Tunes for a Monday Morning
Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration-wind

Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Swans by Gennady Spirin

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).


Crane Wife

He has taken her skin,
offered his cloak,
a poor exchange,
the tattered threads
of binding.

Like love unraveled,
he bids her home,
to unwashed dishes,
a bed that smells
of cinders.

Children without feathers
she must mind for years.
And tears which, as a swan
she never had to shed,
so she can be close to the skin.

Whoever says love can save
has never been a wild bird;
from egg to sky, that small leap,
wind and rain harder than tears
her only master.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

This one immediately goes into a folder of my favorite poems by you, Jane -- a folder that takes up a lot of room in my studio filing cabinet these days. No one creates poetry out of folklore and fairy tales better than you. No one.

I recently came across a goose wife story in Inuit culture discussed by Kira Van Deusen in her book "Kiviuq" which has similarities to these swan and crane wife tales. Like the swan tales you describe the story starts with an act of deception or theft which reminded me strongly of Scottish selkie wife tales and an Inuit seal-wife tale (retold in Dr Estes book "Women who run with Wolves" as seal-skin soul-skin). In the goose wife a male hunter steals the feathers of one of the goose women and cajoles her into living with him as his wife but he of course hides her feathers from her so she can't leave. So far so familiar, however what I found interesting about the goose-wife is that whereas the seal wives leave at least one child behind (usually a son) when they eventually have their skins back, the goose woman takes her daughter with her when her feathers were found and they both join the geese migrating south for the winter. Its fascinating to me that such similar tales exist in different cultures and I wonder if it's possible to trace the genealogy of the tales and the routes they have travelled.

I may have to print that out for my down days, when my poems are sent back from journals. Five journals rejected me already this month! Though Asimov's took two poems yesterday--for the balance sheet.

We need to do a book of my ft poems and your essays together I think! With drawings by you.

Let's talk. I have an idea.


Well, busy morning or not, you picked the perfect post to reshare. The skies are ablaze with the Venus/Sun/Pluto alignment today. This story speaks directly to this. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing this.

Thank you, Terri! Some of my favorite fairy tales for sure. I wrote two poems on the Swan Wife, though they never made it into collections, one, "The Princess and Her Swan Brothers," published in Blood Lotus,, the other in Faerie Magazine a while back, "One-Armed Swan Sister."

The One-Armed Swan Sister
By Jeannine Hall Gailey

I find it is much harder to sew
now that one of my arms has become
a giant white wing. It’s nonsense
to assume, of course, a spell gone wrong,
a stepmother’s curse, a swan nearly freed.
I recall being swallowed in fire.
Just think about me sewing these shirts one-handed
for each of my eleven missing brothers.
I went and watched the snow geese
pushing seeds and dirt in their beaks,
their comforting, incessant noise,
but I felt lonely even then. It’s hard
to get the energy to wash my face and hair,
with one wing out of place.
Perhaps I will become a goose girl,
listen for the trumpeting return,
the whoosh of white feathers in the night.
I dream of their faces, promising me
that I will become whole as soon
as I finish these shirts. I’m all out of balance,
not quite flight-worthy. I stay out of sight,
in the tundra, grey and white.

i love the swan wives and selkie wives, and always felt badly for them spending years essentially in bondage to a husband acquired under such false pretences. the abandoned children always rather worried me, though. but it feels so right for the women finally to fly or swim away...

I wrote about the swan maiden in 2008 and was luckily enough to have it published in Goblin Fruit. However, this poem was a mutated version of the motif. It's about an individual finding purpose when limited by the strangeness of her birth and circumstances. Almost human but lacking arms, she seems out of place in both the world of woman and the world of birds. Though she has inherited the desires and inclinations of a female,
she will not marry or assume the natural
duties of mother and wife. Therefore, she is almost
reduced to the functionality of season and household,as her feathers will be used for the stuffing of pillow and quilts. Yet, when evening approaches, she is compelled to fly, to break free of her limitations. Here, she finds her niche, her ability to stir the darkness with something erotic, feelings of need and want, passion and desire. Perhaps, she may never be a bride but she awakens the sensual inspiration within a woman. Like a muse, she is a catalyst that arouses
the female's sensual impulses. And that in ,itself,
becomes a talent, a rare and coveted skill.


Why I was born three parts woman
and one part swan -- I will never know.

Without arms to carry, sweep or tend
a man like those village brides
wearing lace caps and wide skirts,

my wings are useless to a home
except when I shed. Then feathers
are gathered and stuffed
into pillows or quilts.

Yet, when evening throws her shadow
across the lawn, I fly.

Sleek and sensitive, my wings
skim moonlight off the wind
and fan the air
with something sensuous,

the scent of dew
penetrating white gardenias,

the burst of grapes
ripening on a hill's upper thigh,

and the need of a woman
to be touched by her husband.

This post is absolutely Stunning, breathtaking and one , now, of my all time favorites on this site. What a brilliant collection of art, tales and poems. Thank you Terri for reposting this one!

Take care

Hi Jane

Breathtaking poem!! Love the progression and message in this one as well as the beautifully crafted shape of the poem ,itself.

Whoever says love can save
has never been a wild bird;
from egg to sky, that small leap,
wind and rain harder than tears
her only master.

Indeed, the wildness within a bird or person is inherent, part of their individual and original make-up. They must be free to follow their instincts and needs. And the elements are truly
"her only master".

