It all starts with a king who makes a deal with a witch. Followed by brothers who turn into ‘the six swans’. Can their sister save them?
The Six Swans is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about six brothers who are turned into swans. Their sister sets out to save them, she needs to be silent for six years and sew six shirts. A king marries her and a stepmother tries to kill her, but after six years her brothers are brought back.
Complete text The Six Swans
The king makes a deal with a witch
Once upon a time a king was hunting in a great forest. He chased a wild beast so eagerly that none of his attendants could follow him.
When evening drew near he stopped, looked around and saw that he had lost his way. He sought a way out, but could find none. Then he saw an aged woman with a head which nodded perpetually, who came towards him, but she was a witch.
“Good woman,” he said to her, “Can you not show me the way through the forest?”
“Oh, yes, lord king,” she answered, “that I certainly can, but on one condition, and if you do not fulfill that, you will never get out of the forest and will die of hunger in it.”
“What kind of condition is it?” asked the king.
“I have a daughter,” said the old woman, “who is as beautiful as any one in the world. She deserves to be your consort. If you will make her your queen, I will show you the way out of the forest.”
In the anguish of his heart the king consented. The old woman led him to her little hut, where her daughter was sitting by the fire. She received the king as if she had been expecting him. He saw that she was very beautiful, but still she did not please him and he could not look at her without secret horror.
After he had taken the young woman up on his horse, the old woman showed him the way. The king reached his royal palace again, where the wedding was celebrated.
The king had already been married once. By his first wife he had seven children, six boys and a girl, whom he loved more than anything else in the world.
The secret castle in the forest
He now feared that the stepmother might not treat them well, and even do them some injury, so he took them to a lonely castle in the midst of a forest. It lay so concealed and the way was so difficult to find that he himself would not have found it, if a wise woman had not given him a ball of yarn with wonderful properties. When he threw it down before him, it unrolled itself and showed him his path.
The king, however, went so frequently away to his dear children that the queen observed his absence. She was curious and wanted to know what he did when he was quite alone in the forest. She gave a great deal of money to his servants and they betrayed the secret to her. They told her also of the ball which alone could point out the way.
Now she knew no rest until she had learnt where the King kept the ball of yarn. She made little shirts of white silk. As she had learnt the art of witchcraft from her mother, she sewed a charm inside them.
Once when the King had ridden forth to hunt, she took the little shirts and went into the forest; the ball showed her the way. The children saw from a distance that someone was approaching and thought that their dear father was coming to them. Full of joy they ran to meet him.
The brothers are changed into six swans
She threw one of the little shirts over each of them. No sooner had the shirts touched their bodies than they were changed into swans and flew away over the forest.
The queen went home quite delighted and thought she had got rid of her stepchildren. However the girl had not run out with her brothers and the queen knew nothing about her.
Next day the king went to visit his children, but he found no one but the little girl. “Where are your brothers?” asked the king.
“Oh dear father,” she answered, “they have gone away and left me alone!” and she told him that she had seen from her little window how her brothers had flown away over the forest in the shape of swans. She showed him the feathers, which they had let fall in the courtyard and which she had picked up.
The king mourned, but he did not think that the queen had done this wicked deed. As he feared that the girl would also be stolen away from him, he wanted to take her away with him. However she was afraid of her stepmother and asked the King to let her stay just this one night more in the forest castle.
The poor girl thought, “I can no longer stay here. I will go and seek my brothers.”
When night came, she ran away, straight into the forest. She walked the whole night long and next day also without stopping, until she could go no farther for weariness. She saw a forest hut, went into it and found a room with six little beds. She did not venture to get into one of them, but crept under one, laying down on the hard ground, intending to pass the night there.
The sister meets her six brothers
Just before sunset she heard a rustling and saw six swans come flying in at the window. They alighted on the ground, blew at each other and blew all the feathers off. Their swan’s skins stripped off like a shirt.
The young woman looked at them and recognized her brothers. She was glad and crept forth from beneath the bed. The brothers were not less delighted to see their little sister, but their joy was of short duration.
“You cannot stay here,” they said to her. “This is a shelter for robbers, if they come home and find you, they will kill you.”
“But can you not protect me?” the little sister asked.
“No,” they replied, “only for one quarter of an hour each evening can we lay aside our swan’s skins and have during that time our human form; after that, we are once more turned into swans.”
