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Fabulous Fairy Tales for children and adults. From our vast collection of old traditional fairy tales and fables.

The Wild Swans - Part 1

FAR away in the land to which the swallows fly when it is
winter, dwelt a king who had eleven sons, and one daughter,
named Eliza. The eleven brothers were princes, and each went
to school with a star on his breast, and a sword by his side.
They wrote with diamond pencils on gold slates, and learnt
their lessons so quickly and read so easily that every one
might know they were princes. Their sister Eliza sat on a
little stool of plate-glass, and had a book full of pictures,
which had cost as much as half a kingdom. Oh, these children
were indeed happy, but it was not to remain so always. Their
father, who was king of the country, married a very wicked
queen, who did not love the poor children at all. They knew
this from the very first day after the wedding. In the palace
there were great festivities, and the children played at
receiving company; but instead of having, as usual, all the
cakes and apples that were left, she gave them some sand in a
tea-cup, and told them to pretend it was cake. The week after,
she sent little Eliza into the country to a peasant and his
wife, and then she told the king so many untrue things about
the young princes, that he gave himself no more trouble
respecting them.

'Go out into the world and get your own living,' said the
queen. 'Fly like great birds, who have no voice.' But she
could not make them ugly as she wished, for they were turned
into eleven beautiful wild swans. Then, with a strange cry,
they flew through the windows of the palace, over the park, to
the forest beyond. It was early morning when they passed the
peasant's cottage, where their sister Eliza lay asleep in her
room. They hovered over the roof, twisted their long necks and
flapped their wings, but no one heard them or saw them, so
they were at last obliged to fly away, high up in the clouds;
and over the wide world they flew till they came to a thick,
dark wood, which stretched far away to the seashore. Poor
little Eliza was alone in her room playing with a green leaf,
for she had no other playthings, and she pierced a hole
through the leaf, and looked through it at the sun, and it was
as if she saw her brothers' clear eyes, and when the warm sun
shone on her cheeks, she thought of all the kisses they had
given her. One day passed just like another; sometimes the
winds rustled through the leaves of the rose-bush, and would
whisper to the roses, 'Who can be more beautiful than you!'
But the roses would shake their heads, and say, 'Eliza is.'
And when the old woman sat at the cottage door on Sunday, and
read her hymn-book, the wind would flutter the leaves, and say
to the book, 'Who can be more pious than you?' and then the
hymn-book would answer 'Eliza.' And the roses and the
hymn-book told the real truth. At fifteen she returned home,
but when the queen saw how beautiful she was, she became full
of spite and hatred towards her. Willingly would she have
turned her into a swan, like her brothers, but she did not
dare to do so yet, because the king wished to see his
daughter. Early one morning the queen went into the bath-room;
it was built of marble, and had soft cushions, trimmed with
the most beautiful tapestry. She took three toads with her,
and kissed them, and said to one, 'When Eliza comes to the
bath, seat yourself upon her head, that she may become as
stupid as you are.' Then she said to another, 'Place yourself
on her forehead, that she may become as ugly as you are, and
that her father may not know her.' 'Rest on her heart,' she
whispered to the third, 'then she will have evil inclinations,
and suffer in consequence.' So she put the toads into the
clear water, and they turned green immediately. She next
called Eliza, and helped her to undress and get into the bath.
As Eliza dipped her head under the water, one of the toads sat
on her hair, a second on her forehead, and a third on her
breast, but she did not seem to notice them, and when she rose
out of the water, there were three red poppies floating upon
it. Had not the creatures been venomous or been kissed by the
witch, they would have been changed into red roses. At all
events they became flowers, because they had rested on Eliza's
head, and on her heart. She was too good and too innocent for
witchcraft to have any power over her. When the wicked queen
saw this, she rubbed her face with walnut-juice, so that she
was quite brown; then she tangled her beautiful hair and
smeared it with disgusting ointment, till it was quite
impossible to recognize the beautiful Eliza.

