Illustration by Elenore Abott from Grimm's Fairy Tales. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920.

The sister from the Grimms’ story, “The Six Swans,” was mentioned several weeks ago as another favorite character, and I can understand why. This girl is of course beautiful, but she’s also strong, loyal, dedicated, honest.

In the beginning of the story, the girl is the daughter of a King and has six brothers. Their mother is dead and the king is tricked into marrying the daughter of a witch, a lovely woman on the outside, but even the King knows she is evil. The King sends the children to live in a secluded castle, but the evil step mother discovers where they are. She turns the six boys into swans and they fly away. They can only turn back into their human forem for fifteen minutes each night, but during the second evening of their curse, one tells the sister how she can break the spell. She must not speak or laugh for six years and during that time must sew six shirts of asters for them.

The sister starts sewing the next morning. After a long time, another King’s huntsmen find her and take her to the King, even though she will not speak a word. The King falls in love with her apparently because she’s beautiful and they are married. Now, the King’s mother is wicked too and is very unhappy with the marriage. When the girl, now Queen, has given birth to their first child, the King’s mother takes away the child and accuses the Queen of eating her child, and again with the second and the third babies. (Three again.) The third time, the King can no longer dismiss the accusation and she is sentenced to be burned at the stake. She is not willing to sacrifice her old family by breaking her vow, even to save her new family. If she had spoken after the death of the first baby, maybe she could have saved the second.

On the day of her execution, she 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 six years expire and six swans come flying through the air. She throws the shirts over her brothers and they regain their human form, except the youngest whose one arm remains a swan’s wing. The Queen, now free to speak, says, “Dearest husband, now I may speak and reveal to you that I am innocent, and falsely accused.”  She tells about the King’s mother’s horrible actions. The evil mother-in-law is burned at the stake, and the King, Queen, and her six brothers live happily ever after.

She’s a memorable character, isn’t she? Imagine how isolated she would have felt, not being able to tell her story to anyone, not being able to say no, she didn’t kill her own children. And she’s got some spunk. She does what she has to to save her brothers even when her own life is in danger. I can’t help but notice, though, that the things she has to do, both staying quiet and sewing, are things good women were expected to do. She’s a typical Grimm heroine in that respect.

Just a note about her father. I think he was actually a pretty decent dad, as far as fairy tales go. He was tricked into marrying the witch’s daughter, being forced to make a bargain he couldn’t back out of, but he did try to save his kids from her. He didn’t tell her they existed. He hid them away and visited them without telling her where he was going or who he was going to see. He did his best. It was only by bribing the servants with a lot of money that the step-mother discovered the secret. Money corrupts even in fairy tales.

And the second king is pretty decent to. He tried to protect the Queen, even if she never said anything in her own defence. Finally after three babies were gone, I’m not sure that he had much choice. He had to do something. I do wonder how you live “happily ever after” with a man who was going to have you burned at the stake, even if he was reluctant to do it.

You can read the story several places on-line, including here.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.


  • I read a retelling of this book a couple of years ago. I don’t remember what it was called, but it’s the first in a series. I didn’t really care for it, to be honest. Like you, I wasn’t a huge fan of the whole “be quiet and obedient and put others before you always and you will be happy” message. And I, too, wonder how the king and queen could really live happily ever after. I don’t like the idea of a king falling in love with a girl just because she’s beautiful, either…

    • Carol

      I think in the story it said “she touched his heart,” but somehow I think it was the fact that she was gorgeous and silent that drew him in.

  • I have to agree with blodeuedd I would be upset with my husband too. Still a happily ever after ending rather than a she promptly divorced him makes a nice fairy tale.

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