Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2022 The Twelve Brothers – Part One

H J Ford

A Smoke

The bell over Augustus’s door to the tobacco shop rings as I enter. What an inviting sound. It has been a while since I visited to improve my stock of the good leaf.

“Ho, stranger,” Augustus acknowledges my entry.

“Good to see you again,” I say.

“Let me suppose,” he says as he reaches for a canister, “you’ll be wanting some Elfish Gold, Angel’s Glory, and a bit of Fairies’ Delight?”

“That will do nicely, along with some Black Dwarf. Have you a new blend to test?”

“I have been messing with Raven Black.”

We are soon in the testing room settling into our comfy chairs and tamping our pipes.

“And what,” Augustus says between puffs, “fairy-tale conundrum have you brought with you today?”

“I’ve been knitting my brow over The Twelve Brothers.”

“I’ve read that one, certainly, but I keep conflating it with The Six Swans. Sort it out for me.”

“It is well you should mix them up. The difference between the two is really what I’d like to talk about.”

A king has twelve sons but declares he will put them to death in preference for a daughter. The queen, when pregnant, confesses to the youngest son, Benjamin, what the king plans and shows him the twelve coffins that have been constructed.

The twelve brothers hide in the woods and wait for a signal from their mother: a white flag if it is a boy and a red for a girl. The red flag is raised and the brothers flee. They find a cottage in the forest that, unbeknownst to them, is enchanted. Here they live for ten years, Benjamin keeping house while the elder brothers go hunting.

By then, their sister, who was born with a star on her forehead, has grown into a beautiful, young lady. One day she finds her brothers’ shirts and asks her mother, the queen, about them. The story is revealed, and the princess goes off to find her brothers. They are reunited and live together happily.

One day, in the bewitched cottage’s garden, she picks twelve lilies—also called students—one for each brother. When she does, the brothers are turned into ravens that fly away, and the cottage and garden disappear. Beside her stands an old woman who scolds her for picking the lilies. To reclaim her brothers, she must now not speak nor laugh for seven years.

She climbs a tree and sits there spinning until discovered by the greyhound of a king who is out hunting. The princess, with a nod, consents to marry the king.

The king’s mother dislikes her and spreads false rumors until the king is obliged to have her burnt at the stake. The fire is lit just as the seven years expire. Twelve ravens fly in, turning into their human form as they touch the ground, and rescue her.

All live in happiness after the evil mother is put into a barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes.

“A barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes,” Augustus declares. “Really. I’d forgotten that. The Grimms outdid themselves on that bit of punishment.”

“Yes, rather,” I agree.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2022 The Twelve Brothers – Part Two

H J Ford

More Smoke

“Let’s compare the ‘Twelve’ and the ‘Six’ blow by blow,” Augustus suggests as he rises and leaves the testing room but soon returns with his well-thumbed copy of Jack Zipes’ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

“My,” I say, “your copy looks as battered as Thalia’s.”

Augustus smiles and pages through the volume, putting in bookmarkers at the start of the two stories.

“Now then,” he starts the proceedings, “in the ‘Twelve’ the king proposes to murder his twelve sons for the sake of a daughter.”

“That sounds terribly un-German to me,” I say.

“It’s terribly un-any-culture that I know of,” Augustus responds. He pages to the back of his book to the notes. “The Grimms cite Julia and Charlotte Ramus as the source for the ‘Twelve’ and mention Basile’s The Seven Little Doves.” 

He pages some more. “For the ‘Six’ they cite their source as Henriette Dorothea Wild—whom Wilhelm married by the way—but refer back to Greco-Roman myths, because of the swans I’ll guess.

“Now, if I recall, Julia and Charlotte Ramus were daughters of a French pastor. Since their last names never changed, I am guessing they never married and held a more feminine-centric view on life. I suggest the murder plot of the boys was the sisters’ invention. The Basile tale that the Grimms referred to didn’t have that element but did have the baby girl/baby boy signal device.”

“Very well,” I say. “The beginning of the ‘Six’ has a king out hunting who is waylaid by a witch who forces him to marry her daughter. Fearing that the new queen will harm them, the king hides his six sons and daughter by his former wife. Quite a different start of the story from the ‘Twelve.’”

