Following the deer

White Stag photograph by Jane Baynes

From "Where the White Stag Runs" by Ari Berk:

"As long as people have lived or hunted alongside the deer's habitats there have been stories: some of kindly creatures who become the wives of mortals; or of lost children changed into deer for a time, reminding their kin to honor the relationship with the Deer People, their close neighbors. And there are darker tales, recalling strange journeys into the Otherworld, abductions, and dangerous transformations that don't end well at all. But all stories about the deer share some common ground by showing us that the line between our world and theirs is very thin indeed.

Diana and Acteon by Domenico Veneziano

"Ovid tells us in his Metamorphoses of youthful Actaeon who spends the day hunting with his dogs on the hillsides, catching so much game that the slopes run red with blood. As the sun ascends the sky, he calls off the chase, bidding his comrades retire with the promise of renewing the hunt early the next day. Then he does a dangerous thing: he wanders for a time in a wood he does not know, and so comes by accident to the sacred grotto where Diana is accustomed to bathe with her nymphs. To Actaeon's great misfortune, he spies the goddess of the hunt naked and she, seeing him, blushes. Then lifting up her hands, she throws water in Actaeon's face and he flees that place. As he wanders back to find his friends he hears his dogs barking and sees that they are chasing him. Confused he calls out to them, but instead of his voice, he hears the bellowing of a great stag, for stag he now is, transformed by the goddess's vengeful hand. So he runs fast on four legs but soon his dogs chase him down and, tearing him apart, find their old master toothsome indeed. The myth of Actaeon is an early example of the connection of deer stories with the violation of taboos. Actaeon made three fatal errors: overhunting the hillside, entering a sacred enclosure unknowingly, and gazing upon the virgin mistress of the hunt. His punishment is perfectly suited to address his errors for he learns to see the world, though briefly, from the perspective of a shy creature who calls the wild home and instinctively respects its boundaries.

"In the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, does and stags appear as physical manifestations of the boundary between worlds. In the story of 'Pwyll,' the deer are followed into the forest during a hunt. But Pwyll, the prince, and his dogs are soon separated from his companions and he finds himself lost in the woods. Soon he hears other dogs and, following their barking, comes upon a clearing in the woods where he finds a strange pack—red-eared and white-furred—bearing down upon a stag. Pwyll chases those dogs off and sets his own upon the stag instead, most discourteously. When he later meets the owner of the white dogs—who is none other than the Arawn, lord of the Otherworld—satisfaction is demanded and Pwyll must repay Arawn by assuming his form and exchanging places, traveling into the Otherworld to kill one of Arawn's enemies. So following the deer is often a way into the Otherworld, or a sign that we are very close to its borders."

The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse

Running Deer by Alex Herbert, 2010

as crows fly
in the dawn light
on the cold hill
the deer are running

the thud of their hooves
on the bed of the stream
is the drum that rocks
the roots of the birch
and the wind that shakes
the birch tree’s leaves

- Chris Powici (from "Deer")

The Lady Clare by John William Waterhouse

Bother and Sister by Johnny B Gruelle

Deer that roam the Western fairy tale tradition are guardians, guides, companions to the fairies, and occasionally fairies themselves in disguise -- or else they are men and women be-spelled, roaming the woods in animal-shape by day, briefly regaining their humanity each night.

In Brother and Sister from Grimms' Fairy Tales, for example, two siblings flee their wicked stepmother through a dark and fearsome forest. The path of escape lies across three streams, and at each crossing the brother stops, intending to drink. Each time his sister warns him away, but the third time he cannot resist. He bends down to the water in the shape of a man and rises again in the shape of a stag. Thereafter, the sister and her brother-stag must live in a lonely hut in the woods . . . but eventually, with his sister’s help, (and after she marries a king), the young man resumes his true shape.

