The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

You can learn quite a lot from folklore and fairy tales. They were, after all, written to tell a story and teach a lesson. Unfortunately, some lessons should never be taught, such as the idea that in order for you to thrive in this world, you must first be rescued by a handsome prince. Ugh. Don’t get me started.

Too late.

This all had me thinking of a particular tale written by Hans Christian Andersen called The Wild Swans. I’m sure you’ve read his more well-known works, such as The Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina and The Emperor’s New Clothes. I actually enjoy his writing, when I take it in proper context, but the Wild Swans, while a gripping story, teaches a lot of anti-feminist lessons that cause me to struggle with its whole concept.

The Wikipedia page gives a more detailed synopsis of the story, but for our purposes I will tell you that the Princess Elisa has 11 brothers, and they are cursed by their evil stepmother. All the boys are turned into swans and can only take human form after dark. The rest of the time they are birds who are forced to fly away.

So, clearly, the boys are more curse-worthy because they are ahead of Elisa in, basically, all things, not the least of which is the acquisition of the throne.

But Elisa is told that if she knits each of her brothers a sweater made of stinging nettles, she can rescue them. But she cannot speak at all during the process, or they will all die.

So not only is she expected to take on the burden of this torturous task without question, but she’s also expected to shut up and not complain about the pain, and not explain her strange behavior to anyone.

Somehow, during all this silent hand torture, a handsome king stumbles upon her, and despite being unable to converse with this odd girl, he falls in love, and proposes. Clearly he wasn’t after her intellect. And it matters not what you’ve got on your plate, ladies. If a handsome prince proposes, you should say yes, without question. Hmph.

But, as strange as she has been acting, she eventually gets accused of being a witch, and of course she can’t speak up to defend herself. She’s sentenced to be burned at the stake. She continues to knit, even as she’s being hauled off to her death, because women are supposed to be just that dedicated and nurturing.

But, of course, it wouldn’t be a fairy tale without a happy ending, so her bothers fly in and rescue her. She then throws the sweaters over their heads and they become fully human again. And it’s a darned good thing, too, because before she can redeem herself to her royal fiancée, she faints away from exhaustion, leaving her brothers to do the talking. And then the king steps in and revives her, and they get married.

So basically, a woman half kills herself to take care of the people she loves, she is completely misunderstood, she is shown to be incapable of taking care of herself, and the very people whom she’s been working so hard to rescue become the gallant rescuers instead.

The story does indeed teach lessons, but they’re not ones we need to learn. The true takeaways are more about what the author believes you need to think, and they shine a spotlight on the prevailing attitudes of the culture in question at the time they were written.

Maybe this story is why I never learned to knit.

Stinging Nettles. Ouch.

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2 thoughts on “The Wild Swans

  1. Angiportus Librarysaver says:

    Nettles can be dried enough to de-sting them, and made into fiber for cloth and cordage. So this job was not so dangerous as it might sound. But fairy tales were a problem for me once I started reading them on my own–the villains made to dance in red-hot shoes, or the unsuccessful suitor having the skin cut from his back and thrown into a snake pit–I at 10 decided that Andrew Lang must utterly hate kids, and moved on to other things.
    I am most familiar with nettles steamed as a vegetable. They can be put in soups and other things as well.
    Agreed about the illogical-patient-martyrdom thing. I think in some stories it happened to men too, but that doesn’t help.

    1. Some of the less known Grimm fairytales are downright weird, too.

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