It's difficult to make blanket statements about fairy lore. It would be wrong of me to overlook the psychopathy of False Sir John, or the sexual sadism of the women who whipped Cú Chulainn half to death. However, it's worth examining which of these stories have managed to capture our imaginations, and why. Today I will focus on one particular mytheme, which had a lot of cultural currency in the English-speaking world at one time. Interestingly, a lot of this language we see in fantasy literature today about the heartlessness of fairies, and their disregard for human norms and laws, can be found almost word for word in the analytical writings of Victorian folklorists. Significantly, many of these remarks were reserved for fairy women; or more specifically, fairy women who asserted their right to enter and leave relationships at will.
The "swan maiden" tale represents a widespread motif in folk narratives: typically, the woman is a nature spirit, sometimes capable of taking on an animal shape. A mortal man comes along and makes her his bride, "by fair means or foul." Often, foul - he steals the bird-woman's feathered cloak, or the mermaid's swimming cap, so that she is unable to flee back to her own environment. In these stories, the women usually escape their captors as soon as they have the opportunity. Other times, a fairy woman will consent to marry the mortal, if he agrees to one or more conditions. Some of these requests are highly specific, or a little strange. One watery wife asks her man never to invite guests to their home; another tells her husband never to visit her in the bath on a Saturday; one will ask that he never question her origins; another warns him never to boast about her to others. Commonly, the fairy asks her suitor never to hit her. Invariably, by accident or through carelessness, the husband fails to fulfill these requests, causing her to take her leave of him (and sometimes their children as well.) Otherwise happy unions can be ended over seemingly harmless mistakes. Only very rarely is a man able to win her back.
If you asked a modern person to find a moral lesson in these stories, they might guess that they ultimately serve as instructions for young men in how to treat their wives, or a way to illustrate to them the special sensitivities of women. (Or perhaps even their autonomy, in the case of abducted women.) One of the oldest examples of this narrative can be found in the Vedic legend of Urvasi, an Apsara who agrees to marry King Pururavas, if he held to these conditions: "Thrice a day thou shalt lie with me, but do not lie with me against my will, and let me not see thee naked, for such is the way to behave to us women." Generous terms, all things considered. So he accepts. But the Gandharvas (male counterparts to the Apsaras) trick him into appearing naked before his wife, and she vanishes.
To us, it may not seem so remarkable that a woman would leave her husband for the sake of a broken vow. But to the earliest folklorists of the English-speaking world, these fables were simply baffling. In Exploring Fairy Traditions, Jeremy Harte writes:
Victorian folklorists, in particular, were profoundly concerned with the issues it raised about female independence (Silver: 92-105). As far as they were concerned, the departure of the lake maiden, leaving husband and children behind, set a very bad example for women in this world. Why would she ever want to do a thing like that? Hartland notes the numerous instances in which the strange wife leaves after being tapped, struck, hit, chastised or beaten, but fails to draw what might seem an obvious conclusion (Hartland 1891: 311-2).He cites Carole Silver, whose research I've discussed here before. Here are some of the relevant passages that Harte refers to:
That swan maidens often left their mates for the breaking of a prohibition was so outside the pale of convention that most folklore theorists simply ignored the act. Though ordinary people, the "folk" of folklore, had for centuries dealt with marital disharmony or abuse by "informal divorce," consisting of desertion, elopement, or wife sale, such arrangements were seldom publicly discussed, though sensational incidents did appear in the press. [...]It was the confusion of men scrambling around trying to find reasons why a woman would ever possibly leave a man that lead to many of the characterizations we are familiar with in fantasy literature today. Euheremists (remember them?) such as Hartland could only explain this type of behavior by pointing to the "savage" state of prehistoric people. Notably, the wife in this story is not violently struck - she is only tapped by a scolding finger or glove. Nevertheless, Hartland and others in his field seem to have been eager to leap to the defense of domestic violence. If the typical collector-of-commoner's-tales from this era felt moved to show sympathy for the husband, it was rarer to find such sympathy for the wife. Even in cases of clearly miserable and unwilling women - women who were clearly coerced into marriage, beaten, mistreated, or mocked - the choice to leave was deemed unfathomable.