Brother and Sister by Carl Offterdinger

Ellen Steiber looked at this tale's archetypal patterns while creating her contemporary version, "In the Night Country" (published in The Armless Maiden). In a beautiful essay on the subject, she writes:

"Fairy tales are journey stories. They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side. Out of curiosity, I went back to the patterns of three in [Brother and Sister], since the very rhythms of repetition set them off and give them importance. There are three brooks, three days of the hunt, and three times that the queen's ghost speaks [after the sister's marriage to the king, when her role as queen has been usurped by her step-sister]. Each of these patterns presents challenge and transformation; they are the places of power in the story, the points where true magic occurs. In the first the brother is thirsty; he needs nourishment and finally gets it, a difficult metamorphosis being the price. In the second he must either follow his own deer nature or 'die of grief'; at great risk he runs with the hunt, and that act takes both brother and sister farther along on the path they must travel to a new state of being. (It's worth noting that in the fairy tales one can rarely remain in the forest — one takes what was found there and brings it back into the world.) In the third challenge, the king must recognize the [true] queen, an act that will restore her to life and lead to a redress of wrongs, a final ending of the curse, a coming into balance. As abuse [in a family] takes many forms, so does salvation. Here are three of many acts that can get you through: nourishing yourself, following your heart even at great risk, and being seen for what you are."

Perched by Kelly Louise Judd

Beloved, what can be, what was,
will be taken from us.
I have disappointed.
I am sorry. I knew no better.

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.”

- Jane Hirshfield (from "Standing Deer")

Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac

The White Deer by Adrienne Segur

In The White Deer (a.k.a. The White Hind and The White Doe), from the French fairy tales of Madame d’Aulnoy, a princess is cursed in infancy by a fairy who'd been insulted by her parents.  Disaster will strike, says the fairy, if the princess sees the sun before her wedding day. Many years later, as she travels to her wedding, a ray of sun penetrates her carriage. The princess turns into a deer, jumps through the window, and disappears into the forest -- where she's eventually hunted by her own fiancé, who does not know what she has become.

As she flees the arrows of the royal hunting party, the prince is as "unescapable as memory" in this passage from Eve Sweetser's poem, "The White Hind at Bay":

She leads him through briars, bogs
scent-killing brooks — inexorably
the following fate comes on.

Always, till now, some twist has let her out.
In exhaulted desperation
she sees the cliff before her.
From teeth and knives
her white hide is no protection
"Leave off these fawnish fantasies,
her kind deer parents often said
"What's a white skin?
Does every third-born son
wed a princess?"

Can wild hope save her?
Can she be again
the princess she was in childhood
(or was it dreamed of?)
exquisite and beloved,
ideal and human both?
It is so far — so long ago
she left off thinking of glass slippers
accepted her four hooves.

For All My Grandmothers by Kristin Vestgard

Vintage photograph

two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me

they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting

on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;

and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way

I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward

and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?

- Mary Oliver (from "The Place I Want to Get Back To")

Deer Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet

Deer is a common figure in the indigenous stories of North America, " notes Ari Berk,

"often appearing in stories that continue the focus on families, kinship, marriage, child-rearing, hunting and pursuit. Among the Pueblos of the New Mexico, stories are still told of Deer Boy, a baby left in the grass, abandoned by its young mother, a girl of the village. It was a Deer Woman who found the human child and brought him home to raise with her own fawns. Time passed and the boy spent the days running with his fawn brothers and sisters. Some time later, a hunter from the village noticed strange tracks among those left by the Deer People. The Deer Woman knew the time had come for the boy to return to his people. She readied him to be caught by the hunter and told him what he must know about his real mother and what she looked like. She told him that to remain among his own people he must, upon returning to the village, be left alone and unseen in a room for four days. So he was found by the hunter and taken home and much happiness attended his homecoming. The boy told his family he must be left alone for four days and they agreed. But his birth mother, so impatient was she, stole a glance at her son before the four days were finished. In an instant the boy took on the shape of a deer and ran to the North where he joined his other mother and lived for the rest of his days among the Deer People."

From the Miners & Mayo series by David Bacon

The Yaqui (Yoeme) people of the Sonoran desert traditionally divide themselves into two related groups: the Vato'im (Baptized Ones), who remain in this world and integrate seventeenth century Spanish Catholicism with the rites of their own aboriginal religion, and the Surem (the Enchanted People), who went away to the Wilderness World to preserve the ancient ways. In the extraordinary Deer Dance, still performed at Easter and other times in Arizona and northern Mexico, a dancer takes on the shape, the movements, the consciousness of the sacred deer on the borderline between these two worlds, blessing the ground he walks on.

Yaqui Deer Songs by Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina is a beautiful account of a deer mythology that is not buried in history but still living, still a vibrant part of everyday life for the modern Yoeme. "Flower-cover fawn went out, enchanted, from each enchanted flower wilderness world, he went out...," the singers sing as the deer dancer moves, gourd rattles in his hands and strings of rattles bound around his shins. A deer head rises over his own, antlers decorated with flowers. "So this now is the deer person, so he is the deer person, so he is the real deer person...." The drummers drum, the dancer leaps, and it is the real deer person indeed.

