Fairy Tale of the Week:
“The Six Swans” by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm
Ooh yay! This isn’t an all-time favorite of mine, but I do like this story.
The story begins with a king, hunting in a vast forest. He eventually loses the rest of his party and can’t find his way out of the forest. Salvation appears in the form of an old woman (spoiler alert: she’s a witch). The old woman agrees to lead the king from the forest on the condition that he marry her beautiful daughter. The king agrees, and she keeps her word. The king marries the witch’s daughter.
He already had seven children from his first wife (six boys, one girl), and he loved them more than anything in the world. Fearing how his new wife might treat them, he took them away to a castle deep in a forest, which could only be located by using an enchanted ball of yarn. After settling his children there, in safety, the king continued to visit frequently.
Eventually, his new wife’s curiosity about where her husband was venturing to got the best of her and she bribed the servants into telling her everything. The new queen had learned magic from her mother, and she made shirts from white silk with a charm sewn into them, then waited for the king to ride away to hunt. She took the shirts and the ball of magical yarn, and eventually found her way to the castle where the children were hidden. Seeing someone approaching, the boys all ran out, expecting their father. Their stepmother threw the shirts over them, and they were changed into swans and flew away.
The queen was quite pleased with herself for getting rid of her stepchildren, but she didn’t know about the girl. The king visited the next day, and the girl told him what had happened. He was devastated, but didn’t think his wife had anything to do with it.
The girl waited until night, and ran away, intending to find her brothers. In the forest, after walking all night and day, she found a hut in the forest with six beds. She hid under one, and eventually six swans flew in, blew off their feathers, and were revealed to be her brothers. They could shed their swan form for a mere fifteen minutes each day.
Their sister wanted to help, but they told her the only way to break the enchantment was for her to sew shirts of starwort, and for no sound (no laughter or speech) to leave her lips for six years. Any sound uttered would undo all the work, and she would be right back at square one. (They couldn’t have pointed her in the direction of a town or something, so she could at least get out of the forest?)
She was determined, though, and set to work immediately. Later, a group of the local king’s huntsmen found her in a tree. She would not speak, and eventually some climbed up and took her with them to the king. The king was quite taken with the speechless maiden, and decided to make her his wife. His stepmother (why is it always stepmothers?) was not pleased with the match, and spoke ill of the girl. The king wouldn’t listen, though, and eventually they had a child.
The king’s stepmother stole away the child, smeared the girl’s mouth with blood as she slept, and accused her of cannibalism (unless I read that wrong…fun times). The girl refused to speak about her innocence and the deception of the king’s stepmother. (I have to wonder if she could have written something. Maybe she couldn’t write, though.) Still, the king wouldn’t listen. Two more children were eventually born, and the wicked stepmother repeated her attempts at defaming the silent queen. By the third time, the king had to act, and his wife was sentenced to die by fire.
But, this is a fairy tale, so of course, the day she was set to be executed was also the last day of her silence. All the shirts of starwort were finished, save one sleeve on one shirt. The fire was being lit when the swans descended, and she threw the shirts on them and their swan skins fell away, revealing her brothers, restored. (Except for one of them, who was missing an arm and instead had a swan wing…awkward.)
After that, she was able to speak to the king and declare her innocence, and inform him of how his stepmother had stolen away their children. The children were returned, and the stepmother burned at the stake for what she’d done. Then, the king and queen, and the six brothers, lived happily ever after.
I like this story so much, and I’m not even sure why exactly. This is just one of those fairy tales that really feels like a fairy tale, you know? It’s long enough for things to happen, and doesn’t just feel like a short little morality tale.
I’m sure I’ve encountered some adaptation or retelling of this one, but I’m drawing a blank right now. Let me know if you’ve read or seen one! (I think there’s a YA book, maybe, on my TBR that’s a retelling of this, but I’m feeling too lazy to look it up.)
I’m giving it 5 out of 5 stars.