The annotations for the Six Swans fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Six Swans Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Six Swans to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.
I have included the Grimms' notes to the tale as translated by Margaret Hunt followed by SurLaLune's textual annotations.
The Grimms' Notes For the Tale
From Hesse. It is connected with the story of the Seven Ravens (No. 25), only here we have six swans, because the children have been bewitched when perfectly innocent. Another story from German Bohemia links the two stories together. It agrees with the former up to the point where the sister went out into the world with a loaf of bread and a small pitcher of water to seek her brothers. Then it is related that she wandered on day after day for many a mile, and never found the least trace of them, but came at length to an ancient deserted castle, and thought that she might perhaps find something there. But no human being was to be seen in the castle, and yet she saw smoke ascending, and heard a fire crackling. "Where smoke is rising and fire burning, human beings must be living too," thought she, and went onwards. At last she reached a kitchen where seven pans were standing on the hearth, frothing and bubbling up, but no cook was there. "Eh, what is being cooked here?" said the girl, and peeped into the pans, and strange roots and herbs were inside them. "Flow good these must taste!" said she, and tasted a little bit out of each, and stirred them round thoroughly. She liked cooking, which she had not done for a long time, and the morsel of warm food did her good too, for it was long since she had tasted any. And now she heard a rustling in the air, and seven black ravens came whirring down through the chimney; each laid hold of his little pan and flew with it into the dining-room and began to eat his dinner. The first raven had just eaten a couple of mouthfuls when he said, "It is strange! There is rather less of my food than there ought to be, but it tastes as if it had been cooked by a human hand." "It is the same with mine!" said the second, "What if our little sister should be here?" "Ah!" said the third, "she is the cause of all our misery; we will pick her eyes out." "What had she to do with it?" said the fourth raven. The fifth said, "I would do nothing to hurt her." "She might perhaps be able to release us," said the sixth, and just as the seventh was crying, "God grant she may be here," she came in by the door of the room for she had been listening to the whole conversation, and could not find it in her heart to wait any longer, so great was her sorrow at seeing her dear brothers changed into such ugly birds. "Do with me even as you will," said she, "I am your sister with the golden cross; tell me if I can set you free." "Yes," said they, "thou canst still set us free, but it is very difficult." She said he was ready, and would gladly do anything, no matter what it was. Then the ravens said, "For seven long years thou must not say one word on pain of death, and during that time must sew for each of us a shirt and a handkerchief, and knit us a pair of stockings, which must not be ready either sooner or later, than the last day of the seven years. This time can, however, not be passed by thee here with us, for we might some time chance to do thee an injury, if the raven nature were to come upon us; or our companion ship might some time lead thee away to speak."
So they searched in the forest for a hollow tree for her, placed her inside it at the top that she might remain quiet and alone, pro cured for her as much flax as was needed, and spinning-gear, and from time to time carried her some food that she might not perish of hunger.
Thus passed one year, a second, and still another; and the good little sister sat still in the hollow tree, and only moved as much as was needful to do her spinning. Then it came to pass that the son of the King to whom the forest belonged, one day commanded a chase in the forest, and by mistake, a pack of hounds got through the briars and bushes to a part where no huntsman had ever been before, and went as far as the hollow tree. There they stood still, because they scented some living creature, and they snuffed and stood barking round about the tree. The hunters however followed the sound and came up, but at first could find no animal that the hounds could have tracked, because the girl sat so still -and never moved and she had been there such a length of time that moss had grown all over her, and she was almost like the tree. At length, however, they distinguished the shape of her body, and informed their master that a beast in human shape was sitting in a hollow tree, and neither moved nor uttered any sound. The Prince went up to it, and ordered them to take her out. She let them do as they liked, and never spoke. And when they began to remove the moss from her and to clean her, her white face appeared, and also the cross upon her forehead, so that the Prince was amazed at her beauty, and spoke to her in every language £hat he knew, that he might learn who she was and how she had got there. But she remained mute as a fish to all he said, so the Prince took her borne with him, gave her into the care of the women-in-waiting, and bade them wash and dress her, which was done, as he had commanded. But if she had been beautiful before, now she shone forth in her rich garments like the bright day, only no word ever passed her lips. Nevertheless, the Prince placed her by his side at table, and was so deeply touched by her appearance and gentle bearing, that in a very few days he wished to marry her, and would have no other on earth. His mother opposed this marriage most vehemently, and said that no one knew for certain whether she was a beast or a human being, for she neither spoke, nor wished to learn to do so, and such a marriage was nothing but a crime. But no talking did any good, the King said, "How can any one doubt that she is a human being? She has a form that is as beautiful as an angel's, and the cross upon her forehead bears witness to her noble origin?" So the marriage was solemnized with much splendour and rejoicing.
