Swan Maidens and Fairy Lovers, Part 2

It’s good to know that glasses can help us drink.  The problem is, we don’t know the purpose of thirst. – Antonio Machado

I hope I didn’t create the impression that I have any solid answers to the questions The Bride of Llyn y Fan Fach raises. Just “hints followed by guesses,” to quote T.S. Eliot.

In stories of this type, from all over the world, beautiful Otherworld women enter the lives of mortal men and then leave.  It’s not too great a stretch to imagine they represent the beauty, the love and fulfillment, the joy and intensity we long for in the world, but usually find to be fleeting.  The occasion for the lake woman’s departure is a tap on the shoulder that counts as a “blow.”  In a literal sense, this is absurd.  I take it to mean that the radiance of the Otherworld is like a spectacular sunset:  it illuminates our world but does not endure.  If it hadn’t been a tap, it would have been something else.  Perhaps as T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, it’s giving up the idea that they last – a Zen master.

Traditional fairytales are not linked to specific dates and places, but this one is.  This indicates a modern sensibility shaping the story pattern, and it seems especially clear in the lake woman’s belief that the world is a veil of tears.  The usual fairytale heroine does not cry at weddings, where people are “entering trouble,” nor does she laugh at funerals where people are “leaving their troubles.”  Her legacy is the gift of healing to help alleviate suffering.

In the lake woman’s view, this world is not our home, but while we are here, compassion is the highest virtue.  This sentiment could have come from Celtic Christianity.  It is also very eastern and reminds me of the theory that the Celts are linked, by diffusion, with the Aryan warriors of India.  Either way, this is a very different world from the Cinderella tales or stories like The Water of Life which suggest you can find your prince or princess and live a happy life together.

And you know the sun’s setting fast, And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts. – Iris DeMent

At the opening of this story, we learn that the young man’s father “died in the wars.”  The dates vary in different texts. One says the end of the 12th century, and others, the 13th century.  The latter date would coincide with the conquest of Wales by Edward Longshanks, the villain in Braveheart.  Edward invited all the bards in Wales to a council and had them killed, understanding that a nation without stories ceases to be a nation.  What Longshanks didn’t understand was that Celtic stories survive wherever there is a pub, a hearth fire, or a quiet country lane, yet I think the sadness of a conquered people infuses the story.

We know there is another world.  The question is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open? – Woody Allen

Twenty years ago, Mary and I travelled with a small group of storytellers on a tour called, “The Quest for Arthur’s Britain.”  Our guides were a remarkable couple, Robert Bella Wilhelm and his wife, Kelly, who have devoted their lives to storytelling and the sacred.  I’m happy to say they are still at it.  You can check out their website for details on storytelling trips to the Orkney Islands in May, to Iceland in September, and to Hawaii in Jan., 2013:  http://www.storyfestjourneys.com/

On Glastonbury Tor, Sept., 1991

We spent the last days of this journey at an Elizabethan manor house in the Black Mountain foothills, not too far from Llyn y Fan Fach.  It was one of a very few times in my life that I heard no traffic sound at night and saw no lights of a city.  When the moon was down, it was pitch black.  You could see the shapes of trees against the stars, but little else.

One night I strolled to the end of the yew walk.  The lights from the manor were hidden.  No light, no wind, no sound.  That alone was uncanny, but there was something more.  My Jungian training, which had taught me to understand spirits and fairies as archetypes of the psyche, vanished in a visceral rush of ice down the spine.  Part of me wanted to know what lay beyond, out in the open fields, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another step.  The hair on my neck stood up until I got back to the manor.

Do I believe in other worlds?  I did that night, and I think I do still.  I’m glad I knew the old stories and their lesson:  as human beings, this world is our home, for good or ill.  The peril is very great – too great – for those who venture too close to any other.

9 thoughts on “Swan Maidens and Fairy Lovers, Part 2

  1. Thanks for this beautiful post. I’m drawn to the idea – very Irish, and I’m sure existing in many other places – that the lines between this and other worlds, including the afterworld, are very thin for those open to them.


    • I always think of Yeats, tramping around the remote corners of Ireland in search of fairy lore. He wrote about this in “Mythologies.” Clearly he was hoping for some kind of contact, though if it happened, he never wrote about it. Yet some of his informants had very different experiences. He asked one elderly man if he’d ever seen fairies, and he said, “Ack, and don’t they just plague me!:

      Another crusty old guy told Yeats he had no use for God or the church, but he believed in fairies, “Because it stands to reason.”


  2. I really need to spend some more time reading and analyzing folktales, they really are the basis for so much of our modern culture, and aside from that they’re just really interesting stories.

    Yet another wonderful series of posts.


    • Thanks Adam. Just reading and enjoying, first and foremost, IMO. I have a battered old copy of The Arabian Nights that someone gave me decades ago with the inscription, “For the times when the world just seems too absurd.” It really is good medicine. I thought of that when I heard James Hillman say, “If we had more fairytales when we were young, we’d need fewer therapists as adults.” I think he’s right…


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