Friday, 6 April 2012

The Wild Swans

by Sue Purkiss



I have been a reader of fairy tales at various stages in my life. When my sister and I were small, my mother used to buy us Ladybird books – Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood – always with the same reassuringly familiar format: a page of text on the left, and a full colour, full page illustration on the right. They taught me to read: we read the same books over and over, and one of my earliest memories is of insisting to Dad that tonight, I would read to him. I’d heard the stories so often that I’d memorised them, and begun to link up the printed words with the spoken ones.

Later on, when I really could read, I had a series of little buttercup yellow books, which each featured a single fairy story. I really liked these. I think it was partly because they were miniature: I also liked little teddy bears, dolls’ house furniture, and tiny porcelain animals. I remember reading Beauty and the Beast under the sheets when I was supposed to be asleep. It had lovely pictures. There was one bit where the father brought back a red rose and a white rose from the Beast’s castle. His daughters were astonished to see roses in the middle of winter; such a thing was impossible, and therefore proof of something magical. The roses in my garden often flower late, into November and even December, and when they do, I always feel vaguely surprised – because I know from that story that they shouldn’t.

Later, when I was older, I used to get as many books as I could out of the libraries in town and at school. I read anything I could get hold of, including fairy stories: collections from different countries and Andrew Lang’s series of rainbow fairy books. Then I read a book called The Amazing Mr Whisper, by Brenda Macrow. That was the first story I’d come across where the magical world intruded into the real one: the precursor for me of the Narnia books, Alan Garner, and eventually Tolkien. I was enchanted by the idea that the two worlds could collide, and I think after that I began to drift away from pure fairytales.

I rediscovered them when I had children of my own. My mother bought more Ladybird books: I bought collections with gorgeous illustrations. The children loved them, as I had done. I remember a friend saying she wouldn’t buy fairy stories for her children: they are full of such terrible things, she said – old ladies pushed into ovens, grannies eaten by wolves, stepmothers poisoning princesses, parents abandoning their children. Well, yes… and yet, these stories endure, as others don’t. (I managed to track down a copy of my beloved Mr Whisper a while ago; it hasn’t worn well, even for me!) Children cope with the cruelty in fairy stories, just as they love the horrors that Roald Dahl’s characters encounter; I think sometimes they are not given enough credit for being able to tell a fictional world from the real one, the one they have to live in.

Decoupage of the Wild Swans by Queen Margrethe of Denmark


The Wild Swans, by Hans Christian Andersen, has terrible things in it. But it’s also a story of haunting beauty. This is what happens.

It begins with eleven princes, who write ‘with diamond pencils on golden tablets’ and their little sister, Elisa, who has ‘a picture book that cost half the kingdom’. Their mother is dead, but nevertheless they are happy until their father marries an evil queen, who turns the brothers into swans (they change back to their true forms only at night) and sends Elisa to live with peasants in the country. When she is fifteen, Elisa returns to the court, but the stepmother manages to get rid of her (not without some difficulty, but she’s a resourceful woman). Elisa flees the castle, and find herself in a dark, dark forest. Thanks to a troop of glow worms, another of angels, and a mysterious old woman, Elisa finds her way through the woods to the sea, where she meets up with her brothers. They carry her over the ocean to the country where they live, a place of forests, mountains and castles. As she sleeps, a fairy comes to Elisa in a dream and tells her she can lift the enchantment from her brothers, provided she makes each of them a shirt out of nettles. But she must not speak a word till she has done: if she does, her brothers will die.

She begins the work, but she has only finished one shirt when the king of the country comes across her while he is hunting. He falls in love with her, takes her back to his castle, gives her ‘regal gowns’ and has her hair ‘braided with pearls’. They marry, and she falls in love with him too, but is determined to press on with her task. The archbishop, however, believes she is a witch. He follows her one night when, having run out of nettles, she goes to a churchyard to collect more, passing by monsters which feast on the flesh of corpses to do so. The archbishop accuses her of witchcraft, the king can find no other explanation for her trips to the graveyard, and of course she cannot speak: he declares that the people must decide on her fate. They do – they say she’s a witch and must burn. Still she keeps sewing, still she won’t speak. Just in the nick of time, her brothers appear. She throws the shirts over them, and they are transformed into their real selves. (All except the youngest. His shirt is not quite finished, so he is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm.) Elisa, exhausted, collapses, seemingly lifeless. But then something magical happens: the faggots which had been used to make the pyre suddenly begin to grow, and in no time at all a hedge of beautiful red roses has appeared. At the very top is a single white one. The king plucks it, lays it close to Elisa’s heart, and she comes back to life.

