Warwick Goble The Feathered Robe Illustration Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales

Seeking the Swan Maiden

Have you ever heard that an adult swan can break a person’s arm?

Disappointingly enough, that’s a myth.

But in the past few days, I’ve learned that swan-maidens are absolutely capable of breaking a mind. There are just so many variants, so many connections between stories, so many different directions I could take.

I want to spill out every single story and comparison and semi-tangential relationship to other tales in one monstrous, link-infested post.

But I used some restraint and included just a few of the variants I found, some main themes, and a good number of illustrations — a more pleasant version of my own journey in pursuit of the swan maidens.

Tales of Swan (and Pigeon, and Dove, and Peahen) Maidens

Walter Crane The Swan Maidens
“The Swan Maidens” by Walter Crane

At a basic level, a swan maiden is the avian equivalent of a selkie: a bird (not always, but often, a swan) who turns into a beautiful maiden when she removes her feathered garment to bathe, and who is coerced into marriage by a man who steals her cloak.

A few of these variants end as the selkie tales do: with the swan-maiden reclaiming her cloak and promptly flying away, never to return. That’s how it goes in one Swedish variant, “The Swan Maiden.” 

The Japanese story “The Robe of Feathers” — the source of this post’s featured image — is another instance where the bird-woman escapes, in this case by performing a dance in exchange for the return of her robe. I was struck by the similarity here to another tale, “Fairy Elizabeth,” wherein the titular character, whose bird form is a pigeon, also insists that she needs her feathered garment in order to dance properly. In both stories, the women don the garment and perform a breathtaking dance before flying away.

But in “Fairy Elizabeth,” the story doesn’t end there. After she flies away, her husband embarks on a long journey to “the town of Johara [an Arabic girls’ name, and possibly an actual place], in the country of Black Sorrow,” as she tells him before she leaves. (Why she has to go, when apparently she doesn’t want to leave him, I have no clue.)

Many other swan maiden tales continue in this way, with the husband going on a journey and overcoming arduous tasks in order to be reunited with his bird-wife. It seems at some point storytellers decided it was a bummer to end with her flying away forever and tacked on a second part.

John D. Batten Illustration The Swan Maidens East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon Jacobs Europa's Fairy Book
The hunter identifies his wife among her sisters. (Illustration by John D. Batten for “The Swan Maidens”)

I say “tacked on” because these journeys and tasks seem repurposed and pieced together from parts of other tales that had nothing to do with swan maidens. I noticed this in the following, “Fairy Elizabeth” included: “The Swan Maidens,” “The Three Swans,” and “The Golden Apple Tree and the Nine Peahens“/”The Witch and Her Servants.” I really want to compare these journeys to other tales with similar elements, but that would be an entire post in itself.

Sing Like a … Duck?

Ivan Bilibin The White Duck Белая уточка Russian fairy tale
The witch turns the princess into a white duck. (Illustration by Ivan Bilibin)

While usually the husband and wife are separated by a long journey, at the end of which they are reunited and live happily ever after, in one variant called “The Story of the Swan Maiden and the King,” this separation comes in the form of the swan-maiden/queen’s death. The Gypsy cook (a nice little touch of prejudice there), who had been planning to marry the king herself, pushes the queen down a well while the king is away. And it almost works out for her. But at her and the king’s wedding, a flute turns up that a shepherd boy made from a willow growing near the well the queen died in, and that flute when played sings of how the queen died. When the Gypsy woman throws the flute to the ground in a rage, it turns into the swan-woman, alive and well. 

This put me in mind of another story, “The White Duck,” which begins with the prince leaving on a journey. While he’s gone, a witch visits and convinces the prince’s bride to go bathing in a lake, at which point the witch turns her into a white duck and then takes the princess’s form. Later the witch is revealed by the song the duck sings. Then the duck gets turned back into a woman, and the witch gets dragged across a field tied to a horse’s tail. Justice is served … as a rare steak is served: all bloody.

“The Story of the Swan Maiden and the King,” rather than being a combination of a swan-maiden story with a long journey/tasks, seems to combine with a tale type know as “The Singing Bone” (ATU type 480) in which instruments imbued with the spirit/made from the corpse of a murdered person play a song that reveals the murderer.

More on that in the next post.


P.S.

It definitely hurts that I didn’t manage an exhaustive overview of the topic (which honestly, I’m probably the only one regretting that), but instead, a few links:

Myth & Moor: Into the Wood, 32: Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

SurLaLune Fairy Tales: The Annotated Swan Maidens

Wikipedia: Swan Maidens

 

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