‘The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold’, by Richard Price

The current climate crisis and scientific predictions about the acceleration of the melting of the Greenland ice cap has had our eyes trained on the Arctic for some time. The area has gained immense geopolitical importance with various nations staking their claim for territory and/or influence in the Arctic. What is sometimes forgotten in discussions of the Arctic, however, are the indigenous people and societies of the Arctic, whose culture and heritage is under direct threat from climate change. In these circumstances, it is indeed important that Inuit culture, such as its myths and legends, be made more visible and introduced to a broader audience. This is however a delicate undertaking; there is the question of how to disseminate Inuit culture and highlight its riches to those who do not know the language, many of whom belong to cultures of former colonising powers. Perhaps not many from the white, Western world would dare take this on for fear of a backlash.

In his poetry book The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, Richard Price succeeds in doing just this, introducing aspects of the rich oral culture of the Inuit to our Western eyes in a respectful and engaging manner. Price takes care to emphasize in his introduction and elsewhere that these poems are not translations but rather retellings, based on English prose summaries of three Inuit myths, and not on actual oral storytelling in the Inuit language. 1

He has clearly thought carefully about the issue of cultural appropriation and takes care to acknowledge authors such as Kira Van Deusen, who has documented Kiviuq tales told by Inuit elders, and he also acknowledges and names many Inuit storytellers who are cited in works documenting these myths. As Price states, distancing his poems from the original sources through such things as technique, tone and language registers means that “No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives.” Hence, the retellings offered here are in an entirely different form from that of oral tradition. 2

The Owner of the Sea is comprised of three poetry cycles, two of which retell the well-known Inuit myths of the sea goddess Sedna and Kiviuq the wanderer, and one shorter cycle in the middle telling the story of an old woman who changes herself into a man. The last section, Kiviuq, is by far the longest of the three, and is split into ten subsections. Both Sedna and Kiviuq are major figures in Inuit myths. The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man functions as a bridge between their stories, not least because the Kiviuq cycle continues and expands on the previous cycles’ focus on the blurred boundaries between animals and humans on one hand, and between genders on the other. Echoing certain events in the Sedna cycle, the transformation taking place in the middle cycle includes the old woman’s toes changing into her dogs: “I cut off my toes and they sniff and bark. / They wag their tails, they are my dogs” (39). Then, early in the Kiviuq cycle we are told that Kiviuq’s father was “one of the tuutaliit – / a half-seal, a selkie, a merman of a kind” (51). Like his father, Kiviuq crosses between worlds. He also encounters – even has sex with or marries – half-human, half-animal creatures, such as the goose-wife and his fox-wife, who he seems to love the best of all. Much like Odysseus on his perilous journey home from Troy, Kiviuq runs into dangerous women who want to kill him or entrap him, their actions often imbued with sexual overtones. Hence, the deadly mermaid sisters prepare to kill him and agree on the “pleasure of jabbing a man” while “a tail should not be too sharp or it’s all over too quickly” (98); then, after the younger one clambers on top of Kiviuq:

The woman’s tail was now tensed and raised up
and she held it there prolonging the moment, enjoying the tension.
Her sister looked on, taking pleasure in it all, too. (99)

The use of sexual imagery here indicates gender fluidity, much in line with other poems in this book, since the mermaid’s deadly tail is clearly posited as a phallic symbol. Kiviuq himself, we later find, also enjoys homosexual acts.

Price frequently switches between perspectives, adding dramatic energy and narrative tension to the poems. In the Kiviuq cycle, for instance, we are sometimes provided with an outside perspective on events, sometimes with Kiviuq’s, sometimes with various other characters’ viewpoints and voices. Such varying perspectives and alternating voices make some of these poems interesting material for drama adaptation. The origin myth of Sedna the sea goddess, narrated in the first poetry cycle, The Owner of the Sea, might, for instance, be a good choice. As a young woman Sedna is determined not to marry, much against her father’s wishes. Eventually, she chooses a dog for her husband, their children becoming different non-Inuit groups of people, such as the Indians – “the people who live in the South, our difficult neighbours” (24) and the white people, “the people of the West, who always look ill” (25). She is deceived into her second marriage to “a bird-spirit, a fulmar” (26), and trying to escape her husband with her father she comes to a violent end. Her hacked off fingers, knuckles and hands transform into seals, walruses and whales, with Sedna herself sinking to the bottom of the ocean and becoming a powerful spirit who withholds the sea animals when angry. This is a story of a woman being controlled, manipulated and abused by the men in her life – mainly her father but also her second husband. Price here gives voice and agency to Sedna, with parts of the cycle being spoken by her directly – a conscious choice made by the poet who wanted to allow the women to speak much more than they do in the prose summaries. 3 So she tells us how her father “bundled me, / flailing, choking, / into the blue” (29) as he sacrifices his daughter in order to save himself on a stormy sea, while the violence enacted against her when she tries to stay afloat by gripping the kayak is relayed through the father’s voice: 

The fingers

She won’t let go.

I hack at the tips of her fingers
with the fish-knife her mother gave me.

The scraps of flesh drop – 

                                                     Seals bob up!

and still my daughter holds on.

She won’t let go.

I hack down to the knuckles
with the fish-knife her mother gave me. (30)

This shift in perspective, along with the reference to Sedna’s mother in midst of the unthinkably brutal act, renders the scene all the more shocking.

There is much to delight and engage the reader here. There is action, drama and lyric beauty. Price writes about human emotions and behaviour: love, lust, sadness, greed, jealousy, misogyny, cruelty, and brutality. Humans turn into animals or have animal-like features, animals turn into humans. All enjoy having sex, even the lake spirit whose penis sticks out of the water when summoned. Sexual acts and bodily functions are described in a matter-of-fact way, sometimes with humour, as when Kiviuq, “whose diet had not been the best lately” (148), farts and thus ends a merry gathering of many different animals. There are many more layers to these poetic retellings, worthy of much more in-depth discussion than can be provided here. Most importantly, as stated by Nancy Campbell in her afterword, The Owner of the Sea brings Arctic cultural history to new audiences. In Price’s skilful rendering, these retellings of Inuit myths leave the reader wanting to learn more about the rich heritage of our neighbours in the north.

The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is published by Carcanet.


End Notes

  1. Richard Price, Foreword, The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, Carcanet, 2021, p. 6; “Richard Price: The Owner of the Sea: Online Book Launch”, YouTube, 22 July 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5R2DhOPzR8&t=5s; Richard Price, “Shape-shifting: Creative research and ‘The Owner of the Sea,’” Americas and Oceania Collections Blog, 26 July 2021, https://blogs.bl.uk/americas/2021/07/shape-shifting-creative-research-and-the-owner-of-the-sea.html
  2. Richard Price, “Shape-shifting: Creative research and ‘The Owner of the Sea.’”
  3. “Richard Price: The Owner of the Sea: Online Book Launch.”
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Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir

Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir is Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in 19th and 20th century British Literature at the University of Iceland

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