Rediscovering earlier notes for my article The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe -- I always like to circle back to these notes because they continue to offer insights. These were notes made from BF LEavy, In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender.
I have long been fascinated by the "Animal Bride" stories for their narrative tension. So often in fairy tales, rites of passage narratives lead to the successful initiation into adulthood and marriage. But Animal Brides prove more of a cautionary tale -- and seem to end as often in misery and unhappy marriages.
One of the more interesting observations I came across in my reading is a quote from Bruce Kapferer in Barbara Fass Leavy's In Search of the Swan Maiden that Animal Bride stories (such as Selkie or Swan Maiden stories where the animal bride is coerced into marriage by the theft of her animal skin) present a paradox of women's lives in the tales:
Women, "believed to be more quickly prone than a man to revert to a state of nature...are nonetheless entrusted with the task of rooting man in culture and raising her children in such a way as to prevent behavior threatening to society as a whole." It's an interesting idea when we recall the marriages of Selkies, Kitsune, Mermaids, and Swan Maidens -- where the seemingly compliant brides actually retain their wild natures under the veneer of domestication and the presumed pull of children. The tension is never resolved in the story -- the domestic and the wild are never integrated, except in the children who possess both human and animal traits -- and more often those children revert to animal form and follow their mother.
If we consider that the body of narratives in any society generally cluster around areas of the greatest social conflict in a community -- rites of passage to adulthood, marriage, and the birth of children -- it makes sense that there will be stories that serve to affirm and encourage the listeners to embrace social expectations, just as there would be tales that would explore the emotional devastation of such unions gone awry -- because they can and do matter in the real lives of the listeners.
Illustration : Swan Maidens, JM Landin, Themes of Swan Maiden Lore