How to Tell If You’ve Married an Animal
Your marriage has been arranged in order to compensate for your father’s misbehavior.
You are the most selfless member of your family despite being the youngest and/or the prettiest.
Explanations for mysterious behavior are promised, but consistently delayed to some future date.
Your lover’s personality differs radically by dark or light.
You find yourself attempting to distinguish the gradations between snoring and growling.
Your mother-in-law is a terrible ogre who’s convinced herself she is God’s gift to romance. She won’t stop giving you rickety candelabra—and is awfully fond of cursing.
Meanwhile, your own relatives aren’t really encouraged to visit lest they inspire distrust at your spouse’s idiosyncrasies.
Said spouse won’t stop hunting for that smelly old coat that you should have burned, but hid in some forgettable cranny.
You find stray coarse hairs or gossamer feathers whenever you launder the sheets or plump the pillows.
This despite the fact that you cannot keep that Bichon Frisé you always wanted or even so much as a caged parakeet for fear that small hearts won’t be able to bear the stress of your partner’s proximity.
And really who can blame them given that undue fondness for heart, marrow, and liver so eloquently expressed by chop-licking exercises at every meal?
At least Margaret (or Janet) knew what she was getting when she wrested Tam Lin (or Tamlane) from the Fairy Queen’s clutches in the Scottish folk ballad. While variants of this legend disagree on the specific forms the human knight adopts as he slithers and bucks in the young woman’s arms, the male’s metamorphic instability is never in doubt. Tam Lin shifts from lizard to lion to snake to deer to dove to swan to hot iron to ember to naked man while Margaret remains fixed in position. Of course, he’d already impregnated the girl during a previous encounter without mentioning prior ties to a mistress who’s sure to be the death of him. Or at least that’s his complaint.
That Margaret saves Tam Lin rather than requiring rescue herself seems a significant departure from the usual run of romantic relationships in folktale. Statistically, princes can claim more experience in the art of fairy tale rescue. However, Margaret is not the only heroine who claims the masculine object of her desire. Two of my favorite childhood stories, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “The Snow Queen,” feature females who set off on solitary quests in order to rescue dudes in distress. In the latter story, a little girl tracks her abducted cousin to the Snow Queen’s realm and releases him from a frozen emotionless existence. In that narrative, the male character (still a child) has lost all the affect needed to indulge in warm-blooded relationships.
The other narrative, which involves romance with an animal bridegroom, is more pertinent to the current conversation. Like the better-known Beauty of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s eighteenth-century beast romance, the protagonist of Andrew Lang’s “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” agrees to an arranged marriage in order to save her family from shame and penury. Whether she acts from a martyr or a hero complex need not be determined as the psychological motivations are not mutually exclusive in this context. While the Beast in various incarnations of that tale has been turned inside-out in a metaphoric sense (his psychological ugliness manifested in his outward form as a result of offense committed against a magical being), Lang’s White Bear has been enchanted as a means of forcing him to marry an ugly female against his will.
Most enchantments of this nature possess built-in release clauses. To break the spell, the frog, boar, hind, bear, or other unspecified beast must win the love of a worthy human. Accordingly, strict guidelines have been set to test the obedience of potential human mates. (Margaret/Janet is one of the few examples of a mortal lover who manages to abide by the rules.) Perhaps, the enchantress, an ogre, intends to convince the prince of the infidelity of a prototypically beautiful “true bride” so that he will accept a wife of monstrous appearance. Lang’s fairy tale does not consider the possibility of a loathly lady being transformed by pretty-man tears.
