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The Six Swans
Grimm Märchen

The Six Swans - Fairy Tale by the Brothers Grimm

Reading time for children: 14 min

Once on a time a king was hunting in a great wood, and he pursued a wild animal so eagerly that none of his people could follow him. When evening came he stood still, and looking round him he found that he had lost his way. And seeking a path, he found none. Then all at once he saw an old woman with a nodding head coming up to him. And it was a witch. „My good woman,“ said he, „can you show me the way out of the wood?“

„Oh yes, my lord king,“ answered she. „Certainly I can, but I must make a condition, and if you do not fulfil it, you will never get out of the wood again, but die there of hunger.“ – „What is the condition?“ asked the king. „I have a daughter,“ said the old woman, „who is as fair as any in the world, and if you will take her for your bride, and make her queen, I will show you the way out of the wood.“ The king consented, because of the difficulty he was in, and the old woman led him into her little house, and there her daughter was sitting by the fire.

She received the king just as if she had been expecting him, and though he saw that she was very beautiful, she did not please him, and he could not look at her without an inward shudder. Nevertheless, he took the maiden before him on his horse, and the old woman showed him the way, and soon he was in his royal castle again, where the wedding was held. The king had been married before, and his first wife had left seven children, six boys and one girl, whom he loved better than all the world, and as he was afraid the step-mother might not behave well to them, and perhaps would do them some mischief, he took them to a lonely castle standing in the middle of a wood.

There they remained hidden, for the road to it was so hard to find that the king himself could not have found it, had it not been for a clew of yarn, possessing wonderful properties, that a wise woman had given him. When he threw it down before him, it unrolled itself and showed him the way. And the king went so often to see his dear children, that the queen was displeased at his absence. And she became curious and wanted to know what he went out into the wood for so often alone. She bribed his servants with much money, and they showed her the secret, and told her of the clew of yam, which alone could point out the way.

Then she gave herself no rest until she had found out where the king kept the clew, and then she made some little white silk shirts, and sewed a charm in each, as she had learned witchcraft of her mother. And once when the king had ridden, to the hunt, she took the little shirts and went into the wood, and the clew of yarn showed her the way. The children seeing some one in the distance, thought it was their dear father coming to see them, and came jumping for joy to meet him. Then the wicked queen threw over each one of the little shirts, and as soon as the shirts touched their bodies, they were changed into swans, and flew away through the wood.

So the queen went home very pleased to think she had got rid of her stepchildren. But the maiden had not run out with her brothers, and so the queen knew nothing about her. The next day the king went to see his children, but he found nobody but his daughter. „Where are thy brothers?“ asked the king. „Ah, dear father,“ answered she, „they are gone away and have left me behind,“ and then she told him how she had seen from her window her brothers in the guise of swans fly away through the wood, and she showed him the feathers which they had let fall in the courtyard, and which she had picked up.

The king was grieved, but he never dreamt that it was the queen who had done this wicked deed, and as he feared lest the maiden also should be stolen away from him, he wished to take her away with him. But she was afraid of the step-mother, and begged the king to let her remain one more night in the castle in the wood. Then she said to herself, „I must stay here no longer, but go and seek for my brothers.“ And when the night came, she fled away and went straight into the wood. She went on all that night and the next day, until she could go no longer for weariness. At last she saw a rude hut, and she went in and found a room with six little beds in it. She did not dare to lie down in one, but she crept under one and lay on the hard boards and wished for night.

When it was near the time of sun-setting she heard a rustling sound, and saw six swans come flying in at the window. They alighted on the ground, and blew at one another until they had blown all their feathers off, and then they stripped off their swan-skin as if it had been a shirt. And the maiden looked at them and knew them for her brothers, and was very glad, and crept from under the bed. The brothers were not less glad when their sister appeared, but their joy did not last long. „You must not stay here,“ said they to her. „This is a robbers‘ haunt, and if they were to come and find you here, they would kill you.“

„And cannot you defend me?“ asked the little sister. „No,“ answered they, „for we can only get rid of our swan-skins and keep our human shape every evening for a quarter of an hour, but after that we must be changed again into swans.“ Their sister wept at hearing this, and said, „Can nothing be done to set you free?“ – „Oh no,“ answered they, „the work would be too hard for you. For six whole years you would be obliged never to speak or laugh, and make during that time six little shirts out of aster-flowers.

If you were to let fall a single word before the work was ended, all would be of no good.“ And just as the brothers had finished telling her this, the quarter of an hour came to an end, and they changed into swans and flew out of the window. But the maiden made up her mind to set her brothers free, even though it should cost her her life. She left the hut, and going into the middle of the wood, she climbed a tree, and there passed the night. The next morning she set to work and gathered asters and began sewing them together: as for speaking, there was no one to speak to, and as for laughing, she had no mind to it. So she sat on and looked at nothing but her work.

