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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The Swan Maidens

Return to European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

THERE was once a hunter who used often to spend the whole night stalking the deer or setting traps for game. Now it happened one night that he was watching in a clump of bushes near the lake for some wild ducks that he wished to trap. Suddenly he heard, high up in the air, a whirring of wings and thought the ducks were coming; and he strung his bow and got ready his arrows.

But instead of ducks there appeared seven maidens all clad in robes made of feathers, and they alighted on the banks of the lake, and taking off their robes plunged into the waters and bathed and sported in the lake. They were all beautiful, but of them all the youngest and smallest pleased most the hunter's eye, and he crept forward from the bushes and seized her dress of plumage and took it back with him into the bushes.

After the swan maidens had bathed and sported to their heart's delight, they came back to the bank wishing to put on their feather robes again; and the six eldest found theirs, but the youngest could not find hers. They searched and they searched until at last the dawn began to appear, and the six sisters called out to her, "We must away; 'tis the dawn; you meet your fate whatever it be." And with that they donned their robes and flew away, and away, and away.

When the hunter saw them fly away he came forward with the feather robe in his hand; and the swan maiden begged and begged that he would give her back her robe. He gave her his cloak but would not give her her robe, feeling that she would fly away. And he made her promise to marry him, and took her home, and hid her feather robe where she could not find it. So they were married and lived happily together and had two fine children, a boy and a girl, who grew up strong and beautiful; and their mother loved them with all her heart.

One day her little daughter was playing at hide-and-seek with her brother, and she went behind the wainscoting to hide herself, and found there a robe all made of feathers, and took it to her mother. As soon as she saw it she put it on and said to her daughter, "Tell father that if he wishes to see me again he must find me in the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon;" and with that she flew away.

When the hunter came home next morning his little daughter told him what had happened and what her mother said. So he set out to find his wife in the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. And he wandered for many days until he came across an old man who had fallen on the ground, and he lifted him up and helped him to a seat and tended him until he felt better.

Then the old man asked him what he was doing and where he was going. And he told him all about the swan maidens and his wife, and he asked the old man if he had heard of the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon.

And the old man said, "No, but I can ask."

Then he uttered a shrill whistle and soon all the plain in front of them was filled with all of the beasts of the world, for the old man was no less than the King of the Beasts.

And he called out to them, "Who is there here that knows where the Land is East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon?" But none of the beasts knew.

Then the old man said to the hunter, "You must go seek my brother who is the King of the Birds," and told him how to find his brother.

And after a time he found the King of the Birds, and told him what he wanted. So the King of the Birds whistled loud and shrill, and soon the sky was darkened with all the birds of the air, who came around him. Then he asked, "Which of you knows where is the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon?"

And none answered, and the King of the Birds said, "Then you must consult my brother the King of the Fishes," and he told him how to find him.

And the hunter went on, and he went on, and he went on, until he came to the King of the Fishes, and he told him what he wanted. And the King of the Fishes went to the shore of the sea and summoned all the fishes of the sea. And when they came around him he called out, "Which of you knows where is the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon?"

And none of them answered, until at last a dolphin that had come late called out, "I have heard that at the top of the Crystal Mountain lies the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon; but how to get there I know not save that it is near the Wild Forest."

So the hunter thanked the King of the Fishes and went to the Wild Forest. And as he got near there he found two men quarrelling, and as he came near they came towards him and asked him to settle their dispute.

"Now what is it?" said the hunter.

"Our father has just died and he has left but two things, this cap which, whenever you wear it, nobody can see you, and these shoes, which will carry you through the air to whatever place you will. Now I being the elder claim the right of choice, which of these two I shall have; and he declares that, as the younger, he has the right to the shoes. Which do you think is right?"

So the hunter thought and thought, and at last he said, "It is difficult to decide, but the best thing I can think of is for you to race from here to that tree yonder, and whoever gets back to me first I will hand him either the shoes or the cap, whichever he wishes."

So he took the shoes in one hand and the cap in the other, and waited until they had started off running towards the tree. And as soon as they had started running towards the tree he put on the shoes of swiftness and placed the invisible cap on his head and wished himself in the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. And he flew, and he flew, and he flew, over seven Bends, and seven Glens, and seven Mountain Moors, until at last he came to the Crystal Mountain. And on the top of that, as the dolphin had said, there was the Land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon.