Even when discussions about the Divorce Law of 1857 and the Maintenance of Wives acts of 1878 and 1886 made the issues of wife beating and of the interpretations of matrimonial cruelty highly public, folklorists chose not to highlight the presence of these materials in fairy-bride tales. Theorists like Hartland — taking an evolutionary approach to the tales — suggested that as civilization advanced and marriage became more highly regarded, the reasons for separation would become more cogent and complex (Science, p. 320). But, despite the fact that a number of the tales he analyzed depicted the wife as being taunted or beaten or struck with iron, he chose only to speculate that "homesickness" might be a cause of the wife's desertion. In general, when folklorists of the 1880s and '90s did discuss the issue, they either condemned the wife for deserting her family or speculated disapprovingly on its consequences. Perhaps this is not surprising when we remember that as late as 1832, Bacon's Abridgement of the Law, a standard text of the period, stated "that the husband hath by law the power and dominion over the wife and may beat her" though it added "not in a violent or cruel manner" (Stone, p. 389). Only Yearsley, at the turn of the century, suggested that the fairy bride's return to her home, with or without her spouse, was a folk memory of early matrilocal societies — that is, of cultures in which the child was raised by the mother's tribe and in her dwelling. In effect, he argued, such a fairy bride was following the informal divorce procedures of her own primitive world.
To Hartland, who devoted two long chapters in The Science of Fairy Tales to classifying and analyzing six types of swan-maiden stories, the fate of the children was an important consideration. Since he believed in an era of matrilineality, he could accept and rationalize the tales in which the fairy bride left her husband but took the children with her or returned to visit them. [...]
But Hartland was disturbed by fairy brides who, like Ibsen's Nora, chose to leave their offspring behind. Victorian society agreed with him. When, for instance, the Lady of the Van Pool (in a well-known Welsh version of the tale) was struck by her husband three times without cause (in violation of the prohibition upon which the union was based) and left him and their offspring, Hartland condemned her behavior. Discussing the incident, he argued that, since she had legal recourse, the Lady should "not object to the chastisement which the laws of Wales allow a husband to bestow" (wife beating was permitted for several "just" causes); she should instead collect a fine to compensate her for the "disgrace" (Science, p. 311). In Hartland's eyes, the Lady's choice of abandoning her children and deserting, rather than legally suing the mate who beat her, "transfers the hearer's sympathy from the wife to the husband" (Science, p. 321).
Frequently, the bride's alien nature is cited as the cause for her departure; being a stranger in a strange land leads to feelings of homesickness and alienation. In John Rhys's well-known version of the Van Pool legend, the fairy bride cries bitterly during a christening, and laughs during a funeral, indicating her otherworldy view of mortality. (Harte notes other versions of this tale that are less philosophical. In the one of the earliest appearances of this story in print, the "causeless blows" occur when her husband impatiently taps her three times, to send her after an escaping horse. In another version from Llyn Cwellyn, the wife only forbids her husband to strike her with iron. She disappears after being struck once, accidentally, by a horse's bridle or fetter. Looking again to the story of Pururavas, he boasts of having chased the nymphs who fled before him, "in terror, like chariot horses when the car has touched them." He likens them further to swans and horses in a following line.) In Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter - a highly influential work, and a pioneer of modern fantasy - the fairy bride Lirazel prays not to the cross, but to the stones around it. She, too, weeps at christenings, and laughs at funerals. In the attempt to draw a sympathetic sketch of the fairy bride, she is treated as a transcendent being whose ways are mysterious. Some novelists, such as Henrik Ibsen and Thomas Hardy, went so far as to portray the fairy bride as having evolved beyond the passions of the flesh, thus making her unsuitable for marriage and even child rearing. What would otherwise be seen as her inhumane selfishness - her desertion of husband and child - is deflected by emphasizing that she is not, in fact, human, and cannot be expected to feel human emotions. Any emotions she does have are largely left unexamined. How could we possibly understand them, after all?
By contrast, in the tale of Urvasi, no attempt is made apologize for her actions. Pururavas goes out to seek his wife, who is swimming in the shape of a swan, among her own kind, on a lotus-covered lake. He says, "Oh my wife, stay thou, cruel in mind: let us now exchange words! Untold, these secrets of ours will not bring us joy..." She responds, "What concern have I with speaking to thee? I have passed away like the first of the dawns. Pururavas, go home again; I am like the wind, difficult to catch." He threatens to run away into the wilderness, which stirs her pity. "Pururavas, do not die! Do not rush away! Let not the cruel wolves devour thee! Truly, there is no friendship with women, and their hearts are the hearts of hyenas..."
