The following is based on the original German tale of Johann Musäus, as presented online by the Zeno website.
In the Erzgebirge on the current border of Germany and the Czech Republic, near the German city of Zwickau, there was a region called Schwanenfeld, which literally means “Field of Swans.” Within this region was a small body of water called Schwanenteich, or Swan Lake.
The source of the waters of Swan Lake was a magic spring, which was endowed with marvelous properties. The application of its waters could make a woman more beautiful than she was before. However, it did not work its magic on all women indiscriminately, but only those who had fairy blood in their veins.
A hermit lived in the vicinity of Swan Lake. In a garden, he planted fruit trees, melons, etc. He called himself Benno after a pious bishop of Meissen, and his reputation for piety equaled that of the bishop. People living in the area respected him and often asked him for advice in spiritual matters.
When the Margrave Friedrich sent his armies against Albert, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Benno had become old and was no longer strong enough to dig his garden in the spring. He longed for a helper whom he could trust.
His wish was unexpectedly granted when the armies of Meissen defeated the Swabian host at Lucka and sent the enemy soldiers scurrying in all directions. Friedbert, a Swabian soldier, took refuge with the hermit. Eventually he decided to become a hermit himself and gave the aged Benno the help that he needed.
At the time of the summer solstice, Benno sent Friedbert to Swan Lake. He was supposed to watch the lake and tell him if any swans made an appearance. After Friedbert reported that he had not seen any swans, Benno was in a bad mood for several days.
However, one day he saw several swans as the day drew to a close. Benno was pleased with the news, and celebrated the event with a special dinner. By this time, Friedbert had already lived with the hermit for three years and had served him well. Benno decided to reward him for his service.
First, he asked Friedbert whether he had ever been in love or if there was any woman in his life who grieved, thinking that he was dead. Friedbert truthfully replied that he had never been in love and that the only women who had ever grieved over him were his mother and sister, who shed tears when he joined the army of Emperor Albert.
Benno then said that love would be the reward of Friedbert’s faithful service. By way of explanation, Benno told his companion about his past life.
Benno had not always been a seemingly devout hermit. In his youth he was a saucy knight who did not lead a chaste and decent life. On one occasion, his amorous pursuits led to the murder of a priest. When he went to Rome for absolution, the pope commanded him to demonstrate his contrition by going to the Holy Land on three crusades. If he died before he returned, the Church would inherit all his property.
As he was sailing toward the Holy Land in a Venetian ship, a storm caused the vessel to sink in the Aegean Sea near the island of Naxos. Though the knight could not swim, he was washed ashore in miserable condition. Thanks to the kindness of the local inhabitants and the hospitality of Zeno, the duke who ruled over the Cyclades, he soon recovered.
With singular ingratitude, he conceived an unholy passion for Zoe, the wife of his benefactor. For a long time, his efforts to seduce her were unsuccessful. Every time that he arranged a rendezvous, the desired meeting did not materialize
His frustrated lust made him sick, and a doctor named Theophrast came to minister unto him. Theophrast somehow knew what troubling the knight, and revived his spirits by pointing out that people like Anchises and Tithonus succeeded in enjoying love for which they could not have entertained the slightest hope.
After his recovery, the knight renewed his adulterous enterprise. He finally succeeded in meeting her in private. However, thanks to the diligence of her husband, the attempted adultery did not take place. The knight was consigned to a deserted tower on a small island, where he would presumably starve to death. His only companions were the skeletons and half decayed bodies of previous prisoners.
The knight was not the first unsuccessful lecher whom Zeno had consigned to the tower. Zoe had not attempted to intervene on behalf of the others, but she felt sorry for this imprisoned knight. She asked her husband to spare his life. When he refused, she threatened to starve herself to death.
When her husband went hunting, Zoe sent food to the prisoner. Meanwhile, she refused to eat anything. Eventually Zeno became alarmed, and agreed to free the knight, provided that he would leave the Cyclades and never return.
Theophrast then came to release the knight from the tower. The prisoner hesitated to accept the conditions of his release until Theophrast told him about the genealogy of Zoe.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus had courted Leda in the form of a swan. Theophrast claimed that this swan was not Zeus, but a fairy. Since Zoe and some of her companions were descendants of Leda and the swan fairy, they could turn into swans whenever they wished to do so. Moreover, since they had fairy blood in their veins, they could renew their youth and beauty by flying periodically to one of three springs with magical waters. One of these springs was located in Ethiopia at the source of the Nile; another at the foot of Mt. Ararat in Asia, and another in Germany, where the waters of the spring gathered in a pool in a place called Schwanenfeld.
Theophrast advised him to go to the spring in Germany, since Zoe was accustomed to go to this site more frequently than the others. He should lie in wait at dusk and at dawn. He could easily distinguish between the transformed ladies and ordinary swans because the former had crowns of feathers on their heads.
