The (Al)Lure of Queen Swanwhite

Queen Swanwhite

[Jewel] spoke of Swanwhite the Queen who had lived before the days of the White Witch and the Great Winter, who was so beautiful that when she looked into any forest pool the reflection of her face shone out of the water like a star by night for a year and a day afterwards.

This one-sentence toss-off from Jewel the Unicorn in The Last Battle is all the reader gets to know of Queen Swanwhite. When I read the book as a young teen, that’s all I took of it, too. A way for the writer to relieve the grimness and reassure  young readers that Narnia wasn’t all dark, there were plenty of moments of light and numerous untold, exotic stories that happened in the centuries leading up until the end. As Lewis told a young fan after the publication of the book, “Why not try it (telling an untold story) yourself?”

Yet, to me, it came off as bittersweet.

Swanwhite is intriguing because she is the only monarch of Narnia the reader does not meet in the books, and because her reign dates from the mysterious period between Narnia’s founding and the coming of the White Witch. That is, if you go by what Jewel says. Lewis’s historical timeline of Narnia, published after his death, states she reigned after the Pevensies.

Swanwhite herself seems confused on the matter. Artwork by Trefle Rouge.

Me? Lewis just didn’t keep of things very well and slipped up on the minutiae, something even modern fantasy writers have done. I’ll stick to the pre-White Witch date for her, thanks.

Even more interesting is why Lewis would choose to mention a Queen with the name of Swanwhite, exalt her as a great beauty, and have her reflection be her claim to fame, or notoriety.

On the surface it seems like he is retreating to his Medieval Romance and fairy tale roots and using hyperbole. I mean, come on, in the traditional telling of “Snow White” the heroine’s “skin white as snow, lips red as blood” isn’t meant to be taken literally. Such a creature would look ghoulish, or like some bizarre mime. It’s just a way of elevating pale skin and plump, healthy lips. Remember Medieval Europe loved its whiteness. It wasn’t racial — the concept of a Caucasian race didn’t even exist back then — but classist, a way to elevate cleanliness, purity, and nobility, as opposed to the unwashed, uncouth, sun-browned peasants laboring in the fields. Clean, white clothing was a sign of status; there wasn’t much in the way of bleaching (or soap) back then, and it was expensive. Clean, white (pale) skin meant a woman lived protected from the elements and was cared for and cherished.

What else has comparable whiteness and beauty? Swans. Which may or may not have been clean, but they certainly looked it.

Swan Queen, by Lhianne

Even more interesting is what Queen Swanwhite is known for: the retention of her reflection in a body of water, which means she must have looked into that body of water intent on admiring herself, like Narcissus.

Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse, 1903

For those unfamiliar with the myth, the gist of it is this. Narcissus, a handsome youth, falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Entranced and unable to look away, he forgets to eat and drink and so dies, leaving behind the little white and gold flower of spring, the narcissus or daffodil. There are many variations, such as Narcissus killing himself instead of starving, or the one Waterhouse depicted above, in which the nymph Echo, herself fading away to a mere voice from love of him, curses him to die likewise. The latter gave the English language the word Echo and also Narcissist, meaning a person too occupied with themselves to relate properly to others. There have many depictions of Narcissus in classical art over the years — mainly because it gave artists an excuse to lovingly depict a naked or near-naked good-looking young man — but IMO this one is the most potent. Not only do the figures look very modern, but for the sheer desperation of how Narcissus stares into that pool, all his muscles on edge as if he means to slither right into it and have coitus with his watery double.

I think Lewis was too much of a mythological scholar for this to be a bit of offhand local color. To my mind he was riffing on the theme and making it less sinister. Instead of Swanwhite falling in love with her reflection, it’s the water that falls in love with her and retains her presence, as conveyed in the watercolor at the beginning of this post.

However, even though Swanwhite remains alive, it still suggests a form of vanity. How did she feel about this odd power of hers? Maybe it’s me, but I’ve always thought she was in the habit of gazing at herself whenever she was out and about, perhaps lounging around some forest pond while combing her hair. Turning away, she goes on with her business, but the water retains an imprint. What should be ephemerel turns out not to be.

Such an ability might be a curse, even. Suppose Swanwhite came upon a reflection of herself from a year earlier, and so notes the subtle changes of time on her once-perfect face? Or that, a year earlier, she had been happier and younger? Like a reversed, short-term version of the Portrait of Dorian Gray, the water shows her a self unaffected by the passage of time.

(I just noticed on re-reading the passage that it’s unclear if the reflection shines out by night only, and glows like a star, or shines out 24/7 while glowing like a star. Another example of unclear wording. Thanks, Lewis!)

Perhaps because she can’t wipe out her own reflection, the character has a tragic feel, even though so little is said of her. The other great Swan Queen, that of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, contributes to this: the lovely Odette has been cursed by the sorcerer Von Rothbart to be a swan by day and a woman by night. Young Prince Siegfried almost shoots her on a hunting trip, but when she turns into a human, he falls for her, and she tells him the curse on her and her swan ladies-in-waiting can only be broken by a pledge of true love.  Determined to marry her, he returns to his castle, only to find Von Rothbart with a Swan Queen lookalike, the wicked Odile, aka The Black Swan, who entrances him with many leaps and plies. The prince pledges himself to her thinking she’s Odette, but the deception is revealed… but not before the real Odette, watching from a window, runs away to her lake and the other swan maidens. The prince follows and explains to her the mistake, but then the sorcerer appears, there’s a fight, and the prince and Odette jump into the lake together, and drown. (Depending on the director, there’s often a happier ending to the story.)

Swanwhite’s beauty: A blessing or a curse? Artwork by Hang Luo.

The story of the Swan Queen may have been cribbed from a fairy tale called “The Stolen Veil” and altered by the composer for his purposes. He may also have been inspired by the Bavarian King Ludwig II, who lived in a dreamworld of operatic fantasy and took the swan as his personal symbol. Known as The Swan King, he was most likely gay, adding to the tragedy, and committed suicide, many think, by drowning himself in the lake by his castle of Berg. But there’s also evidence he was murdered.

The young King Ludwig looking angsty

Ludwig was the patron of the German composer Richard Wagner and without him, The Ring of the Nibelung might never have been written. But Ludwig was more than a patron, he was Wagner’s number one fan, even indulging in cosplay way before there was a word for it. In the illustration below, likely based on a photograph, he is dressed as The Swan Knight from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, who arrives to save the day in a boat pulled by one of the birds. Not only that, Ludwig actually created a place for this cosplay: The Blue Venus Grotto, in the grounds of his palace of Linderhof.

As in Swan Lake, Lohengrin ends in high tragedy. The Swan Knight has forbidden any who know him to ask him his real name and his birthplace, but when his new wife, whom he has cleared of the charge of murder, does, the Knight states he must return to his birthplace, leaving his wife to die of sorrow and shock — the swan pulling the Knight’s boat was actually her younger brother under the spell of a pagan sorceress. Alas!

Ludwig’s death occurred little over a decade before Lewis’s birth year of 1898. But it was likely the monarch’s death and affinity for swans was still in the news, and being a Medieval scholar as well, I am sure Lewis was well familiar with the motif of The Swan Knight in chivalric literature. Though Lewis did not state Queen Swanwhite met a similar fate, it’s interesting that he chose to mention her only during the tragic, apocalyptic events of The Last Battle.

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