But at least one Englishman sought to explore the psychology of the fairy a bit further, and even defended it, in his own curious way: the novelist, Maurice Hewlett. As one might expect of a man whose social circle included Golden Dawn initiates and published mystics (such as Evelyn Underhill ), Hewlett was a believer in spirits. His notions about fairies may have been influenced by Theosophical ideas; he believed they were the "spirit, essence, substance (what you will) of certain sensible things, such as trees, flowers, wind, water, hills, woods, marshes and the like." Poetic as that may sound, his belief in fairies was quite literal. He was not alone in that - there were at least a handful of distinguished authors and poets of the time who expressed an earnest belief in fairies, such as Sir Walter Scott, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But Hewlett was a bit unusual, in that he claimed to have seen fairies with his own eyes. In 1913, he wrote a memoir, Lore of Proserpine, in which he gave accounts of his own, first-hand encounters with fairy apparitions. His stories are more than a little fantastical, but he does his best to gradually lull the reader into it. He begins by suggesting that out-of-place creatures exist all around us, in various guises, and describes a handful of dreamy, otherworldly girl creatures from his student life in Gaylord's Rents, before focusing on the character of one Mrs. Ventris. A prostitute often seen half-dressed at her window, with the air of poverty all about her, Hewlett was nonetheless impressed by some purity of loveliness she exuded - or, as he puts it, her lack of shame.
Here, and so leaning with her bare elbows, I saw on most days of the week a slim young woman airing herself - a pale-faced, curling-papered, half-bodiced, unwashed drab of a girl, who would have had shame written across her face for any one to read if she had not seemed of all women I have ever seen the least shamefaced. Her brows were as unwritten as a child's, her smile as pure as a seraph's, and her eyes blue, unfaltering, and candid. She laughed a greeting, exchanged gossip, did her sewing, watched events, as the case might be, was not conscious of her servitude nor anxious to market it. . . . Sometimes a man in shirt sleeves was with her, treated her familiarly, with rude embraces, with kisses, nudges and leers. She accepted all with good-humour and, really, complete good breeding. She invited nothing, provoked nothing, but resented nothing. It seemed to me as if all these things were indeed nothing to her; that she hardly knew they were done; as if her soul could render them at their proper worth, transmute them, shred them off, discard them. It was, then, her surface which took them; what her soul received was a distillation, an essence.As one might expect of a working girl, she treats sexual activity as if it were normal - a revelation to Hewlett. Surely, there must be some explanation, and so he discovers. One night, near the stroke of twelve, he happens to see Mrs. Ventris throw open her shutters, seemingly transformed from within.
The moon shone full upon her, and revealed her pure form from head to foot swathed in filmy blue - a pale green-blue, the color of ocean water seen from below. Translucent webbery, whatever it was, it showed her beneath it as bare as Venus when she fared forth unblemished from the sea. . . . Once or twice she turned her face up, to bathe it in the light. I saw that in it which in human faces I had never seen - communion with things hidden from men, secret knowledge shared with secret beings, assurance of power above our hopes.Then he watches her spread her arms and vault into the air like a bird, before slowly floating down again, out of sight. The next day, he sees her again from the street, not half so glamorous as the night before, in her hair curlers and coarse apron. Yet he knows her as "fairy-kind, bound to this earth-bondage by some law of the Universe not yet explored; not pitiable because not self-pitying, and (what is more important) not reprehensible because impossible to be bound, as we are, soul to body." Though he was not forgiving in his account of her lifestyle - he even continues to express his disgust with her daytime persona in the following chapter - he implores us not to judge her. As a different order of being, she is not sullied by her base occupation or her lowly surroundings, as a human woman would be.
His feelings on such matters were already well-informed by his first encounter with a fairy being, at age twelve. The account is, in a word, unsettling. One evening, just after the setting of the sun, he found that he had fallen behind his mother and brothers on the path home. Unafraid, he tarried on the familiar forest road. He describes catching sight of a pale creature with dark eyes and matted hair, kneeling in the shadows.
