THE TWELVE SWANS
A Grimm’s Fairytale
Retold by Sydney Solis
There was once a king and a queen who had 12 sons. They lived happily, until one day the king told the queen that if their 13 th child should be a daughter, then all of their sons must die, so that the kingdom should be the greater for her alone. The king made the queen promise absolute secrecy about this, and ordered 12 coffins made. Each had cedar shavings and a little pillow inside and they sat in a locked room.
But the queen was distressed at this, and her youngest son, Benjamin, noticed.
“Mother, do tell what is wrong with you. Why are you so sad?”
And the queen broke down and told him everything. She took the key out of her pocket, opened the door and showed him the 12 coffins.
“I can’t bear for you to die. Please go out into the world. Wait in the woods and climb to a tree each day and watch for a flag at the castle. If it is white, it is a boy and you are safe to return. If it is red, you must stay away and never return to save your lives.”
Benjamin agreed and the twelve sons departed for the woods. The sons were angry that they should give up their lives because of a woman, and swore to kill the first woman that would ever cross their path.
Time passed, and Benjamin watched for the flag each day. One day, the flag was raised, blood red. So the twelve went deeper into the woods until they came upon an enchanted cottage where they set up house. While the elder sons hunted game each day, Benjamin stayed behind to tend the house. They lived quite well and happily this way.
Now the daughter was born and she grew up to be a beautiful young lady. Her face radiated joy and there was a star in the middle of her forehead. One day there was a huge wash in the kingdom and everything was brought out. The princess looked down and saw 12 shirts. “I wonder what on earth these are for,” she thought, and decided to ask her mother.
Her mother broke down and said, “Daughter, I must tell you. You have 12 brothers before you.” She told her the whole story.
“I’m going to find my brothers, no matter what.” And with the 12 shirts in hand she went off into the forest to find them.
When she reached the deepest part of the woods, she found the cottage and there stood Benjamin. He was amazed at this beautiful girl dressed in royal robes, with a face radiating joy and with a star in the middle of her forehead. Then he saw the shirts and knew that she was his sister. They hugged in great joy at the discovery, but Benjamin turned grim.
“I must tell you, that my brothers have sworn to kill you. Hide under this washtub. When they come back I will talk to them.”
The brothers returned with their traditional hunt and Benjamin asked them, “What is new in the world?”
“We don’t know,” they responded.
“How is it that you all spend the day out and about in the world and know nothing new while I stay home all day and do know something new? “ The brothers jumped up and begged him to tell.
“But first you must promise not to kill any women you may see.” And they promised. Then Benjamin lifted up the tub and revealed their sister to them. They were so overjoyed and exited at her presence, all was forgiven and they lived in happiness in the cottage. The princess helped Benjamin in the house and enjoyed her new life with her brothers.
One day she went to the garden back of the house and there were 12 lilies that had a divine scent. She picked each one and thought of the pleasure each brother would enjoy when she presented the lilies to them at dinner. But the minute she picked the lilies, the entire cottage vanished into thin air. The garden disappeared, and as her brothers came running out to help her they were transform into white swans. They honked around for a while but then took off into the sky and flew away.
The princess was dumbstruck, but just then there was an old woman standing next to her.
“My child,” the old woman said. “What have you done? Why couldn’t you have left those lilies alone? They were your brothers, and now they are swans.”
The princess was devastated at her loss, but cried out, “Isn’t there something I can do?”
“Yes, but it is too difficult. Forget about it.” The old woman said.
“No, tell me. I must know.”
“The only way is to go to a churchyard, gather stinging nettle that grows there and spin that nettle into thread. From that thread you must weave cloth and make from that cloth 12 shirts for your brothers.”
“I’ll do it,” she cried.
“Oh, but that’s not all. For you must neither laugh nor speak for six years, and if you utter even a sound, your work will all be for naught and your brothers will remain swans forever.”
Again the princess vowed to do the work. Then the old woman disappeared.
The princess took a breath and began to walk onward through the forest, until she did come to a churchyard, and in the moonlight she gathered the stinging nettle and found makeshift tools in the church to spin and weave with. Her favorite place for the task was sitting high up in a tree and her hands grew blisters and bled in pain while day after day she attended to her work in complete silence.
Now some king’s men were passing through one day and their dogs sniffed out the princess and barked up the tree. The king’s men saw the young lady.
“Come down from there, miss.” But she refused, only focused on her work. They persisted, and she threw down her stockings, her robes, and finally her royal ring. But nothing deterred them until they went up there and brought her down themselves with all her tools.
They presented her before the king and the king instantly fell in love with her.
“Please won’t you be my queen?” But the girl said nothing and looked longingly toward the churchyard and her work or for swans in the sky. It was only after the king brought her spinning and weaving work and saw the small smile on her face that the wedding took place.
Time passed. Day in day out the queen took no interest in anything but her spinning and weaving. Never speaking to anyone or laughing, or bothering with any of the affairs of the castle that she was invited too.
Now the king’s mother was especially displeased with this. This was not the daughter-in-law she thought appropriate. Who is this oddball that says nothing and doesn’t laugh but only runs outside when she hears the cries of swans. She devised a plan to rid her of the new queen.
When the queen had her first son, the queen mother stole the baby away at night, smeared the queen’s mouth with blood then went straight to the king.
“Your wife is a witch. She has killed your son.”
The king could not believe this.
“Nonsense mother, you are mad.” Then he asked his wife, “Is this true?” But the queen said nothing and focused on her work.
The queen mother did the same thing when the daughter was born, and told the king, “Look, she’s done it again. She’s a witch. Get rid of her.”
The king was terribly concerned, and all of the townspeople began to talk and grow restless. “Dear one, please defend yourself and say something. This is looking very bad.” It was to no avail. The queen continued feverishly sewing the shirts.
A third time, the queen mother stole away the next son and smeared the queen’s mouth with blood while she slept.
This time the king could not longer deny the accusations. He condemned his wife to be burned at the stake.
The whole town turned out pounding on the castle door demanding the death of the witch The queen mother opened the door and the people rushed in, gathered the queen up who clutched the shirts to her and continued sewing away. The townspeople gathered up her witch tools and carried her down to the town square and tied her up at the stake.
Her needle continued sewing and sewing and sewing furiously because all she had left to do now that the six years was up now at the very last day, the very last hour and minute was to sew the last sleeve on the last shirt.
As the flames began to lick up the kindling and at her skirts, she continued sewing undeterred.
Just then, up in the sky came the sound of swans and wings beating. Twelve swans alighted down next to her, and fanned back the flames. The queen threw each of the shirts over the swans and they were instantly transformed back into strong, tall and handsome men – her twelve brothers.
“I am innocent!” the queen cried out. “Help me! And she told everything that had happened to her.
They released her and forced the queen mother to reveal where the children were – hidden safe with some woodsmen. The king ordered their return and the queen rejoiced in the reunion with her brothers.
Benjamin, however, wore the shirt with the unfinished sleeve. So one of his arms was still that of a swan’s.
“Oh, I’m so sorry Benjamin,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said extending his great wing. “You have restored us and that is enough.”
And so the story ends that the king and queen lived with her brothers happily and in peace in the kingdom until the end of their days.
Baan, Natalie, Parabola Magazine Spring 1993
Grimm’s Fairy Tales , Grosset & Dunlap, Inc. NY 1945 Grimm's Fairy Tales illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, Junior Deluxe Editions, Garden City, NY 1954
Zipes, Jack, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. NY 2001
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