When twelve brothers get a sister, they need to flee to the forest. Will they end up together again?
The Twelve Brothers is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about twelve brothers and their sister. When she is born, their father, the king, orders the brothers killed. They flee into the forest where their sister finds them years later. A magic tragedy turns the brothers into ravens. Their sister breaks this spell by staying silent for seven years.
Twelve coffins for twelve brothers
Once upon a time there were a king and a queen who lived happily together. They had twelve children, all boys. One day the King said to his wife, “If the thirteenth child which you are about to bring into the world is a girl, the twelve boys shall die, in order that her possessions may be great and the kingdom may fall to her alone.”
He ordered twelve coffins to be made, had them already filled with shavings. In each a little pillow for the dead. He had them taken into a locked-up room and gave the Queen the key of it. He ordered her not to speak of this to anyone.
But the Queen now sat and lamented all day long. At some point her youngest son, who was always with her, and whom she had named Benjamin, from the Bible, said to her, “Dear mother, why are you so sad?”
“Oh my dear child,” she answered, “I cannot tell you.”
But he let her have no rest until she went and unlocked the room and showed him the twelve coffins already filled with shavings. She said, “my dearest Benjamin, your father has had these coffins made for you and your eleven brothers. If I bring a little girl into the world you are all to be killed and buried in them.”
She wept while she was saying this. Her son comforted her and said, “Don’t weep, dear mother, we will save ourselves, and go away.”
She said, “Go into the forest with your eleven brothers. Let one of you sit constantly on the highest tree which can be found to keep watch. Look towards the tower here in the castle.
If I give birth to a little son, I will put up a white flag. You can come back.
But if I give birth to a daughter, I will hoist a red flag. Fly then as quickly as you are able, and may the good God protect you. And know that every night I will rise up and pray for you—in winter that you may be able to warm yourself at a fire, and in summer that you may not faint away in the heat.”
The twelve brothers flee in the forest
After her blessing, her sons went into the forest. They each kept watch in turn, sat on the highest oak and looked towards the tower.
When eleven days had passed and the turn came to Benjamin, he saw that a flag was being raised. It was not the white, but the blood-red flag which announced that they were all to die. When the brothers heard that, they were very angry and said, “Are we all to die for the sake of a girl? We swear that we will avenge ourselves!—wherever we find a girl, her red blood shall flow.”
They went deeper into the forest. In the midst of it, where it was the darkest, they found a little bewitched hut, which was standing empty.
“Here we will dwell, and you Benjamin, you are the youngest and weakest, you shall stay at home and keep house. We will go out and get food.”
Then they went into the forest and shot hares, wild deer, birds and pigeons, and whatever there was to eat. They took it to Benjamin, who had to prepare it for them to ease their hunger. They lived together ten years in the little hut, but it did not feel like a long time.
The daughter is asking about her brothers
The little daughter which their mother the Queen had given birth to, had all grown up; she was good of heart, and fair of face, and had a golden star on her forehead.
Once, when all clothes were being washed she saw twelve men’s shirts among the things, and asked her mother, “To whom do these twelve shirts belong, for they are far too small for father?”
The Queen answered with a heavy heart, “Dear child, these belong to your twelve brothers.”
“But where are my twelve brothers, and how come I have never heard of them before?”
Her mother replied, “God knows where they are, they are wandering about the world.”
She took the girl and opened the chamber for her. She showed her the twelve coffins with the shavings, and pillows for the head. “These coffins,” she said, “were destined for your brothers, but they went away secretly before you were born.”
She related to her how everything had happened. The young woman said, “Dear mother, don’t weep, I will go and seek my brothers.”
The daughter meets Benjamin
So she took the twelve shirts and went forth, straight into the great forest. She walked the whole day, in the evening she arrived at the bewitched hut. She entered it and found a young boy, who asked, “Where are you from, and where are you going?”
He was astonished that she was so beautiful, and wore royal garments, and had a star on her forehead. She answered, “I am a king’s daughter and am seeking my twelve brothers. I will walk as far as the sky is blue until I find them.”
She showed him the twelve shirts which belonged to them. Then Benjamin saw that she was his sister, and said, “I am Benjamin, your youngest brother.”
She began to weep for joy, and Benjamin wept also, and they kissed and embraced each other with the greatest love. But after this he said, “Dear sister, there is still one difficulty. We have agreed that every maiden whom we meet shall die, because we have been obliged to leave our kingdom on account of a girl.”
She said, “I am willing to die, if by doing so I can deliver my twelve brothers.”
“No,” he answered, “you will not die. Sit under this tub until our eleven brothers come home. I will soon come to an agreement with them.” And so she did.
The eleven brothers come home
When it was night the others came back from hunting. Their dinner was ready. As they were sitting at table and eating, they asked, “Any news?”
