In my list of favorite mermaid books I mentioned A Comb of Wishes, a children's novel released in 2022. I was struck by the many less-popular mermaid motifs that the author, Lisa Stringfellow, wove into the story. There is one story in particular that the plot is built around. As Stringfellow explained, “I wanted my main character to have that trope of making a wish on a mermaid's comb.”
The book revolves around a young girl who finds a mermaid's comb and has the chance to make a wish, but discovers that there is a steep price and mermaids are dangerous, vengeful creatures. Around pages 37-39, she hears the story setting up the background:
"The seafolk have been round long before these islands were settled. Coming up out of the water at night, they sit on the rocks and twist their thick hair. Then, they tuck in their combs…
One time, an old fisherman came upon a sea woman sitting on a rock in the moonlight. Quick as a flash, she jumped back into the water. But she dropped her comb and the old man picked it up, because he knew it held powerful magic… The old man called out to the sea woman, ‘Mami Wata! Mami Wata!’ And up she come…
When the old man showed the sea woman her comb, she asked, ‘What you want from me?’ He said, ‘My wife is sick. I want the power to make her well.’ The sea woman nodded and said, ‘Rake me comb across the water. Then, you throw it back to me. You will have what you want.’
The old man walked into the sea and raked that comb across the water… When he threw it back, the sea woman sank beneath the waves and disappeared. He thought for sure that he had been taken for a fool… But lo and behold!... The old man woke up the next day with his brain full! He knew all types of herbs and healing spells and he was able to make his wife well.”
This story has its spark of inspiration in a well-known Cornish tale. "The Old Man of Cury" appeared in Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England (1865). An old man finds a mermaid trapped in a tidepool, having been distracted by admiring her reflection until the tie went out. She begs him for help and promises him three wishes, so he carries her on his back to the water. He wishes not for wealth, but for the ability to help people by breaking witches' spells, charming away diseases, and the ability to locate stolen goods so he can return them. She agrees and leaves him her comb; from then on, whenever he wants to see her, he can come to the shore and rake it through the water to summon her and she'll teach him the magic and charms he requested. She even offers to take him to her watery realm and make him young again, but he prefers to remain on land. He passes on his magical knowledge to his descendants.
A darker and more elaborate version of the story featured in William Bottrell's Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870). Bottrell was Hunt's contemporary and one of his most prolific contributors for Popular Romances, but wrote with a much different style, emulating the drolls or storytellers of Cornwall. Bottrell himself was a droll, and his stories are much longer and more detailed. Quite a few stories appear in both Hunt and Bottrell.
Bottrell begins the story of "The Mermaid and the Man of Cury" by introducing the storyteller, Uncle Anthony James. Bottrell explains that this was a favorite story and it was often altered "by adding to the story whatever struck his fancy at the moment." Bottrell's version has a similar start as Hunt's, and takes place at the same location. The old man is introduced as Lutey, a fisherman and smuggler. Walking on the shore one day, he hears a woman crying out for help, and discovers a mermaid trapped in a tidepool. Her name is Morvena, or sea-woman. She gives him her comb, which has the power to summon her, and begs him to take her to the sea; she needs to get home, since her abusive mer-husband may eat their children. As he carries her in his arms towards the water, she offers him three wishes. She is pleased by his unselfishness when, rather than requesting money, he asks instead for the ability to help others by breaking witches' spells, commanding spirits, and for these gifts to continue in his family. The mermaid gets flirty and entices him to come down into the ocean with her. He is almost under her siren-like spell when the sound of his dog barking distracts him, and he's able to break free. The mermaid swims away, while promising him that she will return in nine years. Returning home, Lutey discovers that he now has the abilities of healing and wisdom he asked for. Nine years later, while Lutey is fishing with a friend, Morvena returns. Lutey, accepting his fate, goes with her and is never seen again. From then on, every ninth year one of his descendants is always lost to the sea.
The story had some popularity. A version probably derived from Hunt's appeared in Arthur Hamilton Norway's Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall (1898), and a Bottrell-esque version in "The Sea Maid and the Fisherman" showed up in The Dublin University Magazine in 1871.
A version titled "Lutey and the Mermaid" appeared in Mabel Quiller Couch's Cornwall's Wonderland. Couch was specifically retelling Cornish folktales that she'd read, in a simpler style more appropriate for children. Although Couch's version is extremely close to Bottrell's to the point of near-identical descriptions, there are a few lines that make me think she also drew on Hunt.
(Hunt: "He thought the girl would drown herself . . . He looked into the water, and, sure enough, he could make out the head and shoulders of a woman, and long hair floating like fine sea-weeds all over the pond, hiding what appeared to him to be a fish's tail."
And Couch: "At first Lutey thought she had drowned herself, but when he looked closely into the pool, and contrived to peer through the cloud of hair which floated like fine seaweed all over the top of it, he managed to distinguish a woman's head and shoulders underneath, and looking closer he saw, he was sure, a fish's tail!")
In Hunt's version, there's a logic to the mermaid's comb that isn't quite as apparent in Bottrell's version. Hunt's fisherman uses the comb in the act of fulfilling his wish and keeps it as proof. In Bottrell's version, the comb is shown as proof after the encounter but otherwise isn't all that important. It's not clear if Lutey ever uses it to see the mermaid.
But all of this is very interwoven. Bottrell may have been the one who gave Hunt “The Old Man of Cury.” Not only do both of their collections feature the story type, but Bottrell notes that he heard many versions of the story from Uncle Anthony. Hunt, in his collection, quotes a letter about Uncle Anthony which may have been from Bottrell. The differences are easily explained by Bottrell’s mention of the way the story changed from telling to telling.
(Incidentally, Hunt’s other major contributor was Thomas Quiller-Couch - Mabel Quiller-Couch’s father.)
Stringfellow’s reimagining keeps the basics and the ominous sense surrounding mermaids, while weaving it with Caribbean folklore to make a new story. She makes the comb a main focus. The fisherman doesn't just want to help people in general, but has a specific goal of healing his wife - paralleling the main plot, where the protagonist Kela is trying to get her dead mother back.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.