Deer Dance by Kyle Bowman

Question: Can you tell us about what he is wearing?
Well, the hooves represent the deer’s hooves,
the red scarf represents the flowers from which he ate,
the shawl is for skin.
The cocoons make the sound of the deer walking on leaves and grass.
Listen.
Question: What is that he is beating on?
It’s a gourd drum. The drum represents the heartbeat of the deer.
Listen.
When the drum beats, it brings the deer to life.
We believe the water the drum sits in is holy. It is life.
Go ahead, touch it.
Bless yourself with it.
It is holy. You are safe now.
 
- Tohono O'Odham author Ofelia Zepeda (from "Deer Dance Exhibition")

Deer Man and Deer Woman sculptures by Wendy Froud

Native American writer and educator Carolyn Dunn describes the Deer Woman tales she grew up with in a short, poetic essay on the subject:

"Deer Woman's specific magic and myth surrounds marriage and courtship rituals," she says. "I write of Deer Woman from the Cherokee/Muskogee/Seminole/Choctaw perspective because this is what I know. But other cultures have encounters with Deer Woman or Deer Man. Ella Cara Deloria recorded several traditional Dakota and Lakota narratives which mirrored the Southeastern tribes' Deer Woman stories. The Karuk, according to the Karuk artist and storyteller Lyn Risling, have stories of the Deer Woman in which the spirit is associated with fertility and maturation rituals and prepares young women for marriage. The Southeastern stories are similar in that young people must be instructed in the choosing of a societally-approved mate in order for cultural survival and regeneration. In these stories, a beautiful young woman meets a young man and entrances him into a sexual relationship. The woman is so beautiful that the young man is often swayed by her beauty away from family, home, community. If the young man is so entranced as to not notice the young woman's feet—which in the case of Deer Woman are hooves—then he falls under her spell and stays with her forever, wasting away into depression, despair, prostitution, and ultimately, death.

"The Deer Woman spirit teaches us that marriage and family life within the community are important and these relationships cannot be entered into lightly. Her tales are morality narratives: she teaches us that the misuse of sexual power is a transgression that will end in madness and death. The only way to save oneself from the magic of Deer Woman is to look to her feet, see her hooves, and recognize her for what she is. To know the story and act appropriately is to save oneself from a lifetime lived in pain and sorrow; to ignore the story is to continue in the death dance with Deer Woman. Deer Woman instructs us that sexual attraction does not a proper marriage make; it is the societal and cultural responsibility of each tribal member to choose a mate wisely—therefore ensuring tribal survival into the next generation. Both the Karuk stories and the Southeastern stories illustrate this cultural responsibility."

Deer Maiden by Erich Schmidt-Kestner

Born by Kiki Smith

Muskogee/Creek author Joy Harjo finds Deer Woman in a bar late on a winter's night in her haunting prose-poem "Deer Dancer":

"She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime. The promise of feast we all knew was coming. The deer who crossed through knots of a curse to find us. She was no slouch, and neither were we, watching.

"The music ended. And so does the story. I wasn't there. But I imagined her like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left."

Deer sketch by Daniel Egnéus

From Madhatters by Daniel Egnéus

Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan addresses the secret desire so many of us have to run away with the deer ourselves in this passage from her beautiful poem "Deer Dance":

That night, after everything human was resolved,
a young man, the chosen, became the deer.
In the white skin of its ancestors,
wearing the head of the deer
above the human head
with flowers in his antlers, he danced,
beautiful and tireless, until he was more than human,
until he, too, was deer.

Of all those who were transformed into animals,
the travelers Circe turned into pigs,
the woman who became the bear,

the girl who always remained the child of wolves,
none of them wanted to go back
to being human. And I would do it, too, leave off being human
and become what it was that slept outside my door last night,
rested in my sleep.

