Happy Birthday, Tilly!

Birthday Girl

Our beloved girl is eleven years old today. We'd planned to celebrate with a good walk on the moor, but stormy weather and poor health has postponed that plan and it's an indoor day of treats and cuddles instead. Last year I told the story of how Tilly came to us, and I remain eternally grateful that she did. What a privilege it is to share our lives with this sweet, funny, smart, and loving creature.

The Muse of Bumblehill

Photographs: Eleven years of Tilly's life in Chagford with Howard, me, Victoria, and Jenny (my mother-in-law). 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Wild geese in flight

On a quiet summer morning in Devon, as birdsong fills the woodland behind my studio, here is music in appreciation of our winged neighbours everywhere....

Above:  "The Lark Ascending" by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), performed by violinist Hilary Hahn with Camerata Salzburg at the George Enescu Festival, 2013. Williams' composition was inspired by George Meredith's poem of the same name.

Below: "The Wild Dove, Opus 110," by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), performed by the Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen in Belgium in 2012. (The video will direct you over to YouTube to hear this one.)

Above: "The Blackbird," a short piece for flute and piano by French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), performed by Kenneth Smith on flute and Matthew Schellhorn on piano. Messiaen was a passionate ornithologist as well as a musician, and spent a great deal of time in the wild studying birdsong.

Below: "Cantus Arcticus, Op.61" by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), performed by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. In this piece, the conventional instrumental soloist is replace with taped birdsong from Arctic Finland.

Above: "Bird Concerto with Pianosong" by British composer Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), performed by Ensemble X, at Cornell University in upstate New York, 2018.

Below: "songbirdsongs, movement 5, morning dove" by American composer John Luther Adams, performed by Sandbox Percussion on marimba, with Jessica Sindell, Martha Aarons, Zack Patten, and John Luther Adams on ocarinas, at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana, 2018.

And one more to end with, above: "The Gannets" by Scottish composers Inge Thomson and Jenny Sturgeon, from their gorgeous album, Northern Flyway (2014), exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds in the northern isles of Scotland.

Gannets over the Shetlands


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

From an interview with Jay Griffiths conducted by Sharon Blackie (back when Sharon was living in the Outer Hebrides, and starting EarthLines magazine):

SB: "How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

JG: "It is an injured, limping world, yes. Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Trotternish Peninsula

SB: "What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment? Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

JG: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the fantasy and mythic arts field as well.

Skye 6

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. The poem in the picture captions is from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993). Pictures: The Isle of Skye, 2017.


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

Many of the selkie stories we've been discussing in previous posts come the western and northern islands of Scotland, where they are rooted in the Gaelic storytelling tradition. Now a study from the University of the Highlands and Islands has warned that the Gaelic language is in serious decline. Without intervention, it could die out within the next decade, taking the heart of a culture and its worldview with it. In her book Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting writes: 

Love of Country"Every nation has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes:

"Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

For more on endangered and lost languages, I recommend Judith Thurman's poignant essay "A Loss for Words." She writes:

"There are approximately seven billion inhabitants of earth. They conduct their lives in one or several of about seven thousand languages -- multilingualism is a global norm. Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings. According to the calculations of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) -- a joint effort of linguists at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and at the University of Eastern Michigan -- nearly thirty language families have disappeared since 1960. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months."

Heather Altfelt's essay "Every Day Another Language Dies" is unusual and powerful. Here's a taste:

"It turns out that there was an ancient civilization that could speak Tree. They could understand the language of roots and the noise of the fungi, a highly developed tongue albeit difficult to translate. They refused to write down the sounds because they could hear the molecules of the papyrus crying. They also had one word that they learned from the wind that they only used with stones -- and absolutely never with each other -- that, if uttered, was a spell, a name you could carry with you that would open the gates to the city of forever. The word died with them, buried in the folds of old brains and skin, zippered into the earth beneath a tel somewhere between the Tigris and the Yellow River.

Altfelt's piece was selected for the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is simply exquisite.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The passages above are quoted from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016),  "A Loss for Words" by Judith Thurman (The New Yorker, March 30, 2015), and "Every Day "Another Language Dies" by Heather Altfelt (Conjunctions #70, and LitHub, May 29, 2018). The Kathleen Jamie poem in the picture captions is from Best Scottish Poems 2013, edited by David Robinson (The Scottish Poetry Library). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Sheep (and Howard) in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, 2017. A related post: True names.


A selkie tale

July Fields by Joan Eardley

In Salt on Your Tongue: Women and Sea, Charlotte Runcie wanders the coast of Scotland reflecting on the ways that sea has been depicted in literature, folklore, and myth -- but in contrast to David Thompson's People of Sea, discussed yesterday, Runcie's text is a more internal one: part literary meditation and part memoir, as the author progresses through months of pregnancy towards the birth of her first child. What the two writers have in common is an obsession with the sea that dates to childhood, and a compulsion to collect its stories like collecting sea glass along the shore.

Here is one such tale related in Runcie's book, a story reminiscent of the "Twa Sisters" ballad but with some interesting differences. She writes:

Salt on Your Tongue"There is a legend in the west coast of Scotland about two sisters who lived on an island. One of the sisters was very fair, and one of them very dark, and both were beautiful. Their father was a fisherman who had been lost during a storm, and they were brought up by their mother.

"When the girls were teenagers, they both fell in love with the same local boy who also worked as a fisherman. The fisherman spent lots of time away at sea, but when he came to shore, he made it clear that he was madly in love with the fair-haired daughter. And she loved him too, even though her dark-haired younger sister was obsessed with him. He was a good-looking lad. And though he was always kind to the younger girl, he paid much more attention to the older sister, which, of course, made the younger one jealous.

Field of Barley by the Sea by Joan Eardley

"Until one summer day, when the dark-haired sister picked her way along the stony beach, which was wreathed in tendrils of delicious edible seaweed, towards a house. There lived a wise old woman who was an herbalist (though some of the children whispered to one another that she was a witch, as children in small villages tend to do).

"I want you to teach me a song," said the girl.

"What kind of a song?" said the old woman.

"A song that will enchant whoever hears it, and make them fall asleep," said the girl. So the old woman taught her an old Gaelic song, which she practiced until she knew it by heart.

