Children’s and Household Tales

Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm 

Introduced by James Roberts, a writer and editor based near Hay

‘The Six Swans’ is a well known oral story with variants across Germany and Scandinavia. In the tale a king gets lost hunting in the forest and meets a witch who will only agree to show him the way back to his castle if he takes her daughter as wife. The king reluctantly agrees and marries the daughter on his return. But, though his bride is beautiful, he does not trust her. He removes his children from the castle and takes them to a place where they will be hidden from their stepmother. The new queen grows suspicious and eventually finds the hidden place. When she visits it the six boys, believing her to be their father arriving, run out to greet her. The witch stepmother then turns each of them into swans. But she does not discover the seventh child, the boys’ sister. The abandoned sister searches the wild forest until she finds her swan brothers who are cursed to only be able to throw off their feathers and become human for a few minutes each day. The only way she can give them back their forms permanently is to make no sound for six years and to weave each brother a shirt of starwort. This she promises to do. The girl is then discovered in the forest by another king who falls in love with her and they marry. But the girl has inherited another wicked guardian and each time she bears a child the old woman steals it and marks the young mother’s lips with blood, accusing her of devouring her own child. The girl is mute and cannot defend herself but the king does not believe his mother. Eventually after their third child receives the same fate the king can defend his wife no more and she is condemned to burn at the stake. But by now six years has passed and she has woven the shirts of starwort except for a single sleeve. As the pyre is about to be set alight six swans swoop down to her and she throws a shirt over each one. The swans are transformed back to her brothers, one with a white wing in place of an arm. The sister can finally tell the truth and the king’s mother is forced to reveal where the children are hidden, after which she is burned to ashes.

The story was first written down by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It was one of their favourite tales because of its theme of family fidelity. The detail that seems most strange about the story is the single white wing left in place of the brother’s arm. I think that it is a reminder of the faithfulness of creatures, that the surrounding presence of wild beings teaches and inspires us and should not be forgotten or dismissed.


This is an extract from an essay by James Roberts from Issue 04 of Zoomorphic magazine. Read the full essay here:

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