The Swan-Children.

A young man, in eager pursuit of a stag white as snow, chased it into a deep and distant forest, where it escaped. In attempting to retrace his way, he came upon a fountain in which a beautiful nymph was bathing. In her hand she held a golden chain, wherein lay her power. Snatching away the chain, the youth seized the nymph, and she was constrained to become his wife. During the night she awoke her husband, being ashamed at learning the fact from the stars that she had conceived six sons and a daughter. He comforts her, and brings her home to his castle. His mother dislikes the wife, and plots her ruin; but being unable to accomplish it at once, she contrives a horrible scheme. The wedded nymph gives birth to six sons and a daughter, with golden chains, like collars, round their necks. The grandmother sends the infants away to be killed by a trusty servant, whose conscience smites him, and he leaves them un­harmed at the foot of a tree, where they are found by a philosopher, taken to his cave, and fed for seven years. The grandmother presents to her son seven little whelps as the off­spring of his wife. In horror, he orders his wife to be degraded, and exposed to all indignities at the hands of the people. For seven long years she is thus treated, until she becomes as ugly and wretched as she had formerly been fair and happy.

When out one day hunting in the woods, the father observes seven children with golden chains on their necks. He pursues them, and they suddenly disappear. He reports the strange sight, and his mother in alarm questions the servant, who con­fesses that he had not killed the babes as he had promised. For three days this servant is sent by her to scour the woods for the children, but in vain. On the fourth day he finds the six boys, transformed into swans, at play in a river, and their sister on the bank holding their golden chains. While she is watching the frolics of the swans, the servant steals up to her and snatches away the chains, but she escapes with her own chain. On his return, the joyful grandmother takes the chains to a goldsmith, and requests him to make a little cup out of the gold. In vain the workman tries fire and hammer; the chains yield to neither, save that a link of one of them appears a little battered. The goldsmith weighs them, takes the same quantity of other gold, makes it into a cup and gives it to the old woman, who conceals it and keeps it unused.

By the loss of their chains it becomes impossible for the swans to resume their proper form. They lament their condition, and, with their sister, now also transformed into a swan, they fly away to seek some lake or river suitable for a permanent abode; and select the lake beside which their father's castle stands. The nobleman is delighted with their beauty and the sweetness of their music, and gives strict command for their protection. Food is also daily thrown to them. But their sister, resuming her human form, goes every day to beg at the castle, like an orphan. She divides the alms with the wretched nymph, her mother, who is kept degraded and loathsome at the castle; she weeps over her and pities her, still ignorant of their relationship. Other portions of the alms she divides with the swans, her brothers, who ever meet her with joyous demonstrations. At night she returns to the castle, and sleeps with her wretched mother. It soon begins to be whispered that the orphan is like the nobleman's wife, and, questioned by him, she confesses that she knows not her parents, but tells the story of the swans, her brothers. The grandmother becomes again alarmed, and at her order the servant follows the girl to the side of the lake, where he attempts to kill her with a sword. At this juncture the noble­man, who is returning from the field, comes up, and strikes the sword out of the servant's hand. In his fear, the servant relates the whole story of the exposure of the children, the theft of the chains, and so on. The grandmother is compelled to produce the cup; the goldsmith is sent for, and the chains are restored. The swans now resume the human form, excepting the one whose chain had the battered ring;—he continued still in the form of a swan, and is the same, so celebrated in story, who, with his golden chain, draws the armed soldier in the little boat. Thus the father recovered his children, and the children were restored to their father. The degraded mother was restored to dignity, and, with care, in time recovered her former beauty, while the wicked old crone was condemned to suffer the lot she had devised for her unfortunate but innocent daughter-in-law.

This beautiful fairy tale, under the title of Helyas, the Knight of the Swan, and considerably amplified and modified, was one of the favourite romances during mediæval times. The golden chain which the damsel wore round her neck having been ob­tained by the young nobleman, and thus compelling her to submit to his will, may be compared to the feather dress of the fairies in the Persian tale of King Bahram Ghūr and the Perī Hasn Bānū, and in the better-known Arabian tale of Hasan of Basra. In like manner, in Ralston's Russian Folk Tales, a youth discovers on the sea shore twelve birds which turn into maidens, and he steals the shift of the eldest, who must, in consequence, become his wife.—In the Farö islands it is still believed that the seal casts off its skin every ninth night, and becomes a maiden; should her skin be stolen she must continue in human form. And in the Shetland islands the superstition is current (according to Hibbert) that when mermaids wish to visit the upper world, “they put on the ham, or skin, of some fish, but woe to those who lose their ham, for then are all hopes of return annihilated, and they must stay where they are.”—The six children of our tale who were deprived of their chains immedi­ately became swans, but could not return to human form until their chains were restored; yet the damsel caught bathing in the fountain, when the nobleman took possession of her chain, underwent no transformation—a piece of inconsistency common enough in fairy tales.

This tale of the Swan-Children and of the inveterate malice of their grandmother may be a Western survival of a myth which was the common heritage of the whole Aryan race. In Miss Frere's Old Deccan Days—a very entertaining collection of modern versions of ancient Indian fictions—the story of “Truth's Triumph” presents a curious parallel to the leading incident of our tale: The twelve wives of a rāja, envious of his new wife, who had borne him one hundred boys and a girl, at one time, resolve to destroy them. A nurse is bribed to throw them on a dung-heap to be devoured by rats, and put stones in their cradles. They persuade the rāja that his favourite wife has given birth to stones. The rats foster the children, but some years afterwards they are discovered and thrown into a well, and so on. Ultimately they are restored to the rāja, who puts all the envious rānīs to death.—In the Norse tale of “Twelve Wild Ducks” (who are so many princes thus transformed), the old and spiteful queen, jealous of her son's young wife Snow White and Rosy Red, takes away her baby, and accuses her to her son of having killed and eaten it. She does the same each time the princes has a baby. At length the children are discovered in a well.—And the Arabian tale of the Three Sisters who envied their Youngest Sister must be well known, in which the three baby boys and the baby girl are successively delivered to a servant to be destroyed, but are providentially preserved.

On the Eighth Morning, the king, having been again bitterly reproached by his wife for listening to the idle tales of old men, and allowing his son to live, declares that he will throw him into the flames with his own hands, if others are still un­willing to do so; but, just as he is about to commit this terrible crime, the philosopher Virgil rides up, is greeted by his pupil Luscinius, and relates the story of