Deer people by Daniel Egnéus

Convince the deer you are one of them, advises Shauna Osborne, a Comanche/German mestiza writer from New Mexico:

"Dance with them and they will show you the way. Pay strict attention to the leg positions and neck angles -- that’s where the heart of their dance lies. Deer have this natural grace, this presence, on the dance floor that just can't be beat. Once you find it, you’ll know. Do some research: Ginger Rogers had a definite tinge of deer blood in her and my mother always swore that Travolta had to be part deer. 'How else could he glide through the air like that?' she would demand. However, the best contemporary example of a deer dancer has to be, without doubt, Christopher Walken. He defies the laws of physics with such style and does it with a nonchalant matter-of-factness which all deer dancers should try to emulate. Treat his work as it should be treated -- a sacred text of the Deer Dancers. Roll with this or roll with that -- just make sure your feet never quite touch the ground. However, you must remember: when the song ends, the story does too."

The watching deer

The enchanted deer imagery above is: "White Stag" photograph by Jane Baynes; "Acteon and Diana" by Domenico Veneziano (1410-1461);  "The Mystic Wood" and "The Lady Clare" by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917); "Running Deer" by Alex Herbert, "Brother and Sister" (the cover image for an edition of Grimms Fairy Tales) by John Barton Gruelle (1880-1938); “Brother and Sister” by Carl Offterdinger (1829-1889);  "Perched" by Kelly Louise Judd; "Brother and Sister" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); "The White Deer" by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981);  "All by Grandmothers" by Kristin Vestgard; an old photograph (provenance unknown); "The Deer Woman" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997); "Easter Procession, Rancho Camargo, Sonora" (from the "Miners & Mayos" photography  series) by David Bacon; "Deer Dancer" portrait by Kyle Bowman;  "The Deer Man" and "The Deer Woman" by Wendy Froud; "Deer Maiden" bronze by Erich Schmidt-Kestner (1887-1941); "Born" by Kiki Smith; three deer sketches by Daniel Egnéus; and a deer photograph (provenance unknown). All rights to the prose, poetry and art above reserved by the authors and artists.

This piece first appeared on Myth & Moor back in 2013. For more deer poetry, art, and lore, go to these follow-on posts: Following the Deer: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and L'Envoi.


Imagining a different kind of world

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From an interview with Lev Grossman (author of The Magician trilogy), in which he is asked for his definition of fantasy literature:

The Red Shoes illustrated by Helen Stratton"My working definition? Any book with magic in it. It’s crude but effective. It helps if you take the long view, historically speaking, because it’s not like J.R.R. Tolkien invented fantasy with The Hobbit. Take a giant step back and you can’t help but notice that the greater part of all human literature is fantasy, in the sense that it has monsters and magic and things like that in it. Shakespeare is infested with ghosts and spirits and witches. Look at Spenser. Look at Dante. Look at Ovid, or Homer. Go back past the 18th century and practically everything could be called fantasy.

"It’s only relatively recently, at the start of the 18th century, that you see the arrival and dizzying ascent of what we might broadly call realism. Suddenly, around about Robinson Crusoe or so, Western culture was seized by this powerful idea that literature was supposed to resemble real life, and fictional worlds were supposed to behave like the real world, as it was coming to be understood by scientists, and anything that didn’t do so wasn’t literature. Magic and the supernatural were exiled to other, lesser categories: Gothic fiction, fairy tales, ghost stories, children’s books, fantasy. A lot of people still think it belongs there."

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"There is a specific modern tradition of fantasy fiction," he clarifies, "that starts in the 1920s and 1930s in England and America with writers like Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees, and which really takes off with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as T.H. White and Robert E. Howard....That generation -- the ones who were writing in the 1920s and '30s -- had been the victim of a historical trauma: They bore witness to a period of catastrophic social and technological change. The Victorian world of their childhood was shattered and swept away by the 'advances' of the early 20th century -- the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, the replacement of horses by cars, the rise of psychoanalysis, the invention of mechanised warfare. As a result, the world that they found themselves in as adults was virtually unrecognisable to them.

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"Some of those writers responded to this cataclysm by creating strange, fragmented masterpieces that we now know as literary modernism: Joyce, Hemingway, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner and so on. Gertrude Stein famously called them the Lost Generation, and she wasn’t wrong. But other writers -- like Lewis and Tolkien, who were both veterans of the Somme -- wrote fantasy instead. They used it as a way to express their sense of longing for a lost world, an idyllic, more grounded, more organic, more connected world that they would never see again. They were part of the Lost Generation too."

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Returning to these ideas in his essay "What is Fantasy About?," Lev notes that "longing" is a prominent theme in fantasy: the longing for a lost world, or a better one.

"Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing," he writes. "They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods....They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world. (Laura Miller writes about this really compellingly, albeit somewhat differently, in The Magician’s Book, her excellent book about Narnia. She quotes Lewis on his special notion of Joy: 'an unsatisfied desire that is itself more desirable than another satisfaction.')

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"We too have lived through an inflection point: a great deal of technological and social change. We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

"Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense -- not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods -- they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

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"The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it -- they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it....To be sure, fantasy worlds are often animated by weird mysterious forces -- like magic -- but even those forces on some level come from inside us. They’re not made in China. They express deep human wishes and primal emotions. Likewise the worlds of fantasy are inhabited by demons and monsters, but only because we’re inhabited by monsters, the ones that live in our subconsciouses (subconsci?) Those monsters are grotesque and not-human, and sometimes they even destroy us, but we recognize them instinctively.

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"This longing for a world to which we’re connected -- and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement – the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And it you see it in fantasy."

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For more of Lev Grossman's thoughts on the evolution of fantasy, I recommend "Fear and Loathing in Aslan's Land," the third annual J.R.R Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College (Tolkien's college), Oxford, in 2015.

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The passages above are from "Lev Grossman on Fantasy" ( on Five Books.com)   and "What is Fantasy About?" on Lev Grossman's blog (November, 2011). The Lisel Mueller poem in the picture captions was first published in The New Yorker (November, 1967) and also appears in her book Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the authors.

The text for this post is from the Myth & Moor archives (Nov. 15, 2018), re-visited as part of our conversation about stories and fantasy this week -- with new photographs of a walk (and swim) on a beautiful autumn morning here in Chagford. The drawing is by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Her body of work is delightful, and ought to be better known.


Writing from the edgelands

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Following on from yesterday's post, here's another passage from Alison Hawthorne Deming's award-winning essay, "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide." Once again, her words can also apply to the writing of fantasy literature, that most poetic of literary forms; specifically, to the kind of fantasy that is rooted in a strong sense of place and deeply engaged with the wild world (including imaginary wild worlds).

Deming writes:

"I think of poetry as a means to study nature, as is science. Not only do many poets find their subject matter and inspiration in the natural world, but the poem's enactment is itself a study of wildness, since art is the materialization of the inner life, the truly wild territory that evolution has given us to explore. Poetry is a means to create order and form in a field unified only by chaos; it is an act of resistance against the second law of thermodynamics that says, essentially, that everything in the universe is running out of steam. And if language is central to human evolution, as many theorists hold, what better medium could be found for studying our own interior jungle? Because the medium of poetry is language, no art (or science) can get closer to embodying the uniqueness of human consciousness. While neuroscientists studying human consciousness may feel hampered by their methodology because they can never separate the subject and object of their study, the poet works at representing both subject and object in a seamless whole and, therefore, writes a science of the mind.

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"I find such speculation convincing, which is probably why I became a poet and not a scientist. I could never stop violating the most basic epistemological assumption of science: that we can understand the natural world better if we become objective. Jim Armstrong, writing in a recent issue of Orion, put his disagreement with this assumption and its moral implications more aggressively:

" 'Crudely put, a phenomenon that does not register on some instrument is not a scientific phenomenon. So if the modern corporation acts without reference to "soul," it does so guided by scientific principles -- maximizing the tangibles (profit, product, output) that it can measure, at the expense of the intangibles (beauty, spiritual connectedness, sense of place) that it cannot' ....

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"Clearly a divide separates the disciplines of science and poetry. In many respects we cannot enter one another's territory. The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates or a border separating nations. But a border is both a zone of exclusion and a zone of contact where we can exchange some aspects of our difference, and, like neighboring tribes who exchange seashells and obsidian, obtain something that is lacking in our own locality."

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The subject of borders is especially relevant to creators of fantasy, for ours is a field that borders on others, and one that is often most fertile in those places where the edges meet. Border-crossing is thus part of a mythic artist's vocation, but it's not always a simple or comfortable one. As Sergio Trancoso once said:

"I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone."

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In the concluding pages of her essay, Deming returns to the place where art and science meet, the wild borderland between the two:

"In ecology the term 'edge effect' refers to a place where habitat is changing -- where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field. These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies. We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identities. Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once. Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences. Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades, and a little more whole. And poets are, or at least wish they could be, as Robert Kelly has written, 'the last scientists of the Whole.' "

If poets are indeed "the last scientists of the Whole," I contend there are writers of fantasy and mythic artists standing right beside them.

