- Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination by Jan Beveridge
From the nineteenth century, the transformation of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s philological project into a collection of nursery tales, fairy tales, and folklore has been of almost as much interest to critics as the tales are to the general reader. Recent scholarship on fairy tales excavates their political implications; studies the mechanisms of their transmission across time, space, and language; and considers the ways in which particular social and historical contexts inform them. Jan Beveridge’s highly readable Children into Swans alternates storytelling with analysis as it enumerates the pagan character types, motifs, and plots that resurface in the literary fairy tale.
The book is divided into four parts. Part One surveys the history of the tellers and tales of the “Celtic and Norse pre-Christian tradition,” Beveridge explains, because these cultures’ comparatively early production of vernacular literature means that the fairy tale’s oldest print antecedents can be found in Ireland and Iceland. Accordingly, she locates the story of Connla, recognizably an ancestor of the fairy tale, in The Book of the Dun Cow (ca. 1100), the oldest Irish-language manuscript. In each chapter of the book’s second, third, and fourth parts, adaptations of Celtic and Norse tales are interwoven with historical and literary scholarship, charming the reader as they illustrate Beveridge’s points. Part Two, “Characters,” devotes one chapter each to illuminating the pagan ancestry of the fairies, elves, dwarfs, household spirits, water dwellers, giants, and souls and spirits that populate fairy tales. Unique for its focus on the calendar, Part Three, “Stories from the Pagan Year,” focuses on tales told on festival days, Beltane, Samhain, and at Midwinter and Midsummer. Part Four, “Storytellers’ Themes,” guides readers through tales that centre on “Wishing, or Dreams Come True,” “The Triple Form,” “Shape-Shifting,” “Omens and Prophecies,” the liminal space “Between Two Worlds,” “Spells,” “Trees,” and “The Invisible World.” [End Page 399]
The book’s final chapter, “A Fairy Tale Almost Forgotten,” introduces readers to the Norse story “The Dwarfs’ Banquet.” Like many of the tales Beveridge considers, this one has a storied history of its own: it was translated from Norse to Danish to German to English as it passed from a bishop named Friedrich Christian Münter to Wilhelm Grimm and to the Irish folklorist Thomas Keightley, whose translation is reprinted in Children into Swans. Here, the giant Andfind is condemned by Oluf the Holy—who, Beveridge notes, is remembered historically as Olaf II—to “stand … as a stone, till the last day,” a curse that can be broken once per year for only seven hours. During one such transformation, however, Oluf overhears a mother blessing her infant and is thereby ossified for eternity. This is a fitting end to a study of the pagan elements that have been absorbed and appropriated by more recent narrative traditions.
The book contains a pronunciation guide that will likely be quite useful to many of its readers. Equally welcome is a wide-ranging selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Ruth B. Bottigheimer’s indispensable Fairy Tales: A New History (2008), which makes a rigorous argument for a historicized and text-based history of the fairy tale, is curiously absent from this. Unfortunately, depth of analysis is occasionally sacrificed to the book’s admirable breadth. For example, Beveridge argues that “The Dwarfs’ Banquet” ultimately “convey[s] the magic still lingering at the very edge of [its protagonists’] world” but does not consider the ways in which this story of Christian imperialism and repeated invasions—Oluf’s decree follows the giants’ forced relocation by Odin, and Orm, the mother who utters the fatal blessing, is a guest in the home of Andfind’s wife, Guru—might invite postcolonial readings. Similarly, though the book relies on other writers’ versions of its focal tales, little consideration is given to the ways in which these translations are culturally and historically mediated. Finally, Children into Swans sometimes veers into mythologizing the fairy tale itself: while it is demonstrably true...