Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Guest Post: Swan Maidens by Carolyn Turgeon

With today's official release of Carolyn Turgeon's The Next Full Moon, Carolyn kindly offered up a guest post about her relationship with Swan Maiden tales. Turgeon is one of our current fairy tale apologists in fiction with several books inspired by fairy tales in her bibliography, including Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story and Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale (Little Mermaid). The previous books were published for adults, but this new title stretches to a larger audience, recommended for ages 9 and up.

And so without much further ado, here are Carolyn's words:

I’m not sure where I read my first swan maiden tale. But in the version I read, there is a man, a hunter I think, who one day witnesses something extraordinary: three swans landing by the side of a river, removing their feathered robes to become beautiful maidens, and taking a swim. After, the maidens emerge from the water, put their robes back on to become swans again, and fly away. Of course the man is forever changed, as anyone would be after seeing such a vision. And of course he is madly in love, too. So he waits. And one day the swans come back, and the same thing happens, but this time the man is ready. He’s noted which robe belongs to the maiden he loves, and while the maidens bathe he dashes out to steal the feathered robe of his beloved. When the maidens emerge from the water, two of them put on their robes and fly away. The third is left alone, stuck in her human form.

Luckily for her, the man takes her home and marries her, and somehow they’re happy—though surely she longs for wings and flight, but I don’t remember this in the story—and they have children and all is well and fine until one fateful day the man confesses, for some reason, his previous crime. As I remember it, the man takes out the feathered robe and shows it to his wife, and to his shock she reaches out, takes the robe, puts it on and flies away. Leaving the man and their children alone.

In my book, The Next Full Moon, I imagine the story of the child left behind. In this case it’s just one child, a girl, Ava, who’s about to turn thirteen and has been raised alone by her father in the middle of Pennsylvania. She keeps an eerily beautiful black-and-white photograph of her mother, whom she believes died when she was two, by her bed. Her father is a professor and a fly fisherman; he loves to go fishing for trout on nights of the full moon. All is going fine in Ava’s life—especially now that it’s almost summer and the cutest boy in school seems to be noticing her—and then one day she starts growing feathers. Which is very, very embarrassing. She’s forced her to wear a hoodie to school even though it’s June. Life is embarrassing and awkward enough for a twelve-year-old girl, isn’t it? Ava is convinced she is a freak of nature.

I really like the idea of combining the awkwardness of adolescence with the discovery of magic and beauty in the world generally, and in yourself specifically. What would it be like to discover that your mother was—and maybe still is—a swan maiden? What would it be like to discover that all the weird, embarrassing things that happen to a girl’s body at that age are rooted in a mysterious, unfathomable magic and power? That kind of is what becoming a woman is like, isn’t it, even if an awful lot of young girls don’t realize it? I certainly didn’t at that age. When I was twelve, I was already 5’8” and built, I looked years older than I was, and I existed in a constant state of embarrassment, confused and horrified by my unwieldy, ever-changing body.

It made sense to me that our swan maiden wife, when confronted with her feathered robe, would have no choice but to put it on and fly away, even if she was happy, even if she loved her husband and children. She was never meant to live as a human, and given the option to return to her real self and her real world—whatever magical place that is, and in my various readings I never found a description of the place the swan maidens come from, or an explanation of what these creatures really are—she has no choice but to take it. And so she is heartbroken and the husband-now-father is heartbroken, too, but they are both where they are meant to be, and in the bodies they were meant to occupy. But maybe something magical can happen on those nights of the full moon, down by the river. I saw Ladyhawke at an impressionable age, and love nothing more than a good tragic love affair.

Eventually, Ava’s feathers will become thick and jacket-like, and she will shed them in one horrifying, strange, wonderful moment when she pulls a white-feathered robe from her own skin, emerging whole and beautiful with this sparkling garment in her hand.

This is what I love most in the swan maiden tale I first read, and in the versions I read after, and in fairytales and folktales generally: those moments of transformation, of metamorphosis, when we become our best or most horrifying or most beautiful, essential selves, in an instant.


  1. I love it! Amazing. I especially like the idea of tying in the changes of adolescence. What a beautiful metaphor.

  2. I have been haunted by this story since I read the first chapter that you had posted somewhere online. Glad the day is finally here...

  3. I, too, have always been drawn to the transformation tales (Swan Lake, Wild Swans, Swan Maiden, selkie tales and yes, Ladyhawke!). I can't get enough of them and the metaphor works so well for so many transitions and changes.
    Since it's mentioned specifically in the post, I wanted to add something that bothers me though. Despite my love for these tales (and being GREATLY excited about Ms. Turgeon's new release) I was always confused by the leaving of the mother. To me, to have to leave your children and go back to what you were, would be the ultimate curse. Now that I'm a mother, although I miss "flying", I would never choose that and all the magic it had/has over being with my son. I would far rather be here for him and watch him grow as he find his own wings... I know there is at least one selkie story in which the mother, once she gave into "temptation" by putting on her re-found skin and transformed back to the creature, though she couldn't be with them as a human she always watched her children from the sea and was there for them when it was their time to change. This is unusual though, I know. So many of us grow to adulthood with our parents already "checked out" and being left alone to discover your feathers feels very familiar. I have no doubt this book will greatly resonate for many of us.
    Very much looking forward to it!