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In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender

Barbara Fass Leavy
Copyright Date: 1994
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 388
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  • Book Info
    In Search of the Swan Maiden
    Book Description:

    In her compendious study, [of the folktale of the runaway wife] Leavy argues that the contradictory claims of nature and culture are embodied in the legendary figure of the swan maiden, a woman torn between the human and bestial worlds. --The New York Times Book Review This is a study of the meaning of gender as framed by the swan maiden tale, a story found in the folklore of virtually every culture. The swan maiden is a supernatural woman forced to marry, keep house, and bear children for a mortal man who holds the key to her imprisonment. When she manages to regain this key, she escapes to the otherworld, never to return. These tales have most often been interpreted as depicting exogamous marriages, describing the girl from another tribe trapped in a world where she will always be the outsider. Barbara Fass Leavy believes that, in the societies in which the tale and its variants endured, woman was the other--the outsider trapped in a society that could never be her own. Leavy shows how the tale, though rarely explicitly recognized, is frequently replayed in modern literature. Beautifully written, this book reveals the myriad ways in which the folktales of a society reflect its cultural values, and particularly how folktales are allegories of gender relations. It will interest anyone involved in literary, gender, and cultural studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5268-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 1-10)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: The Dangerous Adventure
    (pp. 11-32)

    My subject is the interplay between stories about a fairy captured by a mortal man and forced into a tedious domestic existence and, obversely, about a mortal woman courted by a demon lover who offers her escape from that same mundane world. Other paradigms in the mortal-immortal matings have been discussed in the preface, where the swan maiden tale was summarized. Its obverse, the demon lover story, frequently describes a trap the wife stumbles into in her flight from her traditional role, and the tale is thus more prone than the swan maiden one to be laden with themes of...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Urvaśī and the Swan Maidens: The Runaway Wife
    (pp. 33-63)

    Not all swan maidens are swans; some are doves, or ungainly geese, ducks, or cranes.¹ Seal maidens abound in Scottish and Scandinavian tales, and in Russia the stolen wolf’s skin evokes werewolf legends.² Other swan maidens have no animal form, and are bound to their mortal captors because some other significant possession, such as a dress or secret name, has been stolen or discovered. The graceful swan has nonetheless characterized what has been called “one of the most beautiful stories ever evolved from the mind of man,”³ a story so affective that attempts to find meaning in the tale have...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Devil’s Bride
    (pp. 64-100)

    As their story develops in Sanskrit literature, the matter of why Purūraṽas and Urvaśī separate becomes ambiguous. TheRig Vedareveals an underlying and apparently gender-based hostility that splits the pair; theBrahmanaemphasizes the Gandharvas’ plot to reclaim the nymph who dared to prefer a mortal. That triangular relationships may objectify internal strife can be seen in the development of a theme in three seal maiden tales. In the first, the captured wife escapes her mortal husband, after which she plunges into the sea “where a male seal came up by her side—he had all the time been...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Animal Groom
    (pp. 101-155)

    Urvaśī may be the quintessential swan maiden, but her union with Purūravas is more often situated among the Cupid and Psyche tales, which tell of the human wife of a supernatural being who is “forbidden to see or name her husband,”¹ the obverse of the motif in which the human husband, Purūravas, is bound never to appear naked before his supernatural wife. The Cupid and Psyche tale type forms what has been called one of the “oldest, most studied, and most widely distributed folktales in the world,” the most extensive treatment of them being based on over a thousand versions.²...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Swan Maiden and Incubus
    (pp. 156-195)

    The Gandharvas who reclaim Urvaśī for the divine world are depicted as variable beings. They are musicians to the court of Indra; they are associated with love matches in which brides choose their husbands. But they are also the mythical wild men of Hindu mythology,¹ a race that haunts the “air, the mountains, the forests,” with the power to cause illusions and even madness. The carefree existence reflected in their “free sexuality and their love of wine, women and song”² appears more ominous when their powers as voluptuaries are associated with the kinds of erotic dreams not easily distinguished from...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Animal Bride
    (pp. 196-244)

    Icelandic sagas tell of Helgi the Bold, victorious in battle because his swan maiden beloved, Lara, brings him good fortune. But one day Helgi raises his sword so high that he accidentally cuts off the swan’s leg, after which his luck deserts him.¹ A similarly hapless accident is the subject of a modern song in which one Polly Von wraps about herself the symbol of her domesticity, her apron, is mistaken for a swan, and is shot by her fiancé.² Bahamian folklore supplies a comparable story. Whenever a young wife takes off her human clothing and sings a particular song,...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Orpheus’s Quest
    (pp. 245-276)

    Most swan maiden stories begin with the capture of the fairy wife, her enforced stay in the mortal world, her eventual escape from her domestic life, and her husband’s setting out to bring her back—the latter motif being used by folklorists to characterize the story, making the husband’s rather than the wife’s experience the narrative focus of interest. Hartland explains that the “one idea” that runs through the swan maiden tale is that a man unable to retain his supernatural wife “must pursue her” to her own land and “conquer his right to her by undergoing superhuman penance or...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Etain’s Two Husbands: The Swan Maiden’s Choice
    (pp. 277-302)

    Previous chapters have argued that to “rescue” the lost fairy spouse from the otherworld is frequently to parallel her original capture, and that these magic tales convey the realistic idea that to win and hold a wife by force involves a perilous marriage at best. The conflict between husband and wife is, moreover, subversive of the well-being of most societies, whose structures mirror and thus rest on the stability of family relations. Fairy visitants to the mortal world do indeed prove a “tester of human relations,”¹ and the swan maiden tale is not an encouraging one. Even fairy wives who...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 303-338)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 339-368)
  14. Index of Selected Names and Titles
    (pp. 369-374)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 375-375)