The Six Swans

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The Swan Princes by Anne Anderson

The Six Swans (in German : Die sechs Schwäne) is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm[1] as 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]


Illustration by Heinrich Vogeler

A King gets lost in a forest, and an old woman helps him, on the condition that he marry her beautiful daughter. The King has a bad feeling about this but accepts anyway. He has six sons and a daughter from his first marriage, however, and fears that the children will be targeted by his new wife; so he sends them away and visits them in secret.

The new queen and now stepmother, who has learned witchcraft from her mother, finds out about her six stepsons and decides to get them out of her way. She sews six magical shirts and goes to the hidden castle where the children are hidden for safety, then tosses the shirts over the boys and transforms them into swans.

The brothers can only take their human forms for fifteen minutes every evening. They tell their still human younger sister that they have heard of a way to break such curses: she must make six shirts out of nettles and can't make a sound for six years or the spell will never be broken. The girl agrees to do this and runs away, hiding in a hunter's hut and dedicating herself solely to gathering the nettles and sewing in silence.

Years later, the King of another country finds the girl doing this, is taken by her beauty, and takes her into the court with the intention of making her his queen. However, the King's snobbish mother hates her and does not consider her fit to be a Queen. When she gives birth to their first child, the wicked mother-in-law takes away the child and accuses the queen of killing and eating him, but the King refuses to believe it.

The young Queen gives birth to two other children, but twice again the mother-in-law hides them away and falsely claims that she has killed and eaten her babies. The King is unable to keep protecting her, and unable to properly defend herself, the queen is sentenced to be burned at the stake as a witch. All this time, she has held back her tears and her words, sewing and sewing the nettle shirts no matter what.

On the day of her execution, the Queen 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 six years expire and the six swans come flying through the air. She throws the shirts over her brothers and they regain their human form, though the youngest prince's left arm remains a wing due to the missing sleeve.

The queen is now free to speak, and she can defend herself against the accusations. She does so with the support of her brothers. In the end, the evil mother-in-law is the one who is burned at the stake as punishment.


  • Daughter of the Forest, the first book of the Sevenwaters trilogy by Juliet Marillier, is a detailed retelling of this story in a medieval Celtic setting. A young woman named Sorcha must sew six shirts from a painful nettle plant in order to save her brothers (Liam, Diarmuid, Cormack, Connor, Finbar and Padriac) from the witch Lady Oonagh's enchantment, remaining completely mute until the task is finished. Falling in love with a British lord, Hugh of Harrowfield alias "Red", complicates her mission.
  • An episode from the anime series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics,[5] starring Mitsuko Horie as the Princess (here named Elise), Toshiko Fujita as the witch, Hideyuki Hori as the prince, Ishizuka Unsho as the king, and Koichi Yamadera, Taku Takemura, Masami Kikuchi, and Keiichi Naniwa as the brothers. This plot differs in some parts from the Grimm's version, especially in the second part of the story. In the anime, the evil stepmother-queen kills her husband and puts a spell on his children to gain total control of the kingdom like in the original, but later she takes up the role of the Princess/Queen's evil mother-in-law and leaves Elise's baby son (her only child) in the forest. The swan-brothers find their nephew the forest and keep him alive, plus they're stuck in their swan forms all day/night long (though they still can speak) until their sister breaks the curse and they give her the baby back. Elise finishes the garments in time, therefore the youngest is not left with a swan wing in the end. When the wicked stepmother is exposed as the witch and as the one who framed Elise at the end, she uses her magic in an attempt to escape but then accidentally catches fire from Elise's pyre and burns to death.[6]
  • 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 remarried - 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.[7]
  • 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."[8]
  • 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 written by Ann Hunter and set on the Summer Isle, an alternate Ireland.[9]
  • The unfinished world by Amber Sparks adapts this story into "La Belle de Nuit, La Belle de Jour", a mixed modern-day retelling with fairytale elements such as kingdoms and cars, televisions and golems, and witches and politicians. Here, the princess is cursed so that her words turn to bees, preventing her from speaking. [10]


  1. ^ "Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm with Author's Notes translated by Margaret Hunt". SurLaLune Fairy Tales. 2006-10-15. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  2. ^ "THE SIX SWANS from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books". 2003-07-12. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  3. ^ "Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales (Grimms' Fairy Tales)". 2016-04-09. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  4. ^ "Tales Similar To Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". SurLaLune Fairy Tales. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  5. ^ "新グリム名作劇場 第10話 六羽の白鳥 | アニメ | 動画はShowTime (ショウタイム)". 2013-06-22. Archived from the original on June 22, 2013. Retrieved 2016-06-05.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  6. ^ "GFTC - The Six Swans". YouTube. 2014-05-28. Retrieved 2018-01-11.
  7. ^ "The Storyteller Presents The Three Ravens". Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  8. ^ "Rafe Martin-Birdwing". Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  9. ^ Ann Hunter. "Moonlight by Ann Hunter — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists". Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  10. ^ Amber Sparks. "The unfinished world by Amber Sparks - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists". Retrieved 2019-10-09.

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