As the Prince's wife she lived modestly and industriously in her little chamber, working continually at her spinning-wheel to release her brothers from the curse which lay on them. After half a year, just when she was with child, the Prince had to go away to the wars, and he ordered his mother to take good care of his wife. But his mother was very glad of his absence, and when the hour of the Princess's delivery came, and she brought forth a most beautiful boy, with a cross on his brow like that which she had herself, the old woman gave the child to a servant and ordered him to carry it into the forest and murder it, and bring her its tongue as a token that the deed was done. She wrote a letter to the Prince, in which it was written that his wife, who must herself be looked on by every one as half-beast, had as was to be expected, been delivered of a dog which they had had drowned. Whereupon the Prince replied that she was nevertheless to be treated as his wife until he returned borne from the wars, and himself determined what was to be done. In the meantime the servant had gone into the forest with the little boy, and a lioness met him, and he threw the child down to her thinking she would devour it, and he would not need to kill it, hut the lioness licked it with her tongue. "If a raging wild beast can feel pity, I am still less able to behave with cruelty," thought the servant, and left the child with the lioness, and took back a dog's tongue to the old Queen. Soon after this the King returned home from the wars, and when he saw how beautiful his wife was, he could not but believe her innocent, nor could he make her undergo any punishment. Next year she was again expecting to have a child; and as the Prince was again on the point of going away, everything happened just as before: the child that was born was taken to the lioness, and was brought up by her. The aged Princess accused her much more violently, but again the Prince was convinced of her innocence, although she herself dared not utter one syllable in her own justification. But when for the third time all that had happened before occurred again, the Prince believed that he should fall under the displeasure of God if he continued to live any longer with a wife who brought beasts into the w instead of human heirs, so when he came home he commanded that she should be put to death by fire. Now the day of her execution was just the very last of the seven years, and as she was putting in the last stitch she sighed and thought, "Ah Heavens, can the weary time have come to an end!" In the selfsame moment her seven brothers were delivered from the spell, and changed from ravens to men again, and instantly leapt on seven ready-saddled horses, and galloped through the forest. In the midst of it they saw three little boys sitting beside a lioness, each with a golden cross on his forehead. "Those are the children of our dearest sister," said they, and took them up on their horses. When they were riding out of the forest they saw from afar a crowd of people standing, and the pile of wood burning. They made signals with their handkerchiefs, and rode on at a gallop. "Dearest sister, how art thou?" they cried. "Here are thy three children for thee." She was unbound, and as speech was once more permitted to her, she thanked God with a loud voice, and the wicked old woman was burnt to ashes in her stead. Here we see how our story is connected with that of the Seven Ravens (No. 25), and with that of The Twelve Brothers (No. 9), and how all three belong to the same group, as does a Bohemian story (see further on). In the Brunswick Collection, see pp. 349-379, The Seven Swans. In Kuhn, No 10. In Sommer, p. 142. In Meier, No. 7. In Asbjörnsen, p. 209. Compare Altdeutsche Blätter, 1. 128; and Leo's Beowulf, p. 25, and following. The story everywhere shows extreme antiquity, the seven men's shirts seem to be connected with the swan's shirts, which we know from the Völundarquida. In connection with this there is also the saga of the boat drawn by swans on the Rhine (Parcifal, Lohengrin, &c.), and the old French Chevalier au cigne, where also the last swan is not set free because the gold of its swan's ring is already used up. A ball which unrolls itself, and shows the way, is also to be found in the Russian ballad in Wladimir's Round Table, p. 115.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.
2.Hunting: In times past, hunting was a popular activity among the nobility, used for sport and necessity. The game was often used for food, but for trophies as well. Return to place in story.
3.Great wood: The forest is a recurrent image in German fairy tales, in part because over a quarter of the country is comprised of forest land. In the Grimms' tales, the forest is a supernatural world, a place where anything can happen and often does.
According to Jungian psychology, the forest is a representation of the feminine principle and is identified with the unconscious. The foliage blocks the sun's rays, the sun being associated with the male principle. The forest symbolizes the dangerous side of the unconscious, its ability to destroy reason (Cirlot 1962) and (Matthews 1986). Return to place in story.