“Oh yes, the magical ball of string,” Augustus grins. “The children are so well hidden, even the king cannot find them without the ball of string he throws on the ground and then follows it as it unrolls to the hiding place. A reverse of Ariadne’s thread.”

“However,” I say, tamping my pipe, “the evil queen discovers the ruse and purloins the ball of string. She throws white, silk shirts with a magical spell woven into them onto the six brothers, turning them into swans.”

“She didn’t know about the daughter,” Augustus recalls.

“Correct.”

“But listen,” he says. “Shirts appear in both stories but are used for entirely different purposes. In the ‘Twelve’ the shirts are not magical, but rather used as a device for discovery. In the ‘Six’ the sister has to knit shirts made of aster flowers while remaining silent for six years to reverse the spell.”

“Hmmm,” I contemplate. “In the ‘Six’ the evil queen turns the brothers into swans. In the ‘Twelve’ it is when the sister picks the lilies that the brothers are transformed.”

“And yet,” Augustus points his pipe at me, “it is the point in both stories that the sister falls silent in order to break the spell, which,” Augustus refers back to his book, “is Aarne-Thompson tale type 451.”

“Oh,” I say, “it has its own category.”

“Yes indeed.”

“Let me backtrack for a moment.” My pipe has gone out, and I refill it while saying, “What about the star on the princess’s forehead in the ‘Twelve?’”

“That is only a confirmation that she is of royalty and is special. I’ve come across it in such stories as Princess Belle-Etoilewhich I rather like, but it is French, florid, and goes on a bit too long.”

“Ah, the French do that,” I agree.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2022 The Twelve Brothers – Part Three

 John B. Gruelle

Very Smoky

“Alright then,” Augustus collects his thoughts. “We now have both princesses up in their respective trees, one spinning and the other knitting asters, both about to be discovered by a king out hunting. The stories at this point start to run parallel.”

“Let me interject a ‘however,’” I say through our tobacco fog. “Two points jump to my mind. First, the ‘Six’ starts with a king out hunting who returns with a wife. Halfway through the story another king is out hunting and returns with a wife. Talk about parallel.

“Second, the princess in the ‘Six’ is profitably engaged knitting aster-flower shirts. The princess in the ‘Twelve’ is spinning to no particular end. What is that about?”

“First,” echoes Augustus, “the spinning must be with a drop spindle. The image of a spinning wheel up a tree is too much to bear.

“Second, I suspect this princess spinning is a vestige of the magical shirts being dropped or forgotten from the story by a teller unknown.”

“I’ll accept that as possible. So, the shirts come and go, but the years of silence remain. I find that an interesting challenge for our heroines.”

“A test of patience and will as opposed to a test of strength and courage usually reserved for heroes,” Augustus acknowledges. “The next parallel in the stories is the king’s evil, disagreeable mother, who is dead set against the silent beauty.”

I re-tamp my pipe. “It doesn’t burn well.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed.” Disappointment edges his remark.

“In both stories it is a mother,” I point out, “not the usual evil stepmother who is the villain. The ‘Twelve’ is vague about the mother’s accusations, but the ‘Six’ is detailed about the mother stealing the newborn children, smearing the heroine’s mouth with blood, and accusing her of eating her own children.”

“Rather repulsive,” Augustus picks up the thread, “The princess is condemned to be burnt at the stake, a usual punishment for witches. Dramatically, the burning and the end of the many years’ wait coincide. The brothers return in their bird form to be immediately transformed into their human shape and rescue their sister. Again, parallel.”

“Also parallel,” I conclude, “the evil mother is killed in the princess’s stead. In the ‘Six’ she takes the princess’s place at the stake. In the ‘Twelve’, well, we know what happens. Might that be the origin of ‘snake oil’?”

“Don’t be silly,” Augustus snaps. “I believe we are suggesting that these are obviously the same story. A princess goes out to find her brothers, she must endure years of silence, marries a king, is threatened by the king’s mother, is at the point of death when her efforts pay off, the brothers are restored, and the evil mother pays with her life.

“And yet the story details are very different: a star on the forehead, a magical ball of string, aster-flower shirts, swans, ravens—Oh, ravens!” Augustus slaps his brow.

“What?”

The Seven RavensWe must talk about that Grimm story as well.”

This conversation is not done.

(To be continued.)

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