Brother and Sister

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Sister Alenushka Weeping about Brother Ivanushka (painting by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1881), Russian variant collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki.

Brother and Sister is a well-known European fairy tale which was, among others, written down by the Brothers Grimm in their collection of Children's and Household Tales (Grimm's Fairy Tales). It is alternatively known as Little Sister and Little Brother or (in the Grimm's version) Brüderchen und Schwesterchen.

Plot synopsis[edit]

Tired of the cruel mistreatment they endured from their wicked stepmother, who was also a witch, a brother and sister ran away from home one day. They wandered off into the countryside and spent the night in the woods. When the next morning came, the boy was thirsty and they went on the lookout for a spring of clear water. Their stepmother had already discovered their escape however, and bewitched all the springs in the forest. He was about to drink from one, when his sister heard how its rushing sound said "Whoever drinks from me will become a tiger."

Desperately, the girl begged her brother not to drink from the spring, lest he transform into a tiger and tear her to pieces. So they went back on their way, but when they came to the second spring the girl heard it say, "Whoever drinks from me will become a wolf." Again, she desperately tried to prevent her brother from drinking from it. Reluctantly, he eventually agreed to her pleas but insisted he would drink from the next spring they encountered. And so they arrived at the third spring, and the girl overheard the rushing water cry, "Whoever drinks from me will become a deer." But it was too late, because her brother had already drank from it, and changed into a deer.

Sculpture „Brother and Sister“, created in 1970 by Katharina Szelinski-Singer.

As the initial feeling of despair cleared up, the children decided to stay and live in the woods forever. The girl would take care of her brother, and tied her gold chain around his neck. They went to live in a little house deep within the woods and lived there happily for some years, until they were disturbed one day by a hunting party and the King himself who had followed the strange deer home. Upon seeing the beautiful girl, he immediately asked her to marry him and she accepted. Thus she became Queen and they all went to live happily in the King's castle. Time passed and the Queen gave birth to a son.

Their stepmother however soon discovered that they were still alive and plotted against them. One night, she killed the Queen and replaced her with her own disfigured daughter (whom she had transformed to resemble her). When the Queen's ghost secretly visited her baby's bedside for three consecutive nights however, the King caught on and her stepmother's evil plan was exposed.

The Queen came back to life and her stepfamily was tried for their crimes. The daughter was banished into the woods where she was torn to pieces by wild animals and her mother was burned at the stake. At the exact moment of her death, the boy became human again and at long last, the family was reunited. They all lived happily ever after.


The first recorded appearance of Brother and Sister is in Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone around the 17th century. It was written down as the tale of Ninnillo and Nennella.[1] Since then it has circulated in a number of European countries under varying titles but with most of the main story intact. In Russia the story was more commonly known as Sister Alionushka, Brother Ivanushka and collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki. In the Aarne-Thompson classification system of fairy tales, Brother and Sister is categorized as its own type as number 450, the brother and sister. Another of this type is The Lambkin and the Little Fish.[2]

At times, Brother and Sister has been confused with Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel has been known as Little Brother and Little Sister which is also an alternate title for this tale. The Grimms selected Hansel and Gretel for the tale by that name and kept the Brother and Sister title for this tale. Some publications of the Hansel and Gretel tale still use the Little Brother and Little Sister title, causing confusion for readers.

The story as the Grimm's told it was first published in the original 1812 edition of their Children's and Household Tales, and subsequently featured in all later editions, with several additions in 1819. Also, Nippon Animation Company of Japan featured the story in one episode of season two of its anime TV series, Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.


This tale, like The Twelve Brothers, The Seven Ravens, and The Six Swans, features a woman rescuing her brothers. In the era and region in which it was collected, many men were drafted by kings for soldiers, to be sent as mercenaries. As a consequence, many men made their daughter their heirs; however, they also exerted more control over them and their marriages as a consequence. The stories have been interpreted as a wish by women for the return of their brothers, freeing them from this control.[3] However, the issues of when the stories were collected are unclear, and stories of this type have been found in many other cultures, where this issue can not have inspired them.[4]

Modern psycho-analysis interprets the relation between brother and sister in this story as a metaphor for the animalistic and spiritual duality in humans. The brother represents the instinctive and the sister the rational side.[5] As Brother and Sister opens, the two children are still in their youth and clearly in conflict over each other's choices. The brother cannot control his impulse to drink from the wellspring and is subsequently "punished" by being turned into a deer. Note then the symbolical gesture with which the girl ties her gold chain around her brother's neck, as if to suggest the taming of the animalistic side. Following is a period of relative happiness in which the two sides live in harmony with each other. In this context, Brother and Sister could be viewed as a veiled coming of age tale. It's interesting to observe then that in this story the animalistic side is associated with the male and the spiritual/rational side with the female.[6]

It has also been interpreted for messages about family fidelity through adversity and separation.[7] Contemporary literary works that draw upon this fairy tale and its analytical themes include "In the Night Country," a story by Ellen Steiber, "Brother and Sister," a poem by Terri Windling, and "Sister and Brother," a poem by Barth Anderson.

Popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steven Swann Jones, The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of Imagination, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-8057-0950-9, p38
  2. ^ Heidi Anne Heiner, "Tales Similar to Brother and Sister"
  3. ^ Jack Zipes, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, p 72, ISBN 0-312-29380-1
  4. ^ Jack Zipes, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, p 75, ISBN 0-312-29380-1
  5. ^ Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 44 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
  6. ^ Allan Hunter, Princes, Frogs, & Ugly Sisters: The Healing Power of the Grimm Brothers' Tales, p 50, ISBN 978-1-84409-184-3
  7. ^ Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 41 ISBN 0-393-05848-4

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