Birds of a Feather, Part I: “The Wild Swans” and Similar Tales


W. Heath Robinson for Andersen's Fairy Tales

Illustration by W. Heath Robinson for Andersen’s Fairy Tales

It may not be the best-known of fairy tales, but “The Wild Swans” and related variants (stories of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 451) have for a long time captured my imagination. 

In this set of tales, we see brothers who are turned into birds, whether by a parent’s foolish wish or a witch or fairy’s curse, and their younger sister’s quest to break the enchantment.

A note before I dive in: my starting point for this post, “The Brothers Who Were Turned Into Birds” page of D. L. Ashliman’s “Folktexts,” a wonderful online library of fairy tales, folk lore, and mythology, with stories grouped by type or theme. To read the full text of any story I mention, just click the link in the story title.

Variant 1: Andersen’s “The Wild Swans”

I first encountered this tale as “The Wild Swans“(a slightly different version here), by Hans Christian Andersen. In this story, a king has 11 sons and one daughter named Elisa. He marries an evil queen, who turns the sons into wild swans and contrives to banish Elisa. Elisa goes and finds her swan-brothers, and lives with them in their home across the sea. One night she dreams of a fairy, who tells her how to break the curse: gather nettles from churchyards, trample them into flax, and spin them into 11 shirts. If she speaks before she is done, her brothers will die.

Elisa lives with her brothers, working on the shirts, until a king finds her and brings her back to be his queen. Eventually she runs out of flax, and ventures to the churchyard, past the ghouls gathered by the graves, to gather more nettles. The archbishop sees this, and convinces the king that she’s a witch. Elisa is sentenced to burn at the stake.

On the morning of her execution, Elisa is still weaving the eleventh shirt on the way to the pyre. At the last moment, down come the swans, she throws the shirts over them, and they transform into her brothers — the eleventh with a wing instead of an arm because one sleeve wasn’t finished. Elisa declares her innocence, her eldest brother explains what happened, and they all live happily ever after.

“Oh, no hurry, they were just about to light me on fire.”

The message told through Elisa’s ordeal is decidedly misogynistic: “be pure of heart, work hard, suffer in silence, and it will all turn out for the best.”

Variant 2: “The Twelve Wild Geese”

It could be worse. For example, let’s take a look at “The Twelve Wild Geese,” from Ireland (“The Twelve Wild Ducks,” from Norway, is a closely related variant).

In this version, a mother wishes her next child to be a daughter, saying, “if I had only a daughter with her skin as white as that snow, her cheeks as red as that blood, and her hair as black as that raven, I’d give away every one of my twelve sons for her.” A fairy randomly decides to teach this woman a lesson, and makes her wish come true. So the sons fly off as wild geese, and the (very creatively named) Snow-White-and-Rose-Red is born. (I will call her “Snow” from here on.)

Snow grows up, hears what happened to her brothers, and goes looking for them. They live in a house in the woods, and have vowed to kill any young women they come across as some misplaced revenge on their sister. Faced with their actual sister, who wants nothing more than to help them, they’ve got a (silly) dilemma: they’ll have to break their oath! As they wrestle with this moral quandary (insert eye roll here), a fairy appears. She tells Snow how to  break the curse: turn “bog down” into shirts, and in the meantime, no speaking, laughing, or crying.

As in “The Wild Swans,” one day a prince comes along, sees her, and thinks, “Yes, this mute peasant girl with no sense of humor is just right for me.” His mother, unsurprisingly, disapproves, and immediately starts scheming against Snow. Snow, meanwhile, keeps on weaving.

When Snow has a baby, the prince’s mother sees her chance. As Snow naps with the baby in the garden, the queen takes the baby, throws it to a random nearby wolf, and accuses Snow of eating her own child. To the prince’s credit, I guess, he doesn’t believe it until the second time this happens. Then it’s off to the pyre for Snow.

From here, the narrative mirrors “The Wild Swans.” At the last moment the brothers fly down and save Snow, and even the babies are all right — turns out, that wolf was the same fairy who cursed the brothers, then told Snow how to undo the curse. (I guess the fairy was bored.) The eldest brother whacks the executioner in the head with a stick, killing him.

And the last line:

Never was such happiness enjoyed in any palace that ever was built, and if the wicked queen and her helpers were not torn by wild horses they richly deserved it.

Whew. (In “The Twelve Wild Ducks,” this absolutely does happen.)

What’s to Like About These Tales?

“The Twelve Wild Geese” gets points for blood and wickedness, but I just can’t get behind Snow-White-and-Rose-Red as a character, partly because her name is ridiculous, and partly because literally the only thing she does is make shirts. I know she couldn’t talk (or laugh, or cry), but don’t tell me she also couldn’t write or even draw. Maybe she was just stupid, or all that weaving made her hands too sore to do anything else. Or maybe it’s just a fairy tale, and logic and character-building weren’t the main point. 

Why, then, do I like these tales, full of misogyny and pitiful heroines and illogic and violence? I’m not entirely sure.

There’s something … oddly delightful in such illogical, odd and disproportionate acts of violence and ill-will in these tales: big-time curses in punishment for thoughtlessly voiced wishes, framing a mother as a child-eater after throwing her children (the mother-in-law’s own grandchildren) to a wolf (and the fact that, seeing the wolf, the mother-in-law doesn’t wonder, “What’s a wolf doing outside the garden?” but thinks, “Oh, that’s convenient”), to the gratuitously bloody demise of the queen and her helpers. Maybe the draw is similar to that of car crashes or sordid gossip or when you see or hear something so outlandishly awful that your first reaction is “Wait … what?”

And though the story and characters as presented aren’t the most interesting, they are interesting to think about. We don’t know what they are thinking, for the most part, the brothers or sister or her husband or the villains, but that leaves so much room to wonder and imagine for ourselves what chain of reasoning or emotion is behind the words and actions we do see. And I also wonder what the tale reveals about the context in which it was created, to what extent it reflects an individual teller or a culture, how it would have been received by its audiences in the past and what it might mean today.

If that was a bit too grim for you, no worries–Part II is about my favorite variant, which has its strange parts, but has a better main character and no baby-eating or tearing people apart with wild horses.


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