Campbell’s idea that the Hero has a thousand faces, countless interpretations, “the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told”. And among the shifting shapes must surely be plenty of uniquely female expressions.”

“The author has taken care to draw parallels and make correspondences with both Campbell’s language and mine, so that the Hero’s Journey is not rejected but acknowledged as part of a larger system that also includes the Virgin’s Promise. The two approaches are seen as complementary rather than confrontational, and combining the two of them will give you a complete set of language and mental tools for dealing with any kind of story.”

Kim – This combining of the two is what is so wonderful about Song of the Sea.

Song of the Sea is an excellent example of two powerful story archetypes: the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise, and because both exist here, Song of the Sea offers us a unique lens to learn them both, by comparing and contrasting them side by side. Having these two archetypes within one story leads to a fantastically rich story experiences–the archetypes have a special magic when they are intertwined.

Here we have the unique opportunity to experience both archetypes and their specific story beats. So let’s shift now to How Song of the Sea represents the Virgin’s Promise and the Hero’s Journey.

We mentioned that Global Genre is Action-Adventure-Labyrinth, which concerns Life-Values of Life/Death. This global story is supported by specific arcs for Ben and Saoirse.

Ben’s arc is Worldview-Maturation (Naivete/Sophistication) which aligns with the Hero’s Journey.

Saoirse’s arc is harder for me to nail down, but I can save it is firmly rooted in the Human Needs Tank of Esteem. Her arc seems to encompass aspects of the all the genres and life values that stem from there: Society-Domestic (Power/Impotence), Performance (Respect/Shame), and Status (Success/Failure). All of these elements come together beautifully within the Virgin’s Promise.

I love Hudson’s work and how she shows that the two structures are separate yet work in support of one other. Having these two archetypes within one story leads to a fantastically rich story experiences, because there is a special magic when they are intertwined.

This combining of the two is what is so wonderful about Song of the Sea, and a great opportunity more deeply understanding both by comparing and contrasting them side by side.

So let’s shift now to How Song of the Sea represents the Virgin’s Promise and the Hero’s Journey.

We mentioned that Global Genre is Action-Adventure-Labyrinth, which concerns Life-Values of Life/Death. This global story is supported by specific arcs for Ben and Saoirse.

Ben’s arc is Worldview-Maturation (Naivete/Sophistication) which aligns with the Hero’s Journey.

Saoirse’s arc is harder for me to nail down, but I can save it is firmly rooted in the Human Needs Tank of Esteem. Her arc seems to encompass aspects of the all the genres and life values that stem from their: Society-Domestic (Power/Impotence), Performance (Respect/Shame), and Status (Success/Failure). All of these elements come together beautifully within the Virgin’s Promise.

We are going to walk through the story beats of each archetype as they play out in the BH, MB, and EP.

We are going to walk through the story beats of each archetype as they play out in the BH, MB, and EP. We will address the Virgin’s Promise first

Beginning Hook

Kim – Virgin’s Promise

  • Dependent World—Saoirse is a child, six years old, can’t speak, lives on an island cut off from others, wants to be close to her brother, her father loves her but is very distant most of the time (unwell), granny dotes/fusses/controls—she is dependent on them and they on her, especially her father who has already experienced so much loss—what would it do to him if she were to answer the call of the Song of the Sea?
  • Price of Conformity—let’s her brother boss her around, her grandmother boss her around, her father is broken/needs her
  • Opportunity to Shine—takes the shell, plays the song, follows the lights to her coat.
  • Dresses the Part—literally puts on her Selkie coat and transforms, swims with seals
  • Price of conformity, part 2–granny takes away the coat, she catches cold immediately
  • Dresses the part, part 2–at granny’s house, tries to use a different coat to transform but it doesn’t work

