From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:
"Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route to becoming. All the magic and glass mountains and pearls the size of houses and princesses beautiful as the day and talking birds and part-time serpents are distractions from the core of most of the stories, the struggle to survive against adversaries, to find your place in the world, and to come into your own.
"Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of youngest sons, abandoned children, orphans, of humans transformed into birds and beasts or otherwise enchanted away from their own lives and selves. Even princesses are chattels to be disowned by fathers, punished by step-mothers, or claimed by princes, though they often assert themselves in between and are rarely as passive as the cartoon versions. Fairy tales are children's stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one.
"In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness -- from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sewn among the meek is harvested in crisis...
"In Hans Christian Andersen's retelling of the old Nordic tale that begins with a stepmother, 'The Wild Swans,' the banished sister can only disenchant her eleven brothers -- who are swans all day but turn human at night -- by gathering stinging nettles barehanded from churchyard graves, making them into flax, spinning them and knitting eleven long-sleeved shirts while remaining silent the whole time. If she speaks, they'll remain birds forever. In her silence, she cannot protest the crimes she accused of and nearly burned as a witch.
"Hauled off to a pyre as she knits the last of the shirts, she is rescued by the swans, who fly in at the last moment. As they swoop down, she throws the nettle shirts over them so that they turn into men again, all but the youngest brother, whose shirt is missing a sleeve so that he's left with one arm and one wing, eternally a swan-man. Why shirts made of graveyard nettles by bleeding fingers and silence should disenchant men turned into birds by their step-mother is a question the story doesn't need to answer. It just needs to give us compelling images of exile, loneliness, affection, and metamorphosis -- and of a heroine who nearly dies of being unable to tell her own story."
"Silence is another element we find in classic fairy tales — girls muted by magic or sworn to silence in order to break enchantment. In 'The Wild Swans,' a princess is imprisoned by her stepmother, rolled in filth, then banished from home (as her older brothers had been before her). She goes in search of her missing brothers, discovers that they've been turned into swans, whereupon the young girl vows to find a way to break the spell. A mysterious woman comes to her in a dream and tells her what to do: 'Pick the nettles that grow in graveyards, crush and spin them into thread, then weave them into coats and throw them over your brothers' backs.' The nettles burn and blister, yet she never falters: picking, spinning, weaving, working with wounded, crippled hands, determined to save her brothers. All this time she's silent. 'You must not speak,' the dream woman has warned, 'for a single world will be like a knife plunged into your brothers' hearts.'
"You must not speak. That's what my stepfather said: don't speak, don't cry, don't tell. That's what my mother said as well, as we sat in hospital waiting rooms -- and I obeyed, as did my brothers. We sat as still and silent as stone while my mother spun false tales to explain each break and bruise and burn. Our family moved just often enough that her stories were fresh and plausible; each new doctor believed her, and chided us children to be more careful. I never contradicted those tales. I wouldn't have dared, or wanted to. They'd send me into foster care. They'd send my young brothers away. And so we sat, and the unspoken truth was as sharp as the point of a knife."
Youngest Brother, swan's wing,
where one arm should be, yours the shirt
of nettles short a sleeve
and me with no time left to finish --
I didn't mend you all the way back into man
though I managed for your brothers;
they flit again from court to playing-courts
to courting, while you station yourself,
wing folded from sight, avian eye
to the outside, no rebuke meant but love's.
Was it better then, the living on the water,
the taking to air...?
“There are ways of being abandoned even when your parents are right there.” - Louise Erdrich (from The Plague of Doves)
The illustrations for The Wild Swans above are by: Kaarina Kaila (Finnish), Gennady Spirin (Russian), Nadezhda Illarionova (Russian), Susan Jeffers (American), Gordon Robinson (English, early 20th century), Yvonne Gilbert (English), Anna and Elena Balbusso (Italian), Steven Kenney (American), Nadezhda Illarionova (Russian), and Anton Lomaev (Belorussian). Also, four good novels inspired by the Wild Swans fairy tale.