When she had been going on like this for a long time, it happened that the king of that country went a-hunting in the wood, and some of his huntsmen came up to the tree in which the maiden sat. They called out to her, saying, „Who art thou?“ But she gave no answer. „Come down,“ cried they. „We will do thee no harm.“ But she only shook her head. And when they tormented her further with questions she threw down to them her gold necklace, hoping they would be content with that. But they would not leave off, so she threw down to them her girdle, and when that was no good, her garters, and one after another everything she had on and could possibly spare, until she had nothing left but her smock.

But all was no good, the huntsmen would not be put off any longer, and they climbed the tree, carried the maiden off, and brought her to the king. The king asked, „Who art thou? What wert thou doing in the tree?“ But she answered nothing. He spoke to her in all the languages he knew, but she remained dumb: but, being very beautiful, the king inclined to her, and he felt a great love rise up in his heart towards her. And casting his mantle round her, he put her before him on his horse and brought her to his castle. Then he caused rich clothing to be put upon her, and her beauty shone as bright as the morning, but no word would she utter.

He seated her by his side at table, and her modesty and gentle mien so pleased him, that he said, „This maiden I choose for wife, and no other in all the world,“ and accordingly after a few days they were married. But the king had a wicked mother, who was displeased with the marriage, and spoke ill of the young queen. „Who knows where the maid can have come from?“ said she, „and not able to speak a word! She is not worthy of a king!“ After a year had passed, and the queen brought her first child into the world, the old woman carried it away, and marked the queen’s mouth with blood as she lay sleeping. Then she went to the king and declared that his wife was an eater of human flesh.

The king would not believe such a thing, and ordered that no one should do her any harm. And the queen went on quietly sewing the shirts and caring for nothing else. The next time that a fine boy was born, the wicked step-mother used the same deceit, but the king would give no credence to her words, for he said, „She is too tender and good to do any such thing, and if she were only not dumb, and could justify herself, then her innocence would be as clear as day.“ When for the third time the old woman stole away the new-born child and accused the queen, who was unable to say a word in her defence, the king could do no other but give her up to justice, and she was sentenced to suffer death by fire.

The day on which her sentence was to be carried out was the very last one of the sixth year of the years during which she had neither spoken nor laughed, to free her dear brothers from the evil spell. The six shirts were ready, all except one which wanted the left sleeve. And when she was led to the pile of wood, she carried the six shirts on her arm, and when she mounted the pile and the fire was about to be kindled, all at once she cried out aloud, for there were six swans coming flying through the air. And she saw that her deliverance was near, and her heart beat for joy.

The swans came close up to her with rushing wings, and stooped round her, so that she could throw the shirts over them. And when that had been done the swanskins fell off them, and her brothers stood before her in their own bodies quite safe and sound. But as one shirt wanted the left sleeve, so the youngest brother had a swan’s wing instead of a left arm. They embraced and kissed each other, and the queen went up to the king, who looked on full of astonishment, and began to speak to him and to say, „Dearest husband, now I may dare to speak and tell you that I am innocent, and have been falsely accused,“ and she related to him the treachery of the step-mother, who had taken away the three children and hidden them. And she was reconciled to the king with great joy, and the wicked step-mother was bound to the stake on the pile of wood and burnt to ashes. And the king and queen lived many years with their six brothers in peace and joy.

Backgrounds to fairy tale „The Six Swans“

„The Six Swans“ is a fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm and appears as tale number 49 in their compilation „Grimms‘ Fairy Tales“ (Kinder- und Hausmärchen). The story, which has roots in European folklore, features themes of familial love, devotion, and the power of perseverance. The story is classified under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) tale type 451, „The Maiden Who Seeks her Brothers,“ which is a subcategory of the more general type 450, „The Brothers Transformed.“ This tale type features a central plot in which siblings are transformed into animals, often birds, and their sister goes on a quest to break the curse and restore their human forms.

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), were German scholars, linguists, and cultural researchers who are best known for their collection of fairy tales. Their work aimed to preserve traditional oral folktales that were passed down through generations. Many of their stories, such as „Cinderella,“ „Snow White,“ „Hansel and Gretel,“ and „Rapunzel,“ have become staples of Western popular culture and are still widely read today. It is essential to note that „The Six Swans“ is not unique to the Brothers Grimm’s collection. Similar stories appear in various cultures, such as „The Wild Swans“ by Hans Christian Andersen and „The Seven Ravens,“ another tale from the Grimms‘ collection. The theme of transformation and the quest to break a curse is common in many folktales and can be found across different cultures and time periods.

