Monday, August 15, 2011

The Wild Swans

NOW that I'm older and haven't read the stories in a while, I tend to find Hans Christian Andersen's tales rather psychotic, and however the great Danish writer was in real life, I am grateful that I am not ensnared in the mindset that evolved stories like the one about the Vikings and the toad and the decapitated Christian priest. When I was small I found them interesting, but felt that he had the endings wrong. "The Little Mermaid" is the obvious example. Lacking in common sense and full of the gloomy masochism which leads characters to lead disappointing and very unhelpful lives. It is not a very convincing proponent for religion, and since everyone will die and be sorted into something or other anyway, the question remains why one should not make the most of terrestrial life and, if someone else is in a gloomy situation, try to take them out of it so that they can experience some good. The underlying problem is probably the doctrine of predestination, and Andersen's tales show clearly that whatever its accuracy may be as a metaphysical tenet, it is singularly unhelpful in reality.


"THE WILD SWANS" tells the tale of a family of eleven princes and particularly of one princess, Elisa. Their stepmother estranges them from their father, the King, and enchants the brothers into wild swans. They fly past the home of their sister and visit her, but cannot speak with her;
Poor little Elisa sat on the floor playing with a leaf. [. . .] she had made a hole in the leaf and was looking up at the sun through it. She felt as though she were looking into the bright eyes of her brothers; and when the warm sunbeams touched her cheeks, she thought of all the kisses they had given her.
Gag. Anyway, Elisa grows up in poverty and the wilderness, and in character and person becomes the object of authorly adulation:
The wind blew through the rosebush and whispered, "Who can be more lovely than you are?"

The roses shook their heads and replied: "Elisa!"

On Sundays the old woman at the farm would set her chair outside and sit reading her psalmbook. The wind would turn the leaves and whisper, "Who can be more saintly than you?"

The psalmbook would answer as truthfully as the roses had: "Elisa!"
Bleurgh. Anyway, she becomes fifteen and her father orders her back home. The queen improvises a pagan spa by kissing three toads and sending them into Elisa's bath with orders to make her lazy, ugly, evil and unhappy like the toads themselves. — One doubts PETA would approve of this animal psychology. — But Elisa's goodness pervades the bathwater and turns the toads into poppies. So the queen tries a body scrub; she personally — she is either too bored or laudably industrious to employ a servant for these things — rubs her stepdaughter's skin with walnut juice and makes her hair scruffy with ashes and dust, so that the king finds her abhorrent.

Elisa could have administered a highly inhibiting kick in the shins, squirmed like a baby particularly unfond of a good washing, run away, or asked her father if she could take a bath. If she desisted because of daughterly obedience, she's nuts. But when she is rejected, she does walk away the following day, off into the forest. She dreams of her brothers and wakes up to a woodland creature St. Francis of Assisi, or Walt Disney heroine if you will, routine. We get it. She's saintly.

Then she finally develops the bright idea to wash herself, when she looks into a pool and notices that she isn't quite in the flower of her beauty. Of course grubby people can look attractive and people should be treated well regardless of appearance. The allegory of the cup and platter in the Bible, clean on the outside but terribly soiled within, comes to mind. But royalty are evidently superficial.

At any rate God takes care of her, and then she comes across an old woman and asks if she had seen any princes lately. "No," she replies, "But I have seen eleven swans with golden crowns on their heads, swimming in a stream not far from here." Elisa is led to the ocean, and when evening falls her brothers return and metamorphose from their swanly state. The rejoicing is great, and the brothers fly her off in a net to their own territories, across the ocean, since they would otherwise be forced to be away from her for a whole further year.

A fairy appears to her in a dream in that new territory, and says that the only way she may release her brothers is by weaving longsleeved shirts for each of them out of nettle fibres, which she must harvest from churchyards. She may implicitly not wear gloves to pick them, she may not wear shoes to trample them underfoot to beat out the fibres (given her undoubtedly slight weight, stones would probably have been far more efficacious for this task, and I'm sure that they could be desirously painful to use, too), and she may not speak at all, for however many years it takes to finish all eleven shirts. Presumably no lemon juice or baking soda or other remedy is permitted to counteract the nettles' acid. But in fact it does not hurt that much or have as bad of an effect; I found them frighteningly painful when I was ten or so but when I accidentally brushed one a year or two ago, it was no more than uncomfortable. Either way, in a Grimm tale she would be finding a clever device to circumvent this, or someone would be helping her. How this process of suffering helps anyone, human or godly, is another question.


I SUPPOSE that the tale is meant to parallel that real, protracted emotional suffering, which is in itself futile, though idiots pretend it is useful because it "tests" our faith in God like Job was tested. The testing is a superimposed explanation of sorts, and therefore perhaps helpful, if one is in inescapably bad straights; but to recommend it in any other capacity is horrid. Besides I always thought that the Job story was incredibly dumb, among many other things because God, being omniscient, should know how much faith Job has. The other point is apparently that God wants humans to be like the courtiers in Gulliver's Travels, walking along tightropes, etc., to prove ourselves and enter his grace in preference to our fellows.

