The Six Swans
A king was once hunting in a huge forest, and he chased the deer so fast on his horse that none of his servants could follow him. When the sun set and it became evening, he stood still and looked around, and he realized that he had become completely lost. He searched for a way out of the forest but couldn’t find one. Then he saw an old woman coming towards him. She had an ugly face and was shaking her head. He knew, for sure, that she was a witch.
‘Good woman,’ he said to her, ‘can you please show me the way out of the forest?’
‘Oh, certainly, Sir King,’ she replied, ‘I can easily do that, but on one condition. If you do not meet my demand, you will never get out of the forest, and you will die of hunger.’
‘What is the condition?’ asked the King.
‘I have a daughter,’ said the old woman, ‘who is the most beautiful girl in the world. She is very well suited to be your wife. If you make her Queen I will show you the way out of the forest.’
The King felt terrible at the idea of marrying a witch’s daughter, but he had no choice but to agree to the demand. The old woman led him to her little house where her daughter was sitting by the fire. She welcomed the King as if she were expecting him, and he saw that she was certainly very beautiful; but she did not please him, and he could not look at her without a secret feeling of horror. As soon as he had lifted the young woman on to his horse the old woman showed him the way, and the King reached his palace, where the wedding was celebrated.
The King had already been married once, and before his beloved wife died, she gave him seven children, six boys and one girl, who he loved more than anything in the world. Now, he was afraid that their stepmother might not treat them well and might hurt them, so he put them in a lonely castle that stood in the middle of a wood. It was so hidden, and the way to it was so hard to find, that even he could only find it by using a magic gift from a wise woman. The gift was a reel of thread which, when he threw it on the ground, it unwound itself and showed him the way. But the King went so often to see his dear children that the Queen was unhappy. ‘Why does he spend so much time away from me?’ she thought. She grew curious and wanted to know what he was doing alone in the wood. She gave his servants a lot of money, and they betrayed the secret to her: he was visiting his children in a lonely castle in the wood. They also told her about the reel of thread, the only thing that could show the way. The Queen immediately started searching for the reel of thread and after a few days of frantic activity, she found it. Then she made some little white shirts, and, as she had learnt from her witch-mother, she sewed an enchantment in each of them.
When the King left the palace to go hunting, she took the little shirts and went into the wood, and the reel showed her the way. The children, who saw someone coming in the distance, thought it was their dear father coming to them, and ran to meet him very joyfully. Then the Queen threw a little shirt over each one, and when it touched their bodies, it changed them into swans, and they flew away over the forest. The Queen went home quite satisfied and thought she had got rid of her stepchildren. However, the king’s daughter had not run out to meet her with her brothers, and the Queen knew nothing of her.
The next day the King went to visit his children, but he found no one but his daughter.
‘Where are your brothers?’ asked the King.
‘Alas! Dear father,’ she answered, ‘they have gone away and left me all alone.’ And she told him that through her little window she had seen her brothers flying over the wood in the shape of swans, and she showed him the feathers which they had let fall in the yard, and which she had collected. The King cried with sadness, but he did not think that the Queen had done the wicked deed. He was afraid that his daughter would also be taken from him, so he wanted to take her back to his palace with him. But the girl was afraid of her stepmother, and begged the King to let her stay just one night more in the castle in the wood. The poor girl thought, ‘My home is no longer here; I will go and look for my brothers.’ And when night came, she ran away into the forest. She ran all through the night and the next day, until she was too weary to go any further. Then she saw a little hut, went in, and found a room with six little beds. She was afraid to lie down on one, so she crept under one of them, lay on the hard floor, and was going to spend the night there. But when the sun had set, she heard a noise, and saw six swans flying in through the window. They stood on the floor and blew at one another, and blew all their feathers off, and their swan-skin came off like a shirt. Then the girl recognized her brothers, and she crept out from under the bed, overjoyed. Her brothers were equally delighted to see their little sister again, but their joy did not last long.
