Hen Wives, Spinsters, and Lolly Willowes

Vladislav Erko

In the colored fairy books of Andrew Lang (The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.), there is a figure who has always intrigued me: the Hen Wife, related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic "witch in the woods"; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women's mysteries, sexuality, and magic.

The Hen Wife by Helen G Stevenson

Writer and mythographer Sharon Blackie describes the Hen Wife like this:

"If you look up the definition of ‘henwife’ in most dictionaries, you’ll find it given as something along the lines of ‘woman who keeps poultry’. But that isn’t it at all: a henwife is so much more than that, as so many folk and fairytales from Ireland and Scotland show. In those tales, the henwife is often a herbalist or a healer, and is Dazu stone carving of a Chinese Hen Wifealways synonymous with the Wise Old Woman archetype: the Cailleach personified. Think, for example, of the fine Scottish tale ‘Kate Crackernuts,’ about the henwife and her cauldron of wisdom. Or the old Irish tale about three sisters, ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling.’ The fact that the henwife also keeps hens is part and parcel of this archetype, but although the heroine of the story may go to her looking simply for eggs, she always comes away with rather more than she bargained for."

Colleen Szabo, writing in Cabinet des Fées, views the Hen Wife through a Jungian lens. She is, says Szabo, "a combination of the old bird goddesses and the figure we now call 'witch'; a crone or wise woman who knows of the inner life, of natural processes and developments, of all their alchemical magic. She is also a keeper of knowledge about a woman’s sexuality; the old tradition of a 'hen’s night' is currently being revived. In that tradition, the night before a wedding, older and wiser hen-wives teach the wife-to-be about sexuality, including pregnancy, all of which falls within the overall category of creative power, of course. Whatever our creative genres might be, their products can always be symbolized by the metaphor of the child, including our creative efforts to renew and transform ourselves."

Charles Sims

My favorite depiction of the Hen Wife is in this gorgeous passage from the novel Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978):

"Laura never became as clever with the birds as Mr. Saunter. But when she had overcome her nervousness, she managed them well enough to give herself a great deal of pleasure. They nestled against her, held fast in  Nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Cranethe crook of her arm, while her fingers probed among the soft feathers and rigid quills of their breasts. She liked to feel their acquiescence, their dependence upon her. She felt wise and potent. She remembered the henwife in fairy tales, she understood now why kings and queens resorted to the henwife in their difficulties. The henwife held their destinies in the crook of her arm, and hatched the future in her apron. She was sister to the spaewife, and close cousin to the witch, but she practiced her art under cover of henwifery; she was not, like her sister and her cousin, a professional. She lived unassumingly at the bottom of the king's garden, wearing a large white apron and very possibly her husband's cloth cap; and when she saw the king and queen coming down the gravel path she curtseyed reverentially, and pretended it was eggs they had come about. She was easier to approach than the spaewife, who sat on a creepie and stared at the smoldering peats till her eyes were red and unseeing; or Rima Stainesthe witch, who lived alone in the wood, her cottage window all grown over with brambles. But though she kept up this pretense of homeliness she was not inferior in skill to the professionals. Even the pretence of homeliness was not quite so homely as it might seem. Laura knew that the Russian witches live in small huts mounted upon three giant hen's legs, all yellow and scaly. The legs can go; when the witch desires to move her dwelling the legs stalk through the forest, clattering against the trees, and printing long scars upon the snow.

"Following Mr. Saunter up and down between the pens, Laura almost forgot where and who she was, so completely had she merged her personality into the henwife's. She walked back along the rutted track and down the steep lane as obliviously as though she were flitting home on a broomstick."

Mother Goose

 I first discovered Sylvia Townsend Warner's fiction through Kingdoms of Elfin (a collection of the adult fairy stories as dry and fizzy as the best champagne), but Lolly Willowes, when I first read it back in my 20s, seemed altogether different. I'm embarrassed now to admit that I found the novel slight and unmemorable, almost twee, and it wasn't until a later re-reading that I finally understood it as the masterpiece it is. I had been too young for Lolly Willows the first time,  and Sylvia Townsend Warnertoo ignorant of the social context in which Townsend Warner was writing in the 1920s:  the restricted lives of "spinisters" in Victorian and Edwardian England.

"The issue that the novel tackles head-on is that of gender," explains another Townsend Warner fan, contemporary British novelist Sarah Waters: "In the 1910s and 20s British sexual mores were shaken up as never before: the war saw women taking on new jobs, gaining new responsibilities and freedom, and, though the majority of the jobs were savagely withdrawn with the return to peace, many of the liberties remained; in 1918, partly as a recognition of their contribution during the years of conflict, women were at last granted the vote. For the first decade of its life, however, the new franchise was an incomplete one, available only to women over 30 who were also householders or married to householders (which meant that single women such as Laura, middle-aged but financially dependent on male relatives, remained without it), and there was still huge pressure on women to conform to social norms.

"The recent tragic loss of so many young male lives had inflamed existing tension over the idea of the 'surplus woman' and, with postwar anxiety about British 'racial health' prompting celebrations of family life and maternity, the spinster -- a benign if dowdy figure in 19th-century culture -- was being subtly redefined as a social problem. The popularisation of Freudian ideas about sexual repression only added to her woes, pathologising elderly virgins as chronically unfulfilled. Many novelists of the period responded to this – some, such as Clemence Dane, with representations of emotionally vampiric single  women, which reinforced the new stereotypes, but others, such as Radclyffe Hall, Winifred Holtby  and Vera Brittain, with more sensitivity to the pressures faced by ageing, unmarried daughters, and more sympathy for them in their efforts to follow non-traditional paths. Two fascinating novels that particularly resemble Lolly Willowes, and which Townsend Warner could be said effectively to have rewritten, are W.B. Maxwell's Spinster of this Parish (1922) and F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924).

Lolly Willowes, first edition, 1926

"Like Townsend Warner, Maxwell and Mayor chose as their subjects unmarried women of the late-Victorian age -- that is, the final generation to have assumed as a matter of course that its single daughters would remain in the family home, dutifully servicing the needs of senior relatives. Again like her, they produced novels that are intensely alive to the contrast between the unglamorous exteriors of their 'old maid' heroines and the women's actual, deeply passionate, emotional lives. But the titles of the three novels reveal a significant difference. As phrases, 'spinster of this parish' and 'the rector's daughter' testify to the ways in which women are often occluded by social and familial roles. Lolly Willowes, by contrast, is a statement of individuality. Laura's journey, too, is very different from that of Maxwell's and Mayor's heroines, the former of whom spends decades as the unacknowledged mistress of a celebrated explorer, and is finally rewarded by marriage to him, while the latter dies after a short but 'useful' life, with her passionate love for a clergyman unfulfilled.

Walter Dendy Sadler

"For the first half of Townsend Warner's novel, Laura looks set to follow their example. A tomboy in childhood, she is soon 'subdued into young-ladyhood,' and after the death of her parents she joins the London household of her unimaginative brother, Henry, where she becomes the spinster 'Aunt Lolly,' slightly pitied, slightly patronised, but 'indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations' -- an embodiment, in other words, of an old-fashioned female tradition for which her up-to-the-minute niece, Thomas CheesmanFancy, who has driven lorries during the war, has fine, flapperish contempt. But Laura has depths unsuspected by her deeply conventional relatives, and with her move to Great Mop she grows ever more subversive. She quietly rejects her family. She refuses to be defined by her relationships with men. She breaches the social barriers between gentry and working people. And, though she enjoys being part of the Great Mop community, her intensest pleasures are solitary ones. Again looking forward to Virginia Woolf, the novel asserts the absolute necessity of 'a room of one's own', and Laura gains a clear-sighted understanding of the combined financial and cultural interests that serve to keep women in domestic, dependent roles: 'Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament . . . the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilisation' have robbed her of her freedom just as effectively as have her patronising London relatives. It is this analysis that informs her conversation with Satan near the end of the novel, in which she unfolds her memorable vision of women as sticks of dynamite, 'long[ing] for the concussion that may justify them.' If women, Townsend Warner implies, are denied access to power through legitimate means, they will turn instead to illegitimate methods -- in this case to Satan himself, who pays them the compliment of pursuing them and then, having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone." 

I highly recommend reading Water's full essay, "Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer," published by The Guardian.