Rough Sea by Joan Eardley

"One day the girl asked her fair older sister to walk with her down on the seaweed-strewn beach. Her older sister was thrilled that the younger wanted to be friends again, and they went down to the rocks together, where the tide was out. They sat down on a rock, and the younger one took out a brush and began to comb it through her big sister's hair. And as she brushed her sister's shining blonde hair, she sang the song she had learned. Soon the older sister's eyes began to close, and she fell fast asleep.

"The younger one started to weaver her older sister's hair into intricately patterned plaits and braids. As she worked, the braids became more and more ornate, all twisting and knotting into one another. She began to weave the hair into the seaweed on the rocks.

"The tide began to turn, and then wash slowly in. The younger girl waited until all of her sister's hair was woven into seaweed, and the tide was lapping around her ankles. And then she ran up onto the cliffs and watched as the warm summer sea swirled around her sister's sleeping body.

The Sea No. 6 by Joan Eardley

"Just as the water was about to close over her sister's unconscious nose and mouth, she saw a grey shape moving quickly through the sea to the shore.

"It was a seal. When it reached the place where the sister, who was by this point completely submerged, had been, the seal dived under the surface. And then -- the younger sister couldn't believe her eyes at this -- two seals bobbed their heads up from the water. For a moment, both seals looked at the girl standing open-mouthed on the cliffs. She tried to speak, but couldn't. The seals turned, and swam out to sea together. And the girl -- as girls at the end of folk tales tend to do -- threw herself off the cliff.

Seascape by Joan Eardley

"As she fell, the wind caught her woolen cape, and lifted her up. And as she floated in the sky, she became a cormorant, the ugliest bird of the sea, whose cry sounds like someone saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!'

"The two seals were long gone. To this day you can hear the cormorant saying sorry to the seals, and whenever it gets too close you can see the seals snapping at the cormorant to keep it away. And the delicious seaweed on the beach is never eaten anymore by the locals who live on the island. They call it fair maid's tresses.

"The oldest stories of the sea involve songs and sounds, and the magical power that comes from combining the sea with human music. From Scottish legends to Biblical psalms, we've always understood the sea by singing about it. The legend also warns us of the power and danger of music when it comes to the sea. The song the youngest daughter sings in the story enchants her sister, but it's overpowered by the far greater enchantment of the persistent Scottish sea-myth of magic: selkies who can turn into seals and live their lives half in water, and half on land, whose existence takes the shape of water above and below, this life and the next. Their disappearance into the water is the end of one life, and the beginning of a new one."

Wild Sea by Joan Eardley

The imagery today is by Scottish painter Joan Eardley (1921-1963), an artist whose extraordinary body of work has only recently been reappraised and given the attention it deserves. Though Eardley was born in Sussex, her family moved to Glasgow when she was a teenager; she studied at the Glasgow School of Art and spent most of the rest of her life in Scotland. Eardley's oil paintings and pastel drawings are divided into two very different strands. In her Glasgow studio she created portraits of children from the city's poorest neighbourhoods, producing a record of mid-century poverity that is poignant and painful, but also aesthetically powerful. In the small fishing village of Catterline (near Aberdeen) she worked outdoors painting the land, the sea, and the elemental forces of nature.

Little Girl in Glasgow Back Court by Joan Eardley"If Eardley had worked in London, lived long and been male, she would now be as esteemed as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff for her expressive, luminous figurative paintings," writes Jackie Wullschlager. "Like them, she launched a career in the 1940s-50s, working exclusively from life on a few motifs she cared passionately about. Like them, from a frugal, secluded studio, she dug deep into her subjects to bring a whole world into existence through the material handling of pigment as a transforming, living substance.

"Catterline, where Eardley bought a cottage with earth floors and no electricity or running water, is half that world. Its urban mirror is Glasgow’s slums, where, in a tenement building in Townhead, a troop of young siblings climbed the steep staircase to a candlelit studio, to be paid in threepences for being depicted in what turned out to be the 20th century’s most memorable British child portraits. Taken together, the two parts of Eardley’s oeuvre declare a singular vision of close-knit communities under extreme pressure from harsh conditions; one is emptying out, the other is overcrowded, and nothing is still, the instability of weather and waves paralleled by restless children who twist, fidget and grow up fast. Eardley was painting against obsolescence: by 1963, when she died aged 42 of cancer, Townhead had been razed; soon afterwards the last fishing boat left Catterline."

To see more of Eardley's work, and to watch a short film about her life by the sea, go here

Catterline Cottages by Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley at work in Glasgow and Catterline

Seascape by Joan Eardley

The Charlotte Runcie passage quoted above is from her book Salt on Your Tongue (Canongate, 2019). The Jackie Wullschlager passage is from "Joan Eardley at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art" ( The Financial Times, December 16, 2016). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


Following the seals

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People of the Sea by writer, naturalist, folklorist and radio producer David Thompson (1914-1988) is one of the best sources we have for the selkie (or selchie) tales of Ireland and Scotland. Thomson's obsession with the seal folk started as a child, but it was not until the 1940s, after the war, that he began to wander the western coast and isles in search of their stories. People of the Sea, published in 1954, contains the lore he coaxed out of farmers and fishing folk, along with vivid portraits of the storytellers themselves and the wild landscape that formed them. The legends range from enchanting to brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of life lived on the ocean's edge.

Fellow-folklorist Stewart Sanderson describes this classic book beautifully:

People of the Sea"On one level it is a masterpiece of literary craftsman ship, the product of a disciplined literary intellect. At other levels, it reflects the author's singularly imaginative engagement with his subject, and his sympathetic rapport with the men, women and children encountered on his travels in quest of seal legends and traditions. 

"David Thompson's curiosity about the seals seems to have been aroused at a very early age through overhearing, and only half understanding, largely frivolous gossip in his grandmother's drawing room in Nairn [a Scottish coastal town]. But it was starkly reinforced a year or two later when, playing truant froma children's party and wandering the shore at dusk, he came to a remote salmon fisher's bothy. Torn between curiosity and fear, since he was trespassing where he had no business to be, he let himself in, and panicked on stumbling across something moving on the bothy floor in the dark. It was something wet but warm; he could hear heavy breathing; suddenly he felt an old man's hairy head pressing against his bear ankle. He was rescued from his terrors by the return of a Gaelic-speaking fisherman, who violently despatched a seal which had been stunned and left for dead by the rest of the bothy crew, and who got the young boy to help him drag the body to the midden. When this gruesome task was done and the bothy cleaned up, the fisherman brewed mugs of tea and talked about the selchies.