When her father saw her, he was much shocked, and declared
she was not his daughter. No one but the watch-dog and the
swallows knew her; and they were only poor animals, and could
say nothing. Then poor Eliza wept, and thought of her eleven
brothers, who were all away. Sorrowfully, she stole away from
the palace, and walked, the whole day, over fields and moors,
till she came to the great forest. She knew not in what
direction to go; but she was so unhappy, and longed so for her
brothers, who had been, like herself, driven out into the
world, that she was determined to seek them. She had been but
a short time in the wood when night came on, and she quite
lost the path; so she laid herself down on the soft moss,
offered up her evening prayer, and leaned her head against the
stump of a tree. All nature was still, and the soft, mild air
fanned her forehead. The light of hundreds of glow-worms shone
amidst the grass and the moss, like green fire; and if she
touched a twig with her hand, ever so lightly, the brilliant
insects fell down around her, like shooting-stars.

All night long she dreamt of her brothers. She and they
were children again, playing together. She saw them writing
with their diamond pencils on golden slates, while she looked
at the beautiful picture-book which had cost half a kingdom.
They were not writing lines and letters, as they used to do;
but descriptions of the noble deeds they had performed, and of
all they had discovered and seen. In the picture-book, too,
everything was living. The birds sang, and the people came out
of the book, and spoke to Eliza and her brothers; but, as the
leaves turned over, they darted back again to their places,
that all might be in order.

When she awoke, the sun was high in the heavens; yet she
could not see him, for the lofty trees spread their branches
thickly over her head; but his beams were glancing through the
leaves here and there, like a golden mist. There was a sweet
fragrance from the fresh green verdure, and the birds almost
perched upon her shoulders. She heard water rippling from a
number of springs, all flowing in a lake with golden sands.
Bushes grew thickly round the lake, and at one spot an opening
had been made by a deer, through which Eliza went down to the
water. The lake was so clear that, had not the wind rustled
the branches of the trees and the bushes, so that they moved,
they would have appeared as if painted in the depths of the
lake; for every leaf was reflected in the water, whether it
stood in the shade or the sunshine. As soon as Eliza saw her
own face, she was quite terrified at finding it so brown and
ugly; but when she wetted her little hand, and rubbed her eyes
and forehead, the white skin gleamed forth once more; and,
after she had undressed, and dipped herself in the fresh
water, a more beautiful king's daughter could not be found in
the wide world. As soon as she had dressed herself again, and
braided her long hair, she went to the bubbling spring, and
drank some water out of the hollow of her hand. Then she
wandered far into the forest, not knowing whither she went.
She thought of her brothers, and felt sure that God would not
forsake her. It is God who makes the wild apples grow in the
wood, to satisfy the hungry, and He now led her to one of
these trees, which was so loaded with fruit, that the boughs
bent beneath the weight. Here she held her noonday repast,
placed props under the boughs, and then went into the
gloomiest depths of the forest. It was so still that she could
hear the sound of her own footsteps, as well as the rustling
of every withered leaf which she crushed under her feet. Not a
bird was to be seen, not a sunbeam could penetrate through the
large, dark boughs of the trees. Their lofty trunks stood so
close together, that, when she looked before her, it seemed as
if she were enclosed within trellis-work. Such solitude she
had never known before. The night was very dark. Not a single
glow-worm glittered in the moss.

Sorrowfully she laid herself down to sleep; and, after a
while, it seemed to her as if the branches of the trees parted
over her head, and that the mild eyes of angels looked down
upon her from heaven. When she awoke in the morning, she knew
not whether she had dreamt this, or if it had really been so.
Then she continued her wandering; but she had not gone many
steps forward, when she met an old woman with berries in her
basket, and she gave her a few to eat. Then Eliza asked her if
she had not seen eleven princes riding through the forest.

