(Charles Folkard, illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, London: A&C Black, 1911; found here)
Hello from a snowy Belgium, where we have been busy cultivating chilblains, building snowmen and rescuing straying hens from snow drifts. Oh, and reading fairy tales! After ‘The Good Bargain’, we return now to a story of the sort we expect from the Grimms, with murderous family members, animal transformations and forests. Hurrah!
If the thirteenth child you bring into the world is a girl, the twelve boys shall die, so that her wealth shall be great and the kingdom shall be hers alone.
Indeed, he’s even had twelve little coffins made and stored in a locked room, ‘and in each there lay a pillow for the dead’. Fonder than he of her existing children, the queen warns the youngest, Benjamin, of the king’s intentions and tells him to take his brothers and hide in the forest. When the thirteenth child is born, the queen will raise a flag on the top of a tower: if the baby is a boy, the flag will be white and the boys may safely return, if red then they must flee for their lives. She adds:
I will rise every night and pray for you: in winter that you may have a fire to warm you, in summer that you may not pine away in the heat.
The boys hide in the forest and after twelve days a red flag ‘of blood’ is raised. Angry, the brothers (all except Benjamin) vow:
Are we supposed to suffer death on account of a girl? We swear that we shall take our revenge: wherever we find a girl, her red blood shall flow.
The boys venture deeper into the forest, and ‘where it was darkest’ they find a cottage with a spell upon it. They move in. The eleven older brothers hunt for game every day while Benjamin keeps house.
Thus ten years pass until, back at the castle, there’s a particularly big wash-day. The young princess, who is ‘kind of heart and fair of face’, with a golