Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE SIX SWANS
NCE upon a time, a king, hunting in a great forest,
chased a wild boar so eagerly, that none of his people
could follow him. When evening came, he stopped to look
about him, and saw that he had lost himself. He sought
everywhere for a way out of the wood, but could find
none. Then he perceived coming towards him an old
woman, whose head kept constantly shaking. She was a
"My good woman," said he to her, "cannot you show me
the way through the wood?"
"Oh yes, your majesty," answered she, "that I can, but
only on one condition, and if you do not agree to it,
you will never get out, and must die here of hunger."
"What is the condition?" asked the king.
"I have an only daughter," said the old woman, "she is
as beautiful as any one you could find in the wide
world, and well deserves to be your wife; if you will
make her your queen, I will show you the way out of the
The king, in the fear of his heart, consented, and the
old woman led him to her house, where her daughter sat
by the fire. She received the king as if she had
expected him, and he saw that she was very beautiful;
but still she did not please him, and he could not look
at her without
 a secret shudder. After he had lifted up
the maiden beside him on his horse, the old woman
showed him the way, and the king arrived again at his
royal castle, where the wedding was celebrated.
He had been married once before, and had by his first
wife seven children, six boys and a girl, whom he loved
more than anything in the world. But, because he was
afraid that the stepmother might not treat them well,
or even do them some harm, he took them to a lonely
castle which stood in the middle of a wood. It was so
hidden, and the road was so difficult to find, that he
himself would not have found it, if a wise woman had
not given him a wonderful skein of thread; which, when
he threw it down before him, unrolled of itself and
showed him the way. The king went out so often to his
dear children, that the queen noticed his absence, and
was full of curiosity to know what business took him
thus alone to the wood. So she gave his servants a sum
of money, and they told her the secret, and also told
her of the skein, which was the only thing that could
show the way. After that she never rested till she had
found out where the king kept the skein. Then she made
some little white silk shirts, and as she had learned
witchcraft from her mother, she sewed a spell into
every one of them. And one day when the king was gone
out to hunt, she took the little shirts and went into
the wood, and the skein showed her the way.
The six brothers, who saw some one in the
dis-  tance, thought their dear father was coming, and ran to meet
him, full of joy. As they approached, the queen threw
one of the shirts over each of them, and when the
shirts touched their bodies, they were changed into
swans, and flew away over the wood. The witch's
daughter went home quite happy, and thought she had got
rid of all her stepchildren; but the one little girl
had not run out with her brothers, and the queen knew
nothing about her.
Next day, the king came joyfully to visit his children,
but he found nobody except the little sister.
"Where are your brothers?" asked he.
"Oh, dear father," she answered, "they are gone and
have left me alone," and then she told him all that she
had seen out of her window; how her brothers were
turned into swans, and had flown away over the wood;
she also showed him the feathers which they had dropped
into the courtyard, and which she had picked up.
The king was grieved, but he never thought that the
queen had done this wicked deed; however, because he
dreaded lest the little girl would be stolen from him
likewise, he wished to take her away with him. But she
was afraid of the stepmother, and begged the king to
let her stay one night more in the castle in the wood.
The poor little girl thought, "I cannot rest here any
longer, I will go and look for my brothers."
And when the night came, she ran away, and went
straight into the wood. She went on all
 through the
night, and the next day too, till she was so tired that
she could go no further. Then she saw a little house,
and went in, and found a room with six little beds; she
did not dare to lie down in any, but crept under one of
them, laid herself on the hard floor, and meant to pass
the night there. But when the sun was just going to
set, she heard a rustling, and saw six swans come
flying in at the window. They sat down on the floor,
and blew at one another, and blew all their feathers
off, and took off their swan's-skins like shirts. Then
the little girl saw them and recognised her brothers,
and was very glad, and crept out from under the bed.
The brothers were not less rejoiced when they saw their
little sister, but their joy did not last long.
"You cannot stop here," said they to her, "this is a
house belonging to robbers; if they come home, and find
you, they will kill you."
"Cannot you protect me?" asked the little sister.
