Monday, December 22, 2008

The Swan Maiden (for our students at Xmas)

A young peasant, in the parish of Mellby, who often enjoyed hunting, saw one day three swans flying toward him. They settled down upon the strand of a sound nearby. Approaching the place, he was astonished to see the three swans remove their feathery attire, which they threw into the grass. Suddenly, three maidens of dazzling beauty stepped forth and sprang into the water. After splashing in the waves awhile they returned to land, where they resumed their former garb and shape and flew away in the direction from which they had come.
One of them, the youngest and fairest, had, in the meantime, so smitten the young hunter that neither night nor day could he tear his thoughts from her bright image. His mother, noticing that something was wrong with her son, and that the chase, which had formerly been his favourite pleasure, had lost its attraction, asked him finally the cause of his melancholy, whereupon he related to her what he had seen, and declared that there was no longer any happiness in this life for him if he would not possess the fair swan-maiden.
“I know what you should do,” said the mother, who was a very simple person but filled with great wisdom. “Go at sunset next Thursday evening to the place where you saw her last. When the three swans come, give attention to where your chosen one lays her feathery garb, take it and hasten away.”
The young man listened to his mother’s instructions and the following Thursday evening, he found a convenient hiding place, near the sound where he could impatiently wait for the swans’ arrival. The sun was just sinking behind the trees when the young man’s ears were greeted by a whizzing in the air, and the three swans settled down upon the beach as on their former visit. As soon as they had taken off their swan attire, they were again transformed into the most beautiful maidens, and, springing out upon the white sand, they were soon enjoying themselves in the water.
From his hiding place, the young hunter had taken careful note of where his enchantress had laid her swan feathers. Stealing softly forth, he took them and returned to his place of concealment in the surrounding forest.
Soon thereafter two of the swans were heard to fly away, but the third, in search of her clothes, discovered the young man, before whom, believing him responsible for their disappearance, she fell upon her knees and prayed that her swan attire might be returned to her. The hunter was, however, unwilling to yield the beautiful prize, and, casting a cloak around her shoulders, carried her home.
Preparations were soon made for a magnificent wedding, which took place in due course, and the couple dwelt lovingly and contentedly together.
One Thursday evening, seven years later, the hunter related to her how he had sought and won his wife. He brought forth and showed her also the white swan feathers of her former days. No sooner were they placed in her hands then she transformed once more into a swan and instantly took flight through the open window. In breathless astonishment, the man stared wildly after his rapidly vanishing wife and before a year and a day had passed, he was laid, with his longings and sorrows, in his allotted place in the village churchyard.
(This story is from Sweden—where there are many quiet sounds (in Spanish, estanques) where swans frolick—but swan-maidens figure in many European folk tales. In fact, in his classic study, The Science of Fairy Tales, Hartland devotes a whole chapter to swan-maidens. This version of mine is adapted from another one I read a long time ago in a Jane Yolen anthology.)

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