Animal Brides

I will first begin my analysis with the shapeshifting and cursed animal brides who change between the forms of animals and beautiful women. Like most fairy tales, these stories follow a pattern, beginning with the supernatural bride crossing paths with the mortal groom and their subsequent marriage, following the breaking of a rule that results with the animal bride’s departure, and finally, the journey to reclaim the bride and strengthen the marriage.

This cycle is important as it shows both the Animal Bride and the Human Groom crossing over to each other’s worlds, though the latter is sometimes not the case. In many of the folktales with Animal Brides, “animal transformations are represented as temporary states, stepping-stones on the way to an authentic human identity” (Webb & Hopcroft 318). The story ends happily when the Animal Bride transforms into her human form for good, completely ridding herself of her animal form.

The youngest prince greets the white cat sitting on a chair. She, the queen of talking cats, greets him back.
Taken from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, 1889. Illustrated by G.P. Jacomb-Hood.

In stories like The White Cat and The Frog Princess, the Animal Brides completely take their places beside their grooms as true brides after their animal forms are beheaded, as the human prince of the tale does to the white cat, or burned, as the human prince of the story does to the frog princess’ skin. After the death and sacrifice of their animal forms, the brides take on beautiful human forms worthy of their human spouses, ending the story happily. Conversely, the reversion of the bride to her original, animal form is a tragic ending, as in the tale of The Crane Wife.

Many do not begin as happily either, with the human husbands kidnapping or tricking the shapeshifters to become their wives. Instead of willingly sacrificing their animal skins to become human, these Animal Brides are ripped from nature after their skins are stolen in moments of vulnerability. Tales of The Selkie Bride and The Swan Maidens both show instances where the kidnapped brides valuing their animal skins and feathers. “The seal girl was very upset when she couldn’t find her skin…and then the man…appeared holding it, but he wouldn’t give it back to her, despite her desperate entreaties” and was then forced to follow the man back to his farm.

The daughter of the Swan Maiden finds the feathered dress that her father, the Hunter, hid away from her mother.
Taken from Europa’s Fairy Book by Joseph Jacobs, 1916. Illustrated by John D. Batten

Unlike the white cat and the frog princess, the Selkie, seals who can shift into human forms when shedding their seal skins, feels an attachment to her skin to the point that she got “upset” and “desperate” for its return (Visit Faroe Islands). The Swan Maiden also “begged and begged” for the hunter to give back her feathered robe (Jacobs). Leavy also notices the desperation of the Animal Brides in her book, In Search of the Swan Maiden. “Typically, the captured brides plead urgently for the return of their stolen animal skin or clothing, and this urgency reflects their resistance not so much to society as to male domination” (Leavy 227).

While I do agree with her comment about the “urgency” being from “male domination”, I also believe that their struggle is because of how the action would pull the supernatural women from their laws and society into an unfamiliar one, which is the world of men. The action implies that it is a given for the beautiful Animal Brides to be ‘tamed’ by their mortal husbands. The second part of the fairy tales prove this claim, with the brides fleeing back to nature the moment that their pelts are back in their own hands.

Even at their happiest endings, the Animal Brides are required to shed their original forms permanently so they can completely cross over to their husband’s realm. Either through sacrifice or force, the human grooms do not fully accept their brides as such until the revelation that they can don human forms. Leavy points out that “Sometimes male sexuality is equated with nature and culture, whereas despite the critical role woman plays within culture, female sexuality (outside the context of childbearing) tends to be associated only with nature,” which results with a bride’s ascension into the role of the wife to be halted until she conforms to her husband’s desires and lifestyle (Leavy 235).