In „The Six Swans,“ a king gets lost in the forest and meets a witch, who agrees to show him the way out in exchange for a promise to marry her daughter. The king agrees, but upon returning to his castle, he realizes that the witch’s daughter is an evil sorceress. After they are married, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter. The evil queen, jealous of the king’s six sons from his previous marriage, decides to take revenge by turning the boys into swans. The boys‘ sister, is the only one who remains unaffected by the curse. After learning from a wise woman that the only way to break the curse is by making six shirts from nettles and remaining silent for six years, the sister decides to undertake the challenge. During her six years of silence, she suffers greatly, living alone in the forest and working tirelessly to make the shirts from the painful nettles.

Interpretations to fairy tale „The Six Swans“

„The Six Swans“ is a rich and complex fairy tale that offers several themes and interpretations for readers to explore. Some common interpretations of the story include:

Loyalty: The sister’s unwavering commitment to save her brothers from the curse demonstrates the power of loyalty and familial bonds. Despite the seemingly impossible task and personal sacrifices she must make, she remains steadfast in her quest to help her brothers.

Perseverance: The story emphasizes the importance of determination and resilience in the face of adversity. The sister must endure six years of silence and hardship, all the while remaining focused on her goal to save her brothers. This perseverance ultimately leads to her success and the brothers‘ liberation from their swan forms. The sisters six-year journey to break the curse demonstrates the importance of perseverance and determination. Despite the many challenges she faces, the sister remains steadfast in her resolve to save her brothers, ultimately triumphing over evil.

The power of love: The sister’s love for her brothers and her willingness to sacrifice her own well-being and happiness for their sake is a central theme in the story. Her love is ultimately rewarded when her brothers are freed from their enchantment, and the young queen is reunited with her husband.

Triumph of good over evil: The tale showcases the struggle between good and evil, with the wicked stepmother’s actions causing much suffering for the protagonists. However, goodness prevails in the end, as the sister’s dedication to saving her brothers leads to the stepmother’s downfall and the eventual happiness of the reunited family.

Overcoming adversity through inner strength: The sister’s ability to remain silent and focused on her goal despite facing numerous challenges highlights the importance of inner strength and fortitude. Her courage and determination in overcoming these obstacles allow her to ultimately save her brothers and restore her own happiness.

Sacrifice and devotion: The central theme of „The Six Swans“ is the love and devotion between siblings. The sister is willing to endure great pain and suffering to save her brothers, showcasing the power of self-sacrifice and dedication in the face of adversity.

The power of silence: The sisters commitment to remaining silent for six years highlights the importance of patience and restraint. Her silence becomes a form of power, allowing her to focus on her task and endure the trials she faces. This interpretation emphasizes the potential strength in choosing not to speak and the wisdom in knowing when to remain silent.

Transformation and redemption: The story of „The Six Swans“ involves several transformations, both physical and emotional. The brothers are transformed into swans, while the sister undergoes her own personal transformation throughout her journey. In the end, the power of love and devotion leads to redemption and the restoration of the family.

Overcoming injustice: The sister faces several instances of injustice in the story, from her brothers‘ curse to her wrongful accusation of witchcraft. However, she remains steadfast and strong, ultimately overcoming these obstacles and clearing her name.

These interpretations of „The Six Swans“ offer a deeper understanding of the tale, exploring themes of love, devotion, determination, and the power of silence. The story serves as an inspiration for readers to persevere through hardships, remain devoted to their loved ones, and believe in the transformative power of love and determination.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „The Six Swans“

„The Six Swans“ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in their famous anthology, „Grimms‘ Fairy Tales“ (first published in 1812). „The Six Swans“ is a captivating fairy tale that has inspired various adaptations and retellings across different media. Some notable examples include:

Literature: „Daughter of the Forest“ by Juliet Marillier (1999) „Daughter of the Forest“ is a novel that retells the story of „The Six Swans“ in a historical fantasy setting, with Celtic mythology woven into the narrative. The protagonist, Sorcha, takes on the role of the sister, enduring great hardships to save her cursed brothers. „The Wild Swans“ by Hans Christian Andersen: This is a similar fairy tale to „The Six Swans,“ with a sister trying to save her brothers who have been turned into swans. However, in this version, the sister must knit sweaters from stinging nettles to break the curse. This tale was first published in 1838, just a few years after the Grimm Brothers‘ version. „Six Swans“ by Katherine Langrish: This novel is a retelling of „The Six Swans“ that stays true to the original fairy tale while adding new elements and details. It is aimed at young adult readers.

Films: „The Wild Swans“ (1962) This Soviet animated film, titled „Дикие лебеди“ in Russian, is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the story, which shares many similarities with the Brothers Grimm’s „The Six Swans.“ The film features beautiful animation and a moving score that brings the tale to life. „The Swan Princess“ (1994): This animated film is loosely based on „The Six Swans“ and tells the story of a princess named Odette who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. Her prince must prove his love and devotion to break the curse. „The Six Swans“ (1987): This West German film is a faithful adaptation of the Grimm Brothers‘ fairy tale, with an emphasis on the sister’s journey to save her brothers. „The Secret of Roan Inish“ (1994): This film is not a direct adaptation of „The Six Swans,“ but it shares similar themes of transformation and loyalty. It tells the story of a young girl who discovers a family secret and learns about her family’s connection to selkies, mythical creatures who can transform from seals into humans.