Valerie – Hero’s Journey

  • Ordinary World—For Ben, the ordinary world is his home in the lighthouse on the island. Here, his mother’s stories are only stories, selkies and fairies don’t actually exist.
  • Call to Adventure/Inciting Incident—The call to adventure serves as the inciting incident for the hero’s journey. In this story Ben is called three times, from his mother, father and even Cu. His adventure, of course, is to protect his sister. His mother says that he’ll be a wonderful big brother. His father has presumably told Ben to keep an eye on his sister while they’re playing. And, when Saoirse enters the water, Cu barks to get Ben’s attention to act.
  • Refusal of the Call—When looked at from the hero’s point of view, refusing the call makes perfect sense. It’s dangerous, there are many unknowns, he stands at the threshold of fear. Ben’s refusal to go into the water after his sister makes sense. He’s terrified of the water and wears a lifejacket at all times, after all, he believes that his mother drowned; his fear of water is perfectly understandable. His anger toward Saoirse is also understandable since he believes that his mother’s death is tied to her birth. When Cu barks (fearful that Saoirse is in danger), Ben calls to her rather than going in after her. Then, he tells his father that he’s “not minding her anymore”.
  • Meeting the Mentor—According to Christopher Vogler, the hero should meet his mentor in the story’s first act. However, given that the hero’s journey is secondary to the heroine’s journey in this story, Ben doesn’t meet his mentor until Act 2 (The Great Seanchai)
  • Crossing the First Threshold—Christopher Vogler says that the hero’s journey is completed as a series of steps that takes the hero from the ordinary world to the very heart of the adventure, which Joseph Campbell calls the Ordeal. Crossing the First Threshold is when the hero enters the outermost limit of the Special World. For Ben, this is when he crosses the water with his grandmother and Saoirse. Ferry Dan fulfills the role of the threshold guardian. Threshold guardians often pose a test of some sort to the hero, but “they may also be neutral figures who are simply part of the landscape of the Special World”. (Vogler, p.49) Interestingly, Vogler also notes that “some heroes are ‘shanghaied’ into the adventure or pushed over the brink with no choice but to commit to the journey” (p.128) This is absolutely the case with Ben; he only goes with his grandmother because his father forcibly puts him in the car.

Middle Build

Kim – Virgin’s Promise

  • Secret World—Saoirse knows she is a selkie, knows to play the shell and follow the lights,
  • No Longer Fits in Her World—the owls find her, she defeats them with the shell, Ben learns she really is a selkie, also the longer she is away from her coat the sicker she gets, her hair streaks with white and she collapses (this ties specifically with life and death values of action story)
  • Caught Shining—after they get off the bus, they find the Fairy turned to stone, she goes to play the shell to help him, like she did before, but Ben stops her saying it will lead the owls right to them
  • Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck—inside the Holy Well, she gives the shell to Ben and dives into the well to follow the lights. This is particularly meaningful because she’s just had a kind interaction with her brother, as though the dependent world is making one last effort to tempt her to stay
  • Kingdom in Chaos—Cu pulls Ben into the well (his biggest fear) and they are separated. Ben must travel alone from here.

Valerie – Hero’s Journey

  • Tests, Allies, Enemies (threshold guardian, herald, shapeshifter, shadow, ally, trickster)—Once in the extraordinary world, the hero will encounter an assortment of supporting characters that either hinder or help his journey. : Cu (ally, sidekick), fairies (multiple roles – heralds, allies, tricksters, threshold guardians), crossing over into the extraordinary world of the fairies does happen right at the beginning of act 2 and introduces us to the 3 threshold guardians.
  • Approach to Innermost Cave—The innermost cave is a second threshold within the extraordinary world. The hero is on his way toward the central ordeal and may encounter a series of smaller Special Worlds each with its own rules and values (Vogler, p.146). In Song of the Sea, Ben is dragged kicking and screaming over this second threshold (literally!) and enters the innermost cave only because strangers have taken Saoirse there. “Heroes, having made the adjustment to the Special World, now go on to seek its heart. They pass into an intermediate region between the border and the very center of the Hero’s Journey. On the way they find another mysterious zone with its own Threshold Guardians, agendas, and tests.” (Vogler p.143) The three fairy men are both threshold guardians, heralds, allies and even tricksters in this case. It’s here that Ben begins to accept the call (almost halfway through the movie). He now knows that fairies exist and that he must find Saoirse’s coat so she can sing to free them. He hasn’t fully accepted yet though. He will be called to adventure two more times before he accepts)
  • Central Ordeal (midpoint, death and rebirth)—At exactly halfway through the story, Saoirse jumps into the Holy Well. Once again Cu barks, encouraging Ben to save her. Once again, Ben refuses the call and enters the well only because Cu has dragged him in. When he reaches the innermost cave (which is literally a cave), he meets the mentor (The Great Seanchai). When he’s reminded of his mother’s words (that he’ll be a great big brother) Ben finally accepts the call to adventure and actively works to save his sister. The old selfish/immature Ben has died and the new altruistic/mature Ben (the one who sees his sister as having value rather than merely being a pain in the neck) is born.
  • Reward (seizing the sword)—This is the point in the story when the hero gets the MacGuffin (in this case Saoirse). There is a brief lull in the action (a quiet moment) during which the hero enjoys his victory and prepares for the journey back home. Having saved his sister and defeated Macha The Owl Witch, Ben seizes the sword by physically taking Saoirse on Cu’s back. With the help of Macha, he then sets out for the journey home.

