In her introduction to the “Beauty and the Beast” tales, Maria Tatar notes that these stories are unique because they intertwine “two developmental trajectories” (25), Beauty’s struggles and Beast’s transformation. The dual nature of these tales results in a variety of interpretations, many of which are significantly different from the popular story we know today. The tale “The Swan Maiden” (72-73) grabbed my attention precisely for this reason.
In “The Swan Maiden,” a young man discovers three swans who, when they remove their “feathery attire” (72), transform into beautiful young women. The man falls in love with the youngest and is advised by his mother to steal her swan feathers while she is bathing. The woman is unable to transform back into a swan and must marry the man. They live “lovingly and contentedly” (73) until one evening the young man reveals the swan feathers. His wife immediately transforms back into a swan and escapes through an open window, and the young man dies of grief within a year.
Perhaps the most striking difference between this tale and many of the others in the Beauty and the Beast category is that while the others serve to reassure young girls about married life, particularly in arranged marriages, this tale accomplishes almost the exact opposite. The couple in the story is married for seven supposedly happy years, yet the young woman escapes from married life without any hesitation as soon as an opportunity presents itself. This tale hints at the “secretly oppressive nature of marriage” (31), painting a portrait that was likely more realistic than the ones presented in other versions of the tale.
While reading this tale, I was also reminded of the animated film The Swan Princess which is based on the ballet Swan Lake. However, after re-familiarizing myself with the plot of the ballet, I realized that the main similarity to “The Swan Maiden” is really only in the animal into which the woman transforms. In fact, the plot of Swan Lake seems to have more in common with the familiar “Beauty and the Beast” story: the man falls in love with a women cursed to live as an animal, they fight to overcome the curse, and they are united by love in the end (albeit with varying degrees of success—in the ballet they usually die together, but in the film they are happily married). I did some searching for the origins of the Swan Lake story, and according to this page its most likely origins are in a German tale called “The Stolen Veil” and a Russian folktale called “The White Duck.” I was not able to find anything tying the tale of “The Swan Maiden” to the plot of Swan Lake, but I find it fascinating that the link of the swan led me to a different story that nevertheless falls into the same basic tale type, thus emphasizing the variety that is possible within a single basic story.