As is the case in so many fairy tales (like “Bluebeard” and “Fitcher’s Bird, which were mentioned in lesson one), the human bride in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is expected to follow set stipulations without question or justification. She does accept her husband’s nightly attentions without protest. However, he only visits her bed under conditions of complete darkness. From a tactile perspective, he seems human enough. At any rate, she does not complain of his lovemaking skills. What the wife does find objectionable are the long daylight hours she spends in isolation. When allowed to visit family to allay homesickness, she shares her frustrations with her mother as many females are wont to do. Unlike Beauty’s trouble-making sisters, this female relative seems motivated by concern for her child’s well-being. Curiously, the protagonist’s marriage to a bear had been accepted by the family who benefited from the arrangement. However, the possibility of a troll lover clearly trumps the idea of a bear lover in terms of abhorrence. The girl is convinced to steal a forbidden peek by candlelight.
If you have encountered the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche (or Amor and Psyche), you can guess what happens next. In breaking the taboo, the female discovers her mate’s desirability. Lang’s heroine is so aroused by his beauty, she spills hot candle wax onto his nightshirt, thus waking and alerting him to the betrayal that consigns him to the emasculating conditions of ogre matrimony. In the Roman and Greek legends, Venus/Aphrodite had set the terms for her son’s affairs with human females. Only inexperienced Psyche allowed herself to be convinced by ill-intentioned sisters that her unidentified, unseen lover could be a serpent instead of a man. (One suspects that glimpses of statuary had not informed the girl of ophidian features in concupiscent man.) When Psyche glimpses the god of love in all his limbed glory by forbidden candlelight, she—like Lang’s heroine—is so driven by admiration, lust, erotomania that she will venture to great lengths and distances to reclaim him. While Psyche braves the underworld to win her god-man, the bear prince’s wife travels to world’s ends, “east of the sun, west of the moon” to free her chosen man from the ogress’s narcotic ministrations. In this story the Beast has become the Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, the heroine does not fight any dragonesque ogres. Nor does she hack her way through thorn hedge. She washes his shirt to remove the wax stain, an act that could only be completed by the one who stained it in the first place. Domestic skills remain in high regard, despite the bravery involved in circumnavigating the earth solo via wind gusts.
Folkloric romances with beasts are not as restricted by gender mores as one might think. Not only can a male be Beauty; a female may also be Beast. Keats’ Lamia is probably the most attractive snake woman in literary history, despite the clashing metaphors that the poet bestows upon his (anti)heroine:
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
I’ve yet to see an artistic rendering of this character in serpent form that does justice to Keats’ actual description of her as an armless and legless elongation with cartoonish long-lashed eyes and seed-pearl teeth.
In folklore, female beasts may be finned, feathered or furred. In John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), the dark-eyed and dark-haired kin of the protagonist are supposed to have inherited characteristics from a sea maiden (that is, a selkie) ancestress. The so-called “dark ones” exhibit uncanny fishing skills. They grow mentally unstable if removed from the sea. In Scottish and Irish selkie lore, female shape-shifters find themselves temporarily confined to land after amorous humans steal their seal-skins. Typically, the abductor hides the skin in order to keep his half-human bride from returning to sea. Although such marriages may result in numerous children and may last for a significant number of years with the former seal-maid appearing to settle into family life with only low-grade melancholy to tinge the domestic bliss, she eventually leaves as soon as one of her children discovers the secreted skin. Although the selkie may look back at her human family as she leaves, she does not return, preferring to watch over her descendants from the relative safety of waves.
Romances between land-based humans and mere-folk seldom last. Even the “Little Mermaid,” in Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale, does not remain with the prince, who unknowingly inspires her to undergo magical mutilation. The mermaid suffers loss of voice as well as constant shooting pains through her artificially separated and elongated fins, and still she dances until her feet bleed. The prince never notices her masochistic devotion and marries the genuinely kind human girl he believes has saved his life. The little mermaid never gains affection beyond what might be granted to a beloved pet. In this text, the prince cannot be blamed for failing to maintain a promise to allow the were-animal privacy and trust. Nor can he be blamed for failing to maintain fidelity since he has no idea that the former mermaid has any claim to a romantic bond. She’s simply a mute child so far as he is concerned. His inability to perceive her as an adult woman is made evident by her inclusion in his honeymoon excursion. This is one of the rare fairy tales when the female protagonist’s rival in love avoids demonization. (Although Disney may be credited with bestowing a modicum of autonomy on some heroines of their twentieth-century adaptations, the conflation of the human rival with the wicked water witch undermines the effectiveness of the film’s pseudo-feminist project.)
