Swan Lakes and Story Motifs

Our China-resident Stephanie is normally our Sunday poster, but since she is currently trapped behind the Great Firewall, I volunteered to offer a few pictures and words in her place.

As most of you know, I’m in Scotland to study Celtic mythology and so I get to read Irish and Welsh medieval tales and ponder their amazingness for my education.

I know, I suffer greatly.

Walking through Holyrood Park toward the Swan Lake

Well, yesterday I took my usual Saturday walk past a lake that is known for its beautiful swans.  Seeing the swans reminded me of an event I had the pleasure of attending at the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh (Seriously, a storytelling centre!  Brilliant!) where three guest speakers took turns telling stories and talking about storytelling.  I was captivated by one of the storytellers.  Not only did he begin with some haunting notes on his goatherder’s pipes (think Scottish bagpipes, but much more rustic in sound and appearance), but his stories were magical and beautifully told.

One stuck out in my mind because it seemed vaguely familiar… A story of a boy who traveled to the western coat of Scotland to make his fortune and came upon a magical lake with three swans swimming in it.  After discovering that they were actually three princesses, he married one of them and went to live in an enchanted castle.

A magical spot beneath the shadow of Arthur's Seat and the ruins of a fourteenth century chapel...

As is so often the case in fairy tales, he had to go and change this happy status quo by longing for his family and home.  He was allowed to leave, but only so long as he did not tell anyone about the palace or the swan princesses.  Of course, he was tricked into doing so and the palace and his wife promptly disappeared.

It took some strange adventures and long travels before he found the island where his princess was about to be wedded to a giant.  When she saw him, she told the giant she was already married (seems like she should’ve mentioned that earlier…) and the pair was at last reunited.

Don’t feel too badly for the giant.  He just picked one of the other sisters.

Majestic... just don't try to feed them bread crumbs... they will COME FOR YOU!

We love fairy tales even though they are a bit predictable.  They tend to have the same motifs (son seeking fortune, giant, princess, enchantment, breaking taboos, etc), but in some new form.  In a way, the familiarity of the story motifs makes them more enjoyable.

While the storyteller’s tale was from Scottish folklore, swans feature in several Irish stories and, I daresay, in tales in any country where people have seen a swan.  Something about these birds makes people think of majesty, magic, and mystery.  They seem so regal (though they are actually quite bratty up close) and so the stories come to life.

You might, for instance, enjoy Aislinge Oenguso (The Dream of Oengus) in which Oengus must search out the beautiful apparition from his dream and, when he discovers her gift of shape shifting into a swan, he simply joins her and they become swans together.  Or Tochmarc Etaine (The Wooing of Etaine) in which the Otherworldly king Midir must win back his reincarnated bride Etaine (don’t get me started on how odd that story is) and in the end they transform into swans and fly back to his kingdom.

Or, you might watch a rendition of the ballet Swan Lake where the princess Odette is under an evil enchantment from which she must be rescued. (Personally, I am an even bigger fan of the cartoon version…)

Whatever the case, these stories with their common thread of princess-turned-swan make it rather difficult to see a swan and not think about enchantments.  And I often think that maybe that’s the true power of these common motifs – they capture the imagination of cultures across spans of centuries and they still can change the way we see the world.

No, seriously, I'm a princess! SAVE ME!

***Oh, and I almost forgot, for a couple bewitching and beautiful songs about a girl who becomes a swan, listen to Loreena McKennit’s The Bonny Swans or Meav’s The Wicked Sister


About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on March 4, 2012, in Art, Faerie, Fairytales, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Myth, Photography, Scotland, Story, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’m surprised to find that I am not the only person in the world who watched the cartoon Swan Princess. Yeah, it’s better because neither Odette nor the prince commit suicide out of love for each other.

    • I am a sucker for a happy ending… plus, who could NOT love the snotty French frog, the laconic Speedy the turtle or Lieutenant Puffin! One of the best supporting animal casts ever!

  2. You should check out The Decemberists. Described as a “hyperliterate” indie rock band, they have a 20 minute song/album called The Tain which is a rock and roll retelling of the story of Cuchulain, greatest of the Celtic heroes and a three part song called The Crane Wife on their album aptly titled The Crane Wife which tells a similar but unrelated Japanese fairy tale about a man who marries a crane (I suppose that should be obvious from the title).

    Other highlights from the band include The Cautionary Tale, The Bandit Queen, The Mariner’s Revenge Song, The Bagman’s Gambit, The Rake’s Song…and really I could go on all day.

    • I know the Decemberists, but not the other. Thanks for the recommendations! Heather Dale has some hit or miss albums, but I absolutely love her rendition of Mordred’s Lullaby. Creepy and awesome.

    • I second this comment! Annan Water is another good Decemberists song (actually, the entire Hazards Of Love album is fantastic), and Burying Davy from Long Live The King.
      Kate Rusby is another artist in the more folksy realm, she just has such a lovely voice. Her rendition of I Am Stretched On Your Grave is haunting.

  3. I know the basic story of Swan Lake, but I was wondering if there might be a book adaptation that I could read. If there is, who is it by?

  4. omg! How did you get this fantasy gig???? I am so insanely jealous!! Love reading your posts so I can live vicariously until I can get to Scotland myself!

    • I applied and they did not realize their mistake until AFTER they accepted me into the program. Currently, the workload is terrifying, but since I love my subject area so much, I am bearing it alright!

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