One of my favourite authors is Philippa Gregory, an established historian and writer. The Plantagenet and Tudor novels to be precise. She has a way of writing that keeps me glued to a book! And the few that I personally own I have read over and over again.
Of the ones in my collection there are two books that flows one into the other with the legend/myth/fable/story of Melusina. First is The Lady of the Rivers and the follow up continuation of this particular story and timeline is The White Queen. As the novels unfold regarding the historical characters and events played out during this era, you are introduced to Melusina. A water goddess that gave up her life in the water to be with the man she loves. I have googled and read some of the interpretations of Melusina, but again and again I come back to the one that Philippa Gregory has so vividly and with so much emotion and wisdom brought to life for me.
Below is taken from her book The White Queen. You read snippets of it throughout the book as the story unfolds. I have simply pieced it together to share it with you. I find it difficult to explain how deeply this hit home for me. At the back of the book The White Queen there is a section called A Conversation with Philippa Gregory and one of the questions was regarding Melusina and in her own words “I re-tell the story here in a way that speaks to my characters, and to me”. Read it for yourself and let me know how this made you feel. What did you take away from it? Would love to hear from you.
Thank you Philippa Gregory. You have a way with words that few can equal.
Read more about Philippa Gregory and see her amazing work at www.philippagregory.com .
In the darkness of the forest the young knight could hear the splashing of the fountain long before he could see the glimmer of moonlight reflected on the still surface. He was about to step forward, longing to dip his head, drink in the coolness, when he caught his breath at the sight of something dark, moving deep in the water. There was a greenish shadow in the sunken bowl of the fountain, something like a great fish, something like a drowned body. Then it moved and stood upright and he saw, frighteningly naked: a bathing woman. Her skin as she rose up, water coursing down her flanks, was even paler than the white marble bowl, her wet hair dark as a shadow.
She is Melusina, the water goddess, and she is found in hidden springs and waterfalls in any forest in Christendom, even in those as far away as Greece. She bathes in the Moorish fountains too. They know her by another name in the norther countries where the lakes are glazed with ice and it crackles when she rises. A man may love her if he keeps her secret and lets her alone when she wants to bathe, and she may love him in return until he breaks his word, as men always do, and she sweeps him into the deeps with her fishy tail, and turns his faithless blood to water.
The tragedy of Melusina, whatever language tells it, whatever tune it sings, is that a man will always promise more than he can do to a woman he cannot understand.
In the darkness of the forest he saw her, and whispered her name, Melusina, and at that summoning she rose out of the water and he saw that she was a woman of cool and complete beauty to the waist, and below that she was scaled, like a fish. She promised him that she would come to him and be his wife, she promised him that she would make him as happy as a mortal woman can,she promised him that she would curb her wild side, her tidal nature, that she would be an ordinary wife to him, a wife that he could be proud of; if he in return would let her have a time when she could be herself again, when she could wash away the drudgery of a woman’s lot and be, for just a little while, a water goddess once more. She knew that being a mortal woman is hard on the heart, hard on the feet, She knew that she would need to be alone in the water, under the water, the ripples reflected on her scaly tail now and then. He promised her that he would give her everything, everything she wanted, as men in love always do. And she trusted him despite herself, as women in love always do.
When the goddess Melusina fell in love with the knight he promised her that she would be free to be herself if she would only be his wife. They settled it that she would be his wife and walk on feet but once a month, she might go to her own chamber, fill a great bath with water, and, for one night only, be her fishy self. And so they lived in great happiness for many years. For he loved her and he understood that a woman cannot always live as a man. He understood that she could not always think as he thought, walk as he walked, breath the air that he took in. She would always be a different being from him, listening to a different music, hearing a different sound, familiar with a different element. He understood that she needed her time alone. He understood that she had to close her eyes and sink beneath the glimmer of the water and swish her tail and breath through her gills and forget the joys and the trials of being a wife – just for a while, just once a month. They had children together, and they grew in health and beauty; he grew more prosperous and their castle was famous for its wealth and grace. It was famous also for the great beauty and sweetness of its lady, and visitors came from far away to see the castle, its lord, and its beautiful mysterious wife.
Melusina’s mortal husband loved her, but she puzzled him. He did not understand her nature and he was not content to live with a woman who was a mystery to him. He allowed a guest to persuade him to spy on her. He hid behind the hangings in her bath house and saw her swim beneath the water of her bath, saw – horrified – the gleam of ripple on scales, learnt her secret: that although she loved him, truly loved him, she was still half woman and half fish. He could not bear what she was, and she could not help but be who she was. So he left her, because in his heart he feared that she was a woman with a divided nature – and he did not realize that all women care creatures of divided nature. He could not stand to think of her secrecy, that she had a life hidden from him. He could not, in fact, tolerate the truth that Melusina was a woman who knew the unknown depths, who swam in them.
Poor Melusina, who tried so hard to be a good wife, had to leave the man who loved her and go back to the water, finding the earth too hard. Like many women, she was unable to fit exactly with her husband’s view. Her feet hurt: she could not walk in the path of her husband’s choosing. She tried to dance to please him, but she could not deny the pain. She is the ancestress of the royal house of Burgundy, and we, her descendants, will try to walk in the paths of men, and sometimes we too find the way unbearably hard.
When he saw her, the water lapping on her scales, head down in the bath he had built especially for her, thinking that she would like to wash – not revert to fish – he had that instant revulsion that some men feel when they understand, perhaps for the first time, that a woman is truly ‘other’. She is not a boy though she is weak like a boy, nor a fool though he has seen her tremble with feeling like a fool. She is not a villain in her capacity to hold a grudge, nor a saint in her flashes of generosity. She is not any of these male qualities. She is a woman. A thing quite different to a man. What he saw was a half-fish, but what frightened him to his soul was the being which was woman.
Melusina, the woman who could not forget her element of water, left her sons with her husband, went away with her daughters. The boys grew to be men, dukes of Burgundy, rulers of Christendom. The girls inherited their mother’s Sight and her knowledge of things unknown. She never saw her husband again, she never ceased to miss him; but at the hour of his death, he heard her singing for him. He knew then, as she knew always, that it does not matter if a wife is half fish, if a husband is all mortal. If there is love enough, then nothing – not nature, not even death itself – can come between two who love each other.