Context and Misdirection
Misleading the reader is always fun, right? That is, as long as you don’t cheat. (And let’s not get into the argument that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is cheating, not today anyway.) One way to do this is to present the reader with only some of the information – say, the part that makes the protagonist look guilty as sin – while reserving the exculpatory context for later. And no, unlike everybody else in the known universe, I’m not talking about FISA applications. The rest of this post will be examining an example of misleading-by-omission found in Orkney folklore and Child 113.
I expect a number of you know the song “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.” It’s a song that’s always irritated me; it tells of a selkie who shows up before a mother and her child, claims to be the child’s father, tosses a purse of gold in her lap and takes the kid. I always wanted the mother to say, “Not with my baby, you don’t, and take your money back!” In fact, I wrote a short story in which just that happened.
The popular song is straight out of Child (113, if you want to look it up) so you can’t blame modern singers for mutilating the original. But oh, what a number Child did on it! I might never have known the context if I hadn’t come across it while researching Orkney folklore for The Finwife’s Tail (forthcoming, 2018). In George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry I came across a long ballad which contains the verses of “The Great Silkie” scattered through it… and telling a significantly different story. Here’s a summary.
In “The Tale of the Lady Odivere” there is someone to whom the Lady (she never does get a name) swore unending love before she married this Odivere. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a marriage; Odivere takes off on Crusade almost immediately, and lingers on his way home to flirt with the lovely ladies of Byzantium. For years. Meanwhile, the Lady spends her days looking over the castle wall and hoping to see her husband.
One night her loneliness is assuaged by a surprise visit from a strange knight bearing a gold ring as a token. It’s the ring she gave him when she vowed her love to him. She excuses her marriage as something she had no choice in, because Odivere swore on Odin and presumably got Odin’s help.
The Lady spends one night with her old lover; he leaves first thing in the morning.
Fast-forward some nine months or more, and we find the Lady rocking a baby and singing
“It’s little I ken my bairn’s father,
“Far less the land that he dwells in.”
But her principal concern is that her reputation will be shot, having a baby when her husband has been gone for years. Then the strange knight (possibly only a vision) shows up and identifies himself as the father.
The Lady declares that she knows him to be the baby’s father and that she loves him, but points out that she does already have a perfectly good husband. The strange knight says that in six months he’ll pay her for nursing the child. She asks who he is and he tells her that he’s a VIP among selkies.
I am a man upon the land,
I am a selkie in the sea,
My home it is in Sule Skerry,”
He’s worried about being there at dawn, but says that he’ll be back in six months “for then will be a seventh stream, and then again a man I’ll be.” (This passage is why I think he may be only a vision in this part; there are evidently Rules about when he can take the form of a man.) In six months he does come back for the kid. She puts a gold chain around the baby’s neck so that she’ll recognize him as a seal.
Odivere finally returns. First thing he does is go hunting. He kills her son in seal form and demands to know why the gold chain he gave his wife was around the seal’s neck. Hysterical with grief, she confesses all. He has her locked up and she is condemned to be burnt, but the selkie returns and rescues her.
So not only is it a longer and more complicated story than the popular song, but what I always interpreted as a custody fight can be read another way: the selkie is removing the evidence so that the Lady’s husband doesn’t find out she was unfaithful. (All right, all right, there’d be a lot of other evidence around, and if this were the 18th century she’d be condemned for infanticide (see The Heart of Midlothian.) This is ballad-land, okay? We’re not going to worry about witnesses, or a gold chain which magically expands so the kid doesn’t choke to death when he turns into a seal, or the Odin-worshipper going on Crusade.)
This strikes me as a great technique for fiction (and no, I’m still not talking about FISA applications). Has anybody here misled a reader this way? Giving partial information that looks damming to the protagonist but is quite different in context? Or having a scene that makes the Evil Overlord look like a nice guy until the reader finds out the context of the scene? Or does this make you think of a writer who did this to you? I’m sure there are plentiful examples of this in fiction; please tell me in the comments.