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"Killing a selchie, he said, was an unlucky thing to do. His grandfather, however, had earned his living in the old days as a seal hunter; and he showed David Thompson the old man's tobacco pouch made of a seal's paw, telling him how the hair on the skin would sometimes lie smooth and sometimes stand on end, as if it were still alive. He also told a story about another seal hunter who wounded an old seal which escaped. A stranger came to the seal hunter's door and carried him off to a land beneath the sea where he was led to the wounded seal. He was asked to heal the wound by drawing its edges together with his hand. On promising never to maim or kill a seal again, he was returned safely to his own door and rewarded with a purse of fairy gold."

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1

Although Thompson's family was of the professional class, a childhood accident had harmed his eyesight, causing the boy to be withdrawn from school and sent off to live with his grandmother in a fishing port east of Inverness. There, writes Sanderson,

"he became acutely aware of the social constraints which both bound together and separated his family and their servants, and which divided him from the farm workers, tradesmen and their children amongst whom he spent much of his time, helping with the horses and the harvest on a nearby farm and driving the milk cart on its daily round. Genuine friendships were of course built across the dividing gulf; but still the gulf remained, separating people whose habits and assumptions were often remarkably different from each other. This was particularly true of the inhabitants of the fisherrow, whom townsfolk and farmers in those days generally thought of as almost an alien race.

Seal"Though no doubt Thomson often felt embarrassed, not to say isolated, by these perceptions as an adolescent, the effect on his imagination and ability to empathise with all sorts and conditions of people were to prove an asset later. Folklorists need sensitive antennae if they are to win the trust, and be admitted to the confidences, of those amongst whom they work; and though sadly all too many of the people who figure in The People of the Sea -- fisherman, crofters, ferrymen and folklorists -- are, like David Thomson himself, no longer with us, he is remembered affectionately by the survivors and their families as a man who was always keen to hear stories of the seals and, in the words of Tadgh the South Kerry schoolmaster, to gather up the bits he could about them....

"The rich harvest of folklore in The People of the Sea is fascinating in itself, with its tales of seal maidens and sea views, ancient kings of Ireland and Norway, families who are descended from marriage with seals, melodies learnt from the singing of the seals while fishing in the dangerous waters round the Atlantic cliffs and skerries. But readers will be equally fascinated by David Thompson's vivid recreation of the settings in which this harvest was gathered, of the people who welcomed him to their hearths, of those who gently prompted reminiscences and stories, and of the storytellers own thoughts about the things they told him."

David Thomson's People of the Sea is an old-fashioned book, in all the best ways, and full of the sound, the scent, the magic of sea. I recommend it highly.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

P1120608

People of the Sea

Words: The passage above is from Stewart Sanderson's Afterward to People of the Sea by David Thomson (Cannongate Classics reprint edition, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Yolen's poetry collection The Last Selchie Child (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Last week's post on selkies, in case you missed it, is here.

Pictures: Although we've not far from the north and south coasts of Devon, we haven't been to the sea since the UK's pandemic lockdown began and must make due with fresh water here on Dartmoor. This waterfall at the edge of our hill roars with life during the winter rains, but slows to a trickle at this time of year. It's an beautiful place nonetheless to sit and dream of selkies.


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Last week we were looking at "animal bride" figures: selkies, swan maidens, crane wives, and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin or cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing the enchanted spouse back into wild....

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). 

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

Mary O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso. For more about her beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup

Words: "The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley is from The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based in the English south-west. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The first otter photograph is by Mark Hamblin,  based in Scotland. The second is from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited. All rights reserved by the artists.

 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Seal Children by Jackie Morris

Above: "Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa" performed by Zoë Conway and John Mc Intyre, a husband-and-wife folk duo from Ireland. The song appeared on their second album, Allt (2018).

Below:  "Tàladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm" performed by Julie Fowlis (Scotland),  Pádraig Rynne (Ireland), Aoife Ní Bhríain (Ireland), and Kris Drever (Scotland) at the Sugar Club, Dublin, in 2016. The video was filmed by John Gray and Annie Baylis.

Above: "Fill a Bhruinneall" sung by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (Ireland),  Julie Fowlis (Scotland), and Aodán Ó Ceallaigh (Ireland) for the Port television programme, BBC Alba. The song is followed by a strathspey and two reels performed with Liz Doherty, Duncan Chisholm, Bruce MacGregor,  Mike Vass, and Mhairi Hall.

Below: "Blackwaterside," a traditional Irish song (in English) performed by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, from her new album Thar Toinn/Seabourne (2o2o)

Above: "Fear a Bhata (The Boatman)" sung by Irish singer and banjo player Alison Helzer. The song appeared on her debut album, Carolan's Welcome (2010).

Below: "Lament for Lost Friends" by Alex Cumming & Nicola Beazley, a folk duo from Somerset and Rochdale, England. The song appeared on their debut album Across the Water (2016).

Selkie Swimming by Jackie Morris

The beautiful art today is from The Seal Children by Jackie Morris.


Animal Brides & Bridegrooms

Kay Nielsen


Once upon a time there was poor man who had barely enough to feed his family. As he sat before the fire, sighing over his misfortune, he heard a knock on the window. When he opened the shutters, he found a great white bear standing in the snow. "Don't be afraid. I have come to ask for the hand of your youngest daughter," said the bear. "Only let me take her away, and you shall be paid in silver and gold." The man asked his daughter if she would consent to marriage with the great white bear. "No," she said. The man replied, "But think of your poor family. The bear shall give us silver and gold." At last she agreed. She dressed in her best rags and stepped out into the snow. "Climb upon my back," said the bear, "for we have very far to go."

Frederick RichardsonThus begins the Scandinavian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon -- an Animal Bridegroom tale that bears some resemblance to Beauty and the Beast but is older, stranger, more overtly sensual than the latter story. In East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the heroine and her monstrous suitor live as man and wife before the beast's transformation. Each night the bear turns into a man and comes to the heroine's bed. She is not allowed to see his face -- but at length she breaks this prohibition, lighting a candle and spilling three drops of tallow on the shirt he wears. "If only you'd been patient," rebukes the bear, revealed now as a handsome prince. "My step-mother placed a curse on me. Had you restrained your curiosity until the space of a year had passed, the curse would have lifted. But now I must go east of the sun, west of the moon, and marry the bride she's chosen for me, with a nose that's three ells long."