So – terrible things indeed. Some of the elements of this story are to be found in others too. There is the evil stepmother. She has the king: she doesn’t want to be burdened with his twelve children. So they experience the sudden loss of an idyllic lifestyle; they sink from the top of the heap to the very bottom. There is the journey – the quest – through a forest. Forests, of course, were dangerous. They still are in many places (though not, perhaps, in our small island). In a real forest, you can quickly become disorientated and lose your way, and then you are at the mercy of fierce creatures: wild boar, wolves, and bears. In an enchanted one, there are other dangers too – witches, goblins, sinister trees.

Elisa is beset by dangers from the start. But once she sets about her task, she becomes even more vulnerable; she is not allowed to speak, so she cannot explain or defend herself. The king is kind and he loves her, but even he is a threat to her: he takes her away, without her permission, from where she needs to be. She has to go to the graveyard – it’s the only place she can get fresh supplies of nettles – but in doing so, she lays herself open to the Archbishop’s accusations. Then she falls victim to a mob: one day the people cheer her: the next they jeer and condemn her to a terrible death. The fickle affections of the mob are frighteningly real.

But she is not a passive victim. We know that she is only allowing all this to happen to her because she is ferociously loyal and determined. Even when she falls in love with the king, she still doesn’t allow herself to be distracted. She loves her brothers and she is determined to keep to her commitment to save them, no matter how hard it may be. She may be a victim, but she’s far from weak.

We talk of ‘fairy-tale endings’ as if fairy stories invariably end well. True, in the end Cinderella and her prince live happily ever after. So does the Sleeping Beauty; so does Snow White. But it isn’t always so. In The Wild Swans, one brother is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm. Perhaps this is one of the things that makes this particular story so poignant; there’s an admission that everything doesn’t always turn out all right, no matter how hard you try. Fairy stories may take place in an enchanted land, but they deal with situations we must face in real life.


There is even something paradoxical about the enchantment. The stepmother wants to turn the princes into ‘voiceless birds’, but her power has its limits, and instead of becoming something ugly, they are turned into ‘beautiful wild swans’. They are no longer princes, and their true lives have been taken away, but still they have been transformed into something wonderful: to borrow from Yeats, ‘a terrible beauty is born’: and they fly across the ocean at sunset to meet their sister like ‘a white ribbon being pulled across the sky’. It’s a lovely image and a lovely moment, as Elisa sees her brothers for the first time in so many long and difficult years.

The Wild Swans is about as far as you can get from the popular Disneyfied construct of what a fairytale is. Like a wild landscape, it is bleak and harsh. But, for me at any rate, it has also a beauty that touches the heart.

Sue Purkiss describes her first few stories as ‘ghostie, witch fantasies for young children’. Her next two novels, ‘The Willow Man’ and ‘Warrior King’ are for older children. ‘The Willow Man’ is a contemporary story underpinned by the presence of the mysterious and magical figure of the ‘Willow Man’ or ‘Withy Man’, a huge outdoor sculpture by Serena de la Hey, set in a field near Bridgewater in Somerset. And ‘Warrior King’ is a re-imagining of part of the life of Alfred the Great – king of Wessex from 871 to 899, renowned for his learning, for his defence of England against the Danes, and in a legend once famous among schoolchildren, for burning those cakes.

Sue’s books are grounded in the landscape of Britain, especially the beautiful county of Somerset where she now lives, which contains the original Isle of Avalon, the mysterious Glastonbury Tor, and the misty marshes where Alfred once hid from the Danes. Her most recent book, ‘Emily’s Surprising Voyage’ is a story of Brunel’s spectacular ship the SS Great Britain, now permanently in Bristol harbour. And she is currently working on a book set in World War II.


3 comments:

Katherine Roberts said...

Fairytales are so powerful, aren't they? I remember reading that one about the swans as a child and shouting at the heroine "just tell them why you're doing it!" Not sure I would have held my tongue until they burned me, but then of course I'm no fairytale heroine...

Sue Purkiss said...

I had that reaction most strongly when I read Romeo and Juliet - 'For goodness' sake, people, just hang on a minute!'

Katherine Langrish said...

I have a vague memory of reading a version of this story in which the king gives Elissa a room in the palace all hung with tapestries and carpets embroidered to look like the forest in which he found her. I've not been able to find it, but I always liked it: it showed the King being more thoughtful than his actions otherwise suggested - just collecting the girl and marrying her willy nilly...!