Although water spirits may respond to the physical charms of air-breathers, Anderson’s mermaid does not elect to undergo the traumatic transformation until after she learns that romantic alliance with a human can result in soul acquisition. Luckily, heaven turns out not to be so exclusive as she has been led to believe. When the mermaid fails to secure the prince’s affections and resists the opportunity to regain her former marine existence by slaying the oblivious destroyer of her spiritual aspirations, she is granted the opportunity to join the ranks of sylphs, or air fairies. She will spend the next hundred years, the projected lifespan for merefolk, performing good deeds, thus earning the soul she supposedly lacks.
The reputed soul deficit is common to fairy tales that feature magical beings. The protagonist of Friedrick de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine leaves her element for love of a knight called Huldbrand. As C.M. Younge remarks in the introduction to the Gutenberg edition, such stories were
founded on the universal idea in folk-lore of the nixies or water-spirits, one of whom, in Norwegian legend, was seen weeping bitterly because of the want of a soul. Sometimes the nymph is a wicked siren like the Lorelei; but in many of these tales she weds an earthly lover, and deserts him after a time, sometimes on finding her diving cap, or her seal-skin garment, which restores her to her ocean kindred, sometimes on his intruding on her while she is under a periodical transformation, as with the fairy Melusine, more rarely if he becomes unfaithful.
In the case of Undine and Huldbrand, the latter is fully aware of the commitment required. Still, he risks an affair with a human female with as little heed to the consequences as we often see in tabloid reportage of men who cheat on celebrity spouses. Although Undine is not vindictive by inclination, she cannot resist the supernatural decree. She is content to possess a soul, despite her husband’s betrayal, but, as her uncle Kühleborn warns, she is subject to laws and must take Huldbrand’s life should he commit bigamy. Undine hopes to avoid this necessity so long as the fountain, the castle’s prime water source, remains covered. But the reckless second wife fails to take precautions seriously, and, thus, Undine’s vapory spirit reluctantly fulfills the sentence for Hulbrand’s infidelity by kissing and weeping him to death.
Humans are forever breaking bargains with fay folk. Witness all the knights who can’t help bragging of the supreme beauty of fairy mistresses. See, for example, the story of Lanval in Marie de France’s Lais. In the case of Melusine, mentioned in the above quote from Yonge, the fairy has been doubly betrayed. First, her father entered the chamber where Melusine and her sisters were born, although explicitly forbidden to do so. Later, her lover, Raymondin, violates a similar injunction by spying on her as she bathes on a Saturday, the only day of the week when her lower limbs merge and she splashes about like a sea serpent in her wooden tub. Though she evinces more temper than Undine, Melusine is not an entirely unforgiving figure as she keeps watch over her descendants by appearing in dragon form, swooping like an aerial performer about the ramparts of the Castle Lusignan.
Flighty brides can be found in the lore of numerous cultures. Unlike the selkie wife who abandons her half-human children when she reverts to seal form, the Bird-Bride of Inuit legend takes her offspring with her when she refledges. In an 1889 ballad by Rosamund Marriott Watson, this character has been domesticated by a human trapper, who sincerely believes that he deserves loyalty for clothing and feeding her. Although he recounts her flock’s violent attempts to break his hold when he snatches the shape-shifted young woman from the beach, he does not recognize the abduction as a violation of her autonomy. Even at poem’s end, after he has broken his vows by slaying another sea-gull, he plaintively insists that she belongs to him: “Ye are mine forever and aye, / Mine, wherever your wild wings go.”