The little sister wept and said, “Can you not be set free?” “Oh no,” they answered, “the conditions are too hard! For six years you may neither speak nor laugh, and in that time you must sew together six little shirts of asters for us. If one single word falls from your lips, all your work will be lost.”
When the brothers had said this, the quarter of an hour was over and they flew out of the window again as swans.
The sister starts her years of silence
The sister firmly resolved to deliver her brothers, even if it should cost her her life. She left the hut, went into the midst of the forest, seated herself on a tree and passed the night there. Next morning she went out, gathered asters and began to sew. She could not speak to anyone and she had no inclination to laugh. She just sat there and looked at nothing but her own work.
When she had already spent a long time there it came to pass that the king of the country was hunting in the forest. His huntsmen came to the tree on which she was sitting. They called to her and said, “Who are you?”
She gave no answer.
“Come down to us,” they said. “We will not do you any harm.”
She only shook her head. As they pressed her further with questions she threw her golden necklace down to them, to give them something to be content. They, however, did not cease. She threw her girdle down to them, and as this also was to no purpose, her garters, and by degrees everything that she had on that she could do without until she had nothing left but her shift. The huntsmen, however, did not let themselves be turned aside by that, but climbed the tree, fetched her down and led her before the king.
The king asked, “Who are you? What are you doing on the tree?”
The sister marries a king
She did not answer. He put the question in every language that he knew, but she remained as mute as a fish. She was so beautiful that the king’s heart was touched. He was smitten with a great love for her. He put his mantle on her, took her before him on his horse and carried her to his castle. Then he caused her to be dressed in rich garments.
She shone in her beauty like bright daylight, but no word could be drawn from her. He placed her by his side at the table. Her modest bearing and courtesy pleased him so much that he said, “She is the one whom I wish to marry, and no other woman in the world.” And after some days he united himself to her.
The king had a wicked mother who was dissatisfied with this marriage and spoke ill of the young queen. “Who knows,” she said, “from where the creature who can’t speak, comes? She is not worthy of a king!”
The sister is accused of cannibalism
After a year had passed the queen brought her first child into the world. The old woman took it away from her and smeared her mouth with blood as she slept. She went to the king and accused the queen of being a cannibal.
The king would not believe it and would not suffer anyone to do her any injury. She was continually sewing the shirts and cared for nothing else.
The next time, when she again bore a beautiful boy, the false stepmother used the same treachery. Still the king could not bring himself to give credit to her words. He said, “She is too pious and good to do anything of that kind; if she were not dumb and could defend herself, her innocence would come to light.”
However when the old woman stole away the newly born child for the third time and accused the queen, who did not utter one word of defense, the king could do no otherwise than deliver her over to justice, and she was sentenced to suffer death by fire.
All are saved except the king’s mother
When the day came for the sentence to be executed, it was the last day of the six years during which she was not to speak or laugh. She had delivered her dear brothers from the power of the enchantment. The six shirts were ready, only the left sleeve of the sixth was wanting.
When she was led to the stake, she laid the shirts on her arm. As she stood on high and the fire was just going to be lighted, she looked around and six swans came flying through the air towards her. She saw that her deliverance was near and her heart leapt with joy.
The swans swept towards her and sank down so that she could throw the shirts over them. As they were touched by the shirts, their swan’s skins fell off and her brothers stood in their own bodily form before her, vigorous and handsome. The youngest only lacked his left arm, he had in the place of it a swan’s wing on his shoulder. They embraced and kissed each other.
The queen went to the king, who was greatly moved. She began to speak and said, “Dearest husband, now I may speak and declare to you that I am innocent and was falsely accused.”
She told him of the treachery of the old woman who had taken away her three children and hidden them. To the great joy of the King the children were found again. As punishment the wicked stepmother was bound to the stake and burnt to ashes.
The king and the queen with their six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace.
Tips for Telling The Six Swans
- This story starts with a king and a queen, and ends with another king and a queen. Be sure in your telling to keep them apart. It might help to give the sister a name.
- The story comes to a conclusive ending for the king, his mother, the sister and the brothers. But what happened to the witch, the king and the cruel stepmother from the beginning? You don’t need to tell this, but for sure somebody will ask this question.
- Swans are beautiful creatures, they evoke emotions in your listeners. Take some time to visualize the scenes in which they appear.
All Questions Answered
This fairy tale was published by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was rewritten for the second edition. Their source was Dortchen Wild.
The Brothers Grimm included it in the 1812 edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales. The tale was rewritten and edited in following editions. It was told long before being written down.