Ending Payoff

Kim – Virgin’s Promise

  • Wanders in the Wilderness—unconscious and dying
  • Chooses Her Light—Speaks for the first time, then with Ben’s help she sings her song
  • Re-Ordering/Rescue—her song sends magic across the land and frees all the fairy folk
  • Kingdom is Brighter—father is awake and whole again, Granny lightens up, Saoirse and Ben are best friends

Valerie –  Hero’s Journey

  • The Road Back—After the quiet period during which the hero seized the sword, the action picks back up during the hero’s return home. In Song of the Sea, the Reward and the Road Back blend seamlessly one after the other. Macha calls Mac Lir’s dogs to escort Ben, Saoirse and Cu back to the lighthouse.
  • Resurrection/Climax—This the hero’s last and most dangerous meeting with death. The hero “must undergo a final purging and purification before reentering the Ordinary World. Once more they must change” (Vogler p. 197). Although Ben and Saoirse have returned to the lighthouse on the island, they haven’t yet returned to the Ordinary World because the family unit has not yet returned to normal. The Resurrection comes when Ben must overcome his fear of water and dive into the ocean to retrieve Saoirse’s coat. He takes off his lifejacket, and with the help of the seals and fairy lights, he finds the chest and her coat.
  • Return with Elixir/Resolution—Having survived the ordeal, the hero returns to life, but with a sense that he’s on a new path. Life will never be the same. Certainly, this is true for Ben. He finally understands that his mother didn’t drown, that she (like his sister) is a selkie. His anger is gone, replaced by love for his family.

Testing the Proposition

Leslie – Kim and Valerie provide extensive information about the hero’s journey and virgin’s promise, and from that say Song of the Sea as a great example of both, but because the global story appears to be action, the virgin’s promise conventions within the story amount to a subplot, rather than a guide to writing a great global Virgin’s Promise story.

Kim Hudson claims that you can have both journeys alongside one another and offers the example of Shrek. I can’t speak to the example, but as a practical matter, there is a very real risk of creating a mashup that doesn’t work run because so many conventions of the The hero’s journey and virgin’s promise appear to be opposed and mutually exclusive. While there may be elements of one in a story primarily focused on the other, choosing to execute both within one story, as Kim Hudson describes it, sounds akin to choosing two genres to be the global. This might be the reason for a lack of clarity around Saoirse’s internal genre. And while the story works and is enjoyable, on a technical level, the water gets a little muddy.

We know it’s possible to include conventions of one genre in another story with a different global genre, for example, the buddy love story and western conventions in Hot Fuzz, but if we were to point to a masterwork or great example of the love story or western, we wouldn’t suggest Hot Fuzz, though it is a great story and one that works.

Opposing conventions  include

  • Setting: The virgin transforms within her kingdom (though Mulan doesn’t). The hero story is set in a foreign land, away from the hero’s village.
  • The kingdom and village undergo different experiences: kingdom, willing to go along with evil force, is thrown into chaos; hero’s village is essentially good and worthy of preservation.
  • Nature of the obstacle the protagonists face: virgin faces people around her (whom she loves and depends on) who stand in her way–they don’t support her; the hero’s village is the target of evil, and so for the most part, it supports the efforts of the heroic protagonist.
  • Attitudes toward the obstacles: virgin’s obstacle is in essence her love for the people of the kingdom and their love for her; the hero’s obstacle is evil.
  • Definition of power: virgin’s power is in the art of fully being; hero asserts power on behalf of others (village), but also against the will of others.
  • The quest: virgin to reach self-fulfillment; hero to assert will against evil and overcome fear.
  • Roles of supporting characters: Supporting characters in a virgin story are out of balance and tolerate evil, but they are not evil; the supporting characters in hero story are more dualistic–clearly good or clearly evil. The virgin has old friends, whereas the hero gains new allies.
  • Tensions: virgin risks losing love, joy, and passion, a loss of self; hero risks death.