'No,' replied the old woman, 'But I saw yesterday eleven
swans, with gold crowns on their heads, swimming on the river
close by.' Then she led Eliza a little distance farther to a
sloping bank, and at the foot of it wound a little river. The
trees on its banks stretched their long leafy branches across
the water towards each other, and where the growth prevented
them from meeting naturally, the roots had torn themselves
away from the ground, so that the branches might mingle their
foliage as they hung over the water. Eliza bade the old woman
farewell, and walked by the flowing river, till she reached
the shore of the open sea. And there, before the young
maiden's eyes, lay the glorious ocean, but not a sail appeared
on its surface, not even a boat could be seen. How was she to
go farther? She noticed how the countless pebbles on the
sea-shore had been smoothed and rounded by the action of the
water. Glass, iron, stones, everything that lay there mingled
together, had taken its shape from the same power, and felt as
smooth, or even smoother than her own delicate hand. 'The
water rolls on without weariness,' she said, till all that is
hard becomes smooth; so will I be unwearied in my task. Thanks
for your lessons, bright rolling waves; my heart tells me you
will lead me to my dear brothers.' On the foam-covered
sea-weeds, lay eleven white swan feathers, which she gathered
up and placed together. Drops of water lay upon them; whether
they were dew-drops or tears no one could say. Lonely as it
was on the sea-shore, she did not observe it, for the
ever-moving sea showed more changes in a few hours than the
most varying lake could produce during a whole year. If a
black heavy cloud arose, it was as if the sea said, 'I can
look dark and angry too;' and then the wind blew, and the
waves turned to white foam as they rolled. When the wind
slept, and the clouds glowed with the red sunlight, then the
sea looked like a rose leaf. But however quietly its white
glassy surface rested, there was still a motion on the shore,
as its waves rose and fell like the breast of a sleeping
child. When the sun was about to set, Eliza saw eleven white
swans with golden crowns on their heads, flying towards the
land, one behind the other, like a long white ribbon. Then
Eliza went down the slope from the shore, and hid herself
behind the bushes. The swans alighted quite close to her and
flapped their great white wings. As soon as the sun had
disappeared under the water, the feathers of the swans fell
off, and eleven beautiful princes, Eliza's brothers, stood
near her. She uttered a loud cry, for, although they were very
much changed, she knew them immediately. She sprang into their
arms, and called them each by name. Then, how happy the
princes were at meeting their little sister again, for they
recognized her, although she had grown so tall and beautiful.
They laughed, and they wept, and very soon understood how
wickedly their mother had acted to them all. 'We brothers,'
said the eldest, 'fly about as wild swans, so long as the sun
is in the sky; but as soon as it sinks behind the hills, we
recover our human shape. Therefore must we always be near a
resting place for our feet before sunset; for if we should be
flying towards the clouds at the time we recovered our natural
shape as men, we should sink deep into the sea. We do not
dwell here, but in a land just as fair, that lies beyond the
ocean, which we have to cross for a long distance; there is no
island in our passage upon which we could pass, the night;
nothing but a little rock rising out of the sea, upon which we
can scarcely stand with safety, even closely crowded together.
If the sea is rough, the foam dashes over us, yet we thank God
even for this rock; we have passed whole nights upon it, or we
should never have reached our beloved fatherland, for our
flight across the sea occupies two of the longest days in the
year. We have permission to visit out home once in every year,
and to remain eleven days, during which we fly across the
forest to look once more at the palace where our father
dwells, and where we were born, and at the church, where our
mother lies buried. Here it seems as if the very trees and
bushes were related to us. The wild horses leap over the
plains as we have seen them in our childhood. The charcoal
burners sing the old songs, to which we have danced as
children. This is our fatherland, to which we are drawn by
loving ties; and here we have found you, our dear little
sister., Two days longer we can remain here, and then must we
fly away to a beautiful land which is not our home; and how
can we take you with us? We have neither ship nor boat.'

'How can I break this spell?' said their sister. And then
she talked about it nearly the whole night, only slumbering
for a few hours. Eliza was awakened by the rustling of the
swans' wings as they soared above. Her brothers were again
changed to swans, and they flew in circles wider and wider,
till they were far away; but one of them, the youngest swan,
remained behind, and laid his head in his sister's lap, while
she stroked his wings; and they remained together the whole
day. Towards evening, the rest came back, and as the sun went
down they resumed their natural forms. 'To-morrow,' said one,
'we shall fly away, not to return again till a whole year has
passed. But we cannot leave you here. Have you courage to go
with us? My arm is strong enough to carry you through the
wood; and will not all our wings be strong enough to fly with
you over the sea?'


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