The heroine proves her loyalty and courage by finding her way to this distant place, transported there by the winds and carrying magic from three ancient crones. She reaches her lover's side the day before he's due to marry a troll. He's overjoyed to see her, and together they hatch a plan. The next morning he tells the troll princess, "I wish to be married in this shirt. But see here, it's marked by spots of tallow. I bid you to wash them out for me, for I shall only marry the woman who can make this shirt clean once more." The troll princess agrees, thinking that this will be an easy task — but the more she washes the shirt, the dirtier and dirtier it gets. Her maids of honor fail as well, and the prince snatches the shirt and cries, "Why, even the beggar at the gates can wash better than you!" The beggar, of course, is his own true love. She easily washes the stains away -- whereupon the prince's troll step-mother bursts into pieces with her rage, the prince's curse is lifted, and the lovers are re-united.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Ruth Sanderson

This story is similar to Cupid and Psyche, a tale that appears in The Golden Ass (a novel by Lucius Apuleius from the second century AD), where it's told by an older woman to a young girl being held for ransom. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Venus grows wild with jealousy. She orders Cupid, her son, to harm the girl but he falls in love instead. An oracle tells Psyche's parents to leave her on a mountain top, for it is Psyche's destiny to marry a fierce winged serpent. Her parents protest, but Psyche knows they cannot thwart the will of the gods. She travels to the mountain top, stands bravely to meet her fate, whereupon a gentle breeze carries her to a beautiful palace. In that palace, she's tended and entertained by kind, invisible servants, and each night she's joined in bed by an unseen lover in human shape. This (unbeknownst to the girl) is Cupid, disguised as a winged serpent by day lest his mother find out that he's disobeyed her orders.

John BattenEventually the girl grows homesick. The obliging breeze is dispatched to fetch Psyche's sisters, who travel to the palace amazed to find that she's been living in splendor. The jealous sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster -- for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed -- but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. "Is this how you repay my love," Cupid cries, "with a knife to cut off my head? Return to your sisters, whose advice you prefer to mine. You'll never see me again." Whereupon the god and the palace disappear. Pregnant now with Cupid's child, Psyche sets off to search for him and eventually comes before his mother, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Venus is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Cupid, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds in completing the tasks. In the end, Jupiter intervenes, soothes Venus, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.

The three motifs common to Animal Bride and Bridegroom stories are evident in Apuleius's tale: marriage to (or cohabitation with) a mysterious non-human figure; the breaking of a prohibition and subsequent departure of the magical spouse (or suitor, or lover); and a pilgrimage to regain the loved one and achieve a more lasting union. A number of tales from the folk tradition, however, end after the second part of this cycle. These are tragic tales (or horrific ones) in which the union of lovers from human and non-human worlds cannot be sustained. The selchie tales of the British Isles and Scandinavia generally fall in this category. In a typical story, a fisherman spies a group of seals emerging from the sea. They shed their skins and turn into beautiful maidens upon the shore. As the selchies dance under the moon, the fisherman steals one of the skins. When the maidens turn back into seals and depart, they leave one seal-woman behind, for she is unable to transform herself without the magic of her seal-skin. She begs the man to return it -- but he refuses, insisting she be his wife. Resigned, she follows him to his cottage and learns how to live on shore. Eventually she comes to care for husband, and she bears him seven sons. One day, however, she finds the skin -- and she swiftly returns to her life in the sea. In some versions, she departs without another thought for the family left behind; in other versions, the sons also turn into seals and vanish with her. And in other variants of this tale, she joins a large bull seal in the waves. "I loved you," she calls back to the fisherman, "but I love my first husband more."

Mikhail Vrubel

Similar tales are told of swan maidens in Sweden, of frog wives in Russia, China, and Tibet, of bear women in North America, of peries (fairies) in Persian folklore, and of aspares (nymphs) in Hindu myth who take the shape of waterfowl. Yet in some stories, Animal Brides and Bridegrooms are less benign figures. In the English tale Reynardine, for instance, a young woman is pledged in marriage to a handsome red-haired stranger -- who Virginia Leeactually intends to murder and eat her in his ruined mansion in the woods. The fox-wives of Korea and Japan are beautiful, sensual, highly dangerous creatures who feed on the life energy that they slowly drain from their bewitched lovers. In The Lindworm, a story told in Sweden, a barren queen finally gives birth to two sons, the eldest of whom is a hideous lindworm (a serpent, or dragon). Before the king is told of the birth, she casts the eldest off in the woods, and the youngest son grows up believing that he is the heir to the kingdom. When it's time for the younger son to wed, the lindworm makes his appearance at court. "You shall get no bride," he threatens the prince, "until I have a mate and have lain by her side." Frightened, the king and queen agree to wed the lindworm to a slave. The marriage is performed, and in the morning the slave girl's body is found torn to pieces. Another bride is found, and then another; and each time the bride is killed.

Kay Nielsen

Finally, a woman from the country steps up and offers her step-daughter in marriage. The girl is kind, beautiful, and well-loved, and the step-mother means to be rid of her. The girl prays on her mother's grave, then comes to the palace determined to be brave. She'll wed with the lindworm, she says, but her bridal chamber must first be prepared. She asks for a strong pot of lye, seven scrubbing brushes, and seven new shirts made of soft white linen. Now she is ready. The marriage is sealed, and she's left with her terrible husband. The lindworm orders his wife to undress. "Undress yourself first!" she tells him boldly. He's puzzled. "None of the others bade me do that." "But I bid you," she answers. Then the lindworm begins to groan and writhe and he soon slithers out of his outer skin, whereupon his bride takes off one of the seven white linen shirts. Again he orders her to undress; again she tells him to undress first. In the end, there are seven white shirts on the ground, and seven hideous snake skins. The lindworm is now a slimy mass. The girl takes up a scrubbing bush, and she scrubs him all over with lye until she has worn out all seven brushes. When she is done, a handsome young prince stands before her, the spell that had held him broken. He declares his love for the clever, beautiful girl who has set him free. The tale goes on from there, for the wicked step-mother has not exhausted her tricks, but in the end, the couple live happily and rule over the kingdom.