Walter Crane

I think if I was teaching Lolly Willowes today,  I would first ask students to read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, an absolutely engrossing book about single women in Britain between the wars, which I can't recommend highly enough. (All of Nicholson's books on social history are just terrific.) Singled Out It's also interesting to read Townsend Warner's fiction with some knowledge of her fascinating life as a feminist, leftist, and lesbian (she was in a long-term relationship with fellow writer Valentine Ackland) at a time when this was far from the norm for respectable "lady writers." She loved living in the countryside, and some of her best stories take place in rural settings -- but they are so much more than charming tales of villages and vicarages; beneath the mannered surface they contain a biting wit, deep wisdom, and sharp social critique, à la Jane Austen. For those who would like to learn more about the writer, there's a good biography of Townsend Warner by Claire Harman, various volumes of the author's lively and erudite correspondence, plus a lovely memoir by Townsend Warner's wife (or so she'd be acknowledged today), Valentine Ackland: For Sylvia: An Honest Account.

And this brings us back to the Hen Wife -- that figure of magic who dwells comfortably among us, not off by the crossroads or in the dark of the woods; who is married, not solitary; who is equally at home with the wild and domestic, with the animal and human worlds. She is, I believe, among us still: dispensing her wisdom and exercising her power in kitchens and farmyards (and the urban equivalent) to this day -- anywhere that women gather, talk among themselves, and pass knowledge down to the next generations.

And Hen Husbands? What is their role in folklore, fairy tales, and daily life? I confess I do not know. Those are Men's Mysteries, hidden and ancient, and not for the likes of me to speak of....

Samurai Chicken Defender by David Wyatt

Words: The passage by Sharon Blackie is from "The Henwife" (The Art of Enchantment, October 2014). The passage by Colleen Szabo is from "Katie Crackernuts: The Hen-Wife and her Cauldron of Wisdom" (Cabinet des Fées, July 2011). The passage by Sylvia Townsend Warner is from her novel Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926. The passage by Sarah Waters is from "Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer" (The Guardian, March 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in February 2015.

Pictures: a folktale illustration by Vladislav Erko; "The Hen Wife" by Helen G. Stevenson (circa 1930s); a Danzu carving of a Chinese hen wife; "The Hen Wife" by Charles Sims (1872-1928); a nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915); "Baba Yaga" (from Russian folklore) by Rima Staines; a Mother Goose illustration, artist unknown; a photograph of Sylvia Townsend Warner; the first edition of Lolly Willowes; a stereotypical Victorian image of a spinster by English painter Walter Dendy Sadler (1854-1923); an 18th century spinster by  Thomas Cheesman (1760-1834) - reminiscent of the fact that the term was once used for all women who spin, card, and weave, rather than as a pejorative term for unmarried women; a decoration by Walter Crane (1845-1915); and "Samurai Chicken Defender" by my Chagford neighbor David Wyatt, from his "Mythic Village" series. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


Why one writes

Field words

Field words 2

"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art."

- Anaïs Nin (The Diaries, Volume 5)

Field words 3

"Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."  - George Bernard Shaw

Field words 5

Field words 6

And so I create a world in which I can live through stories and pictures of spirited landscapes steeped in Mystery, music, and quiet acts of women's magic. I create myself every day here in the hills amid old stone walls and buttercup fields, out of scraps of paper and fragments of verse and morning coffee and dreams underfoot and books and bees and brambles and briar roses and a black dog at my side.

Tilly in the buttercups, 2012

"A writer is dreamed and transfigured into being by spells, wishes, goldfish, sillouettes of trees, boxes of fairy tales dropped in the mud, uncles' and cousins' books, tablets and capsules and powders...and then one day you find yourself leaning here, writing on that round glass table salvaged from the Park View Pharmacy -- writing this, an impossibility, a summary of who you came to be where you are now, and where, God knows, is that?"

- Cynthia Ozick (Art & Ardor)

Why, it's here. Where I am. Where you are. Right now.

Field words 7

Field words 8This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in the spring of 2012. Flu recovery continues, and I still hope to be back in the studio on Monday, with new posts in the week ahead.


The Gentle Art of Tramping

Footpath

Robert Macfarlane wandered all across the British Isles before writing such fine books as Holloway, The Old Ways, and The Wild Places; and in this passage from the latter, he pays tribute to a kindred spirit, the Scottish writer Stephen Graham:

"Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice and Britain several times, and his 1923 book, The Gentle Art of Tramping, was a hymn to the wilderness of the British Isles. 'One is inclined,' wrote Graham, 'to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public-houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.' What he tried to prove with The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Scottish author Stephen Graham

"Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called 'the curbed ways and the tarred roads,' and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and 'vagabonding' -- his verb -- round the world. He came at landscape diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move through them.

Footpath 2

" 'Tramping is straying from the obvious,' he wrote, 'even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.' In Britain and Ireland, 'straying from the obvious' brought him into contact with landscapes that were, as he put it, 'unnamed -- wild, woody, marshy.' In The Gentle Art, he described how he drew up a 'fairy-tale' map of the glades, fields and forests he reached: its networld of little-known wild places.

'There was an Edwardian innocence about Graham -- an innocence, not a blitheness -- which appealed deeply to me. Anyone who could sincerely observe that  'There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva' was, in my opinion, to be cherished.

"Graham was also one one among a line of pedestrians who saw that wandering and wondering have long gone together; that their kinship as activities extended beyond their half-rhyme. And his book was a hymn to the subversive power of pedestrianism: its ability to make a stale world seem fresh, surprising and wondrous again, to discover astonishment on the terrain of the familiar."

Footpath 3

Footpath 4

'The adventure," Graham insisted, "is the not getting there, it is the on-the-way. It is not the expected; it is the surprise; not the fulfillment of prophecy but the providence of something better than prophesied. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you."

Footpath 5

In her beautiful book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts:

"Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," she observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

P1070929

When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

Footpath 6

And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. The whole hill has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the wind and rain and snow of the hill is paring that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below...but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

Footpath 8

Footpath 6

I'm down with flu right now and can't manage to write a new post today, so I was reminded of this one (from 2013)  while listening to "Old Shoes," the lovely Salt House song about walkers and wanderers in yesterday's post.

Words: The passages above are from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (Granta, 2008), The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham (Holmes Press reprint edition, 2011), and Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly at the bottom gate to Nattadon Commons.


Wild Neighbors

Some of the

"What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land?" asks poet and scholar Ruth Padel. "Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they From Wind in the Willows illustrated by Stephen Dooleymug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut -- was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows 'sitting on cars,' upsetting the countryside's most vital beast -- the traffic?

"In a closed, traditional society there is something special about animals born in the land where you, too, were born. The British used to look lazily at gardens, thickets, and moors, and know — without bothering to think about it -- that foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels, and deer were out there flecking the undergrowth....

"Dangerous or vulnerable, shy or cunning, a pest or welcome visitor, our native animals are part of our romance with the secret wildness of the place we live, even if we never see much of them. We grew up with them in imagination. They were inside us, furry heroes of nursery rhymes, pictures and stories through which we learned the world. Little Grey Rabbit. The Stoats and Weasels of the Wild Wood. The Fox who Looked Out on a Moonlight Night. The Frog who would A Wooing Go. They are deep in British folk song, poetry, and popular art. 'Three Ravens Sat in an Old Oak Tree.' The holly and the ivy, the running of the deer. Landseer's 'Monarch of the Glen.'

"But that's the way it used to be. We are not a mono-traditional society any more -- most kids' traditions center on the TV and the city street. To most children, a weasel is as unknowable as daffodils to a young Indian struggling with Wordsworth during the Raj."

Weasel

How did we become so disconnected to the land we live on, and the wild neighbors we share it with? I think it's partly because we're losing the stories specific to the local landscape: the stories about this plant that grows on the hill nearby and that bird that migrates here each spring and not just the pan-cultural stories we share with everyone on the television and cinema screens. We no longer know the tales of the animals, and, increasingly, we no longer know animals themselves.

What a different attitude is conveyed by these words from a member of the Carrier Indian nation in British Columbia (quoted in Becoming Animal by David Abram):

"We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has only been a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another."

Badger

The old story of a woman who marries a bear, for example, is one that used to roam widely, like the bears themselves, throughout North America. In a Nishga version recounted by Agnes Haldane of the Wolf clan of Gitkateen (in Wisdom of the Myth Tellers by Sean Kane), a tribal princess picking berries in the forest steps on a bit of bear scat and mutters angry remarks about the bears. As the women head for home, her basket breaks; repairing it, she is left behind. Two handsome men appear and tell her they've come to fetch her and lead her from the forest. Instead of leading her home, they take her to the village of the Bear People. The princess tricks the People into believing she is a woman of great power, and as a result she ends up marrying the son of the Bear Chief. She lives with him rather happily, and gives birth to two fine bear sons. But during a period of hibernation, her own brothers find her husband's cave and kill the bear in a rescue attempt. Her husband has foreseen this event. "When they skin me," he'd instructed her, "tell them to burn my bones so that I may go on to help my children. At my death they shall take human form and become skillful hunters. Now listen as I sing my dirge song. This you must remember and take to your father. My cloak he shall don as his dancing garment. His crest shall be the Prince of Bears."

Merlin

The bear's sacrifice of his life for the benefit of human beings might seem suprising, but it's not an unusual theme in the indiginous tales of North America, where many story traditions say the animals were the First People, here before humans came. Sacred tales from many different Indian nations recount how Bear, or Coyote, or Eagle, or Deer first gave humans the precious, vital gift of fire; while in other tales language, hunting skills, dancing, even love-making, were first taught by animals. Though we've come to expect such respectfulness towards and from other species in American Indian lore, it can also be found in many other storytelling traditions around world -- such as in the sacred stories of the Ainu of Japan. As Gary Snyder notes (in The Practice of the Wild):

"In the Ainu world, a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."

Salmon

In another essay in the same volume, Snyder writes: "A young white woman asked me: 'If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?' An excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals' side. The Ainu  say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically we dance for them. A song for your supper: performance is currency in the deep world's gift economy. The other creatures probably do find us a bit frivolous: we keep changing our outfits and we eat too many different things. Nonhuman nature, I can't help feeling, is well inclined towards humanity and only wishes that modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody."

Otter

The idea that animals love human song reminds me of this passage from Linda Hogan's gorgeous novel Power:

'[T]he panther remembers when humans were so beautiful and whole that her own people envied them and wanted to be like them. They admired the humans and the way the two-legged people stood beneath trees with leaves leaning down over them as they picked ripe fruits, how their beautiful eyes were fully open. How straight they walked! How beautiful the beads about their necks, the dresses women made in fabric that was the dark green of the trees and the light colors of flowers. How intelligent the little shell and wooden bowls they ate from, how good they were at devising ways to catch fish with simple bone and metal, at making trails through the thickets. They stood so gracefully and full of themselves, they sang so beautifully; it remembers all this, how they sang. The whole world rejoiced with their voices....

"[The panther] remembers when its own people surrounded the humans and gave them life and power, medicine to heal, to hunt, even to direct lightning and stormclouds away from their beautiful dark-eyed children....But now they have turned against her. Now that they have no need for her, Sisa and her people,  the panther, are leaving. They leave in sadness and grief. Now so few of the humans have songs or presence, so many have such heaviness that they can barely walk or move, raise themselves from their beds in the morning. And Sisa believes, sees, that the world could end with their human misery."

Grey Heron

And in Wild: An Elemental Journey (another book that I highly recommended), Jay Griffiths shares this:

"Creatures are gente, I'm told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are 'people like us' with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gente. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño -- with tenderness. The Harakmbut say that all animals were people más allá -- long ago -- and there is therefore a profound equality between us and them; they are like distant family, and one has duties and expectations as one would with family members. People are 'familiar' with the habits and ways of animals, and this familarity is cherished. (By contrast in the West, close familiarity with animals was considered devilish: the witch and her 'familiar.')

"Animals should be treated kindly, even in hunting, for they are kin to humans. 'We owe...kindliness to other creatures: there is an intercourse and mutual obligation between them and us,' wrote Michael de Montaigne, sounding uncannily like an Amazonian Indian."

Fox

"Homo sapiens," wrote the late naturalist Ellen Meloy (in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild) "have left themselves few scant places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them."

Barn owl

Louise Erdrich portrays this sense of surprise in a passage from her novel The Painted Drum:

“Coming down off the trail, I am lost in my own thoughts and unprepared when a bear chugs across the path just before it gives out on the gravel road. I am so distracted that I keep walking towards the bear. I only stop when it rears, stands on hind legs, and stares at me, sensitive nose pressed into the air, weak eyes searching. I have never been this close to a wild bear before, but I am not frightened. There is no menace in its stance; it is not even curious. The bear seems to know who or what I am. The bear is not impressed. ”

Black bearNo, I don't expert that the bear would be impressed with many of us these days, nor the bees and badgers, the hares and hedgehogs and other wild folk here in the hills of Devon. We don't know their stories any longer. We've forgotten their songs. We don't "stand with presence."

In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner discusses the role of "beasts" in fairy tales, and how our perceptions of these stories have changed as attitudes towards animals have changed. "Just as the rise of the teddy bear matches the decline of real bears in the wild," she notes, "so soft toys today have taken the shape of rare animal species. Some of these are not very furry in their natural state: stuffed killer whales, cheetahs, gorillas, snails, spiders and snakes -- and of course dinosaurs -- are made in the most inviting deep-pile plush. They act as a kind of totem, associating the human being with the animal's capacities and value. Anthropomorphism traduces the creatures themselves; their loveableness sentimentally exaggerated, just as formerly, belief in their viciousness crowded out empircal observation."

Brown Hare

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

This is clearly true, and a world in which children interact only with animal-shape-objects while remaining ignorant about the creatures outside their own back door (be it country badger or urban fox) is clearly a world out of balance.  And yet, for me, those soft animal toys awakened my interest in and life-long love of the wild, as did the anthropomorphised animals of tales like Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Wind and Willows. I'm thinking quite a lot about this these days, as I work on a book project involving bunny girls and other animal children. I want these magical beings to lead children back to nature, not to be nature's safe, cuddly substitute. Is this possible? At this point in the process, I have more questions than I have answers....

When I think back to my own childhood, what I wish is that someone had noted my passion for animals and placed a wildlife guide in my hands alongside those tales of Mole and Rat and Benjamin Bunny...or better still, led me out of doors and into the wild, and told tales of the land we then lived on. Not in place of those books, which had done their work in opening the door into wonder for me, but as the next necessary step of attaching wonder to the living world around us.

Bunny Sisters

"How, then to renew our viceral experience of a world that exceeds us -- of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations?" asks David Abram (in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology). "Does a revitalizing of oral [storytelling] culture mean that mean that we must renounce reading and writing? Must we empty our bookcases? Must we unplug our computers and drag them down to the dump?

"Hardly. The renewal of oral culture entails no renunciation of books, and no rejection of technology. It entails only that we leave abundant space in our days for interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by television nor the cell phone, neither by the handheld computer or the GPS satellite...nor even the printed page.

"Among writers, for example, it entails a recognition (even an anticipation) that there are certain stories we may stumble against that ought not to be written down -- stories that we might instead begin to tell with our tongue in the particular topography where those stories live. Among parents, it requires that we set aside, now and then, the books that we read to our children in order to recount a vital story with the whole of our gesturing body -- or better yet, that we draw our kids out of doors in order to improvise a tale about how the nearby river feels when the fish return to its waters, or about the wild wind that's even now blustering its way through the city streets, plucking the hats off people's heads.... Among educators, it requires that we begin to rejuvenate the arts of telling, and of listening, in relation to the geographical place where our lessons actually happen."

Noctule Bat

"Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land's meaning, of its own many-voice eloquence?" David wonders. "Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. Can we help our students to carefully translate the quantified abstractions of science into the qualitative language of direct experience, so that those necessary insights begin to come alive in their felt encounters with cumulus clouds and bleaching corals, with owls and deformed dragonflies and the intricate tangle of mycelial mats? ...Most important, can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth."

Water shrew

"We are of the animal world," Linda Hogan reminds us (in her beautiful collection of essays, Dwelling: A Spiritual History of the Living World). "We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried so hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature.

"A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, our solution to the mystery of what we are."

Indeed. Part of that stewardship, surely, is caretaking our local, traditional stories as well as the land that gave birth to them. And listening for the land's new stories. Telling them. And singing, so the animals can hear us.

Hedgehog

Pictures: The photographs above, of our four-footed and winged neighbors here in Devon, come from the Devon Wildlife Trust website. The art above: "Ratty" (from The Wind in the Willows) by my two-footed neighbor Steve Dooley; a vintage illustration of a black bear (artist unknown); "Peter Rabbit "by the great Beatrix Potter; and my wee "Rabbit Sisters." All rights reserved by the artists and photographers.

Words: The passages quoted above are from "Into the Woods: On British Forests, Myths & Now" by Ruth Padel (The Journal of Mythic Arts); Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (Vintage, 2011); Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane (Broadview Press, 1984); The Practice of the Wild, essays by Gary Snyder (Counterpoint Press, 1990/2010); Power, a novel by Linda Hogan (WW Norton & Co., 1999); Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths (Penguin, 2008); Eating Stone: Imagination & the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy (vintage, 2006); The Painted Drum, a novel by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial, 2006); From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales & Their Tellers by Marina Warner (Vintage, 1995), and Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, essays by Linda Hogan (WW Norton & Co, 1995). This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2013. All rights reserved by the authors.


Wild Marriage

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.

Tristan Elwell

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

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)

Helen Stratton

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.

