Obscure Fairy Tale: The Six Swans
Today's fairy tale is "The Six Swans." It belongs to the subcategory of fairy tales about brothers who turn into birds. (Yes, there really are enough of them to have a subcategory. It's called type AT-450. There's a whole list on the fabulous SurLaLune site, if you're interested.)
My favorite brother-to-bird story is actually "The Seven Ravens." In it, the heroine embarks on a quest to save her brothers, escapes from an anthropomorphized (and cannibalistic) sun and moon, and then cuts off her own finger to use as a key to the glass mountain... It's kind of awesome in a gross way.
But I use The Six Swans in my books, so I'd like to talk about that tale today...
The Six Swans (from the Brothers Grimm)
Once upon a time... Okay, so this king gets lost in the woods. He meets a witch who says she'll show him the way out if he marries her daughter. He agrees, even though he suspects she's evil.
Now that's a marriage that's sure to work out.
Concerned for the safety of the children of his first marriage, he hides his six sons and one daughter in a secret castle.
Yeah. Not a love-match. Kind of feel sorry for the king.
He can only reach the castle by following a magic ball of twine.
Really? A magic ball of twine? It's a CASTLE. You know, really big building? I mean, I appreciate a good Theseus/Labyrinth reference as much as the next girl, but couldn't he just, I don't know, stand on a hill and look for the giant stone structure?
He spends a lot of time visiting his children.
Look! A nice daddy in a fairy tale! He's not dead, absent, or even cannibalistic. How refreshing.
His wife grows suspicious, steals the twine, and follows it to the castle. When she arrives, the six sons run out, thinking their father has come to visit. The girl, suspicious of the approaching figure, stays hidden.
Um, boys... your father is male. Your evil stepmother, not so much. Do we really need to talk about the differences?
The queen throws six enchanted shirts on the boys, and they turn into swans. She leaves without knowing that she missed the king's daughter.
I like that she just happens to bring along a stack of swan shirts with her. What else is in her pockets? I carry my keys, a cell phone, and Chapstick. Do evil queens carry compacts with miniature talking mirrors? Spare poisoned apples in case they feel peckish?
When the king arrives to visit his children, the girl tells him her brothers were turned into swans. The king is sad, but he doesn't suspect his new wife.
Why not? What part of "my brothers were turned into swans by a woman in a gown and crown with a majestic bearing and an evil disposition" did not arouse suspicion? Okay, fine, so maybe the girl hid on instinct and didn't see anything... why not suspect the woman who has access to the twine and witch heritage?
The king decides to bring his daughter home to keep her safe...
Bad plan! BAD plan!
So the girl decides to rescue her brothers, and she runs away.
In the woods, she finds a little hut with seven beds...
Oops, wrong story.
... with six beds. She's afraid to lie in them so she crawls underneath one to sleep.
Smart girl. Me like. Clearly, she knows that if you fall asleep on a stranger's bed in a fairy tale, you wake up to find a few pissed-off bears or dwarves-who-need-a-housekeeper staring down at you.
In the night, six swans fly in and transform into humans.
Well, isn't that a lucky coincidence.
She emerges from her hiding place. After they all hug, the brothers tell her that the only way to save them is to sew six shirts of asters over six years without speaking or laughing.
Not so lucky after all. Seriously, this task makes the impossible tasks from other fairy tales look easy. Pick lentils from the ashes? No problem. Just call in some birds. Level a mountain of sand with a spoon? Call in some friendly ants. But this... where does she find enough flowers? What does she do when they're not in season? How does she keep them from wilting over six years? And how do the brothers know how to cure their curse anyway? I can't imagine the queen told them while she was tossing the enchanted shirts on them. That would be, like, the stupidest James Bond villain move ever.
She climbs into a tree in the forest and begins to knit.
A tree?? She couldn't just sit in a chair? And what does she do for food? Those swan-brothers of hers had better be catching her lots of fish... or whatever swans eat...
One day, the king of this kingdom (not her father) is hunting in the forest. His hunters find the girl in the tree and ask her who she is. Hoping they'll leave her alone, she throws down her gold chain, her garters, and lastly her dress.
Is this really the best plan? Perhaps getting naked is not the best way to inspire them to leave.
The hunters fetch her from the tree and carry her to the king, who falls in love with her beauty, brings her home, and marries her.
This has always bothered me. The girl just wants to sit in a tree and sew flower shirts. How much choice did she have in this marriage? I really, really hope he gave her a chance to at least nod yes.
His mother disapproves of his marriage.
Kind of can't blame her. "So, son, where did you meet her?" "In a tree." "What's her family like?" "Feathery."
In time, the girl, now a young queen, has a child. The king's mother takes the child and tells everyone that the young queen killed him.
Whoa. Talk about not getting along with your mother-in-law.
The king defends his bride, saying she would defend her innocence if she could speak, while she continues silently sewing flower shirts.
How about sign language? Or just pointing and miming? Perhaps writing a note or a pictogram? Shake your head no and point to the king's mother. Something!
When the third child was taken away...
Third child? This happens THREE times? And she just keeps sewing. Is it just me, or is this profoundly disturbing?
... the king can no longer defend his wife, and the law demands she be burned at the stake. She carries the flower shirts with her to the stake. The six years are nearly up. She has finished all but one sleeve of one shirt.
C'mon, at least try to communicate now! How about charades? I'm sure you can find a way to mime "sounds like: your mother is psychotic and kidnapped our children in hopes you'd divorce me."
Suddenly, the swans appear.
Hey, about time! Couldn't you have helped your sister sooner? Like, three kids ago? Where have you been? Migrating?
She throws the shirts on them, and they transform into humans. The youngest is left with one swan wing, due to the unfinished shirt.
Poor kid. What do you do with a single swan wing? And it must make for some awkward first dates...
Now that she can speak, the young queen explains the king's mother's deceit. The old woman is punished, the children are found, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Hey, wait... What about the boy with the swan wing? And what happened to their father, married to the evil witch? And how much trauma must those children have suffered? And what sort of marital problems must the king and young queen have after he nearly had her burned at the stake? Happily-ever-after land must employ a LOT of therapists...
For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.
Labels: Obscure Fairy Tales