Adrian Arleo

Not all animal brides or bridegrooms are really humans in disguise. Some are magical beings who take on human shape. In an Arabic story told by Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, there once lived a mighty sultan whom Allah had blessed with three strong sons. When it came time for his sons to marry, he sought the advice of his councilors, who recommended leaving the choice of brides to destiny. The sultan had each of his sons blindfolded. Bows and arrows were put in their hands. "Shoot," he said, "and wherever your arrow lands you shall find your bride." The first son's arrow fell at the feet of the daughter of a noble lord. The second arrow fell at the feet of the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The third son's arrow fell in the courtyard of an unknown house. The only creature who lived there was an enormous tortoise. "Shoot again," said the sultan. The second arrow landed beside the first. "You must shoot yet again, my son." But this arrow too landed by the tortoise. The sultan sighed and said, "It seems that Allah does not mean for you to wed -- for see you here, this tortoise is not of our race, our kind, or our religion." But the young man cried, "All praise to Allah, but this tortoise is my destiny. I shall marry her, for I swear that my time of celibacy is over." "How can a man wed a tortoise?" said the sultan, astonished. "That would be a monstrous thing!" "I have no predilection for tortoises, it is true. Nevertheless, this one will be my bride, for it is the will of Allah," said the son, and the sultan had to agree.

Edmund Dulac

The weddings of the sultan's sons commenced. The first two weddings were splendid indeed, but the third wedding was a strange affair and caused much mocking laughter. The eldest brothers refused to attend, and their wives would not help the tortoise to dress or lay her down in her bridal bed afterwards, as was the custom. This saddened the youngest son but still he faithfully honored his wedding vows. He passed the night with his tortoise bride, and every night thereafter. Whispers flew around the court. How could a man couple with a tortoise? The bridegroom would not speak, or hear a word against his bride.

Three years passed. The sultan grew ill, for his youngest son was dear to him and the circumstances of the boy's strange marriage preyed upon his mind. "Our very own wives shall prepare your food," said the eldest and the middle son. "This will tempt your appetite and bring you back to health." Each hurried home and instructed his wife to prepare a dish finer than any known -- for surely the son whose wife restored the sultan's health would become the favorite. The youngest son went home and conveyed these tidings to his tortoise wife. "Do not despair," she assured her husband. "Just wait and see what happens." She sent a message to the first brother's wife. "Please be so good as to send me all the mouse dung you can collect in your house. I am preparing food for the sultan, and I never cook with any other condiment." The first wife said, "Why should I help a tortoise? There must be some kind of magic in this. I'll use the mouse dung for myself, and get the better of her." The tortoise sent a message to the second brother's wife, "Please be so good as to send me all the hen droppings you can collect in your yard. I am preparing food for the sultan, and I never cook with any other condiment." The second wife said, "Why should I help a tortoise? There must be some kind of magic in this. I'll use the hen droppings myself, and get the better of her."

Edmund DulacThe tortoise prepared a meal in a silver dish set upon on a golden tray surrounded with yellow rose petals, and she sent it to the sultan. When each of the dishes had arrived, the sultan summoned his sons to him. "I intend to give my kingdom," he said, "to the man whose wife restores my health." He lifted the cover from the first dish. The smell of rat turds was overpowering. The old man swooned, and the fetid dish was hastily removed. When the sultan recovered, he lifted the lid of the dish prepared by his second son's wife. The stench of bird droppings filled the air. "Are your wives trying to kill me?" he cried. His sons begged his forgiveness, for this mystery passed their understanding. "Try the third dish," begged the youngest son. "What, do you mock me?" the sultan demanded. "If my other sons' wives could not prepare food fit for eating, what can a tortoise do?" The youngest begged his father to try the food. At last the old sultan consented. As he lifted the lid, a scent finer than the sweetest perfume wafted through the room and every man licked his lips, longing for a taste of the morsels inside. With one bite, the old man's eyes grew clear. With the second bite, his spine straightened. With the third bite, the sultan felt younger, fitter, and stronger than he had in years. He ate every morsel in the dish, drank a sherbet of musk and snow, and burped three times to show his satisfaction with the meal.

The story goes on…two other tests are demanded of the daughters-in-law, and each time the tortoise triumphs, turning the spite of the other wives against them. Finally, the tortoise-wife is summoned to appear before the sultan and his court -- and she reveals herself as a beautiful, wise, wealthy, and well–mannered young woman. The sultan, delighted, signs his kingdom over to his youngest son -- and the tortoise-wife has her old shell burned so that she's never tempted to return to it.

Gennady Spirin

Similar tales can be found in other fairy tale traditions, such as the Russian story The Frog Princess and the French story The White Cat -- although these tales are more decorous in the depiction of the tasks, and avoid sexual conjecture. In the Russian story, the frog–wife transforms into human shape in her husband's bed; in the French tale, marriage doesn't take place until after the cat turns back into a woman. In these later tales, we're assured that the Animal Brides had actually been human at birth, changed to animal shape by a fairy's whim or a witch's curse. In older stories, like that of the tortoise wife, the bride often begins as an animal (or as a magical shape-shifting creature), consenting in the end to give up her true form in order to live in the human world.

Gennady Spirin"Just as marriage between two people unites their families, so marriage between a person and an animal in myth and fairy tale joins humanity with nature," writes folklorist Boria Sax, noting that changes in the tales as they pass through the centuries have reflected the changing relationship between man and the natural world. The oldest known Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales are generally those limited to the first part of the story cycle: the romance and/or marriage of human beings and animals (or other nature-bound creatures). Tales of this sort include ancestral myths such as the Chinese stories of families descended from the marriage of humans and shape-shifting dragons, or the lore of Siberia shamans who trace their power and healing gifts to marriages between men and swans. Such tales evoke an ancient world view in which humans were part of the natural world, cousin to the animals, rather than separate from nature and placed above all other creatures.

Anne SiemsAnimal Bride and Bridegroom stories that go on to the second part of the cycle -- ending with the loss of the animal lover -- arise from a world view in which sharper distinctions are made between the human sphere (civilization) and nature (the wilderness). In such tales, humans and their animal lovers come from distinctly separate worlds, and any attempt to unite the two is ultimately doomed to failure.

Stories that move on to the third part of the cycle, like East of the Sun, West of the Moon, end with the lovers reunited and the transformation of one or both. Such tales, notes Sax, express "an almost universal longing to re-establish a lost intimacy with the natural world" -- and although the tortoise might burn her shell in order to live in the sultan's court, she brings the scent of the wild with her as she steps into civilization. She will never be an ordinary woman; she'll always be the Fantastic Bride -- joining the hero to the mysteries of nature.