It was under a clump of the chestnut stems, kneeling and sitting on its heels, and it was watching me with the bright, quick eyes of a mouse. [...] I could not even be sure of its sex, though I believe it to have been a male . . . I could see that he was young; I thought about my own age. He was very pale, without being at all sickly—indeed, health and vigour and extreme vivacity were implicit in every line and expressed in every act; he was clear-skinned, but almost colourless. The shadow under his chin, I remember, was bluish. His eyes were round, when not narrowed by that closeness of his scrutiny of me, and though probably brown, showed to be all black, with pupil indistinguishable from iris. The effect upon me was of black, vivid black, unintelligent eyes—which see intensely but cannot translate. His hair was dense and rather long. It covered his ears and touched his shoulders. It was pushed from his forehead sideways in a thick, in a solid fold, as if it had been the corner of a frieze cape thrown back. It was dark hair, but not black; his neck was very thin. I don't know how he was dressed—I never noticed such things; but in colour he must have been inconspicuous, since I had been looking at him for a good time without seeing him at all. A sleeveless tunic, I think, which may have been brown, or grey, or silver-white. I don't know. But his knees were bare—that I remember; and his arms were bare from the shoulder. I standing, he squatting on his heels, the pair of us looked full at one another. I was not frightened, no more was he. I was excited, and full of interest; so, I think, was he. My heart beat double time. Then I saw, with a curious excitement, that between his knees he held a rabbit, and that with his left hand he had it by the throat. Now, what is extraordinary to me about this discovery is that there was nothing shocking in it.After a moment or two, he realizes that the elfin boy is strangling the rabbit, squeezing it repeatedly, and watching its eyes bulge in terror.
Now, as I watched and wondered, the being, following my eyes' direction, looked down at the huddled thing between his thighs, and just as children squeeze a snap-dragon flower to make it open and shut its mouth, so precisely did he, pressing or releasing the windpipe, cause that poor beast to throw back its lips and dart its dry tongue. He did this many times while he watched it; and when he looked up at me again, and while he continued to look at me, I saw that his cruel fingers, as by habit, continued the torture, and that in some way he derived pleasure from the performance — as if it gratified him to be sure that effect was following on cause inevitably. [...] If this creature had been human, upon seeing that I was conscious of its behaviour to the rabbit, it would either have stopped the moment it perceived that I did not approve or was not amused, or it would have continued deliberately out of bravado. But it neither stopped nor hardily continued. It watched its experiment with interest for a little, then, finding me more interesting, did not discontinue it, but ceased to watch it. He went on with it mechanically, dreamingly, as if to the excitation of some other sense than sight, that of feeling, for instance. He went on lasciviously, for the sake of the pleasure so to be had. In other words, being without self-consciousness and ignorant of shame, he must have been non-human.The emphasis is mine. Normally, I am the last person to resort to this kind of interpretation, but I don't think it would be too outrageous to suggest that there is quite a Freudian overtone to this vision. A pre-pubescent boy, methodically squeezing a small, supple mammal between his thighs, bringing it closer and closer to death with each spasm - it is very suggestive. And the further one investigates the text, the more one begins to suspect that it was written with one hand. Though he attempts to underplay the obvious, his longing is consistently made clear. He tells of spying his first dryad as he sat under an oak, as he listened to a precocious schoolmate vividly recount his sexual conquests. He makes much of the gauzy dresses that cling to their "well made" bodies, and of how they crane their necks attractively in the light. His chief interest throughout the work is the subject of how fairies and humans come to wed one another.
Though he does not tell us how he conjures her up, he occasionally mentions a fairy informant whom he calls "Despoina." (It is to her that he dedicates the memoir. "From whom, to whom, all.") Presumably, she is the source of his claim that there are "over a quarter of a million" fairy wives living in England. In his attempt to justify marital unions with such beings, he heavily emphasizes the inhumanity of the fairy woman, even further than other writers of his time had done. He frequently speaks of their "unintelligent" gaze, and claims they are incapable of human speech. (How he communicates with Despoina is not explained, nor does he address the fact that most fairy bride tales seem to credit them with the ability to speak normally.) Additionally, he says that they are incapable of weeping in sorrow or laughing for joy, in direct contradiction to the literary conventions discussed earlier. In placing them so far on the other side of the animal/human divide, he renders them innocent of their behavior. But they are capable of love, he insists, because they sacrifice so much to enter into marriage with mortals. (In one passage, he explains that fairies have no such institution, and instead mate like animals in the woods. The men contest over women like young bucks, and the women are sexually passive.) Hewlett is apparently undisturbed by the idea of pairing oneself with a soulless alien - if anything, he seems to find it preferable. How "revolting" and "shameful" these creatures would be if they were human, he says. But luckily for him, they're not - so he is free to watch them frolic, without remorse.
