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Tale of the Month > June 2012 Tale of the Month - Swan Maidens

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message 1: by Christine (new)

Christine (chrisarrow) | 1388 comments Mod
A man is riding though a forest and sees three swans land by a pond. Seconds later, three women stand there with cloaks of swan feathers at their feet. The three lands go swimming, and the man takes one cloak. Eventually, two of the ladies leave, one stays and marries the man. Years later, after giving birth to a few children, the woman finds her cloak and leaves.
Sometimes it is a seal or another type of bird, but the basic story is the same. Swan maiden and sealkie stories are common. Sometimes the children of such unions become famous. Yet the basic story is always the same – female magic taken by a human man until she re-discovers it. A marriage by a trick, but a good marriage according to most of the tales.
In some tales, according to Midori Snyder, the man does look for his wife. Snyder sees this as an immature couple becoming mature. But far more common, at least seemingly, are the ones where the women leave.
It is also strange because it is usually a woman, not a man, who is the one with the magic cloak. Why is this? Is a man caught in such a situation too weak? Would any woman be that bold? Is it more about subduing or is something deeper at work?
Perhaps it is to explain why certain families have certain luck, a version of the fairy marriage. Some of the patterns of the tales are similar. Swan maiden legends are closer to that instead of the Beauty and the Beast tales they seem to resemble at first blush.
When the woman leaves is she going back to her real husband? How does she feel about leaving her children? Why doesn’t the husband simply destroy the skin? If the marriage doesn’t symbolize maturity and immaturity, what does it symbolize? The fact that people can never tame nature? That we never know who we live with?

message 2: by Moriah (new)

Moriah | 12 comments Hey Chris... are you looking for posible answers to your questions... or are they just rhetorical?

message 3: by Jalilah (new)

Jalilah | 4439 comments Mod
hmmm,that would depend on how the story was told. Do you have any particulars tellings in mind?I think the idea of people never being able to tame nature is true

message 4: by Christine (new)

Christine (chrisarrow) | 1388 comments Mod
I'm just trying to spark discussion. So answers, debate, ideas.

message 5: by Hazel (new)

Hazel | 71 comments Just a couple of thoughts. These characters are not really selkie/swan-maiden-like.

1. The Trinidadian soucouyant is an evil vampiric figure who sheds her skin, and takes the shape of a ball of fire, flying through the sky. The protagonist in a soucoyant story will search for the skin and may destroy it, or rub salt into it in preparation for her return. The salted skin is painful, of course, but also I think, lethal.

2. There is a sci-fi short story where a peeping tom discovers that his neighbour regularly sheds her skin and resumes it before going out for her daily routine. He steals the skin and then watches as she dies, horrified, and rather horribly.

No, I don't recall a similar male figure. The selkie stories are often from the man's point of view, aren't they? Perhaps they're about inevitable loss. The magical woman, after all, despite being held for seven moons or seven years, or until the children are grown, manages to slip away, out of the grasp of the human male.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 903 comments Well, there's the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, who's male, but the tale is rather different.

message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 903 comments here's a list of bird-bride tales -- among other Quest for the Lost Wife tales:

message 8: by Jalilah (new)

Jalilah | 4439 comments Mod
Does anyone have any recommendations for novels based on the Swan Maidens theme?

message 9: by Christine (new)

Christine (chrisarrow) | 1388 comments Mod
I don't know any.

message 10: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 903 comments Modern interpretations:

have not read them all -- just grabbing the list from the same web site as the list of bird-bride tales.

message 11: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3667 comments Mod
I read The Black Swan by Mercedes Lackey and enjoyed it when I read it, but when I've read her more recently I thought her prose wasn't that great and, to me, she had a tendency toward the cliche. But I loved her novels once, so maybe I wasn't in the mood to read her the last time.

message 12: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 3667 comments Mod
Chris wrote: "A man is riding though a forest and sees three swans land by a pond. Seconds later, three women stand there with cloaks of swan feathers at their feet. The three lands go swimming, and the man ta..."

Even though it's been a year since you posed these questions, Chris, I'm going to go ahead and tackle them!

I've always thought of the selkie/swan maiden theme, the theme of stealing a person's real skin and marrying them, as showing you can't take away a person's essential self. Yes, falling in love can make you forget yourself, can make you define yourself in terms of another, and it can be enjoyable to do so at first, but you have to return to who you really are or you loose something important, you forget who you are.

The tales always make me think of The Awakening by Kate Chopin, where Edna realizes she's lost whoever she is, if she ever even knew who that was, and in trying to find herself she abandons her family. Yet she fails to truly find her "skin," or realizes society would never allow a female to be autonomous. to wear her own skin.

And I think that's why these tales often show the woman loosing her skin, because, culturally and socially, at least in Western cultures, it's been the woman asked to give up her essential self for marriage and family.

However, there is a version I know where the man is the one that returns to the sea, the poem The Forsaken Merman by Matthew Arnold. Although, once again, it's the woman who forsakes her children to live the life she wants to live.

Here's the link to the poem:

I first heard this poem when one of my professors decided to read it at a poetry reading, and I think she must have read it on purpose because the woman's name is Margaret, and she knew I was in the audience. It was very distracting to have my name repeated over and over by my professor!

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