|The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Marcia Brown.|
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963.
It's true. Of all the weird and wonderful fairy tales, for some reason, my favorite has always been "The Wild Swans." I don't remember where I first read it. I know I was in elementary school. I had an old book of Andersen fairy tales (and a matching one for the Brothers Grimm), but I seem to think I first read it in my school library. I do know the Andersen version is the one I knew first. In the Andersen tale, the princess is named Elisa. She has eleven brothers. The story is one Andersen has adapted into his own. Whenever I read a collection of the Grimms, I always look for their variant, "The Six Swans." The stories are very similar, but while the Grimms were folk tale collectors, Andersen was a real writer. His version is so strange and beautiful, and it remains my favorite.
You can find texts of both versions online. The main plot is this: a wicked stepmother transforms the princes into swans. The princess discovers them years later, as they land near a lake. At night, they become men again. She dreams that in order to transform them into men permanently, she must gather some nettles and sew the nettles into shirts. She is not allowed to utter a sound. As she sets about her difficult task, a king sees her and falls in love with her, despite her silence. He proposes to her, and preparations are made for their wedding. However, unkind people believe the silent girl who is sewing shirts from nettles is a witch. After "proving" it to the king, the girl is sentenced to be burned. All the while, she sews shirts like mad. Just as the fire is to be lit, the swans descend and she throws the shirts on them. The swans become human again, although one prince is left with a wing for an arm, because the princess was unable to gather more nettles. Finally, the princess can explain herself. The king is overjoyed and they are married. (And yes, you really should hunt down a decent translation, because I am a reader, not a writer.)
So in playing around on the internet, I found a listing for a book of the tale illustrated by Marcia Brown. Brown won a Caldecott Medal for her 1954 Cinderella, which is beautiful. (She also won for two other books, the only illustrator to win three Caldecott Medals besides David Wiesner.) I checked the library, only to find that The Wild Swans was unavailable. (I checked out her well-loved version of Stone Soup instead.) I was lucky to find an old library copy on the Better World Books website instead, just in time to grab it in one of their bargain bin sales. Enjoy a few pictures!
I always wondered about the last brother. Was he happy enough to just be a man again? Was he jealous of his brothers for having two arms?
One final note: It's sad to see such a lovely book stamped with the word "Discarded" repeatedly.
Edit: I have added a few videos! I do love this story.
And just for fun...
There are also lots of clips and parts of different animated versions on YouTube that I'm not including here. Enjoy!
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