Although male characters assume rights to dominion over animal brides in Japanese folklore as well, a number of helpmeets willingly offer domestic service, usually in return for humanitarian treatment of injury. In some of the Crane Wife narratives, a poor man saves the life of a wounded bird, who undertakes the domestic duties of his household. She helps him to improve his finances by weaving luxurious silk he can market. Unfortunately, the typically fallible husband discovers the source of her materials when he violates the restriction against spying on her work space. Despite significant cost to her health, the Crane Wife has been plucking her own feathers to produce the resplendent brocades. Patrick Ness’s magical realist retelling transfers this story to modern-day London, transforming the magical weaver into a mixed-media artist named Kumiko.
Probably the most familiar bird-women hybrids, however, are the swan maidens, Odette and Odile, of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Inspired by Russian folk tale, Swan Lake‘s story line unfolds as tragic romance. A princess has been transformed into a white swan by an evil sorcerer. Spell breaking requires the usual monogamous faith. However, in this version of animal-human romance, the prince remains true at heart, but falls for the trickery of the black swan, Odette’s evil twin. Prince Siegfrid commits an act of infidelity with the disguised Odile and, thus, condemns the good twin to perpetual bird form. Not having the ugly duckling’s history of bullying in her background, Odette cannot appreciate the beauty of such an existence. She and her remorseful lover commit suicide together.
In the 2010 film Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, the psychological demands placed on the ballerina who dances the dual roles are brought into surreal focus as the protagonist’s obsessive compulsive personality leads to extreme identification with the characters she plays. Nina’s history of self-mutilating behavior (nervous scratching) combines with the damaging effects of long-term dedication to dance so that the viewer isn’t sure if s/he is witnessing supernatural transformation or the symptoms of impending psychotic break brought about by near-starvation and the deformations that result from chronic injury/strain. Body dysmorphic disorder may also explain the emergence of quills through skin. Other changes, involving computer-generated special effects, allow the filmmakers to externalize the white swan’s subjugation, the eventual possession by her double, her monstrous self.
As the swan doubles (Odette and Odile) demonstrate, bestial lovers may manifest as positive as well as negative archetypes. In this final segment of my lesson on bestial romance, I will focus on furred femmes, specifically on the kitsune and kumiho of Eastern folklore. While the former have a reputation for making good wives when they manifest as shape-changing fox women in Japanese folk tale, the latter (appearing in Korean variants) are more likely to eat their lovers’ hearts out—literally. Heinz Insu Fenkl’s articles on fox fatales from The Journal of Mythical Arts provide useful background on the demonic aspects of this figure. Links are posted under “Additional Readings” below.
However, Fenkl’s translation of “The Tale of the Fox Den” is particularly pertinent to the current discussion as its female character plays both victim as well as villainess. Originally, her intentions are relatively pure. A vixen accepts a position of servitude in the household of a man who has helped her to recover from serious injuries. He is already married so she cannot be a wife to him. Furthermore, her poisonous tongue is a serious impediment to their developing romance. Unfortunately, the man’s wife recognizes the potential threat even though the fox woman sublimates her desires. In a fit of jealous pique, the wife murders the servant, or so the wife believes. She dies of guilty conscience.
Since the kumiho is a creature of supernatural origin, she does not stay dead. But she lacks the martyr’s ability to forgive her rivals and, therefore, takes her enmity out on the dead woman’s daughter. After killing the young girl, the fox assumes her body so that she can remain in the household of the man she continues to adore. The faux daughter eventually reaches marriageable age, but the fox demon, not wishing to leave her “father,” dispenses of would-be wooers with her toxic kiss. Eventually, her secret is discovered when an intended victim bites off her tongue. Although her slayer acknowledges some sympathy for the fox demon’s plight, he sentences her to death. This time the corpse is entombed in a cave, the entrance blocked by a boulder to impede reincarnation or, at least, escape.
In some respects, this particular kumiho resembles Keats’ “Lamia” as well as that poet’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Although she victimizes others, she is not entirely at fault for her duplicitous and treacherous state.
