The Wild Swans | Hans Christian Anderson
In a faraway kingdom, there lives a widowed King with his twelve children: eleven princes and one princess. One day, he decides to remarry. He marries a wicked queen who was a witch. Out of spite, the queen turns her eleven stepsons into swans and forces them to fly away. The queen then tries to bewitch their 15-year old sister Elisa, but Elisa’s goodness is too strong for this, so she has Elisa banished. The brothers carry Elisa to safety in a foreign land where she is out of harm’s way of her stepmother.
There, Elisa is guided by the queen of the fairies to gather nettles in graveyards; she knits these into shirts that will eventually help her brothers regain their human shapes. Elisa endures painfully blistered hands from nettle stings, and she must also take a vow of silence for the duration of her task, for speaking one word will kill her brothers. The king of another faraway land happens to come across the mute Elise and falls in love with her. He grants her a room in the castle where she continues her knitting. Eventually he proposes to crown her as his queen and wife, and she accepts.
However, the Archbishop is chagrined because he thinks Elisa is herself a witch, but the king will not believe him. One night Elisa runs out of nettles and is forced to collect more in a nearby church graveyard where the Archbishop is watching. He reports the incident to the king as proof of witchcraft. The statues of the saints shake their heads in protest, but the Archbishop misinterprets this sign as confirmation of Elisa’s guilt. The Archbishop orders to put Elisa on trial for witchcraft. She can speak no word in her defence and is sentenced to death by burning at the stake.
The brothers discover Elisa’s plight and try to speak to the king, but fail. Even as the tumbril bears Elisa away to execution, she continues knitting, determined to keep it up to the last moment of her life. This enrages the people, who are on the brink of snatching and destroying the shirts when the swans descend and rescue Elisa. The people (correctly) interpret this as a sign from Heaven that Elisa is innocent, but the executioner still makes ready for the burning. Then Elisa throws the shirts over the swans, and the brothers return to their human forms. The youngest brother retains one swan’s wing because Elise did not have time to finish the last sleeve. Elisa is now free to speak and tell the truth, but she faints from exhaustion, so her brothers explain. As they do so, the firewood around Elisa’s stake miraculously take root and burst into flowers. The king plucks the topmost flower and presents it to Elisa and they are married. (x)
Illustrations by Anne Yvonne Gilbert.