The history of animal-human marriage tales reaches back to legends of animal deities and their various mortal lovers, found in Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, early Greek, and other ancient mythologies. In the lore of a number of Native American tribes, the Animal People were the first people to inhabit the earth; intermarriage between them and the second people, human beings, could be a blessing or a disaster.

Susan Seddon Boulet

Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the Alaskan story of Sedna, for instance, a beautiful young woman is tricked into marriage with a man who is really a sea-bird in disguise; he takes her to live among the birds, where she's cold and miserable. Sedna seizes an opportunity for escape when her father comes to visit her: she hides in his kayak and he paddles away with the bird in hot pursuit. The sea gods send a storm, angry with Sedna for breaking her marriage vows. Her father, in order to save his own life, casts the girl into the sea. As she clutches onto the kayak, her father stabs her fingers to loosen her hold. Three times he stabs her with his knife, and each time that her blood flows to the sea new creatures emerge from it: the very first seals, walruses and whales. At last Sedna sinks to the bottom of the ocean, the new creatures following after her -- and there she's lived ever since, joined by her father and her faithful dog. Men now pray to Sedna to send them whales, walruses, and seals to hunt. Bitter and capricious, nursing her sore fingers, sometimes she honors the hunters' requests, and sometimes she takes their lives from them, just as the sea gods once took hers.

Germaine Arnatauyck

Tricia Cline

In old folktales, marriage between humans and animals broke certain taboos, and could be dangerous, but these relationships weren't generally portrayed as wicked or immoral. Even when such marriages were doomed to failure (selchie wives returning to the sea, for example), often a gift was left behind in the form of children, wealth, good fortune, or the acquisition of magical skills (such as the ability to find fish or game in plentiful supply).

By the Middle Ages, however, animal-human relationships were viewed more warily, and creatures who could shift between human and animal shape were portrayed in more demonic terms. Witches were said to have animal familiars with whom they had unnatural relations, and in some witch trials, animals were hung and burned alongside their mistresses. One of the best known Animal Bride tales of medieval Europe was the story of Melusine, written down by Gervasius of Tilbury in 1211. A count met Melusine beside a pond and fell in love in love with her. She agreed to marry on one condition: he was never see her on a Saturday, which was when she took her bath. They wed, and she bore the count nine sons -- each one deformed in some fashion. Finally, breaking the prohibition, the count spies on her at her bath and discovers that she's a snake from the waist down on every seventh day. When the trespass comes to light, Melusine becomes a serpent and vanishes -- appearing thereafter only in spectral form to warn of death and danger. The brutish sons are evidence here of Melusine's demonic nature -- although in older versions of her story, Melusine is simply a water fairy. The emphasis of the older tales lies on her husband's misdeed in breaking his promise, thereby losing his fairy wife, rather than on his discovery that he is married to a monster.

Jean d'Arras (15th century)

In the 15th century, a wandering alchemist by the name of Paracelsus wrote of magical spirits born from the elements of water, earth, air, and fire, living alongside humankind in a parallel dimension. These spirits were capable of transforming themselves into the shapes of men and women, and lacked only immortal souls to make them fully human. A soul could be gained, Paracelsus wrote, through marriage to a human being, and the children of such unions were mortal (but lived unusually long lives). Several noble families, it was believed, descended from knights married to water spirits (called "undines" or "melusines") who had taken on human shape in order to win immortal souls. Paraceslus' ideas went on to inspire the German Romantics in the 19th century -- in tales such as Goethe's The New Melusine, E.T.A. Hoffman's The Golden Pot, and especially Friederich de la Motte Fouqué's Undine -- the tragic story of a water nymph in pursuit of love and a human soul. Fouqué's famous tale, in turn, inspired Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, along with other literary, dramatic, and musical works of the Victorian era. Many folklorists consider such tales to be part of the Animal Bride tradition, depicting as they do the union of mortal men and creatures of nature.

Helen Stratton

Edmund Dulac

In the years between Paracelsus and Fouqué, fairy tales came into flower as a literary art of the educated classes, popularized by Italian and French publications that eventually spread across Europe. Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales were part of this enchanting literary movement. Basile's influential collection Il Pentamerone, for example, published in Naples in the 17th century, includes The Snake (a story that follows the traditional three-part Animal Bridegroom cycle), about a princess who marries a snake, loses him, and then must win him back. Later in the century, the term "fairy tale" (conte de fées) was coined by the writers of the Paris salons, who drew inspiration for their tales from folklore, myth, medieval romance, and prior works by Italian writers. Although Charles Perrault is the best known of them today, the majority of the contes were written by women authors, many of whom used fairy tales to critique the French court and restrictions place upon women of their class. In particular they railed against a marriage system in which women had few legal rights -- no right to chose their own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right of divorce. Often the brides were fourteen or fifteen years old, given to men who were decades older. Unsatisfactory wives risked being locked up in mental institutions or distant convents. The fairy tale writers of the French salons were sharply critical of such practices, promoting the ideas of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their Animal Bridegroom tales, in particularly, embodied the real-life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.

Adrienne SegurMarie-Catherine D'Aulnoy, for example, one of the leading writers of the contes, had been married off at age 15 to an abusive baron thirty years her senior. (She rid herself of him after a series of adventures as wild as any fairy story.) By contrast, the lovers in D'Aulnoy's tales are well-matched in age and intellect; they enjoy books, music, good conversation and each other's company. D'Aulnoy penned several Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales that are still widely read and loved today, including The Green Snake, The White Cat, The White Deer, and her tragic King-Lear-type story called The Royal Ram. As Marina Warner points out (in her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers), "Romance -- love-in-marriage -- was an elusive ideal, which the writers of the contes sometimes set up in defiance of destiny." In the 17th century, such ideas were startlingly modern and revolutionary. Today, however, (when romantic, companionable marriage is the expected norm), the emphasis on love and marriage in the contes can seem sentimental, quaint, even anti–feminist. An understanding of the context these stories sprang from reveals them to be quite the opposite.

In the 18th century, another French woman, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, borrowed from the Animal Bridegroom tradition to create an original fairy tale that would become one of the best loved of all time: Beauty and the Beast. Villeneuve's original narrative is over one hundred pages long, and is somewhat different in theme than the shorter version we know today. As Villeneuve's story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur — a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité and magic.