When the swans settled on the water, they would become beautiful nymphs. On the shore, they would leave their crowns and their veils, without which they could not fly away again.
The knight would have to look carefully to see which lady was Zoe. If he then took Zoe’s crown and veil when she left them on the shore, Zoe would be in his power.
The knight followed the advice of Theophrast. When he found the magic waters of Swan Lake, he pretended to be a hermit and waited for Zoe’s arrival. When she finally appeared, he excitedly addressed her with words of love instead of stealing her crown and veil. Zoe and her companions then grabbed their veils and crowns and flew away. The knight never saw her again.
However, Zoe left behind a packet containing one of her gloves and a ring adorned with a ruby.
Benno wanted Friedbert to remain with him until his impending death and to give him a proper burial. Friedbert should then give up his hermit life and marry. Benno suggested that Friedbert could capture a good wife by stealing the veil of one of the maidens that came to Swan Lake to renew their beauty.
Friedbert followed Benno’s instructions. He stole the veil of a beautiful swan lady and brought it back to his dwelling. Since the lady did not see Friedbert when he took the veil, she did not know that he was the thief. When the maiden came looking for the veil, Friedbert pretended that he did not know anything about it and tried to win her confidence by posing as a pious hermit. Since Friedbert did not know Greek, it was initially difficult for him to communicate with the girl. However, he eventually learned that the girl’s name was Kalliste and that Zoe was her mother.
The girl was now helpless, and Friedbert permitted her to stay with him. He treated her with kindness and respected her honor. Eventually he won her heart, and she agreed to be his bride.
Friedbert then put on his soldiers clothes and took the maiden home to Swabia. Friedbert told his mother about the veil without explaining its importance.
When Friedbert left home to invite guests to the wedding, Kalliste tried on her wedding gown. The veil seemed to be unsatisfactory. Kalliste said that if she had a Greek veil with a crown, her bridle apparel would be perfect. To the shocked amazement of Kalliste, Friedbert’s mother then produced the crown and the veil that her son had stolen. Saddened by Friedbert’s deceit, she took her veil and crown, turned into a swan, and flew out the window.
When Friedbert returned home, the disappearance of his bride proved to be a traumatic experience. However, he knew that she lived on the island of Naxos and resolved to follow her.
When he arrived, he bought a horse and other necessary equipment and pretended to be a knight. Together with other knights, he entered a tourney. In spite of his inexperience, he managed to stay in the saddle when he jousted.
He happened to be wearing the ring that Zoe had left on the shore of Swan Lake. This attracted the attention of Zoe, who was still alive, though her husband was already dead. She pointed out that the ring had been hers and asked him how it came into his possession. Friedbert said that he had won it when he defeated another knight in a contest.
Zoe wanted to have her ring back, but Friedbert said that he had sworn an oath never to take the ring off his finger till he presented it to his bride on their wedding day. So they made the following agreement. Friedbert would give the ring to his bride on their wedding day. After this, the bride and bridegroom would return the ring to Zoe.
This prompted Zoe to show Friedbert the beautiful maidens of her realm, but all her efforts were in vain. Friedbert showed no interest in any of the girls he saw.
After several months, Zoe wondered whether Friedbert’s indifference might be caused by tender feelings for someone special. Friedbert admitted that this was true. He said that he was in love with a girl whose portrait he had seen in the palace. When they examined the portraits, Friedbert pointed to the picture of Kalliste.
Zoe said that it was impossible to marry her. Her heart had been ensnared by someone who was unworthy. For some reason, Zoe did not tell the truth but invented a story about a robber who had kidnapped Kalliste and won her affection. Kalliste dutifully escaped when she had the opportunity, but she would marry no one else and sadly took refuge in a cloister.
With Zoe’s permission, Friedbert visited Kalliste. At first, she repulsed him, but his appeals for forgiveness and his declarations of love eventually moved her heart.
Strictly speaking, Kalliste was not supposed to marry someone who did not belong to the nobility. However, this was only a minor problem. There were plenty of people on Naxos who could forge a noble pedigree for people who needed one. Kalliste procured a document declaring that Friedbert was a tetrarch of Swabia. (Musäus injects gentle satire into his narration throughout the work. This is a good example.)
Friedbert then felt that it was safe to tell Zoe the truth about the ring. He had inherited it from Benno when the latter died. He told Zoe about all his associations with the hermit-knight. Zoe found it easier to forgive Friedbert’s theft of her daughter’s veil when she learned that it had been instigated by Benno. She also admired Friedbert because of his faithful services to the aged knight.
Kalliste and Friedbert enjoyed a happy married life. On their golden wedding anniversary, when she still enjoyed a youthful appearance and he began to show signs of age, she earnestly wished that it were possible for him to benefit from the rejuvenating waters of Swan Lake.
Zeno: Der geraubte Schleier