Title: Children Into Swans
Author: Jan Beveridge
Published: 15 October 2014
Publisher: McGill-Queens University Press
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: non-fiction, literary studies
European fairytales are full of outlandish stories and tropes that have now become so commonplace that few question their many oddities. Children Into Swans aims to explore the origins of the fantasies we often find in these stories – creatures like ogres, giants and trolls, tropes such as triads, spells and prophecies, and plots involving humans turning into animals or being led into beautiful parallel worlds where time moves at a different pace.
The simple answer is that all these things and more existed in older stories. Author Jan Beveridge is particularly interested in Celtic and Norse mythology and folklore, so this book provides a run-down of those stories, and their connections to pre-Christian cultures.
And that’s all there is to it really. The blurb advertises a discussion of the link between the pagan world and fairy tale, but that doesn’t go much deeper than Beveridge confirming that fairy tales were borne of older stories from pre-Christian cultures. Most of the book is spent describing these stories, while discussion of actual religious and cultural practices is relegated to a few chapters on festival days, like Samain or Midsummer. Quite often, Beveridge shies away from discussions on pagan practices, with statements like:
it is not productive or even possible to try to define the role of the elves in pagan beliefs
Usually, associating the stories of the gods in mythology with actual religious beliefs is not useful, since so little evidence of pre-Christian religion remains.
There is no knowing what obscure winter rite or concept of dark powers is reflected in the Midwinter stories, or where the prevailing theme of encounters with trolls, giants, ghosts, and monsters on Christmas Eve came from.
Having decided to tread carefully when talking about pagan religious practices, Beveridge ends up giving many more examples of Christianised folklore, such as elves and fairies who can’t enter churches, curses that are broken through baptism, or the death of old mythical worlds in the face of Christian belief.
The way this information is presented is somewhat amateurish. The book is composed largely of lists of facts and examples in paragraph form. A topic is identified – eg. humans making bargains with fairies, or fairies and babies – and Beveridge briefly describes its qualities and/or the way it manifests in stories. Something like this:
Conditions of any bargain with the fairies were hard. From time to time, a human was forced into a promise that resulted in losing an only son or first-born child to them, which was another way they could take a human child. One thing that fairies appeared especially to care about was honour in keeping to a bargain; a promise to a fairy had a sanctity about it like a sacred oath.
There are a great many folk tales of newborn babies, not yet baptized, who are stolen and replaced in their cradles with weak and starving fairy children called changelings, which stay small, sickly, and deformed. There are also stories of healthy young mothers taken away from their families to attend upon fairies who require the care of a mortal midwife and human milk for their babies. A woman who helps the fairies in this way may be given a little bag with instructions not to open it until she returns home. Then she finds it is full of fairy gold, and the family can live on that until the end of their days.
Occasionally, the entire text of a story is presented as an example of a creature or trope, but this often seems pretty random. She seldom states why she chooses to offer a particular story to illustrate one idea but not another, since there are always multiple options. It could simply be that the stories printed in full are her favourites. Whatever the case, the inclusion of these stories is one of the better things about this book, but they’re still pitifully wasted in that Beveridge never offers a close reading of them. She just states what trope will be found in the story, gives us the text, and then carries on listing stuff. There is so much more in each of these stories than whatever trope they’re meant to illustrate, but if you want to get any more from them, you’ll have to do your own reading and research.
On the whole, Beveridge comes off as a rather timid academic. It’s not just that she doesn’t do offer close readings of key texts; she almost never offers her own conclusions, period. She just lays the facts before us, seldom providing deeper insights or interpretations. When she does, she usually pulls some uninspired quote from another writer, or makes some forgettably generic statement, often to conclude a chapter.
All this makes it pretty tedious to read. There’s nothing demanding about it, but after even a short chapter listing the characteristics of giants, household spirits, or whatever, your mind just starts to wander. It’d actually be so much more enjoyable to read a more complex text that explores these ideas in greater depth because then you’d have something to engage with, rather then just facing an onslaught of basic information.
Reservations aside, however, this book isn’t without merit. Beveridge might not have drawn any of her own conclusions or offered in-depth readings, but she has collected a wealth of basic information on Celtic and Norse folklore and mythology. Unless you’re already very well-acquainted with the topic, it’s impossible not to pick up at least a few interesting tidbits or get a feel for how old and influential these ideas are. Beveridge also notes that these stories influenced Tolkien, and I enjoyed seeing just how much LOTR and The Hobbit borrows from Celtic and Norse mythology. It’s also easy to see that these stories still form the building blocks of some contemporary fantasy.
Now that I think about it, that’s the appeal of this book – trivia. It’s not a discussion, but a collection of teeny snippets of information. It reads like a series of Wikipedia pages, but Wikipedia pages have their uses. I would never read this cover to cover again, but I would certainly re-read a specific chapter as an introduction to a particular topic, before digging deeper. If you’re looking for a reference work or introductory text, this might be a good choice, although personally I’d take a good look at other options first.