Children into Swans

Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination

Jan Beveridge
Copyright Date: 2014
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    Children into Swans
    Book Description:

    Fairy tales are alive with the supernatural - elves, dwarfs, fairies, giants, and trolls, as well as witches with magic wands and sorcerers who cast spells and enchantments. Children into Swans examines these motifs in a range of ancient stories. Moving from the rich period of nineteenth-century fairy tales back as far as the earliest folk literature of northern Europe, Jan Beveridge shows how long these supernatural features have been a part of storytelling, with ancient tales, many from Celtic and Norse mythology, that offer glimpses into a remote era and a pre-Christian sensibility. The earliest stories often show significant differences from what we might expect. Elves mingle with Norse gods, dwarfs belong to a proud clan of magician-smiths, and fairies are shape-shifters emerging from the hills and the sea mist. In story traditions with roots in a pre-Christian imagination, an invisible other world exists alongside our own. From the lost cultures of a thousand years ago, Children into Swans opens the door on some of the most extraordinary worlds ever portrayed in literature - worlds that are both starkly beautiful and full of horrors.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-9616-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. A Note on Spelling
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. The Pronunciation of Some Names and Words
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. PART ONE History
    • 1 Early Storytellers
      (pp. 3-12)

      Fairy tales are certainly strange. A girl wanders alone on a moor and comes upon a plum tree. No sooner have her lips touched a plum than she is in a different world, surrounded by hundreds of little people who are pleased that she has arrived to look after their children and brew their beer. In another tale, a girl watches her twelve brothers suddenly change into ravens and fly away over the trees. The cottage where they had just been eating their meal vanishes, and she is left standing alone in the wild forest. In another, an evil stepmother...

    • 2 The Oldest “Fairy” Tale
      (pp. 13-18)

      The ancient narratives of northern Europe were spoken and recorded over many centuries across the Middle Ages. I wanted to discover the oldest tales of all, so began the project with a search through the earliest manuscripts for any stories with fairy tale subject matter. I assumed that this would be a daunting task, but I was wrong. There was no need to look further than the very first manuscripts with narrative material, since these most ancient texts were filled with fairies and giants living in imaginary worlds.

      I was intrigued by the very oldest of the manuscripts, theBook...

    • 3 The Manuscript
      (pp. 19-27)

      The year is 1100 AD. In the scriptorium of a quiet Irish monastery on the banks of the Shannon River, a scribe, Mael Muiri, is working at a long table with other scribes, copying words onto pages of vellum. These are young men and boys, since this task is difficult for old hands and eyes. The scribes work for long hours every day, beginning at sunrise and finally stopping for supper and prayers only when the daylight has faded and it is too dark in the chilled monastery room to continue. Mael Muiri’s fingers ache with cold and cramp. Yet,...

    • 4 Folk Tales and Fairy Tales
      (pp. 28-34)

      Although Ireland is unique in Europe for its long tradition of oral and written stories, most countries of the world have a heritage of tales that have been passed down generation by generation as an oral tradition, and thousands of fairy tales have drawn upon these for inspiration. Until the nineteenth century, folk stories were not regarded seriously by academics. They seemed simply a part of rural peasant life, with little intrinsic worth. Yet, they were an integral part of rural life. Storytellers entertained at weddings and christenings, at community celebrations, and at simple gatherings of families and friends when...

  8. PART TWO Characters
    • 5 Fairies
      (pp. 37-49)

      “Hidden people” have inhabited the folklore of many countries, perhaps most countries of the world, but fairies came alive in the Celtic imagination. Fairy lore forms a huge part of folk tradition in Ireland, while the Cornish piskies, the Scottish good people, the Welsh fair family or Tylwyth Teg, and the French fées are all closely akin to their Irish counterparts. The word “fairy” is derived from the Old French “faerie,” a word that for the French referred either to a fairyland or to those who lived there. In his paper “On Fairy-Stories,”¹ Tolkien remarks on how relatively rare fairies...

    • 6 Elves
      (pp. 50-59)

      Elves also have a place in the long history of storytelling traditions of northern Europe. These creatures are easily found in Scandinavian, Scottish, and a few German folk and fairy tale books. In Denmark and Iceland, however, elves were particularly a favourite subject matter. In Iceland, for centuries, the dream world seemed more real than in other places, and here the elves, who were among the hidden people,huldufólk, lived in the hills and rocky places around the farms where they occupied a large part of culture and tradition. And they still do.

      Much like the fairies, the elves in...

    • 7 Dwarfs
      (pp. 60-70)

      At a first, quick glance, fairy tale dwarfs may appear to resemble elves; they might seem similar because of their small stature and their ability to slip in and out of rocky crevices. They, too, live underground, but here the similarity ends. The all-male dwarfs, with different origins, are entirely separate beings and have a markedly different appearance. They are amazingly strong and hardy, but they would have looked strange coming along a road, with their small, oddly shaped bodies and disproportionately large heads, half-running and half-walking on misshapen feet, their long white beards often hanging down to their knees....

