Let’s Talk Fairytales #12: The Wild Swans

Hello, everyone! We’re back with another story about abusive parents and murderous kings that the general public refers to as a “fairytale.” No, I don’t understand why we read these to children either. On the docket today is “The Wild Swans,” by Hans Christian Andersen, which you should read to your kiddos whenever they seem to be getting too comfortable. Pro-parenting tip: Next time they whine, threaten to make them sew sweaters out of stinging nettles. They’ll never complain again.

Elsa en de wilde zwanen (8206147124).jpg
This is what happens to Danish children who don’t do their chores!

We begin in a rather unusual place: a king who likes children! He likes them so much, in fact, that he has twelve of them, eleven boys and one daughter named Lisa. His wife is absent presumably because she died from exhaustion after delivering TWELVE CHILDREN, and even though the king “likes” kids, he’s not interested in raising them on his own (that’s the queen’s job), so he decides to find a new wife.

Their father married a queen who hated children. As soon as she could, she sent Lisa to live with a farmer. She told lies about the boys, and blamed them for everything, until soon the king didn’t care for his sons at all.

One day the queen sent for the boys. She said “boys you are, but birds you’ll be. Fly away, wretched creatures.”

The boys turned into eleven splendid white swans.

Dads were so fickle in the olden days. One minute, they’re playing with their cherished eleven sons, and the next minute, they don’t care one whit that their new wife has transmuted them into birds. It does make me wonder what “love” meant in the 16th century. Maybe paternal love was as simple as giving your child scraps from the dinner table after a day of forced labor?

Luckily, poor Lisa is safe at the farmhouse, though according to the book, “she had no toys or friends.” Seems about right for a child on a rural farm. When she turns 15, her father summons her back to the castle, perhaps because he realized he still had a marriageable daughter that he could trade for a castle or something. When the queen hears that Lisa is coming, she decides to get rid of her. Now would be a good time for some motivation for the queen besides “evil,” but as you might have guessed, the book provides us no further details about the child-hating, bird-loving queen.

She mixed a muddy, stinking stain. She smeared Lisa’s face, arms, and hair with it. Then she brought Lisa to the king. When he saw the smelly, splotchy girl he said “She’s no daughter of mine.” Then the queen threw Lisa out.

You can really tell how loving King Dad was as a father. Definitely the type to never change a dirty diaper, nurse a sick child, or even acknowledge it as his own if it fell in a mud puddle. But he was a really “loving” father. Sure, book. Is the bar for “good father” set beneath the Earth’s surface?

Banished from the palace, poor little Lisa (who I assume has no survival skills) wanders the forest, looking for her brothers, who she doesn’t know have been turned into swans. A kind woman with raspberries feeds Lisa and informs her that she hasn’t seen Lisa’s eleven brothers, but she has seen eleven “crowned swans” over by the river, which, like….put two and two together lady! Lisa meets the swans by the river and sees them turn into men at sundown. They hug and rejoice and inform Lisa that because of their curse, they’re forced to live elsewhere, and are only able to visit their home for eleven days a year. Why would they come back to this evil place I wonder? And why have they never revealed their swan bodies to King Dad? Plot reasons!

The Swan Bros convince Lisa to let them fly her to their home across the sea, and they create a basket for her out of boughs and vines. After this perilous journey (can you imagine being transported across the North Sea by SWANS?), they arrive in a wood and go to sleep. That night, Lisa has a prophetic dream.

In her dream, she met a woman. “You can save your brothers,” said the woman. “If you do try to save them, no one will understand you. You’ll be tired, alone, and afraid.”

Sounds like she’s explaining the publishing process. The woman goes on to say that Lisa will have to knit eleven coats out of stinging nettles by crushing the nettles and spinning them into thread. Even worse, Lisa can’t speak a word, for every sound “will be like plunging a knife into [her] brothers’ hearts.” Because Lisa loves her eleven brothers and THERE ARE NO RESPONSIBLE ADULTS IN THIS STORY, Lisa agrees to undertake this excruciating and thankless quest. Again, I wonder, where is the social infrastructure? Why are there no governmental bodies set up to protect a poor fifteen-year-old from magic curse adjacent labor?

Lisa begins work immediately, destroying her hands, but making an entire coat by the end of the first night. I admire Lisa’s ability to knit a coat from raw plant material, because if I was given this task, I would give up immediately. Unfortunately for poor Lisa, her marathon knitting sesh is interrupted by none other than the king of the land, who can’t mind his own damn business, and insists on kidnapping little mute Lisa and making her his queen. You would think that he would ask her permission, or even try to ask her parent’s permission, but no, it’s straight to the castle for marriage double-time, because life’s short when you die at age 40.

Lisa did not dare speak. The king led her into the palace. His maids cared for Lisa, and dressed her royally. She was so perfectly lovely that everyone who saw her loved her. Only the archbishop shook his head and muttered. “She’s from the wildwood. She’s too beautiful. She must be a witch.” No one listened to him.

Glad to see a powerful religious figure being ignored for once! The king spends the next few days taking Lisa to fun things, but she can’t stop crying because of the whole Swan Bros situation, so he shows her a new room that he made for her, which he has painted green like the forest and filled with her half-finished nettle coats. Is this…a thoughtful husband? In a fairytale? That can’t be true.

The next day they get married, even though “Lisa couldn’t say a word” WHICH IS ILLEGAL, and Lisa continues slipping away from her queenly duties to secretly knit her coats. She soon runs out of nettles and is forced to return to the cemetery, because only “cemetery nettles will do.” Why are all fairytale quests so specific? I would like to know who is drawing up these contract terms.

The “sly” archbishop, who prefers spying on innocent girls to doing his real job, sees Lisa go to the cemetery at night and tells the king that she’s a witch. Seems convincing to me. The king doesn’t believe the archbishop, but agrees to keep an eye on Lisa. When Lisa returns again to the cemetery for the last batch of nettles needed to complete her Swan Bro fashion line, the king follows, and morosely realizes that because she went to the cemetery at night, she must be a witch. Show me the law that says that, King Husband! He decides, like all law-abiding kings, to sentence his own wife to be burned at the stake, because it’s “the law.” So I guess it’s okay to break the law to kidnap your wife, but it’s not okay to break the law and stop the church from burning your wife.

Apparently, Lisa doesn’t give a fuck that she’s been sentenced to death, because they let her bring her nettles into the jail cell. She finishes every coat but the last one, which is missing a sleeve. As they draw her towards the pyre in a cart, the crowd surges around her and tries to tear away her “witchery,” but at the very last moment, eleven swans nose dive onto the cart and Lisa throws them the coats, transforming them all back into men.

“Now I may speak!” she cried. “I am innocent.” But she fainted away, too worn out to speak. Her old brother told the story for her.

That’s probably a good thing, because if she spoke more than three sentences, the archbishop would have tried her under the “woman anti-speaking” law. The story ends with the pyre transforming into a garden and the king giving Lisa a white flower. And then they lived happily ever after.

Except HE TRIED TO BURN YOU AT THE STAKE, LISA! Tell me, ladies, is it a deal-breaker if your husband tries to have you executed for witchcraft because you went out by yourself at night? I can’t deal with this story. What is it trying to teach us, if anything? That fifteen-year-old girls need to clean up everyone else’s messes? That you should put the lives of everyone else before your own and let yourself be burned at the stake? That fathers will face no consequences for abandoning their children to the wilderness? If we take away anything from this lovely children’s story, it’s that the world is a cruel, cruel, place and you’re on your own. So you better learn how to sew, stat!

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