We wondered which came first in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories about swans or the Danes’ love for swans. Probably a lot of synergy involved. We know Andersen appreciated swans from the loving way that he wrote about them. The mute swan, the one with the long curved neck, orange beak, and white feathers, is the national bird of Denmark. Of course, that declaration didn’t happen until 1984 so Andersen’s stories might have prompted the recognition.
We saw swans in open waterways across Copenhagen. These three are in front of St. Alban’s Church, swimming in a moat just outside the walls of the Kastellet (the Citadel), a star-shaped fortress built in 1626. The white swan is probably the mom. The two gray ones might be two younger swans, or cygnets, who still have their youthful coloration although they appear to be fully grown. As H.C. Andersen wrote in “The Ugly Duckling“: “It doesn’t matter about being born in a duckyard, as long as you are hatched from a swan’s egg.” They were all grooming themselves, plucking out tons of feathers, so maybe the mom was teaching the young ones to get rid of the gray.
We also saw swan statues. In the King’s Garden outside Rosenborg Castle is the famous fountain, “The Boy on the Swan,” which was initially installed in a slightly different form in 1735, three generations before H.C. Andersen was born in 1805.
The swan boats on Peblinge Lake offer a nice leisurely way to enjoy all the water surrounding the city center. These swans are making a killing at $16/half-hour. The building behind them, the Søtorvet, was an early (~1875) residential development built by prominent city folks including J.C. Jacobsen, who founded Carlsberg beer in 1876.
Denmark’s swans have made it onto Royal Copenhagen porcelain. Since 1908, this long-established Danish china company has minted collectible Christmas plates. In 1974 the Christmas plate was an owl, but somehow the swan made it onto an AFTER Christmas plate.
Back to Hans Christian Andersen, who is everywhere in the city: H.C. Andersen Boulevard is one of the main streets through the downtown area. There is the Hans Christian Andersen Experience (a Ripley’s operation that we chose not to visit). A memorial to the writer in King’s Garden shows him with book in hand and two illustrated stories at the base, one “The Ugly Duckling,” one of his swan stories. The other is “The Stork,” an explanation of the concept of storks delivering babies, with a rather macabre twist at the end.
Another of Andersen’s most famous stories is “The Little Mermaid.” One of Copenhagen’s most famous statues is the little mermaid herself sitting on a rock in the harbor. The sculptor Edvard Eriksen created the statue in 1913, with his wife Eline posing as the mermaid.
The artwork was commissioned by Carl Jacobsen, a local businessman whose name you might recognize. Who is Carl Jacobsen? He’s the son of J.C. Jacobsen (mentioned above), the founder of CARLsberg beer. Carl is credited with making the brewery internationally known.
Here’s another statue that ties to swans and Hans Christian Andersen, but probably less recognized by most of us. Tycho Brahe was a 16th-century astronomer, who was able to expand the understanding of the skies without using a telescope. One not-so-fun fact: He lost his nose in a sword duel at a young age and lived with a prosthetic made of brass for the next 34 years. He’ll never smell the flowers in the setting of his statue in the botanical garden in Copenhagen.
So what is Tycho Brahe’s swan connection? Hans Christian Andersen wrote “Svanereden,” “The Swan’s Nest,” as an ode to his beloved Denmark. Tycho Brahe was the only individual he called out by name. Brahe made the heavens more visible.
Denmark’s queen has a pretty big connection to swans. She contributed to the screenplay and was the production designer for a 2009 film, “De Vilder Swaner.” “The Wild Swans” is an H.C. Andersen story about 11 brothers who are turned into swans and their sister who must weave shirts of nettles to change them back to humans. Note that Queen Margarethe II was 69 in 2009, pretty impressive even if she weren’t a queen.
As we leave Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swan’s Nest” is our swan song.
THE SWAN’S NEST by Hans Christian Andersen, 1852
Between the Baltic and the North Sea there lies an old Swan’s Nest, and it is called Denmark. In it have been born, and will be born hereafter, Swans whose names shall never die.
In the olden days, a flock of Swans from that nest flew over the Alps to the green plains of Milan, for it was wonderful to live there. These Swans were called Lombards.
Another flock, with brilliant shining plumage and clear, truthful eyes, alighted at Byzantium, nestled around the throne of the Emperor, and spread out their broad white wings like shields to protect him. Then Swans were known as Varangians.
From the coasts of France arose a cry of terror-terror at the bloody Swans who, with fire in their wings, flew down from the North! And the people prayed, “God save us from the wild Northmen!”
On the fresh turf of an English meadow, near the open shore, with the triple crown on his kingly head, his golden scepter stretching out over the land, stood another royal Swan.
And on the far shores of Pomerania the heathens bent the knee, for thither too, with drawn swords and under the standard of the cross, had flown the Danish Swans.
“But all that was in the ancient days!” you say.
But in times nearer our own have mighty Swans also been seen flying from the Nest. A flash of lightning cleft the air-lightning that blazed over every country in the world-for a Swan had flapped his great wings and scattered the twilight mist. Then the starry heavens became more visible and seemed nearer to the earth. That Swan’s name was Tycho Brahe.
“Yes, that was years ago,” you may say. “But what about now, in our own generation?”
Well, in our own generation we have seen Swans soaring together in glorious flight.
We saw one gently sweep his wings over the golden chords of the harp, and sweet music thrilled through the lands of the North. Then the wild mountains of Norway lifted their crests higher in the blazing sunlight of ancient times; the pine and the birch rustled their leaves; the Gods of the North, the heroic men and noble women of Scandinavian history, came to life again against the background of deep dark forests.
We saw a Swan strike his wing against the hard marble mountain till it broke in pieces, and new shapes of beauty which had been shut up in the stone stepped forward in the bright sunny day. Then the nations of the world raised their heads in wonder to gaze at the glorious statuary.
A third Swan we have seen spinning threads of thoughts that spread from land to land around the earth, so that words fly with lightning speed throughout the world.
Yes, our Lord protects the old Swan’s Nest between the Baltic and the North Sea. Let mighty birds speed through the air to tear it to pieces. It shall never be! We have seen even the unplumed young ones circle the edge of the Nest to fight with their beaks and their claws, their young breasts bleeding.
Centuries will pass, and the Swans will still fly forth from the Nest, and they shall be seen and heard in every part of the world. Long will it be before the time comes when in spirit and truth men say, “That was the last Swan! The last song from the Swan’s Nest!”