5.A witch: Belief in witches exists in nearly every culture worldwide (Leach 1949). In Jungian psychology, the witch is a personification of evil which eventually consumes itself. The witch symbolizes the destructive power of the unconscious (Luthi 1976). Return to place in story.
6.But on one condition: Magical helpers rarely help the protagonists in fairy tales without a good reason or bargain. In fairy tales, either the main character is virtuous and thus earns help or he must make a bargain, usually one he would not make except in desperate circumstances. Return to place in story.
8.So beautiful that she has not her equal in the world: Hyperbole is frequently used to describe beauty in fairy tales. Each beautiful woman has "no equal" or is "the most beautiful" or similar. Beauty often represents goodness, worthiness, privilege, and wealth in fairy tales. Princesses are especially expected to be beautiful. Physical beauty is often considered to represent inner beauty in folklore, except for when it is a magical disguise. Return to place in story.
9.Make her lady-queen: Fairy tale characters often aspire to improve their status by marrying a sovereign or future sovereign. Return to place in story.
10.She were expecting him: This short line lets us know the king was tricked into this agreement. He has been the victim of foul play. Return to place in story.
11.He could not look at her without a secret feeling of horror: The king is an honorable man and loving father. He senses the evil in his new bride, but will not dishonor an agreement he has made.
Promises, while important today, were more powerful in the past when honor was a great motivator. Also, before the time of literacy among the masses and written contracts, verbal promises were given greater weight. A promise was a contract and actionable by law if broken. Folklore emphasizes the importance of a promise by meting punishment upon those who do not keep their promises. One has the sense that the king is in a no-win situation. He will suffer if he breaks his promise and he will suffer if he doesn't as the tale will show. Return to place in story.
12.Seven children, six boys and one girl: The daughter is usually the youngest child in the tale. Some variants rely heavily on the daughter's placement as youngest. When she is born, the king worries about her inheritance and thus plans for his sons to be killed to insure she is taken care of. Return to place in story.
13.He loved more than anything in the world: Here we have a tale in which the father actively works to protect his children from the evil machinations of their stepmother. Most fairy tale children are not so fortunate, such as Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel. A parent's self-interest is often the cause of a child's predicament, such as the daughter and her father in Rumpelstiltskin. Return to place in story.
14.Stepmother: The image of the evil stepmother occurs frequently in fairy tales. She is associated with jealousy and cruelty (Olderr 1986). "In masculine psychology, the stepmother is a symbol of the unconscious in a destructive role" (von Franz 1970). The stepmother figure is actually two sided, in that while she has destructive intentions, her actions often lead the protagonist into situations that identify and strengthen his or her best qualities. Return to place in story.
16.Wise-woman: Note that the wise-woman, although she apparently uses magic, is not labeled a witch since she is both helpful and good. Witchcraft has an evil connotation in fairy tales while magic itself can be a force of good or evil depending on the user. Return to place in story.
17.A reel of thread: In Greek mythology, Theseus receives a ball of thread from Ariadne to use to enter the Minotaur's labyrinth, defeat it, and still find his way out to safety (Lindemans, Pantheon.org). Return to place in story.
18.A great deal of money, and they betrayed the secret to her: Money often brings about corruption. Bribery, especially with money, is found often in literature, even some fairy tales. One of the most famous betrayals in history is Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Christ for 30 pieces of silver in the New Testament. Return to place in story.
19.Little white shirts: The color of the shirts foreshadows the type of birds the brothers will become--white swans. Return to place in story.
21.Changed them into swans: Animal transformation and shapeshifting is a common motif in folklore and found in almost every culture around the world, often attributed to witches and other magical beings, but sometimes practiced by humans. The change can either be voluntary or imposed through enchantment, as it is here. Shapeshifting is often instigated by the rising or setting of the sun or moon. The most common types of shapeshifting for humans usually involves changing into a bear or wolf, especially for men. In tales of the AT 451: The Maiden Who Seeks Her Brothers classification, the brothers are usually turned into a type of bird, including ravens, ducks, and swans. Return to place in story.
22.They have gone away and left me all alone: In some variants of the tale, the sister does not learn she has brothers until she is older. She believes she is an only child, not knowing that her father mistakenly cursed his sons shortly after her birth, such as in The Seven Ravens. In The Twelve Brothers, the sister is the unwitting agent of the brothers' transformations. Return to place in story.