The Little Mermaid by 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 explored in contemporary fiction such as The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, Second Nature by Alice Hoffman, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, When Fox Was a Thousand by Larissa Lai, Medicine Road by Charles de Lint, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold, Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis McKiernan, East by Edith Pattou, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, Swim the Moon by Paul Brandon, Sealskin by Su Bristow and numerous other "animal bride or bridegroom"  novels -- as well as in films such as The Secret of Roan Inish; and in a wide range of visual artworks, including those featured here.

Tricia Cline

Sirens of Rutino by Adrian Arleo

On 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] Woman & bearbeastly 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."

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.

Katerina Plotnikova

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.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The beastly artwork above is: "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" illustrations by Kay Nielsen and Frederick Richardson; white bears by Lucy Campell, Anton Lomaev, & Jackie Morris; "The Snow Princess" by Ruth Sanderson; "Cupid & Psyche" by John D. Batten; "Daughter of the Sea" by Tristan Elwell; "Swan Princess" by Mikhail Vrubel; "The Frog Bride" by Virginia Lee; "The Lindworm" by Kay Nielsen; "Turtle with Hands" by Adrian Arleo; "Scheherazade" and "She Stirred the Brazier" by Edmund Dulac; "The Frog Princess" and "The White Cat" by Gennady Spirin; "Bear Girl" by Anne Siems, "Deer Woman" by Susan Seddon Boulet; "Big Horn Sheep Shaman" and "Keeper of the Trust" by Gene & Rebecca Tobey; "Sedna" by Germaine Arnaktauyck; an illustration for "Melusine" by Jean D'Arras (14th century); "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton and Edmund Dulac; "The White Deer" by Adrienne Segur; two "Beauty & the Beast" illustrations by Angela Barrett; "Beauty & the Beast" by Adrienne Segur; "The Exit of the Manticore," "The Exile of the Deer," and "Ursula's Kid" by Tricia Cline; "Sirens of Rutino" by Adrian Arleo; "The Princess & the Bear," a Victorian illustration (artist unknown); and two photographs by Katerina Plotnokova. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: Some of the text for this post was drawn from my introduction to The Beastly Bride & Other Tales of the Animal People, co-edited with Ellen Datlow (Viking, 2010); all rights reserved. For further reading, I recommend two fine essays by Midori Snyder: "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" and "The Monkey Girl."


Wild Children

The Miracle of Tears by Sulamith Wulfing

Today I'm on the trail of the Wild Children of myth, lore, and fantasy: children lost in the forest, abandoned, stolen, reared by wild animals, and those for whom wilderness is their natural element and home.

Tales of babies left in the woods (and other forms of wilderness) can found in the myths, legends, and sacred texts of cultures all around the globe.  The infant is usually of noble birth, abandoned and left to certain death in order to thwart a prophesy -- but Moses in the Bulrushes, artist unknownfate intervenes, the child survives and is raised by wild animals, or by humans who live on the margins of the wild: shepherds, woodsmen, gamekeepers, and the like. When the child grows up, his or her true identity is revealed and the prophesy is fulfilled. In Persian legends surrounding Cyrus the Great, for example, it is prophesized at his birth that he will grow up to take the crown of his grandfather, the King of Media. The king orders the baby killed and Cyrus is left on a wild mountainside, where he's rescued either by the royal herdsman or a bandit (depending on the version of the tale) and raised in safety. He grows up, learns his true parentage, and not only captures the Median throne but goes on to conquer most of central and southeast Asia.

Canopy  Variation of Remus & Romulus by Adrian Arleo

In Assyrian myth, a fish-goddess falls in love with a beautiful young man, gives birth to a half-mortal daughter, abandons the child in the wilderness, and then kills herself in shame. The baby is fed by doves and survives to be found and raised by a royal shepherd...and grows up to become Semiramis, the great Warrior Queen of Assyria. In Greek myth, Paris, the son of King Priam, is born under a prophesy that he will one day cause the downfall of Troy. The baby is left on the side of Mount Ida, but he's suckled by a bear and manages to live -- growing up to fall in love with Helen of Troy and spark the Trojan War.

Remus and Romulus, an Ertruscan bronze displayed at the Musei Capitolini in Rome

From Roman myth comes one of the most famous babes-in-the-wood stories of all, the legend of Remus and Romulus. Numitor, the good King of Alba Long, is overthrown by Amulius, his wicked brother, and his daughter is forced to become a Vestal Virgin in order to end his line. Though locked in a temple, the girl becomes pregnant (with the help of Mars, the god of war) and gives birth to a beautiful pair of sons: Remus and Romulus. Amulius has the twins exposed on the banks of the Tiber, expecting them to perish; instead, Wolf Mama by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997)they are suckled and fed by a wolf and a woodpecker, and survive in the woods. Adopted by a shepherd and his wife, they grow up into noble, courageous young men and discover their true heritage — whereupon they overthrow their great-uncle, restore their grandfather to his throne, and, just for good measure, go on to found the city of Rome.

In Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, Michael Newton delves into the mythic symbolism inherent in the moment when abandoned children are saved by birds or animals. "Restorations and substitutions are at the very heart of the Romulus and Remus story," he writes; "brothers take the rightful place of others, foster parents bring up other people's children, the god Mars stands in for a human suitor. Yet the crucial substitution occurs when the she-wolf saves the lost children. In that moment, when the infants' lips close upon the she-wolf's teats, a transgressive mercy removes the harmful influence of a murderous culture. The moment is a second birth: where death is expected, succor is given, and the children are miraculously born into the order of nature. Nature's mercy admonishes humanity's unnatural cruelty: only a miracle of kindness can restore the imbalance created by human iniquity."

Starchild by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997)

In myth, when we're presented with children orphaned, abandoned, or raised by animals, it's generally a sign that their true parentage is a remarkable one and they'll grow up to be great leaders, warriors, seers, magicians, or shamans. As they grow, their beauty, or physical prowess or magical abilities betray a lineage that cannot be hidden by their humble upbringing. (Rarely do we encounter a mythic hero whose origins are truly low; at least one parent must be revealed as noble, supernatural, or divine.) After a birth trauma and a miraculous survival always comes a span of time symbolically described as "exile in the wilderness," where they hone their skills, test their mettle, and gather their armies, their allies, or their magic, before returning (as they always do) to the world that is their birthright.

Little Red Cap by Lisbeth ZwergerWhen we turn to folk tales and fairy tales, however, although we also find stories of children abandoned in the wild or befriended by animals, the tone and intent of such tales is markedly different. Here, we're not concerned with the affairs of the gods or with heroes who conquer continents -- for folk tales in the Western tradition, unlike myths and hero epics, were passed through the centuries primarily by storytellers of lower classes (usually women), and tended to be focused on themes more relevant to ordinary people. Abandoned children in fairy tales (like Hansel and Gretel, Little Thumbling, or the broommaker's twins in The Two Brothers) aren't destined for greatness or infamy; they are exactly what they appear to be: the children of cruel or feckless parents. Such parents exist, they have always existed, and fairy tales  did not gloss over these dark facts of life. Indeed, they confronted them squarely. The heroism of such children lies not in the recovery of a noble lineage but in the ability to survive and transform their fate -- and to outwit those who would do them harm without losing their lives, their souls, or their humanity in the process.

Hansel & Gretel by Lisbeth Zwerger

Thumbelina by Lizbeth Zwerger

Children also journey to the forest of their own accord, but usually in response to the actions of adults: they enter the woods at a parent's behest (Little Red Riding Hood), or because they're not truly wanted at home (Hans My Hedgehog), or in order to flee a wicked parent, step-parent, or guardian (Seven Swans, Snow White and Brother & Sister). Disruption of a safe, secure home life often comes in the form a parent's remarriage: the child's mother has died and a heartless, jealous step-mother has taken her place. The evil step-mother is so common in fairy tales that she has become an iconic figure (to the bane of real step-mothers everywhere), and her history in the fairy tale canon is an interesting one. In some tales, she didn't originally exist. The murderous queen of  Snow White, for example, was the girl's own mother in the oldest versions of the story (the Brothers Grimm changed her into a step-parent in the 19th century) -- whereas other stories, such as Cinderella and The Juniper Tree, have featured second wives since their earliest known tellings.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004)Some scholars who view fairy tales in psychological terms (most notably Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment) believe that the "good mother" and "bad step-mother" symbolize two sides of a child's own mother: the part they love and the part they hate. Casting the "bad mother" as a separate figure, they say, allows the child to more safely identify such socially unacceptable feelings. While this may be true, it ignores the fact that fairy tales were not originally stories specially intended for children. And, as Marina Warner points out (in From the Beast to the Blonde), this "leeches the history out of fairy tales. Fairy or wonder tales, however farfetched the incidents they include, or fantastic the enchantments they concoct, take on the color of the actual circumstance in which they were or are told. While certain structural elements remain, variant versions of the same story often reveal the particular conditions of the society in which it is told and retold in this form. The absent mother can be read as literally that: a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother's successor."