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Words: The passage above is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. The quote by Sergio Troncoso is from Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press, 2011). The Jim Carruth poem in the picture captions is from Envoi, #138, June 2004. All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk with husband, hound, and a herd of cows on the top of Meldon Hill.


The poet and the scientist

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If, like me, you are a working artist striving to combine a love of nature with the creation of fantasy literature (or other forms of mythic art), it is sometimes a challenge to overcome the cultural divide between science and the arts -- in which knowledge of the flora, fauna, and biological processes that make up our world is deemed the domain of scientists, while artists working with the tropes of myth and fantasy are relegated to more ethereal realms.

When I need help crossing the barriers that convention (and my humanties-focused education) placed between the two, I turn to the increasingly-poetic field of contemporary nature writing for inspiration. The following passage, for example, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," an excellent contemplation of the subject by American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"Historically, cultures have been informed by places, by the natural features and resources available to people living in a specific geographic habitat. The 'globalization of culture' is the term in fashion for the phenomenon of everyone becoming more contiguous, contingent, more like us. We lament the dilution of local cultures in the floodwaters of global capitalism, feel a justifiable panic about the pace of this change, and wonder how we will know ourselves and others in the future if our nationalistic and ethnic identities melt away. It is not a contradiction that people by the droves are looking for their own cultural roots, castigating others for past cultural injustices, and documenting difference wherever they can find it, at a time when place-based culture is fading fast. We know something archetypal and precious is leaking from the world.

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"But culture is not only place-based. Culture is also based on discipline, profession, affinity and taste, and in these forms has been around since the beginning of civilization. The problem with the future is that it is difficult to know what will happen there. But it seems likely that these non-place-based forms of culture will become increasingly important. Culture will become more and more our habitat, as cultural learning continues to supplant the poky genetic code. I'm not suggesting we relax our vigilance in protecting actual places and preserving the knowledge acquired by deeply place-based cultures, only that our motivation and ability to do these things may change -- may even improve -- as new cross-cultural affinities emerge. My affinities for literary writers and natural scientists probably say as much about who I am as the geographic fact that I am a tenth-generation New Englander, and nourish me in ways that make my best work possible. Cultural exchanges across disciplinary boundaries can be as fruitful as those across geographic ones. Unlike C.P. Snow, I do not see 'the intellectual life of the whole of western society being split into two polar groups,' literary intellectuals at one pole and scientists at another. I have always been struck, perhaps naively, by the fundamental similarity between the poet and the scientist: both are seeking a language for the unknown....

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 "The view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another. Scientists are seekers of facts; poets revelers in sensation. Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well-wrought urns, and more and more like misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber. The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness. Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces. We are made to embody the mythic split in Western civilization between the head and the heart. But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet."

Meldon 4

A little later in the essay, Deming notes:

"Today fewer Americans than ever believe scientists' warnings about global warming and diversity loss. Their scepticism stems, in part, from the fact that to a misleading extent the process of science does not get communicated in the media. What gets communicated is uncertainty, a necessary stage in solving complex problems, not synonymous with ignorance. But the discipline itself is called into question when a scientist tells the truth and says, in response to a journalist's prodding, 'Well, we just don't know the answer to that question.' ... What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic. As Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has written, 'The incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of art or science is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves through both physicists and poets.' Both the evolutionary biologist and the poet participate in the inherent tendency of nature to give rise to pattern and form.

Meldon 5

As a poet, Deming finds herself drawn to the precise language of science:

"...the beautiful particularity and musicality of the vocabulary, as well as the star-factory energy with which the discipline gives birth to neologisms. I am wooed by words such as 'hemolymph,' 'zeolite,' 'crytogram,' 'sclera,' 'xenotransplant' and 'endolithic,' and I long to save them from the tedious syntax in which most scientific writing imprisons them."

Meldon 6

 Likewise, science writers like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Stephen Jay Gould demonstrate how researchers can use literary tools to describe scientific processes:

"...in particular, those aspects of the experience that will not fit within rigorous professional constraints -- for example, the personal story of what calls one to a particular kind of research, the boredom and false starts, the search for meaningful patterns within randomness and complexity, professional friendships and rivalries, the unrivaled joy of making a discovery, the necessity for metaphor and narrative in communicating a theory, and the applications and ethical ramifications of one's findings. Ethnobiologist and writer Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the most gifted of these disciplinary cross-thinkers, asserts that 'narrative and metaphor are more honest, precise and comprehensive ways of explaining an animal's life history than the standard technical format of hypothesis, materials, methods, results and discussion.'

"Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature, and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. "

Meldon 7

The challenge for a poet, says Deming, is "not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one's mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or a paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own back yard."

And that, I believe, is the challenge for fantasists and mythic artists whose work is rooted in the natural world. The divide between art and science doesn't help us here. We, too, must breach the wall.

Meldon 8

Meldon 9

The Edges of the Civilized World

Words: The passage above, and the poem in the picture captions, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Our village nestles against two hills -- one behind my studio, where the hound and I walk most mornings, and the other, pictured here, rising high above the village Commons.


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

From an interview with Jay Griffiths conducted by Sharon Blackie (back when Sharon was living in the Outer Hebrides, and starting EarthLines magazine):

SB: "How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

JG: "It is an injured, limping world, yes. Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Trotternish Peninsula

SB: "What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment? Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

JG: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the fantasy and mythic arts field as well.

Skye 6

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. The poem in the picture captions is from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993). Pictures: The Isle of Skye, 2017.


Animal Brides & Bridegrooms

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.

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

Tricia Cline

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)

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.

Helen Stratton

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 in contemporary fiction by Louise Erdrich, A.S. Byatt, Alice Hoffman, Charles de Lint, Paul Brandon, and numerous others (see the Further Reading list below); in films such as The Secret of Roan Inish; and in the work of mythic and surrealistic artists including  Virginia Lee, Anne Siems, Susan Seddon Boulet, Tricia Cline, Adrian Arleo, Gene & Rebecca Tobey, and Katerina Plotnikova. These are works that explore the borderland between wilderness and civilization…and find magic therein.

Tricia Cline

Sirens of Rutino by Adrian Arleo

Looking at 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] beastly 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."

Katerina Plotnikova

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.

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.

Katerina Plotnkova

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.  Words: A version of the text above appeared in my introduction to The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People, edited by me and Ellen Datlow (Viking, 2010). All rights reserved.

Further reading: Wild Neighbors: The Folklore of Animals and The Speech of Animals.


Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Swans by Gennady Spirin

Related to the selkie tales we were discussing yesterday....

From "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" by 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.

Crane Wife illustrations by Gennady Spirin

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


Hen Wives, Spinsters, and Lolly Willowes

Vladislav Erko

One of my favourite mid-20th century writers is Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), who publish seven novels during her life, as well as sparkling short stories and poetry, and a biography of T.H. White. This week, my friend (and Modern Fairies colleague) Carolyne Larrington has produced a podcast on Warner's Lolly Willowes and Kingdoms of Elfin, which I highly recommend. You'll find it here, as part of Oxford University's Fantasy Literature series. Now here's a post from the Myth & Moor archives on some of the folklore and social history underlying Lolly Willowes...

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):

Nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Crane"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  the 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 too 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:

Sylvia Townsend Warner"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 recommended reading Waters' excellent essay in full if you can track down a copy. ("Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Neglected Writer," The Guardian, March 2012.)

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.


There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1

It seems like a good time to post this piece again, although I dearly wish it wasn't....

When the clamour of the world (and the Internet) grows harsh and cacophonous, I find it healing, grounding, and necessary to turn away from keyboards and screens, to ration the time I spend online, and to be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of modern technology I'm after. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books are more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

Bumblehill Studio 2

This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Bumblehill Studio 4

Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

Bumblehill Studio 5

Bumblehill Studio 6

Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Bumblehill Studio 7

Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

Bumblehill Studio 8

Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The final quote is from "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" by Toni Morrison (The Nation, March 2013), which is well worth reading in full. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood.


Keeping the world alive

Decoy by Kati Thamo

From "First People" by Linda Hogan, an American poet, essayist, and novelist of the Chickasaw Nation:

"When I was younger...I heard stories of the times when humans and animals spoke with one another, but even while I concerned myself always with the lives of animals, caretaking the wounded ones, visiting the healthy, I never gave the old stories as much thought as they deserve. They were just stories, as if stories didn't matter. I didn't think then, as I do now, that a story is a container of knowledge. It is not only how we know about the world, but story is also how we find out about ourselves and our place of location within this world, as species, as Indian people, as women.

"According to people who are from the oldest traditions, the relationship between the animal people and the humans is one of most significance. And this relationship is defined in story. Story is a power that describes our world, our human being, sets out the rules and intricate laws of human beings in relationship with all the rest. And for traditional-thinking native peoples, these rules of conduct and taboo are in place to keep a world alive, to ensure all life will continue.

