It is hard to imagine a more visually beautiful image in folk tales than the one presented by the figures of the swan maiden and her sisters. With a flurry of wings, they swoop down from the sky to glide elegantly across a clear pond. Then, throwing off their feathered gowns, they bathe and frolic in the water as women. They are always lovely, sensual, a combination of exotic sexuality and innocent charm.
In the traditional swan maiden narrative, a hunter or young prince is smitten with love at first sight for the youngest swan sister — smitten enough to commit several crimes against the very object of his desire for the sole purpose of keeping such a magical creature within his grasp. These crimes culminate in marriage and the attempted domestication of the wild, fantastical swan maiden, turned into a wife and mother. But this is less a tale about love than one about marital coercion and confusion. Neither husband nor wife is on the same page; their union is at best a tenuous détente, made possible only by the husband's theft of the swan maiden's feathered gown, forcing her to remain human and estranged from her own world. The husband has done nothing to earn such a powerful wife, and the swan maiden has no opportunity to choose her own fate. This is a marriage that cannot last in its fractured form. It must either go forward to find a level playing field for husband and wife, or it must end in miserable dissolution.
Let us consider a European version of the tale reconstructed from a variety of sources by Victorian author Joseph Jacobs. A hunter is spending the night in a clump of bushes on the edge of a pond, hoping to capture wild ducks. At midnight, hearing the whirring of wings, he is astonished to see not ducks but seven maidens clad in robes of feathers alight on the bank, disrobe, and begin to bathe and sport in the water. The hunter seizes the opportunity to creep through the bushes and steal one of the robes. When dawn approaches, the sisters gather their garments and prepare to leave, but the youngest sister is distraught, unable to find her robe. Daylight is coming and the older sisters cannot wait for her. They leave her behind, telling her "to meet your fate whatever it may be."
As soon as the sisters are out of sight, the hunter approaches her, holding the feathered robe. The young maiden weeps and begs for its return, but the hunter, already too much in love, refuses. Instead, he covers her with his cloak and takes her home. Once there, he hides her robe, knowing that if she puts it on again, he will lose her. They are married, and she gifts him with two children, a boy and a girl.
One day, while playing hide–and–seek, the little girl finds the hidden robe and brings it to her mother. Without a moment's hesitation, the wife slips on the robe. We can almost imagine the mother's sigh of relief to be herself again, her true fantastic self, and not the pale wife weighted down by domestic drudgery. And yet, she offers a spark of hope for the future of the marriage. "Tell your father, if he wishes to see me again, he must find me in the land East o' the Sun and West' o' the Moon," she says to her daughter just before flying out the window.
No matter how compliant a swan maiden may appear as a wife, there remains an unspoken anxiety and tension beneath the surface of her marriage. Her husband can never be certain of her affection, for it has been held hostage by her stolen skin. He offers her his cloak, but it is an exchange of unequal goods. Her feathered robe is the sign of her wild nature, of her freedom, and of her power, while his cloak becomes the instrument of her domestication, of her submission in human society. He steals her identity, the very thing that attracted him, and then turns her into his most precious prize, a pale version of the original creature of magic.
Conflict is never far beneath the veneer of the swan maiden's compliance. In a German version of the tale, a hunter captures a swan maiden's skin, and although she follows him home pleading for its return, he offers her only marriage. She accepts, not out of love but to remain close to the skin which is her identity. Fifteen years and several children later, the hunter leaves to go on a hunting trip, for once forgetting to lock the attic. Alone in the house, the wife searches the attic and finds her skin in a dusty chest. She immediately puts it on and flies out the window before the startled eyes of her children, with nary a word of farewell. A crane wife in China coaxes her mother–in–law to show her the hidden skin. When the old woman hesitates, the wife counters by saying "I was once a heavenly maiden. But now I am married to your son and we have had a child. How can you think I would leave you?" Convinced, the mother–in–law allows her to see the garment. The moment the crane wife touches it she transforms into her bird shape and flies out through the roof–vent.
In some variants of the story, the swan maiden uses a taboo or prohibition to acquire some bargaining chip in the unfair marriage deal. If the husband breaks this prohibition, he loses all hold on her. The Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest tell a version in which a Chief's son spies two women bathing in a pond, their goose skins hanging from a tree. He snatches both skins, and when the women beg for them he returns the skin of the elder sister but covers the younger sister with his marten cloak (the sign of his wealth and status) and brings her home to be married. His wife, however, retains some of her goose–nature, eating only edible roots and secretly retrieving her goose skin from its hiding place at night, flying to the shore to eat sea grasses. When famine comes to the village, the wife implores her own family for help and flocks of geese bring food to sustain the starving villagers. When an ungrateful neighbor complains about receiving nothing but "goose food," however, the insulted wife gathers up her goose skin and flies home.
More often it is the husband's foolishness that costs him his magical marriage. In a Javanese tale, the husband peeks inside a boiling rice pot even though his swan wife has prohibited this. He is confused to find only a single grain of rice boiling at the bottom. When his wife returns home and opens the lid, instead of finding a magically full pot she sees only the single grain and knows her husband has broken the taboo. Now she must labor like human women to prepare rice for their meal. She finds her skin at the bottom of a storage bin and angrily prepares to leave the marriage, but only after she has exhausted her husband's remaining store of rice. Prohibitions such as this one allow room for negotiation between such mismatched couples. The swan maiden maintains a modicum of her fantastic identity within the guise of a human wife; and the husband certainly benefits from her power. But once again, as with the theft of her skin, he proves he cannot trust or respect her. He thus loses his wife and the magic and creative potential she brings to the marriage.