23.Swans: Swans have a diverse history in folklore, including Greek mythology where Zeus assumes the form of a swan in Leda and the Swan. The bird is also an erotic symbol due to its association with Aphrodite/Venus. Swan maiden tales are found around the world, including the story of Swan Lake, the famous ballet. "Since the swan moves in the three elements earth, water, and air, it has traditionally been associated with shape-shifting, especially with the form of a beautiful young woman. Like storks, swans were sometimes thought to assume human form when they migrated to other lands" (Jones 1995, 408).
Swans have also come to symbolize fidelity and true love through the general belief that they mate for life. "Geese, swans, doves, and albatrosses are generally believed to remain totally faithful to one partner death do them part. In fact, swans have become the symbol of life-long romance in popular lore, because when they swim off together to mate, their heads touch and their necks form a heart shape" (WWF.org: My Feathered Valentine).
A bird can symbolize air, wind, time, immortality, the female principle, aspiration, prophecy, love, and freedom (Olderr 1986). Return to place in story.
24.I will go and seek my brothers: Across all variants, when the sister learns of her brothers' enchantment, whatever its cause, she is determined to rescue them and make her family whole again. The tale is one about family devotion and sacrifice. These siblings are not jealous of each other and have no contention amongst themselves. The sister is more concerned about her family's welfare than her own inheritance.
Jack Zipes theorizes that the tale was important to the Grimms for its message about family fidelity through adversity and separation (Zipes 1988, 40). Return to place in story.
26.A room with six little beds: While the room has six beds, it is not intended for the six brothers who will be in human form for only 15 minutes, barely the length of a catnap. Return to place in story.
27.This is a den of robbers: Other fairy tales include dens of robbers, such as The Robber Bridegroom and The Bremen Town Musicians. Return to place in story.
28.Lay aside our swan skins for a quarter of an hour every evening: Enchanted humans often have the opportunity to return to human form, usually in the evening or nighttime, in fairy tales. The time is not usually limited to time measured on a clock, however, but by the setting and rising of the sun or moon. An example of another tale with a shapeshifting character is East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Return to place in story.
29.You must not speak or laugh for six years: The sister usually has to remain silent for as many years as she has enchanted brothers.
The silence is also similar to that of the swans themselves. Swans are popularly believed to be silent creatures. Swan lore tells that swans do not sing until their death. This is not true, but is a well-established belief in folklore (Jones 1995, 408).
Feminist critics interpret this stipulation as a silencing of women, putting them in their place--remaining seen and not heard--and rewarding them for being silent, as part of the sociocultural requirements during the Grimms' time. Marina Warner finds irony in the tale when told by female storytellers. They "are flouting, in the act of speaking and teaching, the strictures against female authority they impart: women narrators, extolling the magic of silence of the heroic sister in 'The Twelve Brothers,' are speaking themselves, breaking the silence, telling the story" (Warner 1994, 395).
Another interpretation can include the extreme torture of the situation. For six years the sister must not communicate with anyone to share her experience or lighten her burden. This must be particularly hard in the tales where she is close to her brothers and accustomed to their companionship. Later she cannot explain the injustices behind the taking away of her children even when she is about to be burned at the stake. She is completely isolated by silence even when she is surrounded by people. Return to place in story.
30.Must make in that time six shirts for us out of star-flowers: Note that the spell must be broken with a method similar to how it was cast. White shirts caused the enchantment, so the sister must make new shirts for her brothers to counteract the spell. Return to place in story.
31.Even if it should cost her her life: The sister endures physical and emotional abuse during her trial to release her brothers. In The Seven Ravens, she ends up cutting off her own little finger to open a door to reach her brothers. Return to place in story.
32.Climbed a tree, and spent the night there: The sister chooses to sleep in a tree which may parallel the resting place of her brothers as birds, although swan's nests are generally built on elevated ground near bodies of water, but a storyteller may not know this. Return to place in story.
33.Star-flowers: Some translations call the plant starwort. Hans Christian Andersen requires nettles or thistles for his heroine which cause her pain as she makes the shirts. Return to place in story.
34.To sew: Note that the sister must use a domestic art as part of her effort to save her brothers. While she is spunkier and more aggressive than many of her fairy tale counterparts, she still must excel at domestic arts and feminine virtues to complete her mission. Return to place in story.
35.King of the country was hunting in the forest: Note the parallelism of the story. The tale began with a king hunting in the forest and marrying a bride he found there. Now we have a repetition of similar events. Return to place in story.
36.The golden chain from her neck: The sister quickly hands over her necklace in hopes of giving up anything of value she might have upon her so they men might leave her alone. Return to place in story.
