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King Wivern

King Wivern,
or, an old Danish fairy tale with a happy ending

By Jeana Jorgensen

King Wivern said to his bride:
“Fair maiden, shed a shift!”
And his bride replied:
“Husband, shed a skin!”

Oh we were an unlikely match
But our romance blossomed
And for a time
We brought out the best in each other.

Shed a skin; shed a shift

I compromised this; you gave up that.
Neither of us was happy.

The king had been married before
But had killed each maiden on the wedding night
(for he was under a curse, you see)

I knew he had a past; so did I.
His past came knocking on my face
While mine got me called a slut.

When King Wivern was naked and shivering
His bride, still wearing a single shift,
Beat him with birch branches and bathed him in milk
Until he was a human prince,
Beautiful to behold.

Was he on his best behavior for me?
Or I for him?
Did we change for each other,
And then revert to our worst?
At least I never raised a hand or voice.

While King Wivern was at war,
His wife was cast out
(by a jealous mother-in-law
who said she gave birth to puppies
and hid the real children)

Where did my husband go?
The man I loved and married?
Replaced by sullen stares,
It didn’t matter what I said or did,
How often or how little we fucked.

Wandering in the forest,
The maiden met two enchanted princes:
A crane and a swan.

Lonely, done, paperwork completed,
I wandered and wove in and out of crowds
Until I shaped a homecoming amidst
New friends that felt like old.

They were under a spell:
Doomed to remain in bird form
Until a woman who had given birth
Let them nurse from her.

My hotel room.
I stripped for them, not caring
If I left on a single layer
To keep me apart, protected.

The maiden disenchanted them
By letting each bird suckle at her breast.

And I, flushed with wine and flirtation
Bent both men to my breasts
And they sucked and sipped
Until I moaned and became
Something other than a discarded wife.

King Wivern returned from war
And wondered where his wife was
And went to find her.

No more layers. No more compromises
Or complicated strip-teases to slip
Around saying what I actually want or need.
Only the magic of sweaty shared kisses.

King Wivern found his wife
Living with King Crane and King Swan
And proposed a test to see whom she preferred:
Lock her in a room without food or drink,
See whom she asked to toast her when they released her.

One kisses me above and one below
(“Save some for me,” one says, with a wicked laugh)
And I writhe, and in this perfect moment
Begin to open and to heal.

She withstands the week and emerges
And asks King Wivern to drink to her
And returns home with him, but still loves King Crane
Who dies of a broken heart.

One inside me and one without,
And we share and trade
And everyone is enamored, enchanted
And I am never going back
I will never be coerced again.
I have my two boys,
One at each breast,
This moment complete forever.

* * * 

Jeana Jorgensen holds a PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She currently teaches at a Midwestern liberal arts college, while both publishing academic research and blogging about folklore topics, feminism, and sex education. She directs a dance troupe, Indy Tribal, and her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling. Her personal essay about divorce was published in Split: true stories about the end of marriage and what happens next. She can be found on Twitter as @foxyfolklorist and her blog is located at

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?
As a folklorist, I research expressive culture from all over the world, so there are always snippets of intriguing materials floating around my brain. Most of my research is on gender and sexuality in fairy tales, though, so I’m especially drawn to retell fairy tales in ways that both expose contemporary audiences to tales they might not have encountered before, and that rework some of the gender roles and sexual scripts from classical fairy tales that promote heteronormative patterns.

What inspires you to write and keep writing? 
I can’t not write. I’ve journaled since I was a teenager, and blogged since college, and written fiction and poetry since I was a kid (I took a break from that to focus on academic writing when I started my PhD program, but I’m nurturing my creative writing again, finally). As a folklorist I’m keenly aware of how the stories we’re exposed to model patterns of behavior and being that become normative over time, so my hope is that through writing, I can provide glimpses into alternatives that are more liberating. And indeed, some of those alternatives have been around for centuries, in folktale collections that simply aren’t well known today, but from which I draw my inspiration for my poetry.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre? 
What counts as “fantasy” is culturally relative; while most cultures have storytelling genres that are more realistic and others that are more fantastic, none of these are universally found everywhere. Fantastic works implicitly make statements about reality and irreality not just when it comes to the laws of physics, but also about deeply held cultural norms and values. In my view, the best fantasy consciously disrupts social norms by introducing fantastic elements, and while writers may not spell out every departure for the reader, they’ve clearly thought through the implications, and hopefully also challenged some of the most mundane aspects of the fabric of society while they’re at it.

What advice do you have for other writers? 
Know yourself. Cultivate the habits that work best according to your temperament, and find workarounds for the areas where you know you’re less motivated or less apt. For example, I know that I have the mental energy to get a lot of writing done in the mornings. I can be a morning person if I force myself to go to bed and wake up earlier, so I prioritize that pattern when it’s feasible (e.g. not the end of the semester).