The Wild Swans
This story is another one of those stories that is going to sound really familiar. There are at least a couple Grimm’s Fairy Tales that sound an awfully lot like this story, or the other way around.
Once upon a time there was a king who had twelve children. His wife was dead. The oldest eleven were boys and the youngest was a girl named Eliza. The king married again, but his new wife did not like his children. On the wedding day she gave the children a cup and told them to pretend it was cake. She soon sent Eliza off to live with a peasant family and convinced the king that his sons were no good. She turned them into swans. They had all been very good children, so there was really no reason for any of this.
The swans flew by the cottage where their sister lived. She was playing with a green leaf because that was her only toy. She poked a hole in the leaf and saw her brothers’ true form. The evil queen wanted to turn the girl into a swan as well, but the king wanted to see his daughter, so she could not turn Eliza into a swan. Everyone always talked about how great Eliza was and how pretty she was and this made the queen jealous. The queen went and got Eliza, determined to make her be awful in her father’s eyes. At first she put Eliza in the bath in a very nice bathroom. She had three frogs. One frog was to sit on her head to make her stupid. Another frog was supposed to sit on her face to make her ugly. The last frog was supposed to sit on her heart to make her mean. The queen put the frogs in the water, but none of it worked. Eliza was too pure for the evil of the frogs to work on her. Instead of doing these awful things to Eliza the frogs turned into red poppies.
The queen then decided to go another route. She rubbed walnut oil into Eliza’s skin and messed up her hair. She made Eliza ugly. The king said that this was not his daughter and sent her away. Eliza walked and walked and walked. She walked in the dark with the animals and dreamed about her brothers. She came to a lake and looked at herself. She was ugly. She washed herself off and became a beautiful princess again. Eliza came upon an old woman the next day. She asked the woman if she had seen eleven princes riding through the forest and the old woman said, no, but she had seen some swans with crowns on their heads. She gave Eliza some berries.
Eliza came to the shore of the sea and found eleven white swan feathers. She gathered them up. Near sunset she saw eleven white swans flying towards her. They sat down on the ground and became men. They were her brothers. She was very happy to see them and they were happy to see her. They told her that they had been turned into wild swans and turned back into men in the evening. They lived far away. Their journey was long. They must fly all day and stop on a rock half-way for the night. The next day they must fly all day again. They told her that they are only allowed to come to this place every so often to search for their family and then they could only stay two days.
They spoke the whole night about the situation. It was determined that Eliza would go with the brothers to their home. They wove a net to carry Eliza across the sea. When they were swans again they carried the net between them with Eliza in it. The journey was not a nice one and it seemed to take forever. They barely made it to the rock. There they had to huddle the entire night, awake, for fear that one of them might fall off into the waves. The next day they flew on. Eliza was able to see many mirages upon the sea. They finally made it to real land. There they went to a cave.
Eliza dreamed and a fairy came to her; it was very much like the old lady that had helped Eliza before. The fairy told Eliza that her brothers could be released. She should gather nettle plants from grave plots. When she broke them up they would turn into flax, which Eliza could weave into cloth. She must make coats for each of the eleven brothers. During this whole thing she could not speak a word, otherwise her brothers would be doomed forever. Eliza got to work right away and did not speak.
A king soon found her in the cave, but Eliza couldn’t say anything out of fear she would doom her brothers. The king took her away to his castle. He didn’t know what Eliza was on about with the nettles, but he let her keep her work. She made ten of the coats, but it turned out she was one short. She would have to go out and gather more nettles from the graveyard. The people of the town, and especially the archbishop, did not like Eliza. The king voice his intentions to marry Eliza; he liked her very much. The archbishop didn’t like this mess even more and started a rumor that Eliza was a witch. She could not defend herself because she could not speak. She snuck off to the graveyard to gather more nettles. Someone saw her and this was enough evidence to condemn her as a witch.
The archbishop brought the news to the king, but the king could not condemn her to death himself; he said that the people must do it. They wanted her to die and so she was sentenced to burn at the stake. She worked feverishly all night in her cell before the morning of her execution to finish the eleventh coat. In the morning she was drawn to the execution site in a wagon and dressed in rough clothing. She worked even in the wagon on the coat.
As she was about to be put to death, eleven swans flew down. She threw the coats over their backs and they turned back into men. The youngest still had a swan wing because a sleeve of his coat was not all the way finished. After they were turned back into men she was able to speak. The brothers told the king and everyone about what had happened to them. The king went through with the marriage.
There is a Grimm’s Fairy Tale very similar to this story with six swans. The sister is silent for many years, seven I believe, in order that they may turn back into men. We’ve already discussed how it is that it’s always a woman who has to be quiet. In this story, it isn’t something Hans made up; it was already a tradition and Hans was just retelling the story in his own words.
