Truth to Fairy Tale
When I decided (after much deliberation) to go ahead and have a blog, I intended to open with a piece called “So Life is Not a Fairy Tale?” (That one will follow at some point). Then I made an intriguing discovery which I felt should be my first post . Here is a perfect example of how a vision of the “real” —- the magic and beauty of the natural world — may be morphed into myth and fairy tale. I have amended the Swan Maiden variations in my book, Apple Mother and Other Stories of 2017 to include this story.
In the Swedish fairy tale titled “The Swan Maiden,” three swans fly to earth from their kingdom in the sky to bathe in a bay, shedding their swan feathers to become beautiful maidens. They are seen by a hunter who falls in love with one of them, steals her feathers so that she cannot return with her sisters and is compelled to marry him. After seven years, he confesses and shows her the swan garment. Immediately she puts it on and flies away. Shortly thereafter the husband dies of grief.
“The Swan Maiden” is one of a group of tales collectively known as “The Animal Wife,” in which animals transformed into women marry human men with whom they sometimes have children. ( In Ireland there were seal women, or selkies; in Japan, foxes). When these wives eventually return to their animal forms and leave, as they inevitably do, they also abandon their children. On one level, these tales seem to be about the inability of certain types of women to adapt fully to the constraints and responsibilities of marriage.
In the Swedish variant, there is no mention of children, although the marriage lasts, in apparent contentment, for seven years. In two of my illustrated books (The Rapunzel Room and Apple Mother and Other Stories) I wrote my own variations of this odd, haunting fairy tale.
Recently, googling the term “Swan People,” I discovered information about a group of indigenous folk, the Kumandin, who live in Altai, a mountainous region of Western Siberia. They are also known as “The Swan People.” The WOW factor of this is that their legend of origin is the same narrative as the Swedish Swan Maiden “fairy tale,” with a major difference: the Russian swan maiden accepts the loss of her feathers, or wings, and remains permanently with her human husband, to bear the children who will become the race known as “The Swan People” —— the Kumandin!
Even more fascinating, this story emerged from a natural phenomenon particular to that region. In the Altai foothills there is a lake that does not freeze even in the coldest winters, because of a humid climate, but remains shrouded in mist. Each winter, many swans come to this sacred lake, flying down though the fog. Imagine what a breath-taking, ethereal sight that must be —-whiteness into whiteness — a descent of spirits. Surely that is how it seemed to the earliest Kumandin, and their collective imagination formed the phenomenon into a beautiful myth of origin.
I don’t claim to be the only person to have taken note of this —- only to say that it was a revelation to me. The Kumandin legend, I believe, must be the authentic origin of this particular tale, with a joyful outcome instead of a tragic one, and it not only changes its meaning entirely, but elevates it to the status of native origin myth —- for myths, unlike fairy tales, are explanations of how things —- natural phenomenon — or peoples — came into being.
Curiously, although the Kumandin are a Russian people ( ≥§ alas, cruelly treated by the Soviets, who in assimilating them, sought to deprive them of their native language and culture), this particular legend/tale does not appear in Alexander Afanasev’s definitive folklore collection, Russian Fairy Tales. Yet it “migrated” to Sweden, perhaps already in truncated form—- separated from its previous historical and cultural significance. I had thought of it as a Swedish fairy tale, but in fact, it probably originated in that part of Russia. Fairy tales often incorporate elements of myth and legend, cross borders, and are changed in re-tellings to suit new audiences.
Here is an instance of reality morphing, through the magical, transformative lens of imagination and love, into myth and legend. There are not many Kumandin left now — there are currently only around 3000. But they have been allowed, at last, to resume celebration of their festivals and to teach their children their age old customs, and their language.
The Swedish swan maiden fairy tale is haunting, but its uncharacteristically abrupt and tragic ending has always troubled me. That, like so many animal-wife stories, was a tale about the failure to overcome homesickness; the “real” indigenous legend was about the possibility of fruitful union between nature and humanity, flesh and spirit, love and loyalty, —- and hope.