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

We rarely find step-fathers in fairy tales, wicked or otherwise, but the fathers themselves can be treacherous. In stories like Donkeyskin, Allerleirauh, and The Handless Maiden, for example, it is a cowardly, cruel, or incestuous father who forces his daughter to flee to the wild. Even those fathers portrayed more sympathetically as the dupes of their black-hearted wives are still somewhat suspect: they are happy at the story's end to have their Peau d'âne (Donkeyskin) by Anneclaire Macéchildren return unscathed, but are curiously powerless or unwilling to protect them in the first place. Though the father is largely absent from tales such as Cinderella, The Seven Swans, and Snow White, the shadow he casts over them is a large one. He is, as Angela Carter has pointed out,  "the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absent father there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict."

Family upheaval has another function in these tales, beyond reflecting real issues encountered in life: it propels young heroes out of their homes, away from all that is safe and familiar; it forces them onto the unknown road to the dark of the forest. It's a road that will lead, after certain tests and trials, to personal and worldly transformation, pushing the hero past childhood and pointing the way to a re-balanced life -- symbolized by new prosperity, or a family home that has been restored, or (for older youths) a wedding feast at the end of the tale. These young people are "wild" only for a time: it's a liminal state, a rite-of-passage that moves the hero from one distinct phase of life to another. The forest, with all its wonders and terrors, is not the final destination. It is a place to hide, to be tested, to mature. To grow in strength, wisdom, and/or power. And to gain the tools needed to return to the human world and repair what's been broken...or build anew.

Three Black Dogs by Kelly Louise Judd

Tiger Girls by Fay Ku

In one set of folk tales, however, children who disappear into the woods do not often return: the changeling stories of babies stolen by faeries and goblins, who generally leave a substitute behind: a wizened faery or a stick of wood, enchanted to look like the missing child but sickly and odd in its ways. Why, we might ask, are the denizens of Faerie so interested in stealing the offspring of mortals? Some faery lore suggests that the children are destined for lives as servants or slaves of the Faerie court; or that they are kept, in the manner of pets, for the amusement of their faery masters. Other stories and ballads (Tam Lin, for example) speak of a darker purpose: that the faeries must pay a tithe of blood to the Devil every seven years, and prefer to pay with mortal blood rather than blood of their own. In other traditions, however, it's simply the beauty of the children that attracts the faeries, who are also known to kidnap pretty young men and women, artists, poets, and musicians.

Stolen by Goblins by Maurice Sendak

The ability of faeries to procreate is a debatable issue in faery lore. Some stories maintain that the faeries do procreate, though not as often as humans. By occasionally interbreeding with mortals and claiming mortal babes as their own, they bring new blood into the Faerie Realm and keep their  bloodlines strong. Other tales suggest that they cannot breed, or do so with such rarity that jealousy of human fertility is the motive behind child-theft.

Some stolen children, the tales tell us, will spend their whole lives in the Faerie Realm, and may even find happiness there, losing all desire for the lands of men. Other tales tell us that human children cannot thrive in the otherworld, and eventually sicken and die for want of mortal food and drink. Some faeries maintain their interest in child captives only during their infancy, tossing the children out of the Faerie Realm when they show signs of age. Such children, restored to the human world, are not always happy among their own kind, and spend their mortal lives pining for a way to return to Faerie.

The Changeling by Arthur Rackham

Another type of story that comes from the deep, dark forest is the Feral Child tale, found in the shadow realm that lies between legend and fact.  There have been a number of cases throughout history of young children discovered living in the wild, a few of which have been documented to a greater or lesser degree. Generally, these seem to be children who have been abandoned or fled abusive homes, often at such a young age that they've ceased to remember any other way of life. Attempts to "civilize" these children, to teach them language, and to curb their animal-like behaviors, are rarely entirely successful -- which leads to all sorts of questions about what it is that shapes human culturalization as we know it.

Wolf Girl by Anna Siems

One of the most famous of these children was Victor, the Wild Boy of Avignon, discovered on a mountainside in France in the early 19th century. His teacher, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, wrote an extraordinary account of his six years with the boy -- a document which inspired François Truffaut's film The Wild Child, and Mordicai Gerstein's wonderful novel The Wild Boy. In an essay for The Horn Book, Gerstein wrote: "Itard's reports not only provide the best documentation we have of a feral child, but also one of the most thoughtful, beautifully written, and moving accounts of a teacher pupil relationship, which has as its object nothing less than learning to be a human being (or at least what Itard, as a man of his time, thought a human being to be).... Itard's ambition to have Victor speak ultimately failed, but even if he had succeeded, he could never know Victor better or be more truly, deeply engaged with him than those evenings, early on, when they sat together as Victor loved to, with the boy's face buried in the man's hands. But the more Itard taught Victor, the more civilized he became, the more the distance between them grew." (You'll find Gerstein's full essay here; scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Illustration by Marc Simont

From the Ashes and Snow series by Gregory Colbert

In India in the 1920s two small girls were discovered living in the wild among a pack of wolves. They were captured (their "wolf mother" shot) and taken into an orphanage run by a missionary, Reverend Joseph Singh. Singh attempted to teach the girls to speak, walk upright, and behave like humans, not as wolves — with limited success.  His diaries make for fascinating (and horrifying) reading. Several works of fiction were inspired by this story, but the ones I particularly recommend are Children of the Wolf, a poignant children's novel by Jane Yolen, and "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," a wonderful short story by Karen Russell (published in her collection of the same title). Also, Second Nature by Alice Hoffman is an excellent contemporary novel on the Feral Child theme.

More recently, in 1996, an urban Feral Child was discovered living with a pack of dogs on the streets of Moscow. He resisted capture until the police finally separated the boy from his pack. "He had been living on the street for two years," writes Michael Newton. "Yet, as he had spent four years with a human family [before this], he could talk perfectly well. After a brief spell in a Reutov children's shelter, Ivan started school. He appears to be just like any other Moscow child. Yet it is said that, at night, he still dreams of dogs."

An illustration for Kipling's The Jungle Book by Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1975)

When we read about such things as adults and parents, the thought of a child with no family but wolves or dogs is a deeply disturbing one. . .but when we read from a child's point of view, there is something secretly thrilling about the idea of life lived among an animal pack, or shedding the strictures of civilization to head into the woods. In this, of course, lies the enduring appeal of stories like Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes. Explaining his youthful passion for such tales, Mordecai Gerstein writes: "The heart of my fantasy was leaving the human world for a kind of jungle Eden where all one needed was readily available and that had, in Kipling's version, less hypocrisy, more nobility. I liked best the idea of being protected from potential enemies by powerful animal friends."

Child with Bears by Katerina Plotnikova

Alexandra Bochkareva

And here we begin to approach another aspect of Wild Child (and Orphaned Hero) tales that makes them so alluring to many young readers: the idea that a parentless life in the wild might be a better, or a more exciting, one. For children with difficult childhoods, the appeal of running away to the forest is obvious: such stories provide escape, a vision of life beyond the confines of a troubled home. But even children from healthy families need fictional escape from time to time. In the wild, they can shed their usual roles (the eldest daughter, middle son, the baby of the family, etc.) and enter other realms in which they are solitary actors. Without adults to guide them (or, contrarily, to restrict them), these young heroes are thrown back, time and time again, on their own resources. They must think, speak, act for themselves. They have no parental safety net below. This can be a frightening prospect, but it is also a liberating one — for although there's no one to catch them if they fall, there's no one to scold them for it eithe

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Peter Pan by David Wyatt

J.M. Barrie addresses this theme, of course, in his much-loved children's fantasy Peter Pan -- which draws upon Scottish changeling legends, twisted into interesting new shapes. Barrie's Peter is human-born, not a faery, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a faery as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral. He's a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them -- both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. This dual nature makes Peter Pan a classic trickster character, kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of faery lore: both faery and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan by Brian FroudPeter's last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy. Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he's quick to anger if he's disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs — but these "Lost Boys" are a wilder crew than Peter's, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or "panic"). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god — and here the comparison must end, for Peter's wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it's sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he's specifically determined to avoid. ("You mustn't touch me. No one must ever touch me," Peter tells Wendy.)