Benjamin said, “Don’t you know anything?”
“No,” they answered.
He continued, “You have been in the forest and I have stayed at home, and yet I know more than you do.”
“Tell us then,” they cried.
He answered, “But promise me that the first maiden who meets us shall not be killed.”
“Yes,” they all cried, “she shall have mercy, only do tell us.”
Then he said, “Our sister is here,” and he lifted up the tub.
The King’s daughter came forth in her royal garments with the golden star on her forehead. She was beautiful, delicate and fair. They all rejoiced, hugged her and kissed and loved her with all their hearts.
The following days she stayed at home with Benjamin and helped him with the work. The eleven went into the forest and caught game, deer, birds and wood-pigeons. The little sister and Benjamin took care to make it ready for them. She sought for the wood for cooking and herbs for vegetables. She put the pans on the fire so that the dinner was always ready when the eleven came.
She likewise kept order in the little house and put beautifully white clean coverings on the little beds. The brothers were always contented and lived in great harmony with her.
The brothers are transformed into ravens
Once upon a time the two at home had prepared a beautiful evening dinner. All together they sat down and ate and drank and were very happy.
The bewitched house had a little garden where twelve lily flowers grew. These flowers were also called students. The sister wished to give her brothers pleasure and plucked the twelve flowers. She thought she would present each brother with one during the meal.
But at the same moment she plucked the flowers the twelve brothers were changed into twelve ravens. They flew away over the forest. The house vanished. The garden vanished. The poor girl was now alone in the wild forest.
When she looked around, an old woman was standing near her who said, “My child, what have you done? Why did you not leave the twelve white flowers alone? They were your brothers, who are now for evermore changed into ravens.”
The girl said weeping, “Is there no way of delivering them?”
“No,” said the old woman, “well, there is a way, but it is so difficult that you will not deliver them by it.”
“You must be silent for seven years, not speaking, not laughing. If you speak a single word, even in the last hour of the seven years, all will be for nothing and your brothers will be killed by that one word.”
Seven years of silence
But the girl said in her heart, “I know for sure that I shall set my brothers free.” She went and sought a high tree and seated herself in it. She neither spoke nor laughed.
Now it so happened that a King was hunting in the forest. He had a great greyhound which ran to the tree on which the girl was sitting, and sprang about it, whining, and barking at her. Then the King came by and saw the beautiful King’s daughter with the golden star on her brow.
He was so charmed with her beauty that he called to ask her if she would be his wife. She made no answer, but nodded a little with her head. So he climbed up the tree himself, carried her down, placed her on his horse, and carried her home. The wedding was magnificent and full of happiness, but the bride neither spoke nor smiled.
When they had lived happily together for a few years, the King’s mother, who was a wicked woman, began to slander the young Queen. She said to the King, “This girl who you have brought home with you is a common beggar girl. Who knows what evil tricks she practices secretly! Even if she is unable to speak, she might still laugh for once. People who never laugh have a bad conscience.”
At first the King would not believe it, but the old woman kept talking and talking, accusing her of so many evil things. At last the King let himself be persuaded and he sentenced her to death.
A great fire was lighted in the courtyard where she was to be burnt. The King looked down from above with tearful eyes, because he still loved her so much. When she was bound fast to the stake and the fire was licking at her clothes with its red tongues, the last minute of the seven years expired.
The twelve brothers return
A whirring sound was heard in the air. Twelve ravens came flying towards the place. When they landed and touched the earth they transformed back again into her twelve brothers.
They tore the fire apart, extinguished the flames and set their dear sister free. They kissed and embraced her. Now she dared to open her mouth and speak. She told the King why she had been silent and why she had never laughed. The King rejoiced when he heard that she was innocent, and they all lived in great unity until their death.
Well, not all. The wicked stepmother was taken before the judge. She was put into a barrel filled with boiling oil and venomous snakes and she died an evil death.
Tips for Telling
- In this fairy tale it might help to draw a little time line. What is happening when? How old would the sister approximately be? And Benjamin?
- There are a lot of characters in this fairy tale. It could be interesting to choose a character and tell the fairy tale from their perspective. Benjamin or the sister are obvious choices, but what about the mother? Of course this will change how you tell the fairy tale.
- In fairy tales things often happen suddenly, without an explanation. Resist the urge to explain this to your listeners. The more you talk about and explain the story, the more difficult you make it for them to simply follow the images as they come.
All Questions Answered
The Twelve Brothers story was originally written down by the Brothers Grimm. They heard the story from two women, Julia and Charlotte Ramus.
The Brothers Grimm collected this story and wrote it down in 1812 in their book ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’. They rewrote some of it for their 1819 edition. This story was told long before it was written down.