Tasso's(?) dictum that "that is true joy which comes of virtue during suffering" ("quello e vero gioire che nasce da virtu dopo il soffrire" or something like that; it was an epigraph in a novel from Maria Edgeworth) is a nice contrast. You work your way through hard times as well and nobly as you can, trying to see what effort and ingenuity and freely offered help from others can do; and then, when circumstances are easier, you use those experiences for the personal and general good. It is a kind of religious or secular alchemy.


ELISA wastes no time and gets to it, presumably to the displeasure of her hands, which become blistered. But God has mercy; her youngest brother dribbles tears on them and lacrimal fluids evidently neutralize formic acid like no one's business.

Then a hunting party comes riding into the neighbourhood; she runs like the wind, but the king who is leading the riders finds her and, considering her ornamental, decides that she would make the perfect queen. (She's really young; maybe fifteen-year-olds had more life experience and mature characters back then but in her case I doubt it.) He sets her on his horse in lieu of other prey, though she is weeping for the loss of the nettles, and tells her that she'll thank him for this later. Which is another case where a vicious kick to the shins and a flit into the forest would have solved a great deal.

The Pygmalion refurbishment in pearls and gowns fails to cheer her spirits, though she looks good in them, but then the king considerately has a room outfitted in tree green and her nettles brought in to emulate her natural habitat. She is relieved, cheered, and kisses his hand; the wedding is held and the archbishop, who venomously hates her, grinds a crown down viciously upon her regal brow.

She loves the king, instead of harbouring the natural desire to kick him in the shins for the rest of their lives, but cannot utter a word of it. In the nights she strays to her nettles but runs out of thread after the sixth shirt. So she replenishes her stock in the churchyard and tries to ignore the lamias who like to hang out in it. The archbishop is not as busy a man as one might think, or as fond of a good night's sleep, for he happens to be lurking and sees her errand and considers it witchy. He tattles to the king forthwith.
He spoke his condemning words so harshly that the carved sculptures of the saints
evidently not of a very reliable variety of stone
shook their heads as though they were saying: "It is not true. Elisa is innocent!"

But that was not the way the archbishop interpreted it; he said that the saints were shaking their heads because of their horror at her sins.
Picking plants in a churchyard — really something that worries God, as was written as was not written in the Bible. The king stalks her and grows sad. Elisa is affected by the atmosphere,
and this new sorrow was added to her fear for her brothers' fate. On her royal velvet dress fell salt tears, and they looked like diamonds on the purple material, making it even more splendid.
As a matter of fact, I think the tears would leave a kind of smeary trail in the velvet, catch the light only in certain lighting conditions, and evaporate fairly soon.
And all the women of the court wished that they were queens and could wear such magnificent clothes.
Nitwits. Tear couture is not enviable. Besides any velvet dress + well water + eye dropper could achieve the same effect.

She was arrested and sentenced to perish at the stake, and in the interim is lodged in a dungeon.
Instead of a bed with silken sheets and velvet pillows, they gave her the nettles she had picked as a pillow and the shirts she had knitted as a cover. They could have given her no greater gift.
She prayed to God and started work on the last of the shirts.
Then her brothers pop by. At first they cannot visit her cell itself, and instead the archbishop comes by, only to be shown the door since he is wasting valuable nettle-shirt-making time. The mice help her by carrying over nettles and a thrush sings encouragingly outside the window bars. The brothers next pop by the castle to see the king, but the guards deflect them until dawn so they turn into swans again.

So the scene at the stake is played out, and she is carted to it in true Marie Antoinette style with the nettles as garnish. At the critical juncture she throws the shirts over the swan-brothers, and they turn into men again though the youngest retains a wing. (In their "Six Swans" the Grimm brothers restore the arm through God's mercy*, but Andersen's God can't be bothered, the rotten metaphysical lout.) Elisa faints ("lifelessly," a logical dunderheadism which annoys me considerably even in Grimm tales) and misses the edifying spectacle which follows, namely the stake and logs sprouting redemptive roses.
on the very top bloomed a single white rose. It shone like a star. The king plucked it and placed it on Elisa's breast. She woke; happiness and peace were within her.
Though her terrible spouse almost had her incinerated and her youngest brother has a wing for an arm and her hands and feet must be hurting like fire, though fortunately not literally.
The church bells in the city started to peal, though no bell ringers pulled their ropes, and great flocks of birds flew in the sky. No one had ever seen a gayer procession than the one that now made its way to the royal castle.
All those miracles, and still no human arm for the youngest brother.

And no one had ever seen a sourer face than the one I now pull after making my way through this strange morality.


From: Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, Trans. by Erik Christian Haugaard (Doubleday)

* On rereading the Grimm tale, it turns out that the brother does not regain his arm in it either. But I still like their version better, and the wing seems more like a modest eccentricity and a souvenir, if you like, than a lasting reminder of a sister's failure to follow the letter of an arbitrary rule.

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