When Bjork came to the Academy Awards in 2001 and walked down the red carpet dressed in a swan costume, cameras flashed, people gasped. Swan trickery and transformation have preoccupied writers and artists for centuries. From Greek mythology—Zeus, in swan guise, seduces and impregnates Leda, made famous in the W.B. Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan” in which he is brutish as a swan: “her nape caught in his bill.” This salacious episode has been depicted numerous times by artists from da Vinci to Correggio to Moreau.
The often smooth and alluring swan with its question-mark neck has kept us guessing. In a Native American tale a young maiden appears in the form of a red swan to a hunter, yet remains untouched by his pursuing arrows. Often evil forces lurk beneath the enigmatic swan as in the Grimms’ tale The Six Swans, later retold in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans. Here, a number of brothers have been put under a spell by their cruel stepmother and turned into swans. Their sister has the prickly task of knitting them sweaters of nettle in order to change them back to their human form.
Perhaps our best-known swan masquerade is the ballet Swan Lake, music by Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa (first performed in 1895). In this narrative, a prince discovers and falls in love with the swan maiden, Odette, who has been turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. Later in the story, Von Rothbart presents his daughter Odile, a black swan, to the prince, and he is tricked into believing she is his beloved Odette. In Matthew Bourne’s wildly provocative, up-to-date restaging of Swan Lake (first presented in 1995), a male swan seduces the prince. This irresistible version also consists of an all-male swan corps de ballet. They aren’t wearing pointe shoes, however, that’s only for females.
This edition of Fairy-Tale Files is brought to you by Grey Issue contributor Molly Bendall.