Monday, August 04, 2008

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.



At 2:13 PM, Blogger Q said...

Now I'm really really tempted to send you the short story I wrote expanding this very tale (okay, so a few of the details are different, but essentially it's the same).


Just so you know, it's terrible. The ideas are good, but everything else isn't.

Still interested?

At 3:40 PM, Blogger tanita✿davis said...

That would be, like, the stupidest James Bond villain move ever.

Oh, WHY haven't I learned not to read these drinking anything??? My poor keyboard!!!

At 4:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just found your blog, LOVE the obscure fairy tales!!!
i once read a pic book of the 6 swans--illustrations r gorgeous. ill try to find out the author 4 u, but dont get your hopes up. ive put a hold on ITW at my lib!!!

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Janni said...

Have you read Rafe Martin's Birdwing, which is about the youngest brother? Not everything about the book worked for me, but it was an interesting treatment of the legend. (It even deals with his troubled-yet-loving relationship with his Dad and, more, his sister and her husband.)

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Anne Leigh said...

Wow-for a nice father he sure is stupid-poor guy...

POOR KIDS! What are they like 16? Hows ole wing-arm gonna find a date now? What-a pricess with a beak? How bout his children?

And the evil mother-in-law was 'punished' not burned at the stake? What about the three kiddies? Where are they?

At 5:02 PM, Blogger Djiril said...

I always wondered why she couldn't just write to communicate.

At 5:19 PM, Blogger gnomesque said...

Haha, your commentary is hliarious!! I love this fairy tale, though, it's one of my favourites (Okay, most fairy tales are my favourites, but shh). There's a wonderful book based on it called Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. It's very, very good.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger AnnaDee said...

i agree, lots of therapists in fairy-tale land. and why didn't the girl just, um, BITE the mother in law's hand? or engae her in kitting neddle to hand combat(now theres a story!)? or hide her kids?
please tell us the ravens story. i don't know it...please? i love your comentary tales. they're so funny!

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Check your email...

TadMack: Apologies to your keyboard. :)

Anonymous: Welcome! So glad you're enjoying the tales! I hope you like ITW too. Please do let me know if you find the author of that picture book. I LOVE gorgeous picture books.

Janni: I haven't read that one yet, but the one-wing brother does appear as a character in one of my all-time favorite novels Jack the Giant-Killer by Charles de Lint. Very awesome book.

SavyLeartist: Love the idea of a princess with a beak. There is a fairy tale called the Stork Calif that includes a princess who is an enchanted owl... As for the punishment, in one variant, she's put into a barrel with boiling oil and snakes (which does make me wonder how the snakes can survive being in boiling oil, but whatever).

Djiril: I know! Even if she doesn't know how to write words, couldn't she draw pictures?

Gnomesque: Most fairy tales are my favorites too. :) I haven't read Daughter of the Forest yet, but I've heard wonderful things about it.

AnnaDee: I love the image of a knitting-needle duel. That would be AWESOME.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Erin said...

You, Sarah, are FABULOUS.
This was so so hilarious. :D

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Erin: Glad you liked. You're fabulous too. :)

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Saints and Spinners said...

Love the commentary. It's interesting how the more popular tales have been revised and polished quite a bit, whereas the less popular ones still maintain some of the rough edges that come with the oral tradition. I think the brother who still has one wing symbolizes the unresolved consequences of all the actions that have taken place prior. While the sister lives happily ever after and the wicked mother-in-law is punished, the wing reminds us that the original wicked-stepmother has not been punished, plus all those other questions you posed at the end.

In the Seven Ravens, I always wondered where the heroine got her knife. The beginning of the story takes the time to list everything the heroine brings on her journey, including a little chair to sit upon. No knife is in that list! Also, one wonders, why couldn't she have just stuck her finger in the keyhole, unless she had to, um, clean everything off the bone first?

At 10:21 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Alkelda the Gleeful: Great point about the knife! You're completely right. The tale is very specific to inventory her belongings, and a knife is not listed... Wish I'd noticed that myself... :)

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this story. I think there's a debate going on over whether this was by the Brothers Grimm or Andersom. Personally, I'm not on either team. I'm just the audience.

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous danielle said...

I read this story in a book with stories by Anderson. So i was a little confused when you said the story is by Grimm. This is one of my favs though.

At 2:41 AM, Blogger Ruth (Book Focus) said...

You have to read Daughter of the forest ***loves*** Juliet Marillier's an excellent author, though. Wait, you already know that.

But she does really well at explaining a lot of the unresolved stuff you picked up on... although I don't remember it very clearly any more, as it's a few years since I read it. Hmm, maybe I should read it again too....

Although I'm not sure how long ago these comments were left. Have you read Daughter of the forest by now?

At 2:09 AM, Blogger skatej said...

Jim Henson's The Storyteller does an excellent job of this tale, wrapping up loose ends and giving the evil queen mum some more reason to hate the girl (and the girl her). Their version is called "The Three Ravens." I just love Storyteller (not so much the Greek myths...because they're all tragedies and thus rather depressing).

At 11:08 PM, Anonymous Grace said...

I just started reading your blog and already i'm finding it fabulous :)
There's a retelling of this story that just came out fairly recently called "The Swan Kingdom" by Zoe Marriott. I haven't had a chance to read it yet but it looks really good.

At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asters? I thought she had to sew the shirts out of nettles? (Ouch!)

At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a story where the future story of the youngest brother (the one with the swan wing) is continued. It's called "Birdwing". The author wrote the pep talk for last year's NaNoWriMo.

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous jessicajane said...

There is a beautiful novel telling this tale, written by Juliet Marillier. It's absolutely gorgeous, possibly my favourite book in the entire bookish universe. It's called "Daughter of the Forest," I can't recommend it highly enough!

At 1:35 AM, Anonymous AL TAN said...

sex without talking or laughing, maybe the prince actually enjoy necrophilia.

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier? It was loosely based off of The Six Swans, but it is a lot darker. For example she doesn't sew flower shirts, they are made of starwort which really hurts. It gets into how messed up being swans make the brothers.

At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love that you brought these Fairy Tales together in once place. Hate that you comment on them in-line. It's so distracting when trying to read the stories, and honestly no-one cares what you have to say. Your banter isn't witty, it's terribly annoying. Let the stories stand by themselves instead of crippling them - or at least comment at the end of the story.

At 4:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I WOULD LOVE TO! I am a humongous fan of retold fairy tales.


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