Hans uses the term fata morgana again. We have already stated that this means a mirage. I’m wondering if mirages were really common on the sea by Denmark. I’m going to have to look into it. As a Dane, there is a good chance that Hans had been on the sea. He’d probably been on a boat lots of times crossing from Copenhagen to mainland Denmark, or the rest of Europe. He might have encountered sea mirages himself.
There is a word Hans uses in this story, which I am familiar with, but not that familiar with. He uses it in this sentence, “There was a sweet fragrance from the fresh green verdure, and the birds almost perched upon her shoulders.” The word I’m pointing out is verdure. Basically verdure means the greenness of living things, mainly plants. It’s just a fancy way of saying that things are alive.
Hans makes this story more personal. In the Grimm’s Fairy Tales there were rarely names and if there were, they were the names of men, not women. This story is much shorter in the Grimm’s anthology. Hans adds to it and personalizes it. Instead of just some random girl, we have Eliza. I really like that she doesn’t get married before speaking to this king. In the other story, the Grimm’s version, she gets married and has children with the king without ever saying a word to him. In this story she recovers her voice before marrying him.
I have to wonder if the Disney movie people took this bit of the story when they wrote their version of The Little Mermaid. Remember, Ariel recovers her voice before marrying Eric.
I would like to point out that the idea of Eliza being pardoned is pretty slim. I guess things would have been a little better in the 1800s because people were more full of reason and science and less likely to believe in witches, but still, Eliza being pardoned of being a witch is a longshot. This story was not originally placed in the 1800s, this story was originally placed way back when. We have no exact time frame, but it’s in the day when people said, “Hey, she’s a witch, let’s burn her,” and it happened. There was no going back once someone said you were a witch.
The execution was stayed in a seeming miracle. Things have happened like this before, in history, in real life. Savonarola, a Florentine religious reformer and monk, was challenged to walk through fire to prove his faith. He had a substitute go in his place. Just before the whole thing was going to start, a sudden rain fell, and no one had to walk through the fire. Generally, though, as a rule of thumb, executions are not stayed at the last-minute like in the movies. If you’re slated to be executed and it’s five minutes beforehand, you’re going to be executed. Think of some good last words.
Plants, let’s talk about them. Hans talks about all kinds of plants in this story because he’s just so poetic, but the main plants we want to talk about are nettles and flax. Flax, as in flax-seed, is good for you, but so are nettles. Flax can be made into clothing because it’s fibrous, but nettles, not so much. Nettles aren’t going to randomly turn into flax. Nettles sting, as in stinging nettles. They can irritate your skin and poke you with their prickly bits, but they’re good for you. People make nettle tea and it’s good for all kinds of things as mentioned below.
For hundreds of years, practitioners of herbal medicine have recommended stinging nettle as a treatment for the pain of arthritis and gout, for anemia, allergies and urinary problems or as a topical treatment for eczema, insect bites and painful muscles. The root and leaves of the plant contain several identified compounds that are biologically active, including flavonoids such as quercetin that have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help remove free radicals from your body; these unstable chemicals can damage your cellular membranes and DNA. Nettle also contains several other compounds, including beta-sitosterol, a plant chemical with a structure similar to cholesterol that can benefit your heart by lowering absorption of dietary fats by your blood.
What I see in this story is a story of following through. Eliza followed through until the very end risking her own life to save her brothers. She did not speak for who knows how long. She worked on her strange coats. She picked nettles in a graveyard. That’s some pretty suspicious activity right there. You don’t go out picking plants in the graveyard; people really will think you’re a witch, even today.
Eliza is dedicated. She is diligent. She just keeps on. You really have to admire her for what she does. Look, none of my siblings like me as much as Eliza likes her brothers. None of my brothers would do anything like this for me. So this the first good thing we have to say about Eliza. She really cares about her brothers.
She wanders around by herself looking for her brothers. If you know nothing about the 1500s-1800s I’m going to go ahead and tell you that it wasn’t a good idea for young women to be wandering around alone in the woods. Look, murderers, rapists, human traffickers–all of that stuff existed then too, but it was more difficult for people to find you then if something did happen to you. There was no Liam Neeson to come and find you and kill your kidnappers. If you were taken, well, that was that.
The woman is almost executed for her silence, but she remains steadfast. I mean good for her. I bet she was scared to death, but good for her.
This just goes to show you that sometimes you have to risk everything in order to do something. Eliza is the kind of woman you want your girls to emulate. You want your little girls to know about dedication and tenacity. Maybe not so much the marry the guy you just met and have never spoken to bit, but the rest of it, go for it. Eliza is a strong woman and I admire her for that.
This story isn’t original to Hans, but it’s still a neat story. I would like to point out something though–this story says nothing about what happens to this archbishop. He is a snake. If he is allowed to stay, Eliza will have continued problems in her life.
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Andersen Fairy Tales, Andersen-Hans Christian