"No," answered they, "we can only take off our
swan's-skins for a quarter of an hour every evening,
and have our natural shape for that time, but
afterwards we are turned into swans again."
The little sister cried and said, "Cannot you be
"Oh no!" answered they, "the conditions are too hard.
You must not speak or laugh for six years, and must
make for us six shirts out of stitchweed during that
time. If while you are
 making them a single word comes
from your mouth, all your work will be of no use." When
her brothers had said this, the quarter of an hour was
over, and they turned into swans again, and flew out of
But the little girl made a firm resolution to release
her brothers, even if it cost her her life. She left
the house, and went into the middle of the wood, and
climbed up in a tree and spent the night there. Next
morning she got down, collected a quantity of
stitchweed, and began to sew. She could not speak to
any one, and she did not want to laugh; so she sat, and
only looked at her work.
When she had been there a long time, it happened that
the king of the country was hunting in the wood, and
his hunters came to the tree on which the little girl
sat. They called to her, and said, "Who are you?"
But she gave them no answer.
"Come down to us," said they, "we will not do you any
But she only shook her head. As they kept teasing her
with their questions, she threw them down her gold
necklace, and thought they would be satisfied with
that. But they did not leave off, so she threw her sash
down to them, and as that was no good, she threw down
her garters, and at last everything that she had on,
and could spare; so that she had nothing left but her
shift. But the hunters would not be sent away, and
climbed up the tree and brought down the little girl
and took her to the king.
 The king asked, "Who are you? what were you doing up in
But she did not answer. He asked it in all the
languages that he knew, but she remained as dumb as a
fish. But, because she was so beautiful, the king's
heart was moved, and he fell deeply in love with her.
He wrapped his cloak round her, took her before him on
his horse, and brought her to his castle. Then he had
her dressed in rich clothes, and she shone in her
beauty like bright sunshine; but they could not get a
word out of her. He set her by him at the table, and
her modest look and proper behaviour pleased him so
much, that he said, "I will marry her, and no one else
in the world," and after a few days he was married to
But the king had a wicked mother, who was not pleased
with this marriage, and spoke ill of the young queen.
"Who knows where the girl comes from," said she, "she
cannot speak; she is not good enough for a king."
A year after, when the queen brought her first child
into the world, the old mother took it away, and
smeared her mouth with blood while she was asleep. Then
she went to the king, and accused her of eating her
child. The king would not believe it, and would not let
any one do her any harm. And she always sat and sewed
the shirts, and took no notice of anything else. Next
time, when she had another beautiful baby, the wicked
stepmother did the same as before; but the king could
not resolve to believe what she said.
He said, "My wife is too pious and good to do
 such a
thing; if she were not dumb, and if she could defend
herself, her innocence would be made clear."
But when for the third time the old woman took away the
new-born child, and accused the queen, who could not
say a word in her own defence, the king could not help
himself; he was forced to give her up to the court of
justice, and she was condemned to suffer death by fire.
When the day came upon which the sentence was to be
executed, it was exactly the last day of the six years,
in which she might not speak or laugh; and she had
freed her dear brothers from the power of the spell.
The six little shirts were finished, except that on the
last one a sleeve was wanting. When she came to the
place of execution, she laid the shirts on her arm, and
when she stood at the stake, and the fire was just
going to be lit, she looked round, and there came six
swans flying through the air. Then her heart leaped
with joy, for she saw that her deliverance was near.
The swans flew to her, and crouched down, so that she
could throw the shirts over them; as soon as the shirts
were touched by them, their swan's-skins fell off, and
her brothers stood before her. They were all grown up,
strong and handsome; only the youngest had no left arm,
but instead of it a swan's wing.
They hugged and kissed their sister many times, and
then the queen went to the king, and began to speak,
and said, "Dearest husband, now I may speak, and
declare to you that I am
inno-  cent and falsely accused;"
and she told him about the deceit of the old mother,
who had taken away her three children, and hidden them.
However they were soon fetched safely back, to the
great joy of the king; and the wicked mother-in-law was
tied to the stake, and burnt to ashes. But the king and
queen, with their six brothers, lived many years in
peace and happiness.