The Six Swans by Brothers Grimm: Summary, Characters & Morals

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

~'The Six Swans~' by the Brothers Grimm is a dark fairy tale that explores themes of good versus evil and the consequences of our actions. In this lesson, we will summarize the story and examine the characters.

Suffering and Consequences

Think about a time that you suffered because of someone else's bad decision. In The Six Swans by the Brothers Grimm, some of the characters suffer their own consequences, but others cause suffering to others. Let's find out more about this fairy tale.

The King and His Bride

The story begins with an overzealous hunting trip that leaves the king lost in the woods. Out of desperation, he promises a witch that he will marry her daughter if she helps him find his way. The witch's daughter is beautiful, but the king gets a bad feeling about her and is afraid that his children from his previous marriage will be mistreated by his new wife. To protect them, the king hides his children in a castle in the middle of a forest. The area where they live is so secluded that he can only find his way back and forth through the use of a magic ball of yarn that leads the way.

The king's new wife becomes suspicious when the king disappears to visit his children, so she bribes the servants to tell her where he is going. The queen sews some white silk shirts and places a spell on them so that when she follows the yarn to the castle and puts the shirts on the children, they turn into swans. The queen transforms all of the boys, but is not aware that there is a daughter hiding inside. When the daughter tells her father what has happened, he is sad, but doesn't believe that his wife has done this wrong.

The Swans

The girl looks for her brothers all night. At the end of the next day, she finds a hunter's hut. The swans fly inside and begin shedding their swan skin to reveal her brothers. They explain that the hut is a robber's den and not safe for her. They are allowed to remove their swan skin for 15 minutes per day. The only way to break the spell is if their sister does not 'speak or... laugh for six years, and in that time you would have to sew together six little shirts from asters for us.'

The Second King

The girl is determined to free her brothers. She takes up residence in a tree and starts to sew the shirts. When huntsmen enter the woods and spot her, she tries, without speaking, to bribe them to go away, but they take her to their king. This king falls in love with her and marries her. His mother does not approve. When the girl gives birth to her first child, the queen steals the baby, spreads blood on the girl's mouth, and tells her son that his queen is a cannibal. After the third baby disappears, the king sentences his wife to burn at the stake.

On the day she is to be killed, it is also the end of her six years. The girl takes the shirts she has made for her brothers with her to the stake. As she is about to be killed, the six swans fly down, put on their shirts, and are transformed back. At this point, the girl says, 'Dearest husband, now I may speak and reveal to you that I am innocent, and falsely accused.' She explains the entire story. The girl is freed, the children are found, and her mother-in-law is burned at the stake.

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