Although Peter Pan makes a brief appearance in Barrie's 1902 novel The Little White Bird, his story as we know it now really began as a children's play, which debuted on the London stage in 1904. The playscript was subsequently published under the title Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story in the book Peter and Wendy. (It's a wonderful read in Barrie's original text, full of sharp black humor.) Peter and Wendy ends with a poignant scene that does not exist in the play: Peter comes back to Wendy's window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy's own daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself...where Wendy can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Peter Pan at the Window by F.D. Bedford (1864-1954)

Illustration by Robert Ingpen

The fairy tale forest, like Never Land, is not a place we are meant to remain, lest, like Peter or the children stolen by faeries, we become something not quite human. Young heroes return triumphant from the woods (trials completed, curses broken, siblings saved, pockets stuffed with treasure), but the blunt fact is that they must return. In the old tales, there is no sadness in this, no lingering, backward glance to the forest; the stories end "happily ever after" with the children restored to the human world. In this sense, the wild depths of the wood represent the realm of childhood itself, and the final destination is an adulthood rich in love, prosperity, and joy.  From Victorian times onward, however, a new note of regret creeps in at the end of the story. A theme that we find over and over again in Victorian fantasy literature is that magic and wonder are accessible only to children, lost on the threshold of adulthood. From Lewis Carroll’s "Alice" books to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, these writers grieved that their wise young heroes would one day grow up and leave the woods behind.

Of course, many of us never do leave the woods behind: we return through the pages of magical books and we return in actuality, treasuring our interactions with the wild world through all the years of our lives. But that part of the forest specific to childhood does not truly belong to us now -- and that's exactly as it should be. Each generation bequeaths it to the next. Our job as adults, as I see it, is to protect that enchanted place by  preserving wilderness and stories both. Our job is to open the window at night and to watch from the shadows as Peter arrives; it's our children's turn to step over the sill. Our job is to teach them to navigate by the stars and to bless them on their way.

Barrie was wrong, by the way, for we adults have our owns forms of magic too, and the wild wood still welcomes us. But it's right, I think, that there should be a corner of it forever marked "Grown-ups, keep out!" Where children are heroes of their own stories, kings and queens of their own wild worlds.

Peter Pan by Charles Buchel (1872-1950)

The wildwood art above is: "The Miracle of Tears" by Sulamith Wulfing; "Moses in the Bulrushes," artist unknown; "Canopy: Variation on Remus & Romulus" by Adrian Arleo; "Remus & Romulus," an Ertruscan bronze; "Wolf Mama" and "Starchild" by Susan Seddon-Boulet; 'Little Redcap," two illustrations for "Hansel & Gretel," and "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger; two illustrations for "Snow White" by Trina Schart Hyman; "Donkeyskin" drawing by Anneclaire Macé; "Three Black Dogs" by Kelly Louise Judd; "Tiger Girls by Fay Ku; "Baby Stolen by Gobins" by Maurice Sendak; "The Changeling" by Arthur Rackham; "Wolf Girl" by Anne Siems; "Sleeping with the Bear" by Marc Simont; a photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert; "Mowgli" by Edward Julius Detmold; "Girl with Bears" by Katerina Plotnikova;"Girl with Fox" by Alexandra Bochkareva; "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak; "Peter Pan" by David Wyatt; "Peter Pan" by Brian Froud; "Peter Pan at the Window" by F.D. Beford; a drawing by Robert Ingapen; and "Peter Pan" by Charles Buchel. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: Parts of this post have been drawn from these articles: The Orphaned Hero, Changelings, Peter Pan. It first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2013. All rights reserved.


Wild Men & Women of the Forest

Merlin in the Forest by Alan Lee

Merlin (pictured in the beautiful drawing by Alan Lee above) is a figure intimately connected with forests in Arthurian lore. After the disastrous Battle of Arderydd, Merlin goes mad and spends years as a wild man in the woods, living a solitary, animal existance, before he emerges into his full power as a magician and seer. His prophesies are contained in Welsh poems said to be written by Myrddin himself (from texts dated to the 9th century and onward); many of them can be found in the Llyfr Du Caerfryddin and The Black Book of Carmarthen. In the "Afallennau" and "Oineau" poems (from The Black Book, translated by Meirion Pennar), Myrddin portrays his life among apple trees in the forest of Celydonn: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild; after not so dusty things and entertaining minstrels, only lack does now keep me company. . . ." He despairs that he, who once lay in women's arms, now lies alone on the cold, hard ground, with only a wild piglet for company (a creature much revered by the Celts).

This flight into wilderness is a common theme in shamanic initiation from cultures around the globe. Through deprivation, an elemental existence, and even madness, the shaman embarks on an inward journey; when he or she returns to world it is as a changed and not-quite-human being, aligned with the powers of nature, able to converse with animals and to see into the hearts of men. Suibhne (or Sweeny) in Irish lore, for example, is a warrior cursed in battle and forced to flee to the woods in the shape of a bird. Like Merlin, Suibhne goes stark raving mad during his long exile — but when he emerges from the trial, he has mastery over creatures of the forest. (For a gorgeous modern rendition of this tale, I recommend the book Sweeny's Flight,  an edition containing Seamus Heaney's long poem based on the myth, along with photographs of the Irish countryside by Rachel Giese.)

By Alan Lee

In epic romances, knights and other heroes go into the woods to test their strength, courage, and faith; yet some of them also madness there, like the lovelorn Orlando in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, one of the most popular poems of the Italian Renaissance. In Gawaine and the Green Knight, an Arthurian romance from the 14th century, a mysterious figures rides out of the woods and into Camelot on New Year's eve. His clothes are green, his horse is green, his face is green, even his jewels are green. He carries a holly bush in one hand and an axe of green steel in the other. The Green Knight issues a challenge that any knight in the court may strike off his head — but in one year's time, his opponent must come to the forest and submit to the same trial. Gawaine agrees to this terrible challenge in order to save the honor of his king. He slices off the stranger's head — but the knight merely picks it up and rides back to the forest, bearing the head in the crook of his arm. One year later, Gawaine seeks out the Green Knight in the Green Chapel in the woods. He survives the trial, but is humbled by the green man and his beautiful wife through an act of dishonesty.

14th century manuscript illustration for Gawaine and the Green Knight

In the French romance Valentine and Orson, the Empress of Constantinople is accused of adultery, thrown out of her palace, and gives birth to twins in the wildwood. One son (along with the mother) is rescued by a nobleman and raised at court, while the other son, Orson, is stolen by a she-bear and raised in the wild. The twins eventually meet, fight, then become bosom companions — all before a magical oracle informs them of their kinship. The wild twin becomes civilized, while retaining a primitive kind of strength — but when, at length, his brother dies, he retires back into the forest. Rather than a shamanic figure or a legendary hero, Orson is an example of the Wodehouse (or wild man)  archtype: a primitive yet powerful creature of the wilderness. Other examples can be found in tales ranging from Gilgamesh (in the figure of Enkidu) to Tarzan of the Apes.

A Virtuous Lady Tames a Woodwose (a tapestry from the Church of Iceland)

"The medieval imagination was fascinated by the wild man," notes Robert Pogue Harrison (in his book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization), "but the latter were by no means merely imaginary in status during the Middle Ages. Such men (and women as well) would every now and then be discovered in the forest — usually insane people who had taken to the woods. If hunters happened upon a wild man, they would frequently try to capture him alive and bring him back for people to marvel and wonder at."

Other famous wild men of literature can be found in Chretien de Troyes's romance Yvain, Jacob Wasserman's Casper Hauer (based on the real life incident of a wild child found in the market square of Nuremberg in 1829), and in the heart–stealing figure of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book...but we'll talk more about "wild children" in another post.

Robin Hood illustration by Howard Pyle

Mythic tales of forest outlaws feature a very different kind of wild man, for in such stories (the Robin Hood cycle, for example) the hero is generally a civilized man compelled, through an act of injustice, to seek the wild life -- without ever quite losing the trappings of civility in the process. These tales tend to take place in the merry Greenwood and not the fearsome Dark Forest: a place of shelter and refuge rather than a perilous world inhospitable to mortals.   

"This British take on the forest evolved long before Shakespeare," writes poet and scholar Ruth Padel,  "centered on the Rymes of Robyn Hood: eighty or so fourteenth-century ballads, full of James Bond fights, male camaraderie, adventures and escapes, but also of passionate longing for a people's hero. They date Robin Hood Illustration  by Howard Pylefrom the time of the Peasant's Revolt, 1381. Sometimes Robin is a disaffected Saxon lord who flees to the woods to become a mediaeval Batman, dressing his men in green, robbing the rich to give to the poor.

"Behind them is the star role of the forest in the politics of disaffection which, kick-started by Norman rule, runs through English history from the thirteenth century on. Outlaws, outside the law, took to the forest, which was outside civilization. Yet the law itself was unjust. 'They were not outlaws because they were murderers,' says T.H. White of Robin's men in The Sword in the Stone. 'They were Saxons who had revolted against the Norman conquest. The wild woods of England were alive with them.' Forest law claimed most forest for the king. The king's deer were protected by Norman barons and their officers, Sheriff of Nottingham clones. It was death for a commoner to kill the deer — yet they did, all the time. They plundered the forest for meat and firewood; they cut down trees for grazing. Most Robin Hood films begin with a peasant killing deer and Robin protecting him against a Norman lord. Helping the poor, outlawed Robin stands for the hope of better law against corrupt nobles, sheriffs, priests, injustice."

