Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | The Wild Swans | Summary



Elisa and her 11 brothers are happy until the arrival of the wicked queen as their stepmother. She soon begins to mistreat the children, sending Elisa into the country and transforming her brothers into swans, who fly away. Elisa returns to the palace as a beautiful young woman who is so pure the wicked queen's spells have no effect on her. Even so, the wicked queen manages to spoil her stepdaughter's looks the king can't recognize her. She is turned out of the palace, whereupon she sets out to find her missing brothers. With some enchanted luck, she discovers where they live as swans by day and at night are allowed to resume their human form. They persuade Elisa to allow them to carry her with them in a net across the sea to a distant land, where a mysterious lady reveals to her the way to undo the powerful spell on her brothers. Elisa must weave 11 coats of nettles and cannot speak a word until the task is done, or they will remain swans forever.

At once Elisa sets to the task, though the nettles blister her delicate hands. A young king comes to hunt one day with his courtiers. As soon as he sees Elisa, he falls madly in love with her. Although she is mute, she is so beautiful he must have her for his queen. He bundles her up with him on his horse and orders the nettles and coats she had been working on be brought to the palace as well.

But the people suspect Elisa of practicing witchcraft, and when she is unable to defend herself verbally, they persuade the young king her strange habit of gathering nettles and weaving them in the night is proof she is a witch. Elisa works furiously to complete her task. She has completed all but one sleeve for the coat of her youngest brother when she is taken to be burned at the stake. At the last moment, the 11 royal swans fly to her rescue, and she throws a coat over each one, including the coat that is missing a sleeve. They turn from swans into princes once again, although the youngest brother has a swan's wing where the sleeve failed to cover him completely. Elisa finally declares her innocence and is saved.


The story of "The Wild Swans" is a variation of an old Norse tale, "The Twelve Wild Ducks," and is related to a similar German fairy tale, "The Six Swans." Andersen himself noted he adapted it from Danish Folk Tales (1823) by Mathias Winther.

Heroes and heroines in Andersen's stories are sometimes rendered mute because what they know is internal or subconscious. And when they are able to speak, the average person either does not hear what is being said, or is unaware of what is really going on. Another action, such as the last-minute transformation of the swans into men, is required to reveal the truth.

The strange behavior of the beautiful and mysterious maiden chosen to be queen by the young king in this story is misunderstood by the people because she is unable to speak while she makes the nettle coats that will free her brothers. The inability to speak the truth as a consequence of magic is a characteristic of some of Andersen's other stories, notably "The Little Mermaid."

Some of Andersen's scientific characters never "get it" even when they hear and see truth with their own eyes. They are completely absorbed in a quantitative, empirical worldview to the exclusion of a qualitative one based on faith. With "The Wild Swans" Andersen explores these two kinds of truthfulness. In this case true identity is obscured by the light of day, when Elsa's brothers appear to be swans. It is only at night their true form can, like the power of dreams, exert itself.

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