‘You cannot stay here,’ they said to her. ‘This is a hut of robbers; if they come here and find you, they will kill you.’
‘Can you not protect me?’ asked the little sister.
‘No,’ they answered, ‘because we can only take off our swan skins for a quarter of an hour every evening. For this time, we become humans again, but then we are changed back into swans.’
Then the little sister cried and said, ‘Can you not be freed from the enchantment?’
‘Oh, no,’ they said, ‘the conditions are too hard. You must not speak or laugh for six years, and in that time you must make six shirts for us out of star-flowers. If a single word comes out of your mouth, all your effort will be wasted.’ And when the brothers had said this the quarter of an hour came to an end, and they flew away out of the window as swans.
But the girl was determined to free her brothers, even if it cost her life. She left the hut, went into the forest, climbed a tree, and spent the night there. The next morning, she went out, collected star-flowers, and began to sew. She could speak to no one, and she had no wish to laugh, so she sat there, looking only at her work.
When she had lived there some time, it happened that the King of the country was hunting in the forest, and his hunters came to the tree on which the girl sat. They called to her and said, ‘Who are you?’
But she gave no answer.
‘Come down to us,’ they said, ‘we will do you no harm.’ But she shook her head silently. As they pressed her further with questions, she threw them the golden chain from her neck. But they did not give up, and she threw them her girdle, and when this was no use, her garters, and then her dress. The huntsmen would not leave her alone, but climbed the tree, lifted the girl down, and led her to the King. The King asked, ‘Who are you? What are you doing up that tree?’ But she answered nothing.
He asked her in all the languages he knew, but she remained as dumb as a fish. Because she was so beautiful, however, the King’s heart was touched, and he was seized with a great love for her. He wrapped her up in his cloak, placed her in front of him on his horse. and took her to his palace. There he had her dressed in rich clothes, and her beauty shone out as bright as the sun, but no one could draw a single word from her. He made her sit at his table by his side, and her modest ways and behaviour pleased him so much that he said, ‘This beautiful girl is the only girl in the world that I want to marry,’ and after some days he married her. But the King had a wicked mother who was displeased with the marriage and said nasty things about the young Queen.
‘Who knows who this girl is?’ she said; ‘she cannot speak, and is not good enough for my son.’
After a year, when the Queen had her first child, the old mother took it away from her. Then she went to the King and said that the Queen had killed it. The King would not believe it, and would not allow any harm to be done to his lovely wife. She just sat quietly sewing shirts and showing interest in nothing. The next time she had a child the wicked mother did the same thing, but the King could not make up his mind: should he believe what his mother said or trust his feelings for his beloved wife?
After some though, he said, ‘She is too sweet and good to hill her own baby. If she were not dumb and could defend herself, her innocence would be proved.’
But when the third child was taken away, and the Queen was again accused of killing it, and could not say a word in her own defence, the King had no choice but to hand her over to the law, and the judge announced that she must be burnt to death.
It so happened that the day when she was to be executed was the last day of the six years in which she must not speak or laugh. She knew that she had freed her dear brothers from the power of the enchantment. The six shirts were finished, except the left sleeve was missing on the last. When she was led to the stake, she laid the shirts on her arm, and as she stood on the pile of sticks and the fire was about to be lit, she looked around her and saw six swans flying through the air. Then she knew that she would be released and her heart danced for joy. The swans flew round her, and hovered low so that she could throw the shirts over them. When the shirts touched them the swan-skins fell off, and her brothers stood before her living, well and beautiful. Only the youngest had a swan’s wing instead of his left arm.
They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen went to the King, who was standing by in great astonishment, and began to speak to him, saying, ‘Dearest husband, now I can speak and tell you openly that I am innocent and have been falsely accused.’ She told him of the old woman’s lie, and how she had taken their three children away and hidden them. Then they were brought to the King and Queen, and they were overjoyed to finally hold their beautiful children. In the Queen’s place, the King’s wicked mother was burned at the stake.
The King and the Queen with her six brothers lived for many years in happiness and peace.