Angela Barrett

Angela Barrett

Sixteen years later Mme Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened Villeneuve's story and published this new version in a magazine for well–bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat — the twisting subplots beloved by Villeneuve — to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version (and subsequent retellings) the story becomes a more didactic one. The emphasis shifts from the Beast's need for transformation to the need of the heroine to change — she must learn to see beyond appearance and recognize the Beast as a good man before his transformation. With this shift, we see the story altered from one of critique and rebellion to one of moral edification, aimed at younger and younger readers, as fairy tales slowly moved from adult salons to children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears — he poses no genuine danger or sexual threat to Beauty in these children's stories.

Adrienne SegurIn 1946, the tale started making its way back out of the nursery in Jean Cocteau's remarkable film version, La Belle et la Bête. Here, the Beast literally smolders with the force of his sexuality, and Beauty's adventure can be read as a metaphor for her sexual awakening. This is a common theme in a number of Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales from the mid-20th century onward, when fairy tale stories, novels, and poetry became increasingly popular with adult readers. Angela Carter was the leading light in this movement with the publication of her ground-breaking story collection The Bloody Chamber in 1979, containing two powerful, darkly sensual riffs on the Animal Bridegroom theme: The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and The Tiger's Bride. With the works of Carter and writers of her ilk (in mainstream literature, fantasy literature, and feminist poetry), we have come full circle -- these are Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales intended for adults once again, exploring issues of gender, sexuality, race, culture, and the process of transformation.

One distinct change marks modern re-tellings however -- reflecting our changed relationship to animals and nature. In a society in which most of us will never encounter true danger in the woods, the bear who comes knocking at our window is not such a frightening creature; instead, he's exotic, almost appealing. Where once wilderness was threatening to civilization, now it's been tamed and cultivated (or set aside and preserved); the dangers of the animal world now have a nostalgic quality, removed as they are from our daily existence. This removal gives "the wild" a different kind of power; it's something we long for rather than fear. The Animal Bride or Bridegroom, the Beast, the Other from the heart of the woods -- they re-unite us with a world we've lost, re-awakening the wild within us. We see this theme in contemporary fiction by Louise Erdrich, A.S. Byatt, Alice Hoffman, Charles de Lint, Paul Brandon, and numerous others (see the Further Reading list below); in films such as The Secret of Roan Inish; and in the work of mythic and surrealistic artists including  Virginia Lee, Anne Siems, Susan Seddon Boulet, Tricia Cline, Adrian Arleo, Gene & Rebecca Tobey, and Katerina Plotnikova. These are works that explore the borderland between wilderness and civilization…and find magic therein.

Tricia Cline

Sirens of Rutino by Adrian Arleo

Looking at relationships between mortal women and Animal Bridegrooms, Marina Warner writes: "In her encounter with the Beast, the female protagonist meets her match, in more ways than one. If she defeats him, or even kills him, if she outwits him, banishes him, or forsakes him, or accepts him and love him, she arrives at some knowledge she did not possess; his existence and the challenge he offers is necessary before she can grasp it."

On relationships between mortal men and Animal Brides, Midori Snyder writes: "It is the task of the hero to wrestle with the ambiguous power of the fantastic world and return with its fully creative potential in hand. The young Prince proves his loyalty and compassion, and from the [animal's] beastly skin there emerges a beautiful bride. The bride is unlike her mortal counterparts, no matter how brave and courageous they may appear in the other tales, for she presents a union, a partnership between the human hero and the creative forces of the fantastic world."

Katerina Plotnikova

The Animal Bride and Bridegroom represent the wild within each one of us. They represent the wild within our lovers and spouses, the part of them that we can never fully know. They represent the Others who live unfathomable lives right beside us -- cat and mouse and coyote and owl; and the Others that live only in the dreams and nightmares of our imaginations.

For thousands of years, their tales have emerged from the place where we draw the boundary lines between animals and human beings, the natural world and civilization, women and men, magic and illusion, fiction and the lives we live. Those lines are drawn in sand; they shift over time; and the stories are always changing. Once upon a time there was a poor man who had barely enough to feed his family. Yesterday a bear knocked at his window. Today Edward Scissorhands stands at the door. Tomorrow? There will still be Beasts, and there will still be those who transform them with love.

Katerina Plotnkova

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.  Words: A version of the text above appeared in my introduction to The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People, edited by me and Ellen Datlow (Viking, 2010). All rights reserved.

Further reading: Wild Neighbors: The Folklore of Animals and The Speech of Animals.


Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Swans by Gennady Spirin

Related to the selkie tales we were discussing yesterday....

From "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" by Midori Snyder:

"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 The Swan Maidens by Walter Crane
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 Lohengrin by Walter Cranepowerful 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 The Child Finds the Feather Dress, from the Europa's Fairy Book, 1916; artist unknowntakes 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.

Wings by T Windling"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....

"The swan maiden stories suggest that there are marriages that will themselves to dissolution because of the inability of the pair to mature and to integrate into each other's world. In the human Illustration by John Bauerworld, the swan maiden loses her fantastic nobility and is subjected to the daily labors of a human wife – including childbearing, which is portrayed as so distasteful the swan wives often seem to have few qualms about leaving their children behind the moment they recover their skins. The husband either cannot find her world (and dies of melancholy), or, when he does succeed in arriving in her domain, he cannot accept the fantastical world on his wife's terms. These are, at best, temporary reunions....

"There was considerable renewed interest in the swan maiden tales in Europe throughout the late 19th century. For the English Victorians it was the era of the 'Married Woman's Property Acts' and of the 'New Woman.' Marriage roles, divorce, and the appropriate role of a wife were being re-examined and questioned.  The swan maiden, with her ability to effectively fly away from her marriage and her children, became a fascinating study for Victorian folklorists, who saw in the narrative the evolution of the institution of marriage. According to Carole Silver in her illuminating article 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon': Victorians and Fairy Brides, the interpretations of the tale varied widely, and depended on one's attitudes toward women's role in marriage, an imbalance of power between the sexes and women's sexuality.

"Joseph Jacobs felt that the reader's sympathy lay with the abandoned husband, not the swan maiden as representative of a matrilineal society with 'easy and primitive' marriage bonds that could be more easily broken. Silver reports that Jacobs believed 'that the "eerie wife," in separating from her mate, forfeited the audience's respect; her behavior reinforced the listener's sympathy with the husband. "Is he not," Jacobs asked, to be "regarded as the superior of the fickle, mysterious maid that leaves him for the break of a On the Shores of the Land of Death by Akseli Gallen-Kallelataboo?" ' Silver argues that folklorists like Jacobs were expressing anxiety over the emerging institution of divorce, believing that the looseness of the marriage bond was a trait among 'savages.' Silver continues: 'Clearly, free and easy separation was associated with primitive societies and savage eras. Complex and difficult divorce, on the other hand, was the hallmark of a highly evolved society. . . .By diminishing the claims to superiority of the fairy bride, neutralizing her sexuality, and limiting or denying her right to divorce, Victorian folklorists rendered her acceptable to themselves and their society.'

