The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

A sister helps her eleven swans (or brothers, rather) in the classic tale, ''The Wild Swans'' by Hans Christian Andersen. In this lesson, we'll break down the short story.

A Swan Song

Writers of fairy tales are pretty fond of swans, have you ever noticed that? Take ''The Ugly Duckling,'' for example. The entire story is about a baby swan born into a family of ducks, and he's mocked because he's considered ugly and different. It's not until he spies a group of white birds that he starts aspiring to become beautiful and graceful like they are. Winter passes and the ugly duckling catches his reflection in the water and notices he has transformed into a beautiful swan.

Swans, in most fairy tales, represent grace, beauty, and majesty. And, in many ways, the swans in the story at the center of our lesson are graceful and majestic. However, they assume their form in a most unusual way: a curse from their evil stepmother, who casts them out to fend for themselves.

Read on to learn more about Hans Christian Andersen's ''The Wild Swans.''

Summarizing ''The Wild Swans''

When our story opens, we're introduced to the ruler of a large kingdom who boasts eleven princely sons and one fair daughter named Eliza. The children's mother has passed away, and the king has remarried a woman described as, ''a bad Queen who did not love the poor children at all.''

The new queen is so evil and so jealous of the king's children that she casts them out of the castle. She turns the sons into wild swans and sends Eliza into the country to live with peasants. The king, oddly enough, does not question the evil queen's actions.

Time Flies

Time passes, and young Eliza is now 15 years old. She is now scheduled to return home to the castle. Probably not going to go well, right? The story tells us that, ''when the Queen saw how beautiful she was, she became spiteful, and filled with hatred toward her.''

The queen sets about crafting new spells to make Eliza ''stupid,'' ''ugly'' and ''evil.'' However, the spells do not work, for when Eliza enters the tub where the enchanted (or, under a spell) frogs are, her goodness overcomes the spell instead: ''She was too good and innocent for sorcery to have power over her.''

Determined to disguise the girl's beauty, the queen rubs Eliza with walnut juice and ointment, which turns the girl's skin a deep brown. This makes her unrecognizable; the girl's father, the king, cannot believe Eliza is his daughter. She is saddened and flees the castle.

In the Wilderness

Eliza spends the next bit of time wandering in the forest. She is sad, dejected, and missing her brothers. One morning, she stumbles onto a pool of clear water where she washes and restores her lost beauty. She meets an elderly woman who tells her about eleven swans with ''golden crowns'' that had been bathing in a nearby sea.

The girl proceeds to the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of her swan brothers. Just as the sun is beginning to set, she spies the swans flying toward the water. Once the sun sinks, the swans' feathers fall off to reveal her brothers in human form. The siblings have a glorious reunion, and the brothers recount their experiences turning into swans during the day and boys at sundown.

The brothers tell Eliza about their new home in another land and ask if she would like to travel with them, to which she agrees.

Finding a New Home

The next morning, the swans carry Eliza away on a net they've crafted. They stop for the night to rest on their two-day journey.

That evening, Eliza dreams of a way to release the brothers from their curse. A fairy explains that if she picks nettles, a flower with a stinging leaf, to craft shirts for her brothers, she can break the spell. However, there's one catch: Eliza cannot speak the entire time she is preparing the clothing.

Eliza uses nettle plants to help break the curse.
wild swans, eliza, nettles

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