She mustn’t say a word.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans follows a princess by the name of Elisa and her eleven older brothers. The story begins when their father, the king, decides to remarry.

And selects a witch as his bride.

Of course, being a witch, the new queen dislikes the children and casts a spell over his sons. They are turned into swans.

She then cursed Princess Elisa with three toads — one on her head, one on her forehead, and one on her heart to make her stupid ugly and evil. However, the princess was too good for the curse to take hold. She is banished.

Free of the court, Elisa quests to find the fairy queen, who tells her that she can break her brothers’ spell by knitting each of them a shirt of nettles. But she must not say a word until each shirt is complete, no matter what.

As it would happen, a young king finds Elisa. He falls in love with her beauty and invites her back to his castle, where she lives and continues to knit.

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The king wants to marry her, but the Archbishop is convinced she is a witch. She is put on trial and because she can’t speak to defend herself, she is found guilty of witchcraft. As she is being prepared to burn at the stake, her brothers arrive in bird form. Elisa, who has never stopped knitting, hurriedly throws the shirts over the birds and breaks the curse. She can speak again, the king apologizes and proposes again, and everyone lives happily ever after.

What truly differentiates this story is the moral. Most fairy tales hold one about being a good and kind person or being careful in the woods or of strangers. All of those are important lessons to learn, but this story has a unique moral.

It’s all about self-sacrifice.

It challenges one to think about how far she would go to save the people she loves. It’s rare to see a fairy tale with a moral about how we act towards others, unless it’s cautioning us to be wary. To see a story telling us that making sacrifices for our loved ones is important and worthy is rather gratifying.

A Word on Nettles

Nettles are not pleasant plants. They are covered with tiny hairs that break off when touched, needling into skin. Once pricked,  a person’s hands sting, itch, swell, and can even bear nasty rash.

Knitting eleven shirts out of nettles would be no easy feat. It was a true sacrifice on Elisa’s part.

Other Versions Say

The last shirt was incomplete, causing one prince to have a permanent wing. How unfortunate for him!

What would you find more difficult: a knitting nettles or staying silent?

kate jameson2


Penned  by

K A T E  G .  J A M E S O N  has a deep fascination for fairy tales. When not researching legends of magic and the Fair Folk, she can be found editing Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr. children’s magazines, acting in plays, or writing tales of her own creation.

Follow her on FacebookTwitterYouTube, and her blog Fairy Tales and Fantasy.

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