The Six Swans

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The Swan Princes by Anne Anderson
Illustration by Heinrich Vogeler

"The Six Swans" (in German : Die sechs Schwäne) is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.[1] It is tale number 49. Andrew Lang included a variant in The Yellow Fairy Book.[2] It is Aarne-Thompson type 451: the brothers who were turned into birds.[3] Other tales of this type include The Magic Swan Geese, The Seven Ravens, The Twelve Wild Ducks, Udea and her Seven Brothers, The Wild Swans, and The Twelve Brothers.[4]


Six brothers from a King's first marriage have been turned into swans by their stepmother. The brothers can only take their human forms for fifteen minutes every evening. To free them, their sister named Elsa must make six shirts out of Nettles and can't make a sound for seven years or the spell will never be broken.

The King of another country finds her doing this, is taken by her beauty, and marries her. When Elsa, now queen, has given birth to their first child, the King's own wicked mother takes away the child and accuses the queen of destroying it. Unable to defend herself, the queen is sentenced to be burned at the stake as a witch.

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 seven years expire and six swans come flying through the air. She throws the shirts over her brothers and they regain their human form. (In some versions she does not finish the sixth shirt in time, or a sleeve is missing.) The queen, now free to speak, can defend herself against the accusations. Her mother-in-law returns the baby she stole, and in anger she falls into a fit and dies.


  • "Moonlight" features a thirteen-year-old princess named Aowyn who loses her mother to a mysterious illness, and is charged with protecting her father and her six brothers from the conniving of a witch bent on taking the throne. This retelling is by Ann Hunter, and set on The Summer Isle - an alternate Ireland
  • An episode "The Six Swans" in the anime series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics. This plot differs in some parts from the Grimm's version, especially in the second part of the story. In anime, it is the Queen's visiting witch-stepmother who accuses the Queen (instead of the King's mother). She has also cast her spell and then killed her husband (not in the original story) to gain total control of the kingdom instead of mere jealously. The swan-brothers also found the Queen's baby in the forest and kept it alive. In addition, the swan-brothers are permitted to regain their human forms in the original story while in the cartoon they remain swans permanently (until their sister breaks the spell). The girl finishes the garments in time therefore the youngest is not left with a swans wing in the end. When the wicked stepmother is exposed as witch, she uses her magic in an attempt to escape but then accidentally catches fire and burns to death.[5]
  • Paul Weiland's episode "The Three Ravens" of Jim Henson's television series The Storyteller is another retelling of this classic tale. After the queen dies, an evil witch ensnares the king and turn his three sons into ravens. The princess escapes and must stay silent for three years, three months, three weeks and three days to break the spell. But after she meets a handsome prince, this is suddenly not so easy, for her stepmother has killed her father and re-married - to the prince's father. But when the witch attempts to burn the princess at the stake, the ravens attack her and she accidentally sets fire to herself instead, instantly turning into ashes. Her death almost fully reverses the spell, but the princess breaks her silence three minutes too soon, and her youngest brother subsequently keeps one wing forever.[6]
  • The novel Birdwing by Rafe Martin follows the youngest prince, human but with a wing instead of his left arm, as he grows up with this "deformity." Beautifully written and thought provoking. [7]


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