In “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, a widowed king remarries, so (we know) here comes trouble. Somehow the king misses all the red flags—it’s as easy to do in a fairy tale as in real life. But we, the readers of the story, possessors of a privileged point of view, a talisman of protection given to us by the author who is a kind of fairy godmother—we see it right away: this new wife is an evil bitch/witch. The king has children, eleven princes and a princess, who live a beautiful life. They love each other, do their homework with diamond pencils, and despite the early loss of their mother, exhibit almost no emotional impairment. They don’t stand a chance against the queen’s occult firepower and mind of want. Fuck these brats, she says. She turns her husband against his own children. She transforms the eleven princes into dumb white swans and drives them off. She robs the princess of her royal identity and exiles her to the countryside to live in anonymity and isolation. Things stay that way, the way the queen wants it, for a long time.
One night a fairy comes to the lonely sister in a dream bearing good news. The fairy tells the sister that she can lift her brothers’ enchantment. To do so, she must knit eleven shirts out of nettles. She must pick the nettles, break them and stomp on them until they become as smooth as flax, twist them into thread, knit the thread into shirts, and throw the shirts over the swans to turn them back into boys. The work will be very hard and painful; the nettles will sting and blister sister’s hands and feet. But she doesn’t hesitate to commit to the task; she loves her brothers.
When I reread “The Wild Swans” recently, I saw in it a metaphor for my writing. I write with the feeling that someone must be helped, that a curse that needs lifting, and that the counter-spell—the writing—is a lacerating labor.
I’ve met writers who say, “Writing is fun! Writing should be fun. I keep it fun. That means a lot of what I write isn’t good—but that’s okay. I’m having fun and that’s what counts.”
What nice people to share the planet with. They make the world go round. The sun, inspired by their positive attitude, gets up in the morning to shine on them and illuminate their fun.
Now back to me.
I just said I write as if trying to lift a curse. But what curse? What is wrong? Who afflicted? The problem seems urgent but is diffuse. There’s nothing as specific as an evil stepmother to take on.
Why are there so many evil stepmothers in fairy tales, anyways? If you look into it, you’ll find out that in the earlier versions of the stories, some of these stepmothers were actually blood mothers. But seventeenth- to-nineteenth-century transcribers, editors, and other transmitters/emitters of culture believed that mothers shouldn’t be shown committing violence against their own children, so they turned the mothers into stepmothers—as easily as a witch turns children into swans.
I wish we had the original tales in their full bloodiness, with parents persecuting their own flesh and blood. The scenarios more sharply crystallize existential/religious concerns. The question, “Why did my parent make me, only to harm and devalue me?” maps neatly to the question, “Who made me, and why must I suffer?”
Which gets me back to the other question: if I feel like I write to lift a curse, who is cursed?
I think the cursed person is everyone, and the curse is the human condition: our loneliness and confusion, our awareness of death, our ability to form certain questions matched by an inability to ever answer those questions.
In “The Wild Swans,” the dream fairy gives the sister one additional instruction for the counter-spell: she must remain silent the whole time she is knitting the nettle shirts. If she utters just one word before the shirts are done, the curse on her brothers will set permanently, like bloodstains in cloth. The fairy says, “Even if it takes years, you must be mute!”
The steely sister says not another word and begins the work of the counter-spell. She gathers nettles, breaks and stomps on them, twists and knits them. During this time she meets a young king, and he falls in love with her, carries her off, and marries her. She knits in silence throughout. People begin to fear that she’s practicing black magic, and since she can’t speak in her defense, they keep on thinking that. This will be important later.
The sister’s prohibition against speaking during the time of her painful labor; this too, makes me think of my writing life. Although writing is powerful speech, perhaps the most powerful speech there is, there’s much I’ve declined to do in order to write. I didn’t become rich, will never be a mother, am a ghostly friend. On national holidays, during celebrations and festivals and inaugurations, I’m usually alone with the prickling, blistering labor of writing. According to the fairy tale, a loving husband is waiting for me in bed, but here I am, up late, knitting.
In the third act of the fairy tale, a suspicious archbishop convinces the sister’s husband that she’s a witch, and she’s condemned to burning at the stake. Even as she’s being carried to the pyre in a cart, she’s working on the knitting, hurrying to finish her task. As the executioner drags her from the cart, eleven huge white swans fly down. The sister throws the shirts over them—and there they stand! “Eleven princes, handsome and fair. But the youngest of them had a swan’s wing instead of an arm, for the sister had not been able to finish one of the sleeves of the last shirt.”
As with the knitting of the shirts, the work on my text remains incomplete. Sometimes a story or poem or essay is published, in which case I’m forced to cease my effort, like the sister in the tale, but the work never feels done. I write, revise, and revise, but the transformation is never complete.
“The Wild Swans” was written in 1838 by Han Christian Andersen, a frustrated writer who wanted to write great novels and acclaimed plays rather than stories for children. In this tale he embedded a vision of the power of the author. After transforming her brothers, the sister faints, right there on the pyre. While they’re trying to revive her, her oldest brother tells the assembled crowd the full story of her courageous work. As he speaks, “a fragrance of millions of roses spread from the wood that had been piled high around the stake. Every stick, every log had taken root and set forth vines. They were a hedge of the loveliest red roses, and on the very top bloomed a single white rose. It shone like a star.” The brother picks the white rose, places it on his sister, and she is revived.
So this fairy tale contains not only a magic textile (the shirts of nettles), but a magic text: the brother’s story, which causes the dry pyre wood to burst into fertile life, producing a vital talisman that brings the sister out of her swoon and commutes her death sentence.
There are many kinds of writers, many motivations to write, many experiences of writing. Maybe not many writers are as sentimental as Hans Christian Andersen and I. I can’t write an actual magic story, one that restores us all decisively to our original forms, and strength, but I do want to write a story that enacts a transformation, even if the transformation lasts only as long as a flicker, and goes no deeper than the footsteps of a dragonfly into the tense surface of water. It’s this desire/ambition/illusion that keeps me knitting the shirts of nettles.
Cybele Knowles writes nonfiction, poems, and stories that have appeared in Devil’s Lake, Fairy Tale Review, The Destroyer, and Diagram, among other places. She’s the founder and editor of All-Girl All-Comedy Reviews, a blog reviewing comedic art by women, and Feminist Nikki Sixx, feminist Instagram account for rocker girls and women. You can find more of her writing at cybeleknowles.com.