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The Six Swans
The Swan Princes - Anne Anderson.jpg
The Swan Princess, by Anne Anderson.
Folk tale
Name The Six Swans
Aarne-Thompson grouping ATU 451
Country Germany
Published in Grimm's Fairy Tales

The Six Swans (German: Die sechs Schwäne) is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1812 (KHM 49).

It is of Aarne–Thompson type 451 ("The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds"), commonly found throughout Europe. 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. Andrew Lang included a variant of the tale in The Yellow Fairy Book.


The tale was published by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen in 1812, and substantially rewritten for the second edition in 1819. Their source is Wilhelm Grimm's friend and future wife Henriette Dorothea (Dortchen) Wild (1795–1867).

Ludwig Emil Grimm Dortchen Wild 1815
Ludwig Emil Grimm Dortchen Wild 1815


Heinrich Vogeler - Illustration Die sechs Schwäne
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 and she will transform into swan forever. 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 finished making all the shirts for her brothers. 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, although in some versions, the youngest brother cannot reverse the transformation completely and his left arm remains a wing due to the missing sleeve in the last shirt sewn by his sister.

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.


A literary predecessor to the tale is The Seven Doves (Neapolitan: Li sette palommelle; Italian: I sette colombi), in Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone, where the brothers are transformed into doves.

Number of brothers

In the tale from the Brothers Grimm, there are six brothers and they are transformed into swans.

In other European variants, the number of princes/brothers alternates between three, seven or twelve, but very rarely there are two, eight, nine, ten or even eleven, such as the Danish fairy tale collected by Mathias Winther, De elleve Svaner (English: "The Eleven Swans"), first published in 1823, or Ligurian tale Les onze cygnes.

Hungarian folk tale collector Elisabeth Sklarek compiled two Hungarian variants, Die sieben Wildgänse ("The Seven Wild Geese") and Die zehn Geschwister ("The Ten Brothers"), and, in her commentaries, noted that both tales were related to the Grimm versions. A third Hungarian is titled A tizenkét fekete várju ("The Twelve Black Ravens").

Ludwig Bechstein collected two German variants, The Seven Crows and The Seven Swans.

Commenting on the Irish variant collected by Patrick Kennedy, Louis Brueyre indicated as another variant the Indian tale of Truth's Triumph, or Der Sieg der Wahrheit: in the second part of the tale, the youngest child, a girl, witnesses the transformation of her one hundred brothers into crows.

In a Lithuanian variant, The Twelve Brothers, Twelve Black Ravens, the witch stepmother asks for her husband to kill his sons, burn their bodies and deliver her the ashes.

In the Hungarian variant A tizenkét koronás hattyu és a csiháninget fonó testvérkéjük, the boys' poor mother curses her twelve sons into the avian form, while also giving an escape clause: after their sister is born, she should sew twelve shirts to save them.

Results of transformation

The other variation is in the result of the avian transformation: in some versions they are ducks, in others ravens, and even eagles, geese, peacocks, blackbirds, storks, cranes or jackdaws.

The eagle transformation is attested in the Polish tale Von der zwölf Prinzen, die in Adler verwandelt wurden (English: "The Twelve Princes who became Eagles"), translated as The Eagles.

The geese transformation is present in the Irish variant The Twelve Wild Geese, collected by Irish folklorist Patrick Kennedy and compared to the German variants ("The Twelve Brothers" and "The Seven Ravens") and the Norse one ("The Twelve Wild Ducks").

In a tale attributed to Northern European origin, The Twelve White Peacocks, the twelve princelings are transformed into peacocks due to a curse cast by a troll.

The blackbird transformation is attested in a Central European tale (The Blackbird), collected by Theodor Vernaleken: the twelve brothers kill a blackbird and bury it in the garden, and from its grave springs an apple-tree bearing the fruit the causes the transformation.

The avian transformation of storks is present in a Polish tale collected in Krakow by Oskar Kolberg, O siedmiu braciach bocianach ("The Seven Stork Brothers").

The Hungarian tale A hét daru ("The Seven Cranes") attests the transformation of the brothers into cranes.

The jackdaw transformation is attested in the Hungarian tale, A csóka lányok ("The Jackdaw Girls"), wherein a poor mother wishes her rambunctious twelve daughters would turn into jackdaws and fly away, which was promptly fulfilled; and in the "West Prussian" tale Die sieben Dohlen ("The Seven Jackdaws"), collected by professor Alfred Cammann (de).

Folklorists Johannes Bolte and Jiri Polivka, in their commentaries to the Grimm fairy tales, compiled several variants where the brothers are transformed into all sorts of beasts and terrestrial animals, such as deer, wolves, and sheep.

Cultural legacy

  • 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Irish novelist Padraic Colum used a similar tale in his novel The King of Ireland's Son, in the chapter The Unique Tale: the queen wishes for a blue-eyed, blonde-haired daughter, and carelessly wishes her sons to "go with the wild geese". As soon as the daughter is born, the princes change into gray wild geese and fly away from the castle.
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