Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through
The Twelve Brothers
here will be stories we do not remember, words that we will not recall being spoken. There are other stories we may tell once, a word we use occasionally.
Some stories we will tell forever—words written in us, in who we are.
This tale, for me, is one of those stories. I can’t explain it, really. I’m not even sure what there is to explain. This tale is—perfect. It is Tale—the full sweep and mythic crossing of the fairy story, existing in itself and by itself yet touching every other tale.
But it’s not particularly this version that I like. I favour the Tale itself, you see.
It goes like this:
A queen had twelve sons, or three, or seven. It doesn’t matter. She has one little girl. She says things she shouldn’t. Either it’s telling the sons something they shouldn’t know, or cursing them in her frustration. And the sons—change. Faces slope long into pointed wings, hair rushes across shoulders, gleaming and black, pinions sweeping, and the twelve sons fly with the ravens, as if from a raven born.
The sister grows up not knowing she has brothers.
But one day the story gets out. The queen reveals her secret—that she spoke words that caused her sons to leave, lost some where in the wild wood and the wide world.
The wood’s not that wild, mother, says the sister. The world’s not that wide. And she goes off in search of her brothers. She finds them, oh yes, no trouble there. But finding and speaking and two different things. It’s easier to find a thing that’s lost than take back a thing that’s been said. The sister will have her brothers again, but oh, the way will be hard.
She must weave them each a shirt—or a cloak—from nettle leaves, or brambles, or bog down. For seven years she must gather and spin and weave and cut and sew. And all this time she must speak no word, make no sound—she must neither laugh nor cry. If she speaks another word, the cloaks will blow away, bog down on the wind, and her brothers will be lost forever to the ravens.
She gathers, she spins, she weaves. In a tree, in a hut, in a cave. Until one day she meets an handsome prince, and she’s off to the castle to be his queen. Such a strange queen, the people think. She’s one of them thar furriners—turrible folk, they say. They eat babies and have guilty consciences. Why else wouldn’t she be laughing? Up to no good, I reckon.
Sometimes it’s just talk. Sometimes it’s a malevolent mother-in-law. Sometimes its a wolf from the forest. But the king is convinced, against his will, that his queen must be burned at the stake.
And on the stake she’s still knitting, the last pearl, the last knot, the flames rush round her, and with a whirr of wings rush down the three swans, twelve ravens. She throws a shirt over each, and they become her brothers, who stamp out the fire, punch the king’s head, and generally clear up everything .
The malevolent mother-in-law is put in a barrel of snakes. The barrel of snakes is put in a vat of oil. The vat of oil is slowly brought to a boil, while the sister and her brothers dance a merry wee jig.
That’s how the Grimms end it, at least.
My favorite version of this tale is Padraic Colum’s retelling, in his tour-de-force fairy tale saga, The King of Ireland’s Son (if you love fairy tales, read that book—now). After that most other versions seem watery, including Anthony Minghella’s troublesome version.
The Grimms version has some odd little twists. The twelve brothers are in danger from their Bluebeard like father, the King, who tells his wife that if her thirteenth child is a little girl, he’ll kill the twelve sons so she gets a better inheritance. He makes the coffins himself.
That’s not exactly a passing grade in Dad School. But the king then disappears from the tale—presumably killed off by his seventh wife.
Also, the tale is unique in the dauntless strength of the heroine. She determines, simply, that she will find her brothers (they’ve understandably been in hiding for about fifteen years). She does. She picks twelve roses to give them, and a cryptic old woman tells her, ‘Those roses were your brothers, and now they will fly like the ravens—unless you do this impossible task.’
Reader, she does it.
Colum’s version deepens the portrait of this strikingly determined young woman by showing the depth of her struggle, and the bitter repression of her grief. The Grimms just give us rugged strength, and indomitable will in the face of unexplainable magic, prejudice, injustice, and pain. This sister makes Prince Charming look more than a little dull. (‘Yes, I’ll go about in my carriage and have all the fine-lookin’ gehls try on this slippah.’ Dude, seriously…)
But there’s also the terrifying aspect, the cruelty of the father, of the mother-in-law. Home is not a safe place in this tale. Home is a place of lies and danger, of infanticide and murder, of injustice and hatred. The deepest danger the sister and her brothers face is in their own homes (only Colum handles this well, I think). It’s an unsettling back-moral to this tale—that the wide world and wild woods may, in fact, be safer and more nurturing than home and hearth.
This tale is cryptic, haunting, powerful—I don’t claim to understand it. But it lingers, like the memory of half-heard things, longing so sweet it’s poison, of glimpses of wonder beneath the trees and between the shadows, under the darkening wood.
Why does it work? Perhaps because it’s a story about a courageous young woman. Perhaps because it’s a story about true love. Perhaps because it’s a story about sacrifice and resurrection.
Or perhaps because, simply, it’s a story about words gone astray, things better left unspoken, and the long silences that must some day follow—a silence where love dares not to speak.