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MelusineI was reading this post at J. Matthew Saunders’ blog, and it got me thinking about the paradigm of the maiden who isn’t what she seems. In the post, Saunders introduces us (well, me, at least) to the Melusine – a water spirit that appears as a lovely maiden, only to be revealed as a supernatural creature when her husband breaks his word. It’s interesting to read a little bit between the lines.

In looking over a few other versions to the story, some common elements jump out:

  • Pursuit, at least to the extent of a young man interrupting a maiden, chasing after her (in one way or another), and marrying her.
  • The maiden exacts a promise from him, that he not see her on Saturdays.
  • They build a home together, often through the maiden’s magic.
  • The children are flawed, or monstrous.
  • The husband becomes suspicious and breaks his promise.
  • When he spies on his wife and sees her true form, she becomes a dragon and flees.
  • The husband is unhappy.
  • The monstrous maiden is banished, but still seeks a faithful mate.

There’s a lot under the surface, here. The first thing that occurred to me was the idea of a warning to a young man, that a woman – though alluring – may not be what she seems – that seems to be the broad stroke. Beyond that, though, there’s the promise that he breaks, which puts some of the responsibility for the dissolution of the relationship on him. It’s often others who convince the husband to spy on his wife, which brings up the idea of peer or societal pressure: under the surface, is the message that a good marriage always has some secrets, and that not respecting your partner’s boundaries may yield truths that you don’t want to hear? That a husband and wife, if they’re happy together, should make that relationship – and its success – their primary focus, rather than listening to the gossip of others? That’s a nice thought, but a bit modern.

I’m more likely to see the story as one framed in the context of courtly love and propriety, a warning to a young man to stick to a woman he knows (or perhaps one that’s picked for him), because strange women, though they may seem charming, have secrets that may destroy not only him, but his family (the children of the union are flawed), and possibly his home (the fairy maiden may have built him a castle, which is subject to destruction after her secret is revealed).

I’ve love to learn the origin of this story – the kernel that’s probably long gone – because there are conflicting messages: on one hand, the maiden is ultimately monstrous, but on the other, the marriage is happy, and both are miserable when it’s over. It’s hard not to assume that at some point there was an original story, and along the way, messages were layered in from different sources and for different reasons, resulting in a story with built in contradictions, open to interpretation. What first jumped out at me, though, was the pursuit of the maiden and the revelation that she isn’t what she seems; it’s hard not to see that as the main theme.