Saving the Day with Sewing and Flowers: The Grimms’ “The Six Swans”

It can be tough—more than tough—to be the youngest sibling in a fairy tale family. All too often your older siblings are mean to you. That is, when they aren’t directly plotting against you. And that’s what happens when your oldest siblings hate you or are jealous of you. It gets even worse when they like you, as in “The Six Swans” and its various variants.

“The Six Swans” was collected by the Brothers Grimm for their Children’s and Household Tales (1812). It was later recollected by Andrew Lang in The Yellow Fairy Book (1894) who softened many of the details (including pretty much everything to do with the blood), but who also helped popularize the tale for an English-speaking audience. The Grimms in turn got the story from Dortchen Wild, their neighbor who later married Wilhelm Grimm, a marriage presumably at least partly based on a shared love of fairy tales.

Wild’s source is unclear, but as the Grimms noted, stories of brothers transformed into birds were popular throughout Europe, along with the motif of a young sister thought to threaten the family. In most variants, the brothers are transformed into ravens—that is, birds often associated with death, evil and trickery. In this version, the brothers are transformed into swans—a sign, the Grimms assure us, of their innocence.

Or maybe an indication that Dortchen Wild just liked swans. Who knows?

This version begins, however, not with the brothers or the swans, but rather with a king lost in a forest, reminding us all yet again of just how many fairy tale characters could have been saved if only they’d had access to GPS and Google Maps. It’s honestly quite sad. Somewhat fortunately, he finds a witch who knows the way out—but only somewhat fortunately, since the witch has a beautiful daughter virtually designed to be an evil stepmother. And the king already has six sons and a daughter.

The king marries the witch’s daughter—and then hides his children in a secluded castle in a forest, a castle that can only be found with a ball of white string. Not surprisingly, the new queen grows increasingly suspicious of her husband’s frequent absences, and eventually bribes his servants, discovering the truth. Taking the ball of white string, she heads to the castle, and tosses some white shirts over the king’s sons, transforming them into swans.

Quite sensibly, the king’s daughter decides to run off at this point, following her brothers. She soon finds a small hut with six beds, and figures out—more or less correctly—that this must be where her brothers are staying. More or less, because when her brothers do fly in, transforming back into humans for exactly fifteen minutes, they explain that the hut is also used by robbers, and is not particularly safe. Which leads to a lot of questions, like, then why are the brothers flying back to it, and, nice coincidence that the robbers just happened to have a room with six small beds, and why are the brothers so convinced that they can’t beat off the robbers while they’re in swan form? Swans are large and often mean birds—not as mean and tough as Canadian geese, but still, some wing flapping and some vicious attacks from their beaks and these former princes turned swans could have themselves a quality robbers hut, is what I’m saying here. I am also kinda suspicious about the small fact that we never see the robbers: it all seems like a story intended to get their little sister out of the first shelter she’s found since the transformation.

Anyway, rather than giving their sister something helpful like food, or directions to a nearby village, they tell her how to break their transformation: stay silent for six years, and weave six shirts from asters. (In other versions, nettles, but in this version, her skin gets to remain a little more intact). If she says one word or laughs during that time, she will have to start from the beginning.

I gotta ask: how on earth do the brothers even know this? Nothing in the story so far has hinted that they know anything of magic, and, according to the story, it’s only been about four days since they were transformed. Not exactly enough time to earn a doctorate in How to End Evil Curses. Was this some sort of magical spell knowledge that fell on them with the magical shirts?

The sister is not inclined to ask questions. Instead, she heads to a tree and starts sewing the shirts. Which goes well, right up until a few huntsmen working for an entirely different king find her in a tree, take her down, and take her to the king.

It’s not clear how many years have passed at this point, or how many shirts she’s managed to complete, but I’m inclined to think not many. The rest of the story suggests perhaps one, at most three, since she and the king marry and have three children, something which presumably took at least three years. This in turn suggests that her best option would be to open her mouth, explain the situation, beg to be left alone for six more years and start all over again. Or, failing this—write everything down. But she stays silent. Possibly she’s afraid that if she speaks, her stepmother will find her, and she will never break the spell.

It’s a tactical mistake, though, since her silence, not to mention the flower-sewing, alarms the king’s mother, who spends the next few years framing the girl for murder, which is quite something to deal with when you are already trying to break an enchantment. Indeed, the girl doesn’t quite succeed—she finishes only five and a half, not six shirts.

It’s tempting to believe that if she had only been left alone, she would have finished the shirts—going on trial for murder seems to be one of those things that takes up quite a bit of time. But even with the travail of remaining silent for six years and never getting to talk or laugh—even to her three children—I still think the most tragic person in this whole story has to be the youngest brother. First, through no fault of his own, he gets turned into a swan, able to be human for only fifteen minutes per day, barely long enough for a fast meal and certainly not long enough to do much with hands, and then, through even less fault of his own, he’s only transformed most of the way back. He still has the arm of a swan.

It’s an echo, of course, of something known well by the Grimms and Dortchen Wild—of people who left their homes, to find themselves transformed, never quite able to transform back to their original selves. As in their own experience, the restoration is marred by violence: in their cases, the very real violence of the Napoleonic Wars. In the case of this prince, a queen’s attempt to frame her mysterious daughter-in-law for murder.

He’s hardly the only victim of this tale, of course. The first king loses his children for at least six years, and possibly longer—the tale never tells us if his sons ever returned to tell their father, hey, that girl you married? Has a few powers you might want to know about. The girl’s three children are presumably traumatized for quite some time by their respective kidnappings, and their grandmother, who sorta had a point about the whole, uh, don’t you think something’s a bit off with this girl, who was living in a tree and sewing flowers thing, ends up burned to death—something that might not have happened had her son not met a girl desperate to break an enchantment.

And I do have to question just how well this marriage will go, now that she can talk.

Given that her husband did agree to have his wife burned alive. It’s the sort of thing that can put a crack in even the happiest, most solid of marriages.

In the end, I guess the main lesson here is always try to travel either with a map, or failing that, with access to Google Maps, because you never know what the cost of getting found will be.

The Grimms also collected two other similar tales—”The Seven Ravens,” where, after their transformation into ravens, the girl’s brothers are trapped in a glass mountain, and can only be freed after the girl cuts off her own finger to use it as a key; and “The Twelve Brothers,” where a king plans to kill his twelve sons if his thirteenth child is a girl, a thirteenth child who must then be silent for seven years after she accidentally transforms her twelve brothers into ravens. Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe collected a similar version in Norway, telling of twelve brothers turned into ducks—with the youngest brother once again left with the wing of a duck instead of an arm, since his sister was not able to finish that last shirt.

Perhaps better known is Hans Christian Andersen’s literary version, whose princess, Eliza, must weave eleven shirts from stinging nettles to transform her brothers. His story is filled with delightful details of diamond pencils and golden slates and grim details of needing to walk through graveyards filled with ghouls to pick nettles, all while trying to convince her husband that she is not, indeed, a witch. Not surprisingly, in Andersen’s version, the girl passes out cold the instant her brothers are saved; surprisingly, she revives enough to resume her marriage with the king.

These are not exactly tales of high adventure. They flat out state that these girls can save their brothers only through domestic work and silence, or through physically harming themselves. They urge girls to put their own lives, needs and even the safety of their own children aside in order to save their brothers.

But they also note that domestic work is not just useful, but can be magical. That it has the power not just to transform, but to heal and to save. That princesses can save their brothers—and survive getting framed for murder. These might not be girl warriors—but they certainly have girl power.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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