Television: „Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics“ (1987-1988) This animated television series, which adapts various stories from the Brothers Grimm, includes an episode based on „The Six Swans.“ The episode presents the classic tale with a faithful adaptation, allowing viewers to experience the story in a visual format.

Theater: „The Six Swans“ by David Edgar (2006) Playwright David Edgar adapted „The Six Swans“ for the stage, presenting a modern retelling of the story with elements of dark comedy. The play explores the themes of the original tale while incorporating contemporary social and political commentary.

Music: „Six Swans“ by Sufjan Stevens (2004) Though not a direct adaptation, Sufjan Stevens‘ song „Six Swans“ from his album „Seven Swans“ is inspired by the fairy tale. The lyrics touch upon the themes of transformation and devotion present in the original story.

„The Six Swans“ has been adapted and retold in various forms of media, including films, novels, and operas. These adaptations of „The Six Swans“ showcase the enduring appeal of the fairy tale and its ability to inspire creative reinterpretations across various forms of media. Each adaptation offers a unique perspective on the story, allowing audiences to explore the tale’s themes of love, devotion, and perseverance in new and engaging ways. Overall, „The Six Swans“ has been adapted and retold in various ways over the years, and its themes of sacrifice, transformation, and loyalty continue to resonate with audiences today.

Summary of the plot

„The Six Swans“ is a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm that tells the story of a sister’s unwavering devotion and sacrifice to save her six brothers who have been turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. The tale begins with a king who gets lost in a forest and meets an old witch. To be shown the way out, the king promises to marry the witch’s daughter. He returns to his castle with his new wife, who turns out to be an evil sorceress. The king has six sons and a daughter, from his previous marriage. The stepmother, jealous of the king’s children, turns the six sons into swans.

The daugther, who remains unaffected, escapes to the forest in search of her brothers. A wise woman tells her that the only way to break the curse is to make six shirts from nettles and remain silent for six years. The sister takes on this challenge, enduring great pain and isolation as she works on the shirts in the forest. One day, a king from a neighboring kingdom discovers the woman and falls in love with her. They marry, but her silence and strange behavior arouse suspicion in her new mother-in-law, who accuses her of witchcraft. The sister is sentenced to be burned at the stake.

On the day of her execution, the sister manages to complete the last shirt and throws them over the swans just in time, breaking the curse and transforming her brothers back into humans. With the curse lifted, the sister regains her voice and is able to defend herself against the accusations of witchcraft. The evil stepmother and mother-in-law are punished, and sister and her brothers reunite with their father. She and her husband live happily ever after. „The Six Swans“ is a powerful story of love, devotion, sacrifice, and the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.

Abstract

„The Six Swans“ by Brothers Grimm is a fairy tale about a king who marries a witch’s daughter after getting lost in the woods. The king already has six sons and a daughter from his previous marriage, whom he hides in a remote castle to protect them from their potentially malicious stepmother. The queen eventually discovers their location and turns the six sons into swans using enchanted shirts.

The daughter sets out to save her brothers by sewing shirts made of aster flowers for them. She must complete this task in silence for six years or else the enchantment will not break. During this time, she is discovered by another king, who falls in love with her and marries her. His wicked mother, however, accuses the young queen of terrible crimes, and she is sentenced to death by fire.

On the day of her execution, the six swans arrive, and she manages to throw the almost-completed shirts over them. The enchantment breaks, and her brothers return to their human forms, except for the youngest, who has a swan’s wing instead of a left arm. The young queen, now able to speak, reveals the truth about the accusations against her, and her stepmother is burned at the stake. The king and queen, along with the six brothers, live together in peace and joy for many years.

Informations for scientific analysis


Fairy tale statistics
Value
NumberKHM 49
Aarne-Thompson-Uther-IndexATU Typ 451
Translations DE, EN, EL, DA, ES, FR, PT, HU, IT, JA, NL, PL, RU, TR, VI, ZH,
Readability Index by Björnsson31.3
Flesch-Reading-Ease Index81.2
Flesch–Kincaid Grade-Level7.6
Gunning Fog Index10.1
Coleman–Liau Index7.1
SMOG Index7.6
Automated Readability Index8.2
Character Count10.452
Letter Count8.013
Sentence Count91
Word Count2.061
Average Words per Sentence22,65
Words with more than 6 letters179
Percentage of long words8.7%
Number of Syllables2.501
Average Syllables per Word1,21
Words with three Syllables52
Percentage Words with three Syllables2.5%

Image sources: © Andrea Danti / Shutterstock

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