37.Her girdle: In this instance, a girdle is "a band of material around the waist that strengthens a skirt or trousers" (WordNet). The girdle is not part of her underwear but an outer garment, often embroidered or decorated for women. The girdle would be one of her more valuable articles of clothing. Return to place in story.
38.Her garters: A garter is "a band worn around the leg to hold up a stocking (or around the arm to hold up a sleeve)" (WordNet). The sister gradually chooses more intimate and valuable apparel in her efforts to appease the men and make them leave her alone. Garters, especially for a princess, would likely be made of fine fabrics such as silk. Return to place in story.
39.Her dress: The sister would not be nude after giving up her dress. She is still wearing underwear which would resemble a plain cotton nightgown or similar garment in today's dressing standards. In past times, clothing included foundation clothing such as shifts or petticoats to be worn underneath the outer dress.
Return to place in story.
40.He asked her in all the languages he knew: Speaking several languages was an important skill and highly regarded in diplomats and royalty, as well as the higher classes, in times past. The importance of knowing more than one language is still important today, of course. Return to place in story.
41.Dumb: To be dumb is to be "unable to speak" whether from physical defect, shock, choice, etc. (WordNet). The story is not describing the sister's intelligence, although mutes were often incorrectly considered less intelligent in times past, hence the multiple meanings for the word. Return to place in story.
42.After some days he married her: The sister begins to create a family of her own through marriage and childbirth, but she will not devote herself fully to her new life until her brothers have been rescued. She cannot sacrifice one family in favor of another. Return to place in story.
44.Her first child: A first born son, and perhaps a daughter, would be the crown prince. The loss of the child is not just a personal tragedy for the Queen, but a possible disaster for her kingdom which relies on progeny to avoid strife in the royal lineage. Return to place in story.
45. Old mother took it away from her: Similar plot lines appear in other fairy tales. In Perrault's version of Sleeping Beauty, the ogress mother-in-law tries to have her grandchildren cooked for her meals. Return to place in story.
46. Queen had killed it: In the original version instead of this softened translation, the mother-in-law goes so far as to smear the sister's mouth with blood while she is sleeping. She accuses the woman of witchcraft and cannibalism. Return to place in story.
47. Her innocence would be proved: The sister's innocence is accepted until the third event when coincidence is no longer considered. Three witnesses are often required to prove guilt. Return to place in story.
48.Third child: The number and/or pattern of three often appears in fairy tales to provide rhythm and suspense. The pattern adds drama and suspense while making the story easy to remember and follow. The third event often signals a change and/or ending for the listener/reader. A third time also disallows coincidence such as two repetitive events would suggest.
The reasons and theories behind three's popularity are numerous and diverse. The number has been considered powerful across history in different cultures and religions, but not all of them. Christians have the Trinity, the Chinese have the Great Triad (man, heaven, earth), and the Buddhists have the Triple Jewel (Buddha, Dharma, Sanga). The Greeks had the Three Fates. Pythagoras considered three to be the perfect number because it represented everything: the beginning, middle, and end. Some cultures have different powerful numbers, often favoring seven, four and twelve. Return to place in story.
49.She must be burnt to death: Burning occurs often in fairy tales. It is symbolic of purification (Matthews 1986). Gerhard Mueller, who has studied the criminological aspects of several tales, states that in the Middle Ages, the charge of witchcraft was punished by fire, usually burning at the stake. In other words, the heroine's punishment fits the crime of which she has been accused (Mueller 1986). Return to place in story.
50.It was the last day of the six years: The turn of events here relies heavily on coincidence, even more so than in the fairy tale pantheon, as it does in many variants of the AT 451 tale. A. S. Byatt writes: "Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance - and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated" (Byatt 2004). Return to place in story.
51. There was only the left sleeve wanting to the last: The shirt's unfinished state provides suspense. Will the missing sleeve cause none of the disenchantment to work or will there be a different consequence? Return to place in story.
52. The youngest had a swan's wing instead of his left arm: The brother with a wing for an arm has been the subject of some modern interpretative fiction, such as Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan and Ursula Synge's Swan's Wing.
53. The wicked mother came to no good end: In The Seven Ravens, "the wicked step-mother was taken before the judge, and put into a barrel filled with boiling oil and venomous snakes, and died an evil death." Return to place in story.
54. But the King and the Queen with their six brothers lived many years in happiness and peace: In most variants of the tale, the brothers are integrated into the sister's new family, never returning to live with their father. Since the sister does not find a husband in The Seven Ravens, everyone returns to the original family at the end of that tale. Return to place in story.