Interestingly, Maurice's own wife - ostensibly mortal - may well have had her own cloak of feathers. Hilda Hewlett was the first woman in the United Kingdom to earn a pilot's license, having studied aeronautics in France under the pseudonym of "Grace Bird." Upon her return, she opened the first flying school in the U.K., as well as an aircraft manufacturing firm, which produced over 800 military planes during the First World War. (She also taught her son to fly. He went on to have a distinguished military career as a pilot.) Hilda and Maurice were legally separated in 1914. The event is described in numerous sources as "polite." At one point in his memoir, Maurice somewhat contradicts himself by contending that there is nothing to be ashamed of in what a woman chooses to do with "her hand and her person." It may be that his spiritual notions had some affect on his social mores. But one wonders whether he didn't say the wrong thing some afternoon. Perhaps, for example, "Women will never be as successful in aviation as men. They have not the right kind of nerve." Hilda won her first flying competition in 1912.
Hilda spent her retirement with her daughter in New Zealand, where she continued her involvement in aviation, and enjoyed camping and fishing. In accordance with her last requests, she was buried at sea.
From the standpoint of Jungian psychology, the fairy wife is a classic expression of man's anima - his unconscious, repressed capacity for emotion. That she should appear in an animalistic or semi-human state indicates the usual lack of development in this arena. Emma Jung, in her essay, "The Anima as an Elemental Being," explains the swan wife's flighty nature in these terms. "The nixie's disappearance into her element describes what happens when an unconscious content comes to the surface but is still so little coordinated with the ego as to sink back down at the slightest provocation. That so little should be required to bring this about shows how fugacious and easily hurt these contents are. ...Indeed, the exaggerated touchiness frequently to be met with in otherwise robust men is a sign of anima involvement." That the name of Pururavas may be translated as "crying much/loudly" could lend some credence to this assertion. How much does a man's portrait of a woman reveal about himself? Who is the true source of humanity in the story, and who, the insectile, unfeeling brute?
It may be that it is always the fairy's role to present us with the longings and emotions we keep secret from others. Personally, I would prefer it if we could face this with bravery, without putting up so great a distance between ourselves and our confessors. I think it underscores the fact that we are living with the neuroses of previous eras, if we are still preoccupied with demonizing anything that won't stay under our thumb, and what's more, presents us with the possibility of freedom and happiness.
Pururavas does reunite with Urvashi in the end. He does it by praying to the Ghandarvas who had decieved him before. By those rituals, he is able to become one of them, and dwell with his bride in the heavens. The sons born from their union are "fire" and "ghee" - the sacraments most central to Vedic worship, and the means by which humanity is able to reach the divine.
To his credit, I think Mr. Hewlett was not altogether unaware of the possibilities he was presented with, nor of the implications of what he set out to do. He prefaced his work quite admirably with these words:
To write of the sexes in English you must either be sentimental or a satirist. You must set the emotions to work; otherwise you must be quiet. Now the emotions have no business with knowledge; and there's a reason why we have no fairy lore, because we can't keep our feelings in hand. The Greeks had a mythology, the highest form of Art, and we have none. Why is that? Because we can neither expound without wishing to convert the soul, nor understand without self-experiment. We don't want to know things, we want to feel them—and are ashamed of our need. Mythology, therefore, we English must make for ourselves as we can; and if we are wise we shall keep it to ourselves. It is a pity, because since we alone of created things are not self-sufficient, anything that seems to break down the walls of being behind which we agonise would be a comfort to us; but there's a worse thing than being in prison, and that is quarrelling with our own nature.
 Animus and Anima: Two Essays by Emma Jung, 1957.
 Explore Fairy Traditions, Jeremy Harte, 2004. [x][other works]
 Mach Llyn-y-Fan Fach/The Lady of Van Pool returned to visit her children and teach them the art of medicine. They and their descendants became the famed Physicians of Myddfai. Today, the village of Myddfai is currently undergoing an economic renewal project. Their teas sound delicious.
 In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender, by Barbara Leavy, 1994. I don't find all of the arguments within particularly cogent (the author seems to have a phobia of domestic drudgery), but the source material is interesting.