    • 8 Household Spirits
      (pp. 71-78)

      In folk stories, the invisible beings called nissen or nisser in Denmark and Norway, tomten in Sweden, kobolds in Germany, and brownies in England and the Scottish Lowlands resembled dwarfs somewhat in stature and appearance, but these were very different creatures. Like dwarfs they were almost always male, but sometimes they had a small wife and family of their own. Where dwarfs lived independently of humans, these lived side by side with them on their farms and in their homes, sharing their hearth and food, performing helpful labour, and loyally caring for their well-being. In Swedish folklore, there was a...

    • 9 Water Dwellers
      (pp. 79-89)

      So far, we have discovered that fairies, elves, dwarfs, and different kinds of home spirits were beings closely connected with features of the landscape: its hills and mounds, rocky places, cliffs and caverns, mountains, even fields and farmsteads. Now we turn to lakes, rivers, and the sea.

      Mermaid mythology is ancient and, unlike the others, is widespread, ranging from Japanese, Chinese, and Russian mermaids, a Babylonian merman, the Syrian mermaid moon-goddess, to images of mermaids in medieval bestiaries. Legends and folklore about sea-maidens are found in every country of northern Europe, but in each region they have a different name...

    • 10 Giants
      (pp. 90-102)

      In the ancient imagination fairies, elves, dwarfs, and mermaids existed, but in the early Norse stories, except for gods, we read more on the subject of giants and trolls than all other denizens of the supernatural world combined. In passages from theProseandPoetic Eddas, a story unfolds about how the world was created,¹ and in this story, in the very newness of time, there were giants. They took format the beginning of all creation, even before there were gods. They were formed before there was earth, air, sea, or sun. Before giants, all that existed was an icy...

    • 11 Souls and Spirits
      (pp. 103-112)

      In a saga, a farmhand and a housemaid living on an Icelandic homestead were driving cattle past a burial cairn when they heard Gunnar, the dead man in it, reciting some verses. Upon returning to the farm, they reported what they had heard to Gunnar’s mother, and so, a few nights later two young men, the dead man’s son and a loyal friend, also visited the cairn. They had not been waiting long when they heard the same thing. A cloud had darkened the moonlight, the cairn opened, and it seemed to be lit from within. They saw Gunnar sitting...

  9. PART THREE Stories from the Pagan Year
    • 12 Festival Days
      (pp. 115-117)

      Seasonal festivals were important ritual days in the pagan year, and these continued to be observed into Christian times. The early literature portrays these days as brief, mysterious times when the world of humans was touched by the supernatural and impacted by mythic events. More recently, from time to time we come upon a folk story in which events hinge on one of these old sacred days, and then, strangely, gods or goddesses never appear but fairies and elves do, and something magical occurs.

      The Celtic year was divided into two parts, summer and winter, with festivals heralding each new...

    • 13 Beltaine
      (pp. 118-126)

      For centuries, the old Celtic festival of Beltaine continued to be celebrated as May Day, associated with boughs and fresh spring flowers, fiddle music and dances, a May queen, and sometimes a maypole. The day is still observed in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Over the years, stories centred on May Day have conveyed this as a time when the boundary between the human world and the otherworld became thin, our reality and the other one blended, and then mysterious things happened, either for good or for evil. Spirits became active. This was the fairies’ trysting time, when they held dances...

    • 14 Samain
      (pp. 127-135)

      The eve of the first day of November, the Irish Samain, was the other central day in the Celtic calendar, marking the beginning of winter and also the Celtic New Year. The festival was another spirit night, but this haunted occasion was the dark opposite of Beltaine. From ancient times, all over Europe, the first of November was a festival to honour the dead. As early as the seventh century, the old pagan day had evolved in Christian tradition into All Souls Day, a day to offer prayers for the departed.

      Something of the spirit of the old festival remains...

    • 15 Midwinter and Midsummer
      (pp. 136-146)

      Whereas Beltaine and Samain were primarily Celtic festivals, the winter and summer solstices, corresponding with the year’s shortest and longest days, were significant events worldwide in the pagan year; among other winter solstice celebrations was the Roman Saturnalia. The solstice days of ancient Europe continued to be observed as Midwinter and Midsummer festivals, and the winter solstice is still celebrated in Scandinavia with a festival of light at the beginning of the Christmas season. Familiar Christmas customs of decorating with candles, evergreen boughs, and holly and ivy wreaths, as well as trees hung with candles or lights all have origins...