"Can we love the swan maiden? She seems to offer both an image of feminine power and feminine weakness: a girl who submits to the deceptions of a suitor and a woman who rejects the terms of an unfair marriage. She is at once a doting mother and one who will happily abandon her children in favor of her own needs. Her ambiguous tale can be read as the suppression of women's rights and women's creative power through enforced domestication, but it can also show such a woman's resolve to not only survive a questionable marriage but to remain true to her nature. When given the chance, no amount of suppression can keep the swan maiden down. I feel a terrible tenderness for the youngest swan–girl, abandoned by her sisters to her fate on the ground. I want to shelter her from the routine ordinariness of her human marriage, given over to the demands of others. And I want to cheer, relieved and inspired, when she finds her own true self again, and rises to soar."

(Read Midori's full article here.)

Swans by Jeanie Tomanek

The Six Swans by Warwick GobleWhen the change came
she was floating in the millpond,
foam like white lace tracing her wake.
First her neck shrinking,
candle to candleholder,
the color of old, used wax.
Wings collapsed like fans;
one feather left,
floating memory on the churning water.
Powerful legs devolving;
Powerful beak dissolving.
She would have cried for the pain of it
had not remembrance of sky sustained her....

- Jane Yolen (from "Swan/Princess")



The Crane Wife by Diana Torledano

"The Crane Wife," from Asia, is a closely related tale in the animal bride tradition. Details vary according to country, century, and teller, but the basic story is this: A poor weaver (or sailmaker) finds an injured crane on his doorstep (or in the fields, or by the side of a moonlit lake), dresses her wounds, and nurses her back to health. He kindly releases the crane back into the wild...after which a beautiful woman appears (the crane in human form), and the two of them promptly marry.

All goes well for a while, until the man's business falls on hard times. The crane wife tells her husband that she can lift them out of poverty by weaving a bolt of wondrous cloth (or an extraordinary sail) --  but he must solemnly promise not to watch her as she does it. She weaves the cloth, they sell it for a tremendous price, and soon the couple is rich. But now the man grows greedy, and he pressures her to make more and more. His wife grows tired and begins to waste away, but the man ignores this and continues to press for more cloth. Finally, at death's door, she tells her husband she can make only one more bolt. That night her husband decides it's time to learn what the secret of her weaving is. Spying on her as she works, he's horrified to see a crane at the loom, plucking feathers from her own breast and weaving them into the magical cloth. He cries aloud, and the crane wife knows he's broken his promise to her. She flies away, and he spends the rest of his life lamenting his lost love.

A Crane Wife illustration by Gennady Spirin

A Crane Wife illustration by Gennady SpirinJeannine Hall Gailey gives voice to the Crane Wife's sorrow and anger in her poignant poem based on the folktale:

I flew away, a crane who had given you
her white glory, and you knew the cloth

to be the sacrifice of my own skin, my feather coat.
A thousand cranes descended on your hut,
crying with betrayal. You searched all of Japan for me
until you found a lake of cranes, those white ciphers,

cried your goodbyes, useless, now, with age.
You had the gift of my wings, knew the lift
of flight and the gentle neck. Now, old man,
remember, when you watch a flash in the sky,

remember me, remember

The folk tale also inspired the title poem in Sharon Hashimoto's debut poetry collection The Crane Wife, winner of the Theodore Roerich Poetry Prize -- a haunting volume that explores the author's Japanese heritage and life in the Pacific Northwest.

Crane Wife illustrations by Gennady Spirin

Patrick Ness's novel, The Crane Wife, explores the folk tale's theme of love and betrayal, transplanting its setting to modern-day London. In an interview with in Polari Magazine, Ness explains why he find the old tale so compelling:

The Crane Wife by Cheryl Kirk Noll"[U]nlike most folk and fairy tales, it starts with an act of kindness.Most start with an act of cruelty, but this one starts with a kind act and then turns into [a tale about] that kind person making a mistake, and letting their worst instincts get the best of them, and that's why it appeals to me. It's a really different flavour than most tales. It ends tragically but you can understand it in human terms, that you're given a chance with the eternal, the beautiful, the magical, but you blow it. I think that's really human."

Ness was inspired not only by the story itself, but by the Crane Wife songs penned by Colin Meloy and recorded by his alt-folk band, The Decemberists.

Lyrics for Colin Meloy's The Crane Wife 3Meloy first came across the Crane Wife folk tale several years ago in the children’s section of a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. “I thought that it would be a great thing to try to put it to some sort of song form, be it a single tune or something longer,” Meloy says. “So I struggled with that for years until finally I realized that it just needed more parts and set about building those.” He ended up with a collection of songs, three of them based on the Japanese story and the rest using other old folk motifs: death, war, greed, and murder.  (The full lyrics to Crane Wife 1 & 2 are here, to Crane Wife 3 here, and Meloy discusses his songs on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program here.)

Below, Meloy sings a stripped-down, solo version of the three Crane Wife songs at the Ace Hotel in New York City (recorded  in October, 2010).

"There were as many truths - overlapping, stewed together - as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story's life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew." - Patrick Ness (from The Crane Wife)

Swans by Walter Crane

The illustrations above are: "Swans" by Gennady Spirin; "Swan Maidens" and Lohengrin" by Walter Crane (1845-915); "The Child Finds the Feather Dress," artist unknown (from Europa's Fairy Book, NYC, 1916); a swan maiden drawing of mine called "Wings" (inspired by a Kim Antieau poem); "Wild Swans" by John Bauer (1882-1918);  "On the Shores of the Land of Death" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) ); "Swans" by Jeanie Tomanek; "Six Swans" by Warwick Goble (1862-1943); "The Crane Wife" by Diana Torledano; three "Crane Wife" illustrations by Gennardy Spirin; a "Crane Wife" illustration by Cheryl Kirk Noll; lyrics for Colin Meloy's Crane Wife 3, art by Carson Ellis; and "Swans" by Walter Crane (1845-915).