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Literature / The Six Swans

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Illustration by the Scottish artist Anne Anderson

The Six Swans is a German fairy tale, collected by The Brothers Grimm. It's not the only one treating a similar story, however: there's also a similar version told by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen ("The Wild Swans"), one by the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe ("Twelve Wild Ducks"), another similar Grimm-collected story ("The Seven Ravens"), another German tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth ("The Three Flowers"), etc. All of them have a common plot at heart: a young girl's brothers are turned into animals (usually birds) and she must save them.

In this particular tale, six brothers from a King's first marriage are targeted by their stepmother, a witch who forced her way into their father's life with help from her evil mother and fellow witch. As a consequence, the brothers are transformed into swans and can only take their human forms for fifteen minutes every evening. There's still hope for them, however: their little sister hasn't been enchanted, so they tell her that she must make six shirts out of nettles and can't make a sound for seven years or the spell will never be broken. The girl accepts this and hides away in a hunter's hut, focusing only on her mission.

Some time later, the young King of another country meets the girl in the forest, is taken by her beauty, and marries her despite his mother's objections to seeing a non-noble as Queen Consort, or how the protagonist keeps working on the shirts. When the girl, now queen, has given birth to their first child, the wicked mother-in-law takes away the child and accuses the queen of killing and eating him; she cannot properly refute it, being unable to talk. She does this twice more to the protagonist, and her husband defends his wife as much as he can, but the third time is the limit and he can't do anything else. And the girl won't stop knitting and sewing...

On the day of her execution, the queen has all but finished making the shirts for her brothers. Only the last shirt misses a left arm. When she is brought to the stake, she takes the shirts with her and when she is about to be burned, the seven years expire and the six swans come flying through the air. She throws the shirts over her brothers and they regain their human form. (Still, since the last shirt's left sleeve is missing, one of the youngest Prince's arms remains a swan wing.) The queen, now free to speak, can defend herself against the accusations, and she and her brothers tell the King and everyone else what's going on. The evil mother-in-law returns the babies she stole and is burned at the stake as punishment. From then on, the Royal Family and the brothers live their lives in happiness and peace.

The Six Swans has been re-made in one way or another several other times. i.e. Daughter of the Forest (a detailed retelling of this story in a medieval Celtic setting). There's also Ann Hunter's Moonlight (a retelling set in an alternate Medieval Ireland), an episode of the Japanese series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, the 1977 Toei animated anime movie Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Hakuchou no Õji (World Fairy Tale: The Swan Princes) (which mixes elements of both this and Andersen's versions), etc. Depending on the translation, there is also another version known as "The Twelve Brothers", which expands the total number of siblings up to 13 including the princess.

The Six Swans contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Adapted Out: In Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, the evil mother-in-law and two of the protagonist's babies are written out of the story and the Wicked Stepmother takes the role of the mother-in-law. The Toei film adaptation also lacks the protagonist's babies. The stepmother's Wicked Witch mom remains in the story itself for both versions, however.
  • Animorphism: Six young boys are unwillingly turned into swans via cursed shirts/capes.
  • Big Brother Instinct: A gender-flipped take: the sister (also said to be the youngest of all the royal kids) is the one who puts herself through Hell to save her big brothers. They return the favor by playing the trope straight to save her when she's about to be executed.
  • Burn the Witch!:
    • The protagonist is framed for infanticide and condemned to this, and barely escapes this fate thanks to her brothers.
    • The evil mother-in-law is burned at the stake for kidnapping her grandchildren and framing her daughter-in-law for it. This probably inspired the Wicked Stepmother's Karmic Death in Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, where she burns herself to death for using wind magic near the protagonist's not-fully-extinguished pyre.
  • Elective Mute: One of the conditions that the main girl must fulfill to break the curse over her brothers is to not say a single word or show a single emotion for seven years.
  • Emotionless Girl: The main girl is believed to be this by the court of the second kingdom, as she's not supposed to speak or laugh in the seven years.
  • Fallen Princess: The protagonist and her brothers are first taken away from the court for their protection and confined to a small manor in the forest, then they're attacked by the Wicked Stepmother. The boys are transformed into swans and the girl must run away into the woods to begin her curse-breaking mission without anyone bothering her.
  • Frame-Up: The princess herself not only loses her birthright and her family, but she almost loses her newborn babies and is falsely accused of killing and eating the children.
  • Good Princess, Evil Queen: Twice over. A witch stepmother enchants seven princes to turn into swans; their little sister then undertakes the task of saving them by hiding away in the woods and creating shirts for them. She eventually becomes queen by marriage to the king of a neighboring kingdom, but still has to deal with the evil and jealous queen mother, who has it out for her.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The female protagonist is not named in the original tale. The name "Elise/Elisa" used in Toei's The Wild Swans comes from Andersen's "The Wild Swans" instead.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: The villain of the second part is the girl's Rich Bitch of a mother-in-law, who thinks that a Cute Mute of muddled origins like her is not worthy of being a Queen. She goes as far as framing her to get her executed, which gloriously backfires in the end.
  • Properly Paranoid: The King had a Gut Feeling that his new wife will try to hurt his children, so right before the wedding he sends them away to a small castle in the woods to keep them safe, visiting them in secret from then on. The stepmother finds out about the kids anyway via bribing the servants, and then she attacks and enchants the boys.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine:
    • The protagonist is a decent seamstress and must use her sewing skills to make shirts out of nettles (or either asters or starflowers, in other versions).
    • The Wicked Stepmother sews capes to imbue them with the shapeshifting curses.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The country the siblings are the princes and princess of completely disappears from the narrative after the princess runs off into the woods, and their father and stepmother no longer appear.
    • However subverted in the Japanese adaptations. In the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics anime, the princes return back to their home kingdom to succeed their late father. The Toei film has their still living father attend Elisa's wedding in person, while both the stepmother and her witch mother are exiled.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The King's wife from the first part. She disappears from the story after the protagonist runs away, but in the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version she reappears by "paying a visit" to her and her husband when they have their first (and in this version, only) child, taking up the role of the original's jealous mother-in-law when she recognizes the prince's wife as her stepdaughter.
  • Wicked Witch: The Wicked Stepmother and her mother in both Japanese adaptations. (But not the evil mother-in-law)