Magical tales of hermits and woodland mystics form another category of the wild man/woman archetype. Christian legendry, for example, is filled with tales of saints living in the wilderness on a diet of honey and acorns. This, again, is bolstered by the actual experience of people in earlier times, when it was not uncommon for folk marginalized by the community (mystics, witches, widows, herbalists, root doctors, eccentrics, and simpletons) to live in the wilds beyond the village, by choice or necessity. An elderly neighbor of mine here in Devon remembered such a figure from her youth, a harmless old soul who lived in a cave and was said to have prophetic powers.

Hansel and Gretel's Witch by Rima Staines

The wild woman archetype has come down through the centuries primarily in a scorned and diminished form: the wicked witch of the fairy tale forest.These women are invariably portrayed as ugly old crones (at least in the versions of the tales that we know best today): godless or pagan creatures aligned with nature, not civilization;  evil, or at least amoral; knowledgeable, and therefore dangerous. Their spells and potions are remnants of pagan ways and beliefs, natural magic, hedgerow medicine, herbalism, and rural midwifery...all of the things that came to be seen as wild, wanton, associated with women, peasants, and other "backwards" folk of the countryside.

(We should remember, however, that there's also a long folkloric and historic tradition of "cunning men" living in the wild, versed in natural magic and folk medicine. Among the root workers  and hoodoo doctors of the American South, for example, or practioners of the Cunning Arts of the British Isles, one finds both women and men weaving magic and medicine from herbs, charms, roots, stones, wax and flame; from words, songs, music, and the whispering of the bees.)

Baba Yaga by Forest Rogers

Baba Yaga, from Russian fairy tales, is one of the few fairy tale witches distinguished with a name, and the complexity of her character can be seen in the many stories told about her:

"Baba Yaga brings many of the dominant themes of Russian fairy tales together," writes fairy tale scholar Helen Pilinovsky. "She travels on the wind, occupies the domain of the leshii, the forest spirits, is associated with death, and is an acceptable surrogate for the generic ved'ma, or witch. Also known as 'Baba Yaga Kostinaya Noga,' or 'Baba Yaga Bony Leg,' she possesses gnashing steel teeth and penetrating eyes, and, in short, is quite enough to intimidate even the most courageous (or foolhardy, depending on the tale) hero or heroine. Like the witches of other cultures, her preferred method of transportation is an implement commonly used for household labor, though unlike the witches of the West, rather than traveling upon a broom, she chooses to ride in a mortar, rowing with a pestle, and uses a broom to sweep away the tracks that she leaves. Her home is a mobile hut perched upon chicken legs, which folklorist Vladimir Propp hypothesized might be related to the zoomorphic izbushkii, or initiation huts, where neophytes were symbolically 'consumed' by the monster, only to emerge later as adults.

"In his book An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, Jack Haney points out that Baba Yaga's hut 'has much in common with the village bathhouse … the place where many ritual ceremonies occurred, including the initiatory rituals.' This corresponds to the role that her domicile plays in the fairy tales of Russia: though the nature of the initiation differs from story to story, dependent upon the circumstances of the protagonist, Baba Yaga's presence invariably serves as a signifier of change. Baba Yaga's domain is the forest, widely acknowledged as a traditional symbol of change and a place of peril, where she acts as either a challenger or a helper to those innocents who venture into her realm. In Western tales, these two roles are typically polarized, split into different characters stereotyped as either 'witch' or 'fairy godmother.' Baba Yaga, however, is a complex individual: depending on the circumstances of the specific story, she may choose to use her powers for good or ill."

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Trina Schart Hyman

In her excellent book From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner suggests a kinship between forest-dwelling crones and the beasts of the woods. "In the witch-hunt fantasies of early modern Europe they [wolf and crone] are the kinds of being associated with marginal knowledge, who possess pagan secrets and in turn are possessed by them." In Little Red Riding Hood, for example:  "Both [wolf and crone] dwell in the woods, both need food urgently (one because she's sick, the other because he hasn't eaten in three days), and the little girl cannot quite tell them apart."

In older versions of the story, called The Grandmother's Tale, the wolf-in-Granny-disguise tricks the girl into dining on meat and wine. She doesn't know that it is her grandmother's flesh and blood she's ingesting. French folklorist Yvonne Verdier liken this grisley meal to a sacrificial act, a physical incorporation of the grandmother by her granddaughter. It's a scene reminiscent of a wide variety of myths in which a warrior, shaman, sorcerer, or witch attains another's knowledge or power through the ritual ingestion of the other's heart, brain, liver, or spleen -- but Verdier views it in more symbolic terms: "What the tale tells us is the necessity of the female biological transformation by which the young eliminate the old in their own lifetime. Mothers will be replaced by their daughters and the circle will be closed with the arrival of their children's children."

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin

Several poets have explored the connection between the young female heroes of fairy tales and the witches who dwell at the heart of the woods, speculating on how the first might one day turn into the second. In "Becoming the Villainess," Jeanine Hall Gailey writes of one such young woman: "It seems unlikely now that she will ever return home, remember what it was like, her mother and father, the promises. She will adopt a new costume, set up shop in a witch's castle, perhaps lure young princes and princesses to herself, to cure what ails her — her loneliness, her grandeur, the way her heart has become a stone." 

"The daughter is too bold to be anything but a cuckoo in the nest," says Holly Black in "Bone Mother." "Good girls sit home and sew in the dark. They don't go seeking fire in the witch's woods....There, she learns to part seed from stone, sweet from spoilt, fate from fortune."

In "Baba Yaga Duet" by mother-and-daughter authors Midori Snyder and Taiko Haessler, the younger initiate boasts to the witch: "I will teach you, now that you have burned your old recipes, the new ones I remedied. And I will uncover the hidden plants I've stashed in my hair, the worlds I have in my mouth, the tattoos woven in my skin and the sky I discovered in my breast."

"Here is the part I like, where I become the one to grant those wishes as I please," says the narrator of Wendy Froud's poem "Faery Tale" (in the anthology Troll's Eye View), who has done her time in the hero role and is now relishing her cronehood. "Snakes and lizards, toads, diamonds, pearls and gold, a poisoned apple, gingerbread, a pumpkin coach, a gilded dress. Tools of my trade, my teaching aid. My gifts, my curses. Prince to frog, frog to prince, iron shoes and feet that dance and dance and dance, and I like it both ways, like to bless them and eat them."

Wild Woman by Brian Froud

There is, of course, a more positive way to look at the Wild Woman of the woods, which psychologist and cantadora storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés has explored extensively in works such as Women Who Run With the Wolves

"Fairy tales, myths, and stories provide understandings which sharpen our sight so we can pick out and pick up the path left by the wildish nature. The instruction found in stories reassures us that the path has not run out, but still leads women deeper, and more deeply still, into their own knowing. The tracks which we are following are those of the Wild Woman archetype, the innate instinctual self....

"To adjoin the instinctual nature does not mean to come undone, change everything from right to left, from black to white, to move from east to west, to act crazy or out of control. It does not mean to lose one's primary socializations, or to become less human. It means quite the opposite. The wildish nature has vast integrity to it. It means to establish territory, to find one's pack, to be in one's body with certainty and pride regardless of the body's gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one's behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the powers of intuition and sensing, to come into one's cycles, to find out what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as we can."

"It's not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades," Estés adds. "It is not so difficult to comprehend why old forests and old women are viewed as not very important resources. It is not such a mystery. It is not so coincidental that wolves and coyotes, bears and wildish women have similar reputations. They all share related instinctual archetypes, and as such, both are erroneously reputed to be ingracious, wholly and innately dangerous, and ravenous."

Nature's Bride by Amy Ross

I'll end today with another quote on the Wild Woman from Estés, which I believe applies to all you Wild Men out there too:

 "We are all filled with longing for the wild. There are few culturally sanctioned
antidotes for this yearning. We were taught to feel shame for such a desire. We grew our hair long and used it to hide our feelings. But the shadow of the Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and in our nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed."

Little Red by Jackie Morris

The wildwood art above is: "Merlin in the Forest" and a Mabinogion painting by Alan Lee; a 14th century manuscript illustration for Gawaine and the Green Knight; "A Virtuous Lady Tames a Woodwose," which is a 15th century tapestry from the Church of Iceland; two Robin Hood illustrations by Howard Pyle; "Hansel & Gretel's Witch" by Rima Staines; Baba Yaga" by Forest Rogers; "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf" by Trina Schart Hyman; "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin; a Wild Woman drawing by Brian Froud, "Nature's Bride" by Amy Ross; and "Little Red" by Jackie Morris.All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: This post first appeared in 2013; all rights reserved.


