The Swan Maiden by Heather Tomlinson (2007)
Updated: Jul 10
There are variations of The Swan Maiden fairy tale from different parts of the world, all featuring young women who can transform into swans at will. If a man should find their swan-skin when they have removed it, he will have ‘caught’ her. He obtains possession of her, and the maiden must remain with him; in many versions she will also bear him children. If the man fails to keep her swan-skin hidden and she finds it, she will fly away and leave him. In some versions of the tale she is simply gone forever, in other versions the man may win her back by accomplishing feats that require either great courage and stamina, or magical help.
The swan-skin, and the ability to fly, is an interesting metaphor for a woman’s ownership over her own body and life. As such, this is an interesting fairy tale to consider, and I enjoyed Heather Tomlinson’s exploration of it.
At the heart of Tomlinson’s tale is a love story: the swan maiden meets her true love, unfortunately he is but a lowly shepherd, while she is a princess, which creates difficulties in them coming together. He proves himself to be a good man in not entrapping her into marriage by stealing her swan-skin, and he does all that's required of him to win her hand. Our hero is devoted, courageous, handsome, and so the romance should be very straightforward, shouldn’t it? Of course not! Stories are about conflict; nothing can be easy!
What makes the romantic conflict more interesting in this tale is that the heroine is not content to simply fall into wife and motherhood with her love – she has other needs that also need to be met: the need for autonomy, for the creative freedom of expression in exploring her magical gifts. She needs to find herself before she is ready to be absorbed into marriage, no matter how handsome and heroic her man is.
I enjoyed this theme of self-realisation. Marriage, even to her true love, can only happen when she is ready, not because she is under the will of a man, as swan maidens typically are. Self expression and autonomy were something women certainly did not historically have much of. In this Swan Maiden tale the maiden makes her own choices.
The story is a clean YA romance with a lovely setting of a French-style medieval kingdom, great characters, and interesting themes and folklore motifs.