Love, love, love this poem!!
Thank you

Hi Jeannine,

Beautiful and poignant, this poem haunts with its voice of longing and resolve. You give empathy and grace to the character and the reader to feel her frustration and her plight --

Perhaps I will become a goose girl,
listen for the trumpeting return,
the whoosh of white feathers in the night.
I dream of their faces, promising me
that I will become whole as soon
as I finish these shirts. I’m all out of balance,
not quite flight-worthy. I stay out of sight,
in the tundra, grey and white.

I truly enjoyed this -- it's so lovely. Thank you for sharing it.

My Best

Wow! Wendy. I read your poem and then as it sat in my Woman Place I searched for meaning of the name, "Cygnus" because it was unknown to me. You have elicited meaning and pith through your poetry and from that Woman Place stirred the four-parts of my self.

Nicely done. And, how lucky we are to have this place for spreading the wings!

Thank you for posting this!
The Crane Wife is, I think, my favorite folk tale. I came across it more than ten years ago like Colin Meloy, in the children’s section of the library. Oddly enough, I had just stumbled over the album by the Decemberists. Maybe hearing the songs made me search out the story. I had just started taking a class where I learned several methods of weaving, with simple and complex looms. And after living in the area for many years, I learned, at the same time, that the Rio Grande valley is a significant migratory bird path. In the autumn thousands of Sandhill cranes and other birds come and stay through the winter. I felt that the story was coming up out of the ground around me, that it’s a story that could happen here.
For the last few years, every autumn and winter, while I drive to work I scan the fields for the cranes and I tell myself more of the story of the crane wife in the desert.

Sometimes,Wendy, as we all know, the magic works. I felt I was taking a leap into the sky on this one.


I agree with Wendy--the poem is drenched in empathy and longing. "Not quite worthy" she says--but not this poem. QUITE worthy, I say.


The untapped sexuality, the careful use of the word "penetrating" and the esnsuousness of these lines almost overcomes me--a twelve year widow:

the scent of dew
penetrating white gardenias,

the burst of grapes
ripening on a hill's upper thigh,

and the need of a woman
to be touched by her husband.

Is one allowed o go onto the tundra and harvest a few crane feather left by the birds for the weaving?


Beautiful gathering of events in your muse-infused descriptions, Kim. And Jane, the well-poised question.

Oh, Jane. What depth of heart you have.

Thanks so much Mokihanna

for your interest in this poem and your beautiful response! I have always been fascinated by constellations, their name origins and mythological background. Cygnus is the star swan of the southern hemisphere I believe and I liked the idea of giving that name to my character in the poem hoping it would lend a bit of magic and intrigue.

Again, thank you!

Dear Jane

I agree with Mokihanna you have such beautiful depth of heart and insight! I deeply appreciate you sharing your feelings about this poem with me and know how much my own mom missed my dad when she became a widow in 1992. She passed on in 2016. But like you and your wonderful partner, she shared a very close and special relationship with my father. She accepted his loss as we all must but his love and lack of presence continued to haunt her. Again, thank you so much for always taking the time to read my stuff. I so deeply appreciate it and so deeply value your opinioin/perspective.

Take care
my best always

Jane, most of the fields I pass are privately owned, and I don’t know the owners. I’ve never thought of looking for feathers before! Mostly, I’m caught up watching the cranes in the air or looking to see any dancing. There are other places where the birds gather that are public spaces. I think I’ll search them out today! Thanks for the idea!

Thank you for your kind words, Mokihana :)

Thank you for posting this Terri. It appeared in my Facebook feed with perfect timing. I'm reading up on both The Swan Maiden and The Crane Wife today, ahead of illustrating them for an upcoming book. Your writing, Jane's poem, and some new music to listen to while moving ideas around my head and the page are just the perfect inspiration.

I wrote a story about that a while ago. From Who Knows Where the Time Goes...

"In the stories, it's a swan or a seal or something. And it changes to be a woman on the land, and she leaves her ... pelt ... behind. The fur or feathers. And if a man finds the skin and hides it, then he has her and she can't leave him until she gets it back." She searched Deirdre's face, for something. Confirmation? Denial? Mockery?

"That's the way of it, in the stories," Deirdre said. "And you've found a skin of feathers and they're mine. Why did you give them back to me? You like me well enough, I can see. You could have had me to wife."

Edie stared at her. "You're kidding, right? You'd have gone along with that?"

It was Deirdre's turn to stare. "That is the way of it."

"Well, it's disgusting. And that you'd think that I'd stoop to ... Ach!" She shook her head and dragged her hands from Deirdre's, hugged her arms around herself, shivered.

Deirdre looked at her, open-mouthed.

Edie took in her expression, frowned. "I want you to be clear, here. This is my house, and in it you are safe. And you are free to leave at any time. Do you understand that?"

"Oh, yes!" Deirdre flung her arms around Edie and buried her face in her shoulder.

Not published anywhere (yet - waiting to see what Eidolon make of it) but if you'd like to read it, I'd be happy to forward it to you.

This is a wonderful post, I think the best I've ever seen. Speaking of the true story of the world; the marriage of the wild and the human, and the sacrifice of the Her, the lovely feminine, the loss of Her, the malaise at the heart of our civilisation. That maybe hearing the story to its deepest echo, with it's great grief, we might return home, hand in hand and live lives as wild and sweet tasting as the open sky and the wild solitudes. And kneel on this earth whispering of true love and true knowing as secret as the tracks of the migrating birds. And know that love is destruction as Krishnamurti stated.
"Oh Swan, to what dark sand are you flying?" as Kabir spoke. . Thank you for this wonderful collection of images. songs and deep reflection. Love, Shivam O ' Brien. Storyteller.

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