Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories | Annotated Tale

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Where did the swan come from?

The Story of the Swan Maiden and the King.

This is in its essence the well-known story of the swan-maidens, but with a very marked difference. It is here used more or less to describe the origin of the swan, whilst the tale of the swan-maiden presupposes the existence and knowledge of such birds.

The version, which I have been able to find is, however, not complete; still it is clear enough for our purpose. It runs as follows:

ONCE upon a time a king went out hunting, and after he had been hunting in the forest for a long time without finding anything, he found himself suddenly in an open plain, in which there was a huge lake, and in the midst of the lake he saw there a bird swimming about, the like of which he had never seen before. It was a swan.

               Drawing his bow, he wanted to shoot it. To his surprise it spoke to him in a human voice, and said, "Do not kill me." So he tried his best to catch it, and succeeded. Pleased with the capture of the bird, he carried it home alive, and gave it to the cook to kill it to make a meal of it for him. The cook was a Gipsy. She whetted her knife and went to the bird to cut its throat, when, to her astonishment, the bird turned three somersaults, and there stood before her a most beautiful maiden, more beautiful than she had ever seen before. So she ran to the king and told him what had happened.

               The king, who first thought that the cook was trying to play some trickery with him, did not listen to her, but when she persisted in her tale, the king, driven by curiosity, went into the kitchen, and there he saw a girl more beautiful than any that he had ever yet set his eyes upon.

               He asked her who she was, and she said she was the swan who was swimming on the lake, that she had wilfully gone away from her mother, who lived in the land of fairies, and that she had left two sisters behind. So the king took her into the palace and married her. The Gipsy, who was a pretty wench, had thought that the king would marry her, and when she saw what had happened, she was very angry. But she managed to conceal her anger, and tried to be kind to the new queen, biding her time all the while.

               The king and queen lived on for a while in complete happiness, and after a time a child was born unto her.

               It so happened that the king had to go on a long journey, leaving the wife and child in the care of the Gipsy. One day the Gipsy came to the queen, and said to her, "Why do you always sit in the palace? come, let us walk a little in the garden, to hear the birds singing, and to see the beautiful flowers." The queen, who had no suspicion, took the advice of the Gipsy, and went with her for a walk into the garden. In the middle of the garden there was a deep well, and the Gipsy said artfully to the young queen, "Just bend over the well, and look into the water below, and see whether your face has remained so beautiful as it was on the first day when you turned into a maiden from being a swan."

               The queen bent over the well to look down into the depths, and that was what the Gipsy was waiting for, for no sooner did the queen bend over the well, than, getting hold of her by her legs, she threw her down head foremost into the well and drowned her. When the king came home and did not find the queen, he asked what had happened, and where she was. The Gipsy, who had meanwhile taken charge of the child, and looked after it very carefully, said to the king that the young queen, pining for her old home, had turned again into a swan and flown away.

               The king was deeply grieved when he heard this, but believing what the Gipsy had told him, he thought that nothing could be done, and resigned himself to the loss of his wife.

               The Gipsy woman looked after the child with great care, hoping thereby that she might win the king's love, and that he would marry her. A month, a year passed, and nothing was heard of the wife. And the king, seeing the apparent affection of the Gipsy for the child, decided at last to marry her, and fixed the day of the wedding. Out of the fountain into which the queen had been thrown, there grew a willow tree with three branches, one stem in the middle and two branching out right and left. Not far from the garden there lived a man who had a large flock of sheep. One day he sent his boy to lead the sheep to the field. On his way the boy passed the king's garden with the well in the middle of it.

               As the boy had left his flute at home, when he saw the willow he thought he would cut one of the branches and make a flute.

               Going into the garden, he cut the middle stem, and made a flute of it. When he put it to his lips, the flute by itself began to play as follows: "O boy, do not blow too hard, for my heart is aching for my little babe which I left behind in the cradle, and to suckle at the black breast of a Gipsy." When the boy heard what the flute was playing, not understanding what it meant, he was greatly astonished, and ran home to tell his father what had happened with the flute.

               The father, angry that he had left the sheep alone, scolded him, and took away the flute. Then he tried to see whether the boy had told the truth. As soon as he put it to his mouth the flute started playing the same tune as when the boy had tried to play it. The father said nothing, and wondering at the meaning of the words he hid the flute away in a cupboard.

               When the king's wedding-day drew near, all the musicians of the kingdom were invited to come and play at the banquet. Some of them passed the old man's house, and hearing from them that they were going to play at the king's banquet, he remembered the marvellous flute, and he asked whether he could not go also, as he could play the flute so wonderfully well. His son--the young boy--had meanwhile gone into the garden in the hope of getting another flute, as the willow had three branches. So he cut one of the branches and made a flute of it. Now this flute did not play at all.

               When the old man came to the palace, there was much rejoicing and singing. At last his turn came to play. As soon as he put the flute to his lips, the flute sang: "O man, do not blow so hard, for my heart aches for my little babe left in the cradle to be suckled by a black Gipsy."