Now when he got there he took off his invisible cap and shoes of swiftness and asked who ruled over the Land; and he was told that there was a king who had seven daughters who dressed in swans' feathers and flew wherever they wished.

Then the hunter knew that he had come to the Land of his wife. And he went boldly to the king and said, "Hail, oh king, I have come to seek my wife."

And the king said, "Who is she?"

And the hunter said, "Your youngest daughter." Then he told him how he had won her.

Then the king said, "If you can tell her from her sisters then I know that what you say is true." And he summoned his seven daughters to him, and there they all were, dressed in their robes of feathers and looking each like all the rest.

So the hunter said, "If I may take each of them by the hand I will surely know my wife"; for when she had dwelt with him she had sewn the little shifts and dresses of her children, and the forefinger of her right hand had the marks of the needle.

And when he had taken the hand of each of the swan maidens he soon found which was his wife and claimed her for his own. Then the king gave them great gifts and sent them by a sure way down the Crystal Mountain.

And after a while they reached home, and lived happily together ever afterwards.

Jacobs' Notes and References

The Swan Maidens occur very widely spread and have been studied with great diligence by Mr. E. S. Hartland in two chapters (x., xi.) of his Science of Fairy Tales (pp. 255 347). In consonance with his general principle of interpretation, Mr. Hartland is mainly concerned with the traces of primitive thought and custom to be seen in the Swan Maidens. Originally these were, according to him, probably regarded as actual swans, the feathery robe being a later symbolic euphemism, though I would incidentally remark that the whole of the story as a story depends upon the seizure of a separate dress involving the capture of the swan bride. Mr. Hartland is inclined to believe partly with F. Liebrecht in Zur Volkskunde, pp. 54-65, that these mysterious visitors from another world are really the souls of deceased persons (probably regarded as totemistic ancestresses). In some forms of the story, enumerated by Mr. Hartland, the captured wife returns to her original home, not when she recovers her robe of feathers but when the husband breaks some tabu (strikes her, chides her, refers to her sisters, sees her nude, etc.).

From the standpoint of "storyology" from which we are mainly considering the stories here purely as stories, the Swan Maidens formula is especially interesting as showing the ease with which a simple theme can be elaborated and contaminated by analogous ones. The essence of the story is the capture of a bride by a young man who seizes her garment and thus gets her in manu, as the Roman lawyers say. She bears him children, but, on recovering her garment, flies away and is no more heard of. Sometimes she superfluously imposes a tabu upon her husband, which he breaks and she disappears (Melusine variant; compare Lohengrin). This is the effective and affecting incident of which Matthew Arnold makes such good use in his Merman. It could obviously be used, as Mr. Hartland points out, in a quasi-mythological manner to account for supernatural ancestry, as in the cases of the physicians of Myddvai in Wales, or of the Counts of Lusignan. But on this simple basis folk tellers have developed elaborations derived from other formulas. In several cases, notably in the Arabian Nights (Jamshah and Hasan of Bassora), the capture of the swan maiden is preceded by the Forbidden Chamber formula. Then when the bride flies away there is the Bride-Quest, which is often helped by Thankful Animals and aided by the Magical Weapons. When the hero reaches the home of the bride he has often to undergo a Recognition-Test, or even is made to undertake Acquisition Tasks derived from the Jason formula; and even when he obtains his wishes in many versions of the story there is the Pursuit with Obstacles also familiar from the same formula.

Cosquin, ii., 16, has, with his usual analytical grasp, seen the separable character of these various series of incidents. He, however, attempts to show that all of them, including the germ of the Swan Maidens, are to be found in the East, and is successful in affiliating the Greek of Hahn, No. 15, with the two stories of the Arabian Nights mentioned above, as well as the Siberian version given by Radloff, iv., 321, the hero of which has even derived his name from the Jamshah of the Thousand and One Nights.

In my own version I have utilized a few of these incidents but reserve most of them for their proper story environment. I have introduced, from the Campbell version, the phrase "seven Bens, and seven Glens, and seven Mountain Moors," which so attracted Stevenson's Catriona, in order to point out as a remarkable coincidence that Hasan of Bassora, in the Arabian Nights, flies over "seven Waddys, seven Seas, and seven Mountains." It is difficult to understand that such a remarkable phrase should recur accidentally in Bagdad and in the West Highlands. Without some actual intermediation, oral or literary, the hypothesis of universal human tendency can scarcely explain such a coincidence.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/22/07