  10. PART FOUR Storytellers’ Themes
    • 16 Wishing, or Dreams Come True
      (pp. 149-157)

      Some themes and motifs seem so closely bound up with fairy tales that they could be part of the definition of these stories. The reader expects to find enchantments and friendly supernatural helpers, as well as ogres and witches. Magic happens, and there will be a happy ending. Fairy tales could be called “wish tales.” Usually the story’s protagonist is the youngest child or is dirt-poor, with little hope or expectation of ever having his or her hopes and dreams fulfilled. Nevertheless, endurance, resourcefulness, a good heart, and magical assistance go a long way towards fulfilling those wishes. In fairy...

    • 17 The Triple Form
      (pp. 158-166)

      In fairy tales more than wishes come in threes. A girl who was always treated horribly by her stepmother one day dropped her basket over a cliff and climbed all the way down over the rocks to retrieve it. At the bottom she was surprised to find three fairies welcoming her to their palace under the precipice. There they treated her kindly and gave her a splendid gown, and when she left them a golden star shone on her forehead.¹ Just like the fairies in this Italian tale, we come upon “threes” so often in stories that the number three...

    • 18 Shape-Shifting
      (pp. 167-176)

      There was once a king’s daughter, Margaret, whose jealous stepmother repeated a spell three times to turn the girl into an ugly creature. So, Margaret went to bed a beautiful maiden and woke up as a hideous serpent. She crawled out of the castle and crawled and crept until she came to a rocky place by the sea. There, unseen by anyone, she could sleep in a cave and bask in the sun. She remained there until her brother found her and kissed her three times, breaking the spell and turning the serpent back into his dear sister Margaret once...

    • 19 Omens and Prophecies
      (pp. 177-188)

      In the German epicThe Nibelungenlied, a king with his knights and a thousand Nibelung warriors were journeying to Hungary to fight the Huns, when they came to a flood on the river.¹ One of the knights, Hagan, fully armed with his sword, shield, and helmet, was commanded to walk along the riverbank to find a ferryman who could take the men across. After he had gone a ways, Hagan heard splashing and saw maidens in the water. The garments they left lying on the shore must have been strange and marvellous, since Hagan recognized at once that these women...

    • 20 Between Two Worlds
      (pp. 189-197)

      The old men, but more often women, in tales, who can read omens, interpret dreams, divine the future, and see events that are far away in time and place are an understood part of the fairy tale world. These masters of the supernatural, as in the Finnish fairy tale below, are usually skilled in other magical arts as well, such as knowing how to break enchantments and possessing the wisdom to confront unnatural encounters.

      A young man who lived alone in a cottage beside a small lake saw nine swans one morning swoop down from the sky and settle on...

    • 21 Spells
      (pp. 198-204)

      Spells were a witch’s word magic. In fairy tales, a little scrap of rhyme can turn a boy into a hare, free a bride from an enchantment, raise a strong wind, or summon a knight instantly from a faraway land. A grim ogress in a tale forces a princess into a little boat and sets her off all alone onto the sea with these words:

      Thus I lay and this I say;

      do not stop and do not stay;

      to my brother make your way.¹

      The reader is not surprised that the small craft, of its own accord, glides through...

    • 22 Trees
      (pp. 205-213)

      The magic of fairy tales that isn’t accomplished by casting spells is often performed with the magic wands of witches, wizards, and fairy godmothers. With the touch of a wand, a hard-working girl’s wooden spinning wheel is turned into shining gold, or a monstrous, three-headed beast shrinks down into a newt. These transformations happen as quickly as the stepmother in “The Children of Lir,” with a touch of her wand, changed her stepchildren into swans. For the most part, fairy tale wands are used for transforming things.

      A witch in the Grimms’ “Sweetheart Roland” had her axe in hand ready...

    • 23 The Invisible World
      (pp. 214-223)

      When the heroes of fairy tales venture into unfamiliar territory, they encounter the magical otherworld at every turn. Yet, as frequently as this realm is discovered, the ways there are infinitely varied. A young king in “The City East of the Moon and South of the Sun”¹ married a swan-maiden and then lost her, and he searched the world far and wide to find her again in the kingdom of her father, the Cloud-King. With the aid of a wise dwarf, helpful birds, and all the winds, he was finally carried away by a strong southeasterly wind over land and...

    • 24 A Fairy Tale Almost Forgotten
      (pp. 224-238)

      “The Dwarfs’ Banquet” could easily have been lost. When it was first published many of the old Scandinavian tales had already faded from popular memory. The survival of stories from oral tradition was as precarious as the survival of old manuscripts, most of which perished until only so few now remain.

      This Norwegian story was told to a bishop, Friedrich Christian Münter, who related it in Danish to Wilhelm Grimmin 1812. Because the story was Scandinavian and not German in origin, the Grimm brothers did not include it in their collection of fairy tales. But Wilhelm kept the story. Fifteen...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 239-256)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 257-270)
  13. Index
    (pp. 271-280)