Hans Christian Andersen was not a cheery person. ‘The Wild Swans’ is among the more optimistic stories he wrote and certainly my favourite. This version comes from Peter Haddock Ltd.’s Andersen’s Fairy Tales and may remind you of two different Grimm brothers’ tales on the same theme called The Twelve Brothers and The Seven Ravens. Fairy tales are like that – they all belong to the same world of roses and apples, ravens and swans, and for some unfortunate youngest daughters, losing multiple brothers to avian transformation is an occupational hazard.
Far, far away, ‘in the land to which the swallows fly in our winter-time’ (perhaps a little self-referential allusion to ‘Thumbelina’?) there is a king with eleven sons and one daughter who are pretty much perfect in every way, but like many widowed royals he is stupid enough to fall for a wicked Queen who commences an immediate vendetta against his children. She turns the boys into wild white swans and sends the little girl, Elise, into the country to be brought up by peasants. Their father’s reaction appears to be more or less ‘meh’. When Elise is fifteen, however, she is brought home as pious and beautiful as ever. Andersen waxes lyrical on her virtues for so long that it’s sort of understandable when the Queen instantly loathes her.
The king, however, has finally remembered he has a daughter and wants to see her, so instead of turning the girl into a swan like her brothers the Queen applies that popular beauty treatment…toads. Apparently while kissing frogs turns them into princes, kissing toads and hiding them in somebody’s bath will turn that person ugly and evil. Only not Elise! She’s perfect, remember? No sooner has she set foot in the bath than the toads spontaneously transform into poppies. That’s because she’s so pure of heart. The Queen realises she’ll have to do her own dirty work, quite literally, since she coats her helpless stepdaughter in walnut juice and tangles up her hair. The king, instead of maybe blaming the fact the girl’s been raised in total poverty for goodness knows how long, decides this grubby peasant can’t possibly be his daughter.
Elise doesn’t know what to do. She desperately misses her brothers but has no idea what might have happened to them, or how she can find them. Driven out into the world to fend for herself, she ends up in a great forest where she sees her reflection in still water and realises what’s happened to her. It is a bit disturbing that the brown tint of her skin is perceived as so hideous the king can’t even recognise her (not that he necessarily would anyway, this is no father of the year we’re talking about here) and that she can only restore herself to her true beauty by washing herself white again. It may be just a reflection of the Queen’s skills as a twisted make-up artist, but it is a noticeable prejudice nonetheless.
Anyway, there’s Elise, clean now but alone in the woods. All she can do is pray, and luckily for her it would seem that someone upstairs is listening. She is led to a tree heavy with wild apples, offered pretty visions of angels and cherubs to send her off to sleep, and in the morning meets with a friendly old lady who has spotted eleven white swans wearing golden crowns swimming down the brook. (Incidentally, the Queen didn’t think letting the boys keep their crowns was a giveaway at all?) Following the brook down to the sea, Elise finds eleven white feathers there on the beach, but no swans, so she settles herself to watch the sea and wait. At sunset the swans return. Elise hides to watch them and witnesses their transformation back into her brothers.
The brothers are overjoyed. They swap evil stepmother stories and brainstorm about what to do next. They decide to take their sister across the sea with them when they depart and weave her a mat from rushes which they can carry between them as they fly. When stormclouds mass, however, and the sun begins to set without any sign of land, it looks like their devotion to Elise may be the death of them all. At the last minute they alight on a rock barely large enough for them all to stand in safety. They sing a psalm for courage and set off again at sunrise. Elise witnesses floating castles up among the clouds, churches and fleets of ships. This night, though, there is solid land waiting within reach. Her brothers find a beautiful cavern in which she takes shelter for the night. She prays again and God delegates to the beautiful fairy Morgana, who lives in one of those cloud palaces and has a startling resemblance to the informative elderly lady from the forest. Surprise!
Morgana is a useful sort of person to know. She has all the answers. In order to save her brothers, Elise will have to weave each swan a shirt of stinging nettles with her delicate hands, and if she speaks so much as a syllable before her work is done her words will fall like a dagger into her brothers’ hearts. No pressure, then. Elise wakes, thanks God and sets straight to work. Returning at sunset, her brothers first blame their sister’s inexplicable behaviour on a new curse, but when they see what she is doing they realise she is trying to save them. The youngest brother weeps with gratitude and when his tears touch her blistered skin, they wash away her pain.
If you think she’ll be allowed to simply get on with things, though, you are in for a disappointment. Who should turn up but another king! He’s out hunting, spots Elyse and falls instantly in love. She cries, she wrings her hands, she couldn’t possibly be clearer without screaming at him to go away – which she can’t – but he says (and I QUOTE) “You shall thank me for this some day!” and carries her off to his palace. He dresses her up in beautiful clothes, shows off his art collection and talented musicians, but she still won’t stop crying, and she won’t talk. Finally the king gets the point and gives her back her nettles. Taking advantage of her moment of gratitude, the king orders an impromptu wedding. The Archbishop isn’t impressed. He tries to turn the king against Elise, but the king is not the listening sort and marries the girl anyway.
Elise warms to the king’s grandiose gestures now that she can work too. Every night she steals away to make the nettle shirts and when she runs out of thread, goes to the churchyard to find more nettles. Even when she comes across a group of naked witches devouring dead bodies she won’t be daunted and gets her nettles anyway. By this point she has toughened up considerably from the frightened girl who let herself be thrown out of her father’s court. Unfortunately, her midnight gathering has been witnessed by the Archbishop, who is thrilled to have some nasty gossip to feed into the king’s ear. God is not pleased; sculptures of saints in church shake their heads while the story is told, but the Archbishop interprets this as a gesture of support for his version instead. When Elise next goes to the churchyard to gather nettles, her husband and the Archbishop both follow. Assuming she is going to join the witches – I mean, she’s only his wife, why give her the benefit of the doubt? – the king refers her to the people and the people condemn her to be burnt.
But Elise has her nettles. Ignoring the taunts and abuse thrown her way, she works at the shirts until they are almost complete. On the night before her execution her brothers arrive at the castle gates, pleading to see the king, but his guards won’t wake him and the moment the sun rises the young men are once more swans who cannot speak even to save their beloved sister. Elise is dragged to the pyre and even then she is weaving, desperate to finish her work in time. The crowd see this as clinching evidence of her guilt and are gathering around to destroy the shirts when the swans swoop in to protect her. Perhaps they can’t set the king straight, but they will try to defend their sister as best they can.
In an abrupt mood swing, some of the crowd decide this means she must be innocent after all, but the executioner is unmoved. Elise takes her last chance to save her brothers. Throwing each shirt over a swan-brother’s head, even the one not quite finished, she restores them to their human shapes and finally declares her innocence. Understandably enough, she then faints. Backed up as she now is by eleven strong young men and a pyre of wood that has miraculously turned into a hedge of roses, the charges are dismissed. The king takes back his wife, the church bells ring and there’s a swarm of happy birds to complete the scene. Let’s hope they weren’t expecting her to make nettle shirts for everyone…
I’m not fond of that ending. If I’d been Elise, the very least I would expect from the king is a bit of grovelling for assuming I was, you know, a corpse-eating cannibalistic monster, but all he has to do is give her a pretty flower and everything is forgiven. The brothers, though, I love. They are loyal and loving and while she’s trying to save them, they are doing their best to save her. The evil Queen doesn’t get any further mention in the story after her plot to bring down Elise succeeds, but I think she’d better watch out. Eleven angry princes just ditched the feathers and they might be wanting their kingdom back.