"The Wild Swans", as illustrated by Marcia Brown

"The Wild Swans" (Danish: "De vilde svaner") is a short children's fantasy story by Hans Christian Andersen. It was first published on October 2, 1938, along with "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "The Daisy", as part of the anthology Fairy Tales Told to Children New Collection First Booklet 1838. The story is based on Scandinavian folktales. A very similar fairy tale, called "The Six Swans" is included in Children's and Household Tales, the 1812 anthology of German folktales compiled by the Brothers Grimm.


In a distant kingdom there lives a king whose wife has died. He has twelve children; eleven sons and one daughter.  He remarries, but the new queen is in fact an evil witch, who, purely out of spite, curses the princes so that by day they are transformed into swans.  She then drives them away.  She attempts to curse the princess, the fifteen year old Elisa, but the princess is too pure of heart to fall vicim to the witch-queen's dark magic, so instead she is banished.  Her brothers carry her out of the land to protect her from the with-queen's wrath.  

The Queen of Fairies instructs Elisa to gather nettles from graveyards and knit them into eleven shirts for her brothers, while maintaining a vow of silence during the task, if she wishes to return them to human form.  Should she speak while knitting the shirts, her brothers will instantly die.  She endures the pain from handling the nettles with bare hands.

Early 20th century illustration for "The Wild Swans" by Arthur Joseph Gaslin.

Eventually, the king of this far away land happens across Elisa and falls in love with her.  He gives her a room in his palace in which she continues her knitting, and eventually proposes to her, to which she agrees.  The archbishop, however, suspects Elisa of witchcraft.  The king refuses to believe this, however.  When Elisa runs out of nettles, she is forced to collect more from the church graveyard.  The archbishop, who had hidden himself to watch her intrusion, reports this to the king as proof of her witchcraft.  The statues of the saints shake their heads in protest, which the Archbishop misreads as a sign that she is in fact guilty of witchcraft.  Elisa cannot speak a word in her defense as she is still bound to silence, lest she kill her brothers by speaking before finishing their nettle shirts.  She is sentenced to be burned at the stake.  

The brothers attempt to speak to the king in her defence, but the curse prevents them from communication.  Elisa continues to knit even as she is carried by cart to her execution.  The local populace is enraged and attempt to take the shirts from her and destroy them.  Her brothers arrive in swan form at the last minute and descend to carry her away.  The people are convinced that this is a sign from heaven, but the executioner continues his preparations.  Elisa hurriedly throws the shirts over the swans, and the brothers are once again transformed into humans.  The youngest brother, however, keeps one arm as a swan wing because she had not finished the second sleeve on his shirt before being carried away.  She cries to the king that she is innocent, then faints, leaving her brothers to explain what has happened.  The wood which moments before was arranged to burn Elisa to death is miraculously transformed into a bunch of flowers.  The king picks the topmost flower and offers it to Elisa.  The king then throws a magnificent feast for Elisa and her brothers.

External links

  • Versions of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans" in Danish and English on Wikisource.
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