As Boris Sax observes in The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature, the land of lore is filled with interspecies romance, regardless of universal taboos against bestiality. I’m sure you can generate numerous examples of gods taking bull, swan, eagle, or dolphin form to seduce human women. You were probably expecting me to cover classic fairy tales like “The Frog Prince,” “Donkeyskin,” or “Snow White and Rose Red.” And, although some multicultural perspectives are provided, many others have been overlooked. What about mermaids of color like Mami Wata? Although I have provided some links to essays that range across cultures in the “Additional Reading” section below, I encourage you to explore interspace for animal-human figures I’ve missed despite this lesson’s length. Or better yet: conceive some hybrids of your own.
The archive for The Journal of Mythic Arts, maintained by the Endicott Studio, is another invaluable resource for folklore devotees. The following links will take you to essays on this website, but I encourage you to explore as the site contains other material relevant to this week theme.
“Beauty and the Beast, Old and New” by Terri Windling
“Fox Wives and Other Dangerous Women” by Heinz Inzu Fenkl
“Fox Woman Tale of Korea” by Heinz Inzu Fenkl
“The Swan Maiden’s Feathered Robe” by Midori Snyder
“The Monkey Girl” by Midori Snyder
1. Two concept albums The Hazards of Love (2009) and The Crane Wife (2006) by The Decemberists draw upon folk tales that are featured in the above lesson. You can read the complete lyrics for The Hazards of Love (2009), a rock opera loosely based on “Tam Lin” at their website. In Colin Meloy’s lyrics, Margaret first encounters the shape-shifter, William, in the guise of wounded fawn. Both characters are subjected to the demands of unwanted others. The Queen is a cross between jealous fairy and Venus, only allowing her consort-son dalliance during the evenings, while forcing a return to enchantment by day. Pregnant Margaret is abducted by a widower who has poisoned, drowned, and burned his own children. The Queen is delighted to support the villain’s perverse intentions. When William attempts to rescue his lover, they both drown when attempting to cross water turned treacherous by the malicious queen.
Although I did not find the complete lyrics for The Crane Wife in one location, you can read ‘The Crane Wife” 1, 2, and 3 at the link I am providing in this sentence.
Since lyrics typically leave numerous gaps in narration, you might draw inspiration from selected lines or stanzas to create your own complete fairy tale. After all, Patrick Ness credited the Decemberists’ CD for inspiring his entire novel.
2. Although I began this lesson with a poster for a “Beauty and the Beast” film that was released in France in 2013, I have yet to find it available via Netflix or AmazonPrime. However, Jean Cocteau’s surrealist version of 1946 is available in an instant streaming format. I also recommend Angela Carter’s short story “The Tiger’s Bride.” Even if you don’t have time to access any of this material, you might save the links for future reference. You could also write your own variation by contemplating your personal standards of beauty and beastliness. As Carter’s story reveals, both concepts are relative despite socialization that enables us to recognize societal ideals. Feel free to play with gender, class, race, religion, sexual orientation, or other identity concepts as you construct your own Beauty/Beast encounter.
3. Draw inspiration from any of the enchanted animal stories from the Journal of Mythic Arts/Endicott Studio or SurLaLune fairytale websites that I’ve mentioned above. (You may also pick one of the animal-themed fairy tales that I did not address.) For added challenge, you might situate your revision in an unusual environment such as a roller derby rink, a cosplay event, or a planet in another solar system.
4. Write a fairy tale romance that involves one of the finned, feathered, or furred creatures mentioned in my lesson. Or give some underrepresented critter an opportunity to court a princess. How about a little love for a flying fox, a moth, or a guinea pig?
5. Even fantasists must play by their own rules. Put a curse on your characters, but offer an escape clause. Your beast lovers may fail to tragic consequence. Or you may allow them their happily-ever afterlife within reason.
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