The Gist: A king and queen have twelve sons. One day the king decides that if their thirteenth child is a daughter, then all of their sons must be killed. The queen warns her sons and they escape to the forest. Years later the daughter finds her brothers, but they are bewitched into white ravens. The only way she can save them is to keep silent for seven years.
“The Twelve Brothers” reminds me of several other stories that I have read or heard over the years. The first part of the tale where the king decides that his sons must be killed off for the benefit of his daughter reminds me of Greek mythology where it is quite common for a god to kill (or try to kill) his offspring. This common theme in literature deals with a parent’s fear of being usurped, or found superfluous, by the following generation. This fear makes sense in a time when wealth and titles were inherited, which is perhaps why this theme is so common in old tales. However, it does raise some questions about today stories: Do people still fear the next generation? Does this fear still show up in newly published stories?
The second part of the story where the brothers are turned into ravens reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Wild Swans” and a Russian animated movie based on it that I used to watch as a kid. (Here’s a version of it, but this one has different dubbing and is missing the swan song I remember.) There are many stories where humans are transformed into animals by some curse, but I like that this curse is broken by an act of sisterly love, rather than romantic love. Being silent is a pretty passive act of bravery, but it shows great strength of will and courage. The sister’s silence, even when being burned alive, shows how truly devoted she is to her brothers. I don’t know that I would have the same strength of mind to keep complete silence for seven years. I would undoubtedly slip up at some point.
When I was reading Zipes’ version of this tale, it struck me as odd that all of a sudden an old woman shows up to explain how to save the brothers. But, I figured, that’s just how fairy tales work: they give only what is needed and nothing more. Pullman addresses this “clumsy” bit of story-telling, as he calls it (46), by introducing the old woman and the magic lilies earlier in the story. No offense to the Grimm Brothers, but this little addition makes for a better told story. If you haven’t read “The Twelve Brothers” before, I recommend reading Pullman’s version for a more satisfying fairy tale experience. And if you have read the story already, read Pullman’s version anyway—it’s fun to see how a story can evolve.
What stories have you read that share themes with “The Twelve Brothers”? Share your answers in comments.
For more information about this feature, check out the main page for “A Grimm Year”.
- The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 3rd Edition translated by Jack Zipes (Bantam, 2003)
- Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman (Viking)