The Six Swans



A king was hunting in a great forest and became separated from his men and lost. He comes across an old woman and asks her for directions. She consents, but only if he will marry her beautiful daughter. The king, afraid, consents. When she meets the girl she is not surprised to see him. She is beautiful, but “he could not look at her without secretly shuddering.” He weds the girl.

The Six Brothers Changed into Swans by their Stepmother Henry Justice Ford (1860-1940) 1894 Wood engraving Illustration for "The Six Swans." Scan and text by George P. Landow

The king had seven children by his previous wife: six boys and one girl. He loved them and he hid them from the stepmother in a secluded castle. The queen noticed his absences and bribed the servants to find out what was going on and how to find the children. She makes shirts for the children and sews a charm into each, then goes to their hiding place. The boys come out and as she throws a shirt over each of them they turn into swans and fly away. The girl had not come out with the boys and had seen what happened. When her father came she told him what had happened, but he did not believe that his wife had done the deed. The girl left and went to look for her brothers.

After a long day’s journey she found a small hut with six little beds and crawled under one of the beds to spend the night. The swans flew in through a window, blew the feathers off of one another and shed their swan skins to reveal her brothers. They could become human only a quarter of an hour each day. They warn her that she cannot stay in the hut, which is a robber’s den, and tell her that they cannot be redeemed, the conditions are too difficult. The sister must make six little shirts for them, sewn together from asters (or star flowers or gold or nettles or just plain thread) in six years, and cannot speak or laugh during that time. They turn back into swans and fly away. The girl resolves to free her brothers from the curse “even if it should cost her life.”

After a long time making shirts in a tree in the woods the girl is found by the king of the land who is out hunting. The huntsmen with the king try to get her. The girl thrown down her golden necklace to the men to satisfy them, then her belt, etc. down to her shift, but they climbed up and brought her down to the king. She remained silent. He fell in love with her and brought her back with him to the castle, where they were married a few days later.

The king’s mother opposed the marriage and when the girl, now queen, had a child a year later, the old woman stole the child while the queen was asleep and smeared the queen’s mouth with blood. She accused the queen of being a cannibal. The king did not believe the accusation and refused to allow the queen to be punished. A year later the same sequence of events happened, and again the queen remained silent, and again the king defended his wife.

A year later, after the third time, he could not. The queen was sentenced to be burned to death at the stake, six years to the day after she had set out to free her brothers. She had finished all but one arm of the sixth shirt.

As the queen was led to the stake the six swans came flying down from above. She threw the shirts over them and the swans transformed back into her brothers, save one arm on the youngest, which remained a swan’s wing.

The girl was able to tell of the treachery of the king’s mother who had stolen away the children and hidden them, and the mother was burned at the stake. The king, the queen and her brothers lived in happiness and peace.

This story has a great deal in common with others we’ve looked at . . . the mother-figures are hostile and even murderous and the fathers are unable to protect their children, though in this story the father seems to love and try to protect his six sons and daughter. The king tries to protect his wife, though we do not see him trying to protect the three stolen, possibly murdered, infants.

This is a story of filial love, devotion and sacrifice. The girl gives up all communication. In the face of humiliation and possible rape she does not speak or cry out. Faced with the king of the land asking her questions she does not answer. She does not speak during a wedding, nor does the talk with her new husband. She does not speak to her infants, and does not speak out to deny that she murdered and ate them. She does not speak to protest as she is being led to the stake to be burned alive. In this story, in contrast to so many other fairy tales, the girl is active. She makes the decisions.

Yes, there are the usual creepy fairy tale elements of a king who promises to marry someone he’s never met because he got lost, and another king who falls in love with a girl “as silent as a fish” because she’s pretty and has nice manners. Children disappear with no evidence of emotional turmoil on the part of the mother and the father. This is a popular fairy tale, though, and it must have some universal truth within it about the human condition or it would not have survived to be told and retold in so many forms.

Of the many versions of this story, some things are constant: the boys are all turned into birds or animals and the girl must remain silent while making them clothing for a long time, usually a year for each one, at peril of her life. She always succeeds, but there is usually some remnant of the bird or animal. The number of boys/birds does not seem important; as characters, they remain ciphers.

Let’s look at this irreducible core for a moment.

The Six Swans by Eleanor Abbott, from

The active person in the story is the girl, and she goes from being a youngest sister, a little girl (for all the shirts the witch/step-mother made are little), to being a married woman, a queen, and bears three children of her own. But it’s hard to call this a coming of age story, since her marriage and her children come in the midst of her journey. The story is about her silence, her task and her pain. Hans Christian Andersen has her knitting nettles, and her pain is only assuaged by the tears of her youngest brother. Contrast this with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White: the death, the silence, the sleep that they experience is symbolic of the transition from child to adult. The protagonist here becomes an adult during her silence.

What about the boys? They really aren’t transformed in any sense other than physically. The first thing we hear from them is that they have given up hope, for the task their sister faces is too great. In most versions of the story we don’t see them again until the years have run their course. The most interesting things to consider about them: they ran headlong into the trap, they turned into swans, and they are almost completely turned back to humans.

I think that in trying to understand the deep and lasting appeal of this story, trying to find its heart, we should consider looking at the main characters as aspects of one person, and as symbolic pieces of one person’s struggle. Then we have the boys who rush headlong to greet the witch and are turned into swans as being representative of an animal nature, an id, an impulsive part of our nature. The girl’s struggle then is to bind that animal nature (with a shirt, something civilized and human). By abnegating her own urges to speak and to laugh, and by her industry in making the shirts she is able to (almost completely) bring that animal part of herself under control.

Why is the last shirt incomplete, the youngest brother’s arm still a swan’s wing? This is a masterful story-telling move, since it lends tension at the climax of the story: will the fact that the shirts are not all whole and complete mean that the enchantment won’t be ended, and that the girl will have failed?. But this could not be just a story-telling trope without some underlying reason that it rings true, and it does appear in almost all versions of the tale.

Have you ever met someone who seems just too dry and controlled, someone with no fire in the belly, someone whose mind has hospital corners? We are, after all, animals. If we are able to suppress our id, to bind our animal natures so completely that we cannot have those impulses then we cannot use those impulses to live a full and human life. We need to leave a wing free so that we remember to fly.


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