Saturday, August 3, 2019

StorySpotting: Swan Sisters (Big Little Lies)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

The second season of HBO's Big Little Lies just ended, and this gives me an excuse to explore a certain story motif in folklore.

Where was the story spotted?

Technically in Big Little Lies season 1, episode 7 (You get what you need), but also kind of the entire show

What happens?

Celeste, one of of the group of five women who make up the main cast of the show, lives in an abusive relationship. Her husband beats and assaults her regularly, until she decides that she wants to leave him. He finds out, and the whole story comes to a confrontation at a party, where it is also discovered that the husband raped one of the other women, Jane. All five women get into a physical fight with the man when he tries to attack Celeste, they gang up on him, until finally one of them, Bonnie, pushes him down a flight of stairs, and he dies.

What's the story?

They are rare and far between, but there are some traditional stories in world folklore where women gang up on abusive men to protect each other. In the Cambridgeshire folktale of The Wounded Swan, a hunter shoots down one of seven swans. The wounded bird turns into a beautiful woman, and the hunter forces her to become his wife. However, when her wound is healed, she turns back into an angry hissing swan, chases the man out of the house, where her six swan sisters drown him in the fen. Marrying captured swan women is a very common motif in folklore (Thompson D361.1), but it usually happens without retribution.

Another example, while not a folktale per se, is still pretty great: it happens the Arthurian romance of Cligés, written by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century. The climax of this story resembles that of Romeo and Juliet. Fenice, married to an emperor, decides to run away with her lover Cligés by faking her own death. Once she takes the magic potion of her governess, however, three doctors show up at court, and claim that she is not really dead, promising to bring her back to life if they are left alone with the body. Once alone with poor unconscious Fenice, the three (male) doctors begin to torture and assault her, threatening to do unspeakable things if she does not wake up. They are about to roast her above the fire when "a thousand ladies who have been waiting outside the door" peek in, and see what is happening. They "brought axes and hammers to break down and pulverize the door," rushed into the room with the witch-governess Thessala among them, and "without summoning or awaiting he emperor or his senechal, they flung [the doctors] out of the windows down into the courtyard." Chrétien notes: "No ladies ever did better!"

Yet another story features birds instead of women, but I like to think they are female birds. In the Papua New-Guinean folktale about How cassowaries obtained their colors, a woman is stalked by a strange man. He eventually kills her and cuts her up, but her favorite pig drags the body parts to a fruit tree where cassowaries gather to eat. The cassowaries feel pity and bring her back to life, and when she tells them her story, they decide to take revenge. When the man shows up again, the cassowaries descend on him and kick him to death. In return, they ask the woman to give them some color. She paints them bright blue, red, and yellow, and they have been proudly carrying those colors ever since.

Finally, a more dubious example: The Siren Wife from Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales. In this one, a sailor leaves his wife at home, and when he doesn't return for a long time she is seduced by a king. Eventually, she returns to her husband, but he grabs her by the hair and tosses her into the sea in revenge for her adultery. The woman is rescued from drowning by Sirens, who teach her how to sing, and even lure her cruel husband down into the water. She, however, feels pity for him, and eventually husband and wife end up rescuing each other. I was never quite on board with the ending of this story, but I love the idea of Sirens being the souls of women who were wronged.


I am not condoning violence against anyone. I'm just saying that with so many traditional stories portraying abuse as something acceptable or even romantic, it is refreshing to see women in tale and legend occasionally sticking up for each other.


  1. Reminds me of Giselle too.
    Also cassowaries are (fondly?) known as 'murder birds' The PNG tale sort of sets it up that they now have permanent warpaint and are poised ready to take revenge, any place, any time...
    All awesome stuff - thanks for this. Love this series. :D