'Once the world was occupied by a species called Ikxareyavs, "First People," who had magical powers. At a certain moment, it was realized that Human Beings were about to come spontaneously into existence. At this point, the First People announced their own transformation -- into mountains or rocks, into disembodied spirits, and above all into the species of plants and animals that now exist in the world....At the same time, it is ordained how the new species, the Human Beings, will live.'   - Mamie Offield (Karok)

Shadow Me Home by Kati Thamo

"As a young person, I didn't notice the similarity of stories the world over, that the Dineh people say we are the relatives of the animals, and that the aboriginal people of Australia say we are only one of many kinds of people. Nor did the old stories fit with my American education. Even though I was a half-hearted student at best, this education taught what my own, indigenous people once knew were the stories of superstitious and primitive people, not to be believed, not to be taken in a serious light. But we live inside a story, all of us do, and not only does a story prescribe our behavior, it also holds the unfathomed and and beautiful depths of a people, fostering and nurturing the very life of the future.

Incommunicado by Kati Thamo"The traditional native complex of laws and religion creates a way of seeing the world that doesn't allow for species loss, whether animal, plant, or insect. It has also been in the indigenous traditions, the place of ancient stories and ways of telling, that I have found the relationship between between humans and other species of animals most clearly articulated. Or, I might better say that the stories have found me. In this half-century-old Chickasaw woman they have found a ground in which to grow; they have found their place.

"What finally turned me back toward the older traditions of my own and other Native peoples was the inhumanity of the Western world, the places -- both inside and out -- where that culture's knowledge and language don't go, and the despair, even desperation, it has spawned. We live, I see now, by different stories, the Western mind and the indigenous. In the older, more mature cultures where people still live within the kinship circle of animals and human beings there is connection with animals, not only as food, but as 'powers,' a word that can be taken to mean states of being, gifts, or capabilities.

Land of Longing by Kati Thamo

Rabbit Running by Kathi Thamo

"I've found out too that the ancient intellectual traditions are not merely about systems of belief, as some would say. Belief is not a strong enough word. They are more than that: They are part of a lived experience, the ongoing experience of of people rooted in centuries-old knowledge that is held deep and strong, knowledge about the natural law of Earth, from the beginning of creation, and the magnificent terrestrial intelligence still at work, an intelligence now newly called ecology by the Western science that tells us what our oldest tribal stories maintain -- the human animal is a relatively new creation here; animal and plant presences were here before us; and we are truly the younger sisters and brothers of the other animal species, not quite as well developed as we thought we were. It is through our relationships with animals and plants that we maintain a way of living, a cultural ethics shaped from an ancient understanding of the world, and this is remembered in stories that are the deepest reflections of our shared lives on Earth.

In Pursuit by Kati Thamo

"That we held, and still hold, treaties with the animals and plant species is a known part of tribal culture. The relationship between human people and animals is still alive and resonant in the world, the ancient tellings carried on by a constellation of stories, songs, and ceremonies, all shaped by lived knowledge of the world and its many interwoven, unending relationships. These stories and ceremonies keep open the bridge between one kind of intelligence and other, one species and other."

The Journey (solarplate etching) by Katie Thamo

The beautiful imagery today consists of collographs, etchings, linocuts, and shadow prints by Australian artist Kati Thamo. Born in Western Australia to Hungarian parents, she studied art at Edith Cowan University and the Hobart School of Art, and now lives an works on the far south-west coast. From her website:

"The telling of tales has always been integral to Kati's art practice, and she draws on personal stories and incidents along with grander narratives to devise a form of visual fable. Using a cast of characters including animals and objects, her storylines describe the mystery, frailty, hopefulness and anxiety of life. She says, 'I often think of my images as small theatre settings where various dramas are enacted.' Her art is often imbued with her Eastern European heritage, and a journey to trace her migrant family's homelands in 2010 is reflected in subsequent exhibitions, and in the development of a series of works. More recently, Kati has been exploring the natural world, looking at ways to depict the fragility and complexity of natural ecosystems." 

Casting Shadows by Kati Thamo

Shifting Ground by Kati Thamo

The passage above is from "First People" by Linda Hogan, published in Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women & Animals, edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, and Brenda Peterson (Fawcett Columbine, 1998), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.