Tales of the Forest

The Forest Tarn by John Bauer

In Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales, Sara Maitland writes:

"Forests to the [early] Northern European peoples were dangerous and  generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories, one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, evolved. The mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest are both the background to and source of these tales....

"Forests are places where a person can get lost and also hide -- and losing and hiding, of things and people, are central to European fairy stories in ways that are not true of similar stories in different geographies. Landscape informs the collective imagination as much as or more than it forms the individual psyche and its imagination, but this dimension is not something to which we always pay enough attention.

A detail from East of the Sun  West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

"I believe that the great stretches of forests in northern Europe, with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonish biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairy tales we know best. There are secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises; there are rhythms of change like the changes of the seasons; there are characters, both human and animal, whose assistance can be earned or spurned; and there is -- over and over again -- the journey or quest, which leads first to knowledge and then to happiness. The forest is the place of trial in fairy stories, both dangerous and exciting. Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, utilising its gifts and gaining its help is the way to 'happy ever after.'

Lost in the Woods by Charles Robinson

"Now fairy stories are at risk too, like the forests. Padraic Colum has suggested that artificial lighting dealt them a mortal wound: when people could read and be productive after dark, something fundamental changed, and there was no longer need or space for the ancient oral tradition. The stories were often confined to books, which makes the text static, and they were handed over to children.

Thumbelina by Adrienne Segur

"The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell. Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money.

"The deep connect between the forests and the core stories has been lost; fairy stories and forests have been moved into different catagories and, isolated, both are at risk of disappearing, misunderstood and culturally undervalued, 'useless' in the sense of 'financially unprofitable.' "

The White Stag by Helen Stratton

In "Turning Our Fairy Tales Wild Again," Sylvia Linsteadt asks:

"When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints?What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before -- the granite crag to an old crystalline heart -- changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?”

Frolicking fairies by Arthur Rackham

And in Wild: An Elemental Journey, Jay Griffiths remind us:

"What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied," "It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

It is indeed.

Catskin by Arthur Rackham 2

Pictures: "The Forest Tarn" by John Bauer (Norway), "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" by Kay Nielsen (Denmark), "Lost in the Woods" by Charles Robinson (England),"Thumbelina" by Adrienne Segur (France), "The White Stag" by  Helen Stratton (England), frolicking fairies and "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham (England).

Words: The quotes above are from Gossip From the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests & Fairy Tales by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2013); "Turning Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia Linsteadt (The Dark Mountain Project & Resilience, 2013); and Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths (Penguin, 2008); all highly recommended.  Maitland's book was published in America under the name From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales (Counterpoint, 2013). All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.

Related posts: The Dark of Forest, Storytelling and Wild Time, and The Enclosure of Wild Time.


A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

This post was first appeared here a year ago, and is reprinted today by request. It goes out to all who struggle with the short days and long nights of winter....

At this time of year the mornings are dark, so I climb the hill to my studio on a pathway lit by moonlight and stars. I unlock the cabin, light the lamps, and Tilly settles sleepily on the couch. Behind us, the oak and ash of the woods are silhouettes cut out of black paper; below, the village lies in a bowl of darkness, the outline of the moor on its rim. I can hear water in the stream close by, and owls calling from the woodland beyond. The sun rises late, the days are short, and the owls are a regular presence.

In the myths and lore of the West Country, the owl is a messenger from the Underworld, and a symbol of death, initiation, dark wisdom. She is an uncanny bird, a companion to hedgewitches, sorcerers, and the Triple Goddess in her crone aspect. There are owls in the woods all year long, of course, but winter is when I know them best: as I climb through the dark guided by a small torch, and my dog, and the owls' parliament.

Studio 2

In her essay "Owls," Mary Oliver writes of her search for the birds in the woods near her home -- describing her quest, and the passage from winter to spring, in prose that takes my breath away:

The Wild Night Ascending by Catherine Hyde"Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the earth moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds, and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over, and again I have not found the great horned owl's nest.

"But the owls themselves are not hard to find, silent and on the wing, with their ear tufts flat against their heads as they fly and their huge wings alternately gliding and flapping as they maneuver through the trees. Athena's owl of wisdom and Merlin's companion, Archimedes, were screech owls surely, not this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.

"When the great horned is in the trees its razor-tipped toes rasp the limb, flakes of bark fall through the air and land on my shoulders while I look up at it and listen to the heavy, crisp, breathy snapping of its hooked beak. The screech owl I can imagine on my wrist, also the delicate saw-whet that flies like a big soft moth down by Great Pond. And I can imagine sitting quietly before that luminous wanderer the snowy owl, and learning, from the white gleam of its feathers, something about the Arctic. But the great horned I can't imagine in any such proximity -- if one of those should touch me, it would be the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains. I have walked with prudent caution down paths at twilight when the dogs were puppies. I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.

Studio 3

"In the night," writes Oliver, "when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness, and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life -- as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I too live. There is only one world."

Studio 4

Sleepy Tilly

Like Oliver, I strive to create and inhabit a "becalmed, intelligent, sunny" life -- fashioned from ink and paint, old storybooks, and rambles through the hills with the hound -- but darkness, mortality, and mystery are the flip side of that coin. I remember this during the winter months, on the dark path up to my studio. I remember it when my body fails and death glides by on a horned owl's wings; it does not come to my wrist, not yet, thank god, but some day it must, and it will. I remember it when the dark daily news intrudes on my studio solitude, demanding response, outrage, activism. I resist the dark. My life has known too much dark and I want no more of it. I'm a creature of dawn...but the nightworld is our world too. There is only one world.

"Most people are afraid of the dark," writes Rebecca Solnit (in a beautiful essay on Virginia Woof). "Literally, when it comes to children; while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

The Soft Hush of Night by Catherine Hyde

"As I began writing this essay," Solnit continues, "I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: 'The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.' His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, 'Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see. It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.' "

That is indeed our job. So I climb through the dark, and open myself to its beauty, its terrors. And I sit down to write.

The Running of the Deer by Catherine Hyde

The art today is by Catherine Hyde, an extraordinary painter based in Cornwall. Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years. In 2008 she was asked to interpret Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s fairytale The Princess’ Blankets, which won the English Association’s Best Illustrated Book for Key Stage 2 in 2009. Her second book, Firebird written by Saviour Pirotta,  was awarded an Aesop Accolade by the American Folklore Society in 2010. Her third book, Little Evie in the Wild Wood written by Jackie Morris, is a twist on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. She both wrote and illustrated The Star Tree, which has been nominated for the 2017 Kate Greenaway Award and shortlisted for the 2017 Cambridgeshire Children’s Picture Book Award. I recommend all four books highly.

Regarding her work process, she says: "I am constantly exploring the places between definable moments: the meeting points between land and water, earth and sky, dusk and dawn in order to capture the landscape in a state of suspension drawing the viewer to the liminal spaces that lie between dream and consciousness.”

Please visit Catherine's website, blog, and online shop to see more of her art.

The Golden Path by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine HydeThe passage by Mary Oliver is from "Owls" (Orion Magazine, 1996). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from "Virginia Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable"  (The New Yorker, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 1992). All right reserved by the authors. The paintings by Catherine Hyde are: a detail from The Falling Sar, The Wild Night Ascending, The Soft Hush of Night, The Running of the Deer, The Golden Path, and The Sleeping Earth. All rights reserved by the artist.


Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Swans by Gennady Spirin

I generally compose each morning's post in the quiet and solitude of the early hours before my work day begins...but this morning was not a quiet one at Bumblehill, for a variety of mundane household reasons. (Ah, the eternal tug-of-war as art and family/community life pull in separate directions.) My window of time for posting has now passed and I must get on to working on my manuscript-in-progress. So here's one from the archives today, first posted on Myth & Moor back in 2013:

From "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" by novelist and folklorist 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.

Patrick Ness' new adult novel, The Crane Wife, explores the folk tale's theme of love and betrayal, transplanting its setting to modern-day London. In an interview 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 Gennardy Spirin (Russian); "Swan Maidens" and Lohengrin" by Walter Crane (English, 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 (Swedish, 1882-1918);  "On the Shores of the Land of Death" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finnish, 1865-1931) ); "Swans" by Jeanie Tomanek (American); "Six Swans" by Warwick Goble (English, 1862-1943); "The Crane Wife" by Diana Torledano (Spanish); three "Crane Wife" illustrations by Gennardy Spirin (Russian); a "Crane Wife" illustration by Cheryl Kirk Noll (American); lyrics for Colin Meloy's Crane Wife 3, art by Carson Ellis; and "Swans" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-915).