Once there was a king who had much happiness and great fortune. Of all his treasures, he was proudest of his four children, the most perfect children in the land. His three fine, strong sons would do anything for their father. And the king’s greatest joy, his daughter Elise, was clearly the dearest, sweetest, and most beautiful child in all the world.
Elise spent much of her time in her garden. Next to her three brothers and her father, her lovely roses were Elise’s greatest treasures. She would spend hour after hour caring for them.
Then one day the king hurried to find Elise. He was very worried. “I have terrible news,” he told her. “You are in danger.”
The king had many treasures, but he also had many wicked and powerful enemies. They were evil sorcerers and magicians who believed no one should have as much happiness as the king.
“I fear for your safety,” the king told his daughter. “You must go away from me now.”
“But, Father,” Elise cried, “what about you and my brothers?”
The king sighed. “Your brothers have been taken away from us,” he sadly told her. “I know not where. I cannot stand to lose you, too.”
The king told the princess to go with his trusted servants, who would take her to safety in their home in the forest.
“When you’re old enough,” said the king, “find your brothers and come back to me.” He kissed her good-bye. Elise did as her father said. She lived hidden away in the servants’ house for many years. She was treated well, but she was very unhappy. Elise longed to see her three beloved brothers and her father again.
When Elise was old enough, she set off to find her brothers. She had no idea where to look, but she knew in her heart they were still alive. She had a feeling inside that told her they needed her help.
After several days of wandering and hoping for some sign, Elise met an old woman picking berries in the forest.”I am looking for my three brothers,” Elise told the woman. “They are fine, strong princes. Have you seen them?”
“I have seen nothing all day but three white swans with golden crowns on their heads,” the old woman said. “They were sunning themselves on the shore.”
She directed Elise to the spot. There, Elise found three white feathers. She clutched them close to her and fell asleep while she waited for the swans to return. Just before sunset, Elise woke up to see three majestic swans gliding down to the shore. They landed beside her, and, as the last ray of sunshine disappeared, the three swans changed into three princes. Elise was overjoyed to see her brothers again! They held her close and told her what had happened to them.
Many years ago, an evil sorcerer had come to the castle. This sorcerer vowed to ruin the king’s happiness, which he did the moment he turned the three handsome princes into swans. Since that day, they have lived as swans during the day and humans during the night.
“We have looked for you,” the eldest brother told Elise. “But you were very well hidden.”
“We have seen our father,” the second brother told Elise. “He is safe, but very unhappy. He now serves the sorcerer.”
“He cannot help us,” added the third brother. “But each day he wishes we will find each other and make things right again.”
Elise promised to help free her brothers from the sorcerer’s wicked spell. Her brothers told her of an enchanted land far across the sea where they might find a way to break the spell.
“Take me with you,” Elise urged them. “I know I can help.”Her brothers prepared a net to carry their sister in. The next morning, they flew high above the sea, carrying Elise as she slept. They rushed to reach land by nightfall, or else all three brothers and their sister would drop into the sea and be lost forever.
After two days’ flight, they arrived at the kingdom across the sea. It was said that the Fairy Queen Morgana lived there. Surely she would know how to help them. Elise’s brothers found her a cave to rest in while they searched for Queen Morgana.As Elise fell asleep, she wished for a way to free her brothers from the spell. Then Queen Morgana came to Elise in a dream.
“Only you can free your brothers,” Queen Morgana whispered to Elise. “But you must sacrifice greatly.”
“Oh, I will,” Elise promised. Then she listened carefully.
“Take the things you treasure most,” Queen Morgana said, “and craft a shirt for each brother. This may take a very long time, but when you cover the swans with them, the spell will be broken. There is one more thing,” she added. “You may not speak until the shirts are made. If you do, your words will pierce your brothers’ hearts like arrows.”
With that Queen Morgana disappeared. Elise awoke to find the cave surrounded with hundreds of lovely rosebushes, like the ones she’d had as a child. She knew what she had to do.
Elise set to work immediately. She picked rose after rose and plucked petal after petal. She used the roses’ prickly thorns as needles to string the petals together. Elise worked tirelessly, day and night. Her brothers visited her, but Elise didn’t dare speak.
On the thirtieth day, Elise was nearly through with the third shirt. She had one sleeve left to sew. But that day a woodcutter and his wife came upon Elise’s rose garden. The woodcutter’s wife loved roses, too. She went forward for a closer look, and saw Elise working there among the soft petals.
“What are you doing in the woods alone?” they asked, but Elise didn’t dare speak, out of fear for her brothers’ lives. “Poor child, come with us. We’ll give you proper food and rest.”Elise did not want to leave her new rose garden. She wanted to finish the third shirt, and she needed the roses to do it.
Elise gathered up the shirts and as many roses as she could carry. Then she went sadly with the woodcutter and his wife.
Elise stayed there for many days and did as the woodcutter and his wife asked. At night, though, she would stay awake to sew the last shirt. Before long, Elise ran out of rose petals.
Elise crept out of the house that night and plucked the petals from the woodcutter’s wife’s prized roses. At sunrise, she had one cuff left to sew as the woodcutter’s wife came to see her.
“Ungrateful girl!” she shouted. “You’ve ruined my roses!”Flying the skies in search of some sign of their sister, Elise’s brothers heard the shouts of the woodcutter’s wife. They flew to the house. They squawked at the woodcutter, who ran in fear for his bow. Elise quickly spread the three shirts over the swans.
Before her eyes, the swans became men again!
Elise ran to her brothers’ arms. The youngest brother, who wore the unfinished shirt, still had some feathers on one arm, but he did not mind.
Elise, anxious to speak now that the spell had been broken, explained everything to the woodcutter and his wife. “I’m sorry that I have been so difficult, when you have been so kind,” said Elise. “My brothers and I thank you. We will repay you.”
Elise and her brothers took all the rosebushes from the forest cave and planted them in the garden behind the woodcutter’s house. Then they sent for their father the very next day. The king now had the strength and desire to escape the evil sorcerer. He journeyed by ship to the family’s new home.
Elise and her three brothers prepared a new castle for their father, who became the king of a new land. Of course, Elise’s brothers remembered to plant a rose garden on the castle grounds. It is said that this rose garden is where Elise weaves the most fragrant and lovely rosebushes by hand and sends a flock of wild swans to plant them in forests all over the world.