Jenny Nyström (1854-1946)
Miss Cox’s garden makes for me a wonderful refuge when I want to distance myself from my fellow humans. Usually there is someone to meet here in the garden, but no appointments today. I merely want to stretch my legs far from any crowds.
I amble from the gate, passing my usual sitting bench by the sundial and walk down toward the pond. I delight to see two swans stately gliding on the pond’s surface. I take a seat on the bench beside the pond to admire them.
On the bench is a book with a marker peering from its folios.
Has Miss Cox laid this in my path?
I pick it up.
Ah, Europa’s Fairy Tales by my old friend Joseph Jacobs.
I open the book to its marker.
I look suspiciously at the swans; planting this book on the bench might be their doing. My glance turns to the text.
A hunter comes across seven swan maidens, their feathery swan skins lying on the bank of the lake. He takes the skin of the youngest sister and, at dawn, the other sisters fly off, abandoning the seventh to her fate. Because the hunter will not return her swan skin, she is obliged to marry him.
They have two children together and are happy. One day the young daughter, while playing hide-and-seek with her brother, discovers the hidden swan skin and shows it to her mother. The swan maiden flies off, leaving the message for her husband that, if he wishes to seek her, she has returned to her home East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.
The hunter travels far and wide, asking everyone if they know where is the land East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. Along the way he helps an old man, who turns out to be the King of the Beasts. With his aid, and the aid of his brothers, the King of the Birds and the King of the Fishes; and the directions given by a dolphin, the hunter finds his way to the Wild Forest at the foot of the Crystal Mountain at the top of which is the land of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.
At the edge of the Wild Forest two men are arguing over the ownership of a hat of invisibility and shoes of travel to anywhere and propose the hunter settle their dispute. The hunter suggests they run a contest, and while they are away he dons the hat, puts on the shoes, and wishes himself to the top of the Crystal Mountain.
There he reclaims his bride from the King of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon by identifying his bride from among her identical sisters by the needle pricks on her fingertips from sewing clothing for their children.
They are reunited and live happily again together.
I look up from the book.
Where are those swans?
I didn’t hear them fly away.
I set the book down on the bench.
Where do I go from here?
The swan maidens are creatures of the air and water.
Women and water.
Ah, I must visit my nixie.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part Two
Melissa and I enter the Magic Forest, I with the necessary bag of popcorn.
“How did you know I intended to visit the nixie?” I ask.
Melissa does not answer right away. She was at my door when I returned from the garden. The light of dusk shows me the path toward the nixie’s pool.
“I knew it as clearly as if you had invited me to come. I never gave it a second thought until now.”
We come to the high bank of the pool, the height of which affords us a safe distance from the nixie. We sit on rocks and wait for her to appear.
“Hello, my human, and hello, Melissa.” Her pale green face, surrounded by a halo of floating hair, appears on the rippled surface of the pool. Melissa nods, a bit reverentially.
“My nixie,” I say, ceremoniously tossing her the first kernels of popcorn. “I have some curiosity about the swan maidens.”
She lunges up from the water to catch the kernels in her mouth, then makes a disgusted ticking noise at my question. “Changelings; not my choice of company among my fellow fays.”
“Oh,” Melissa murmurs, “prejudice in the fairy ranks.”
“If one wants to be of the fay,” the nixie scowls, “then one should stay a fay.” She looks hard at Melissa and not at me, who asked the question.
“But who are they?” I persist.
“From what my sister nixies tell me, the first was Swanhilde, born of a marriage between a mortal woman and a fairy king. She and her six sisters could assume the form of swans. She married the renowned smith, Wayland, son of the King of the Finns, after he rescued her from death when she was struck by a spear. Swanhilde put aside her wings and took off her ring of power for him.
“Unfortunately for them, a rival king, Niõhad, kidnapped Swanhilde, stole her ring, and destroyed Wayland’s home. When Wayland searched for his bride, Niõhad captured and hamstrung him, forcing Wayland to forge magical weapons for him.
“Wayland had his revenge when he lured the king’s sons to him with promises of gifts, killed them, and forged their skulls into goblets, their eyes into jewels, and a brooch from their teeth. After sending these gifts to the king, the king’s daughter appeared with Swanhilde’s ring to be mended. Wayland raped her, then he and Swanhilde flew off with wings he had forged, but not before stopping off at court to brag about the destruction he had wrought upon the king.”
“Not a pleasant crowd,” I observe, throwing the nixie more popcorn, which she gobbles down. “What more can you tell me about Wayland?”
“He was trained by Mimir the Smith, then by dwarves, whom he was forced to murder at the end of his apprenticeship. Certainly, he forged the sword Mimung, but it is said he forged the magical swords Excalibur and Gram, as well as the chainmail worn by Beowulf, but I believe that to be hearsay.”
“I suspect these alternative facts might have come out of the medieval romances,” Melissa smiles. “Those romances produced as many variants as our fairy tales.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2020 The Swan Maidens – Part Three
Melissa turns her attention to the nixie.
“My question is, What are the swan maidens?”
“Being changelings,” the nixie pronounces, “and occasionally taking on human form, they leave themselves open to compromise. They are, by their own fault, victims of mortal men.”
“Victims?” I echo.
“Victims, of course,” Melissa responds. “They don’t become wives of their own choosing. Their swan skins are held captive and the women denied their true nature.”
“Do they not come to love their husbands?” I question.
Melissa pauses before speaking. “They commit to their fate. Yes, they are depicted as at least accepting their husbands and more likely loving their children, but the moment their swan skins reappear, they immediately seize their liberation. “
Melissa turns to the nixie. “The story of Wayland that I know is that he and his two brothers snatched the swan skins of three Valkyrie maidens, forcing them to be their brides. The women stayed amiably with their husbands for nine years until, inexplicably, they flew off, never to be seen again. In Wayland’s case, his wife left him her ring, coveted by King Niõhad, leading to the history you described. But Swanhilde and her sisters had freed themselves from human concerns before King Niõhad made his moves.”
“But in Jacob’s version,” I consider, “at least the husband searches out and reclaims his wife. Is that not a better, happier ending?”
“For men and the institution of marriage,” Melissa shoots back. “Joseph Jacobs, for all that I appreciate about him, was a Victorian man. During his day, the women’s rights movement, the enfranchisement of women, underlay—along with other issues—the tide of change between the centuries. Women, more frequently, divorced their husbands, seeking independence.
“Jacob’s choosing to construct his version of The Swan Maidens to reflect the patriarchal attitude of the time comes as no surprise to me. However, the majority of the swan-maiden tales end in the victims reclaiming their swan form and disappearing forever, ending their marriages.”
“Marriage; what is the value of this thing you call marriage? For you mortals it seems to be the be-all-and-end-all. I see that it is to be embraced or rejected, but not ignored.” The nixie looks at us, her eyes narrowed. “Why is it so central to your thoughts? Marriage is such a passing thing; it lasts at best until the death of one of you, and from the stories I hear, causes more pain than joy.” The nixie glances at Melissa.
“We,” I protest, “consider marriage a sacred thing.”
“Oh,” replies the nixie, “would you marry me? Bring me into the sacred circle?” Her green eyes sparkle at me.
My heart palpitates at the lustful, exotic notion. My trembling hand tosses more popcorn, giving me a moment to collect myself.
“No, no,” I say, “I am too old for that.” I regain my composure. “Besides, you would drag me beneath the water’s surface to my demise.”
“Oh,” whines the nixie, smirking at me, “maybe not!”
Melissa rolls her eyes at the nixie mocking me. The nixie giggles. Her giggle has the overtone of a cackle, emanating from a loveless interior.