               The Gipsy, who was the king's bride and sat at the head of the table, at once understood the saying of the flute, although she did not know what the flute had to do with the queen whom she had killed.

               The king, who marvelled greatly at the flute and at the tune which it was singing, took a gold piece and gave it to the man for the flute, and when he started blowing it, the flute began to sing: "O my dear husband, do not blow so hard, for my heart aches for our little babe whom I left in the cradle to be suckled by the black Gipsy. Quickly, quickly, do away with this cruel Gipsy, as otherwise thou wilt lose thy wife."

               The guests who were present marvelled at the song, and no one understood its meaning. The Gipsy, however, who understood full well what it meant, turning to the king, said, "Illustrious king, do not blow this flute and make thyself ridiculous before thy guests, throw it into the fire." But the king, who felt offended by the words of the Gipsy, made her take up the flute and blow. With great difficulty she submitted to the order of the king, and she was quite justified in refusing to play it, for no sooner had she put the flute to her lips when it sang: "You enemy of mine, do not blow hard, for my heart aches for my little babe left in the cradle to be suckled by thee, thou evil-minded Gipsy. Thou hast thrown me into the well, and there put an end to my life, but God had pity on me, and he has preserved me to be again the true wife of this illustrious king."

               Furious at these words, the Gipsy threw the flute away with so much force that she thought it would break into thousands of splinters. But it was not to be as she thought, for by this very throw the flute was changed into a beautiful woman, more beautiful, indeed, than any had ever seen before. She was the very queen whom the Gipsy had thrown into the well.

               When the king saw her, he embraced her and kissed her, and asked her where she had been such a long time. She told him that she had slept at the bottom of the well into which she had been thrown by the Gipsy, who had hoped to become the queen, and this would have come to pass had it not been for the boy cutting a flute out of the stem of the willow-tree. "And now, punish the Gipsy as she deserves, otherwise thy wife must leave thee."

               When the king heard these words, he called the boy and asked him whether he had cut himself a flute from the stem of the willow tree which had grown out of the well in the garden.

               "It is so, O illustrious king;" said the boy, "and may I be forgiven for the audacity of going into the king's garden. I went and cut for myself a flute from the stem of the willow tree, and when I began to blow it, it played, 'Do not blow so hard, O boy, for my heart is aching within me,' etc." Then he told him he had gone back to his father, who instead of praising him for the marvellous flute, gave him a good shaking. He had then gone a second time into the garden, and had cut off one of the branches to make a flute; but this did not play like the first one. The king gave the boy a very rich gift, and he ordered the Gipsy to be killed.

               Some time afterwards, the queen came to the king and asked leave to go to her mother to tell her all that had happened to her, and to say good-bye for ever now, as she henceforth would live among human beings. The king reluctantly gave way. She then made three somersaults, and again became a swan, as she had been when the king found her for the first time on the waters of the lake.

               Spreading her wings she flew far away until she reached the house of her mother, who was quite alone. Her two sisters were not there. They had left her some time ago and no one knew whither they had gone. The young queen did not go into the house, she was probably afraid lest her mother would not let her go back again, so she settled on the roof, and there she sang: "Remain in health, good mother mine, as the joy is no longer granted thee to have me with thee in thine house, for thou wilt only see me again when I lose my kingdom, dear mother mine, not before, and not till then." And without waiting for the answer of her mother she returned back again to her husband. Sitting on the window sill, she sung again: "Rise up, O husband, open the doors, wake up the servants and let them be a witness of my faithfulness to thee, for since I have married thee I have left my mother, and my sisters have gone away from me, and from a swan I have become a true wife to live in happiness with thee. Henceforth I shall no longer be a swan, but thou must take care of me that I do not go hence from thee. I do not know whether my fate will be a better one by being a queen in this world. O sweet water, how I long to bathe in thee! And my white feathers, they will belong to my sisters. Since I am to leave them for ever, and my mother with them, O Lord, what have I done? Shall I be able to live upon the earth, and shall I keep the kingdom? Thou, O Lord, O merciful, hearken unto me and grant that this kingdom may not be in vain." And turning again head over heels, she became a woman as before, and entering the palace she lived there with her husband--the king--and if they have not died since they are still alive.


Here we have the origin of the swans, for since that time the swans have come to this world.

               It is a remarkable tale, in which the element of the swan-maiden story has been mixed up with the type of the false wife. It claims, however, special attention, for we have here what I believe to be "the song of the dying swan." It is practically the song of the swan before her death as a swan, and her rebirth as a fairy maiden, which is contained in the concluding portion.

               I am not aware of any other parallel to this peculiar song, although the fable that the swan sings a very beautiful song before his death is well known from antiquity.

               Here follows another version of the swan legend in the form of a ballad.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Where did the swan come from?
Tale Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Book Title: Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories
Book Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1915
Country of Origin: Romania
Classification: Swan Maiden

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