Song of the Sea is a great example of an Irish folktale, an attempt to explain natural phenomenon through the supernatural in the absence of scientific theory. By their nature as oral tales, these stories do become a bit of a mashup as elements and motifs vary depending on the location, audience, and storyteller. Irish folktales are more akin to legends, oral tales about a place or people, than fairy tales, which feature true magical elements.  

Jarie – We agree that this movie has all the components of the Hero’s journey with Ben being the hero. Our contention is that it’s not a Virgin’s Promise one as well. This is because the Hero’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise cannot exist in the same story. It must be one or the other. They are orthogonal or opposites. This excerpt from Hudson makes this point perfectly:

“The Virgin and the Hero story patterns are in many ways polar opposites of one another, two halves that make up a whole. Although they are both stories of learning to stand alone, the Virgin story is about knowing her dream for herself and bringing it to life while surrounded by the influences of her kingdom (Ever After). The Hero story is about facing mortal danger by leaving his village and proving he can exist in a larger world (Willow).

In order for a story to work, it cannot have polar opposites running simultaneously — they would cancel each other out. In Song of the Sea, it’s clear that Ben is the hero and his sister Saoirse is like Leeloo in The Fifth Element — she is the MacGuffin that evil is searching for and good need to triumph.

The MacGuffin can only be the MacGuffin — it cannot be a hero or a virgin since the hero or virgin needs the MacGuffin to defeat evil.

The most compelling argument against the Virgin’s Promise is from Hudson in that:

[Virgin’s Promise] story is about knowing her dream for herself and bringing it to life.

Saoirse does not know her dream for herself. She has powers that can help good but she is not bringing her dream to life even though she makes a decision to stay in the “real world.” Her dream, at a minimum, would be to have her entire family, including her mother, in the real world. It’s unclear as to why she would make the best bad choice of staying with her father and brother. Although, that could be the surprising but inevitable ending in that her father and brother is all she knows.

It is clear that aspects of Saoirse weakly follow some of the conventions of the Virgin’s Promise but this is a consequence of her being a MacGuffin that happens to be a selkie and a character in human form. This is similar to The Fifth Element. The character Leeloo has almost all the same attributes as Saoirse but is clearly not following the Virgin’s Promise:

  • Dependent World: Leeloo needs Dallas to survive since she no idea what things in the world are.
  • Price of Conformity: ?
  • Opportunity to Shine: ?
  • Dresses the Part: Leeloo is powerful humanoid women who looks the part.
  • Secret World: The Mondoshawans
  • No Longer Fits in Her World: Leeloo jumps from her regeneration into Dallas’ cap.
  • Caught Shining: ?
  • Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck: ?
  • Kingdom in Chaos: Giant Ball of Black Fire approaches Earth
  • Wanders in the Wilderness: Dallas leaves Leeloo along and she wanders off.
  • Chooses Her Light: ?
  • Re-Ordering/Rescue: Leeloo releases the divine light when Dallas confesses his love to her.
  • Kingdom is Brighter: The divine light destroys the Giant Ball of Black Fire.

The Fifth Element has a lot of the conventions of the Virgin’s Promise and I’m sure if I watched it again, we could find more.

Humans have a strong desire to find patterns. It makes our life easier since we don’t have to process as much information. This is also why stories have structure. It’s a lot easier for us humans to pattern match something that we are accustomed too. The downside is that it is tricky to tease out where things overlap. This is the classic correlation does not make causation.

One final note regarding internal arc. All heroes and virgins need a strong internal arc. It’s part of them being a hero or a virgin — they must change in a substantial way. Ben has a strong internal arc while Saoirse has no internal arc. Any change she might go through is weak at best.

Listener Questions

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. If you have a question about The Hero’s Journey or Virgin’s Promise or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or leave us a voice message on the website at storygrid.com/resources, then click on Editor Roundtable Podcast.

This week, Anne answers listener Larry’s question about the life values at stake in Westerns and Society stories.

Join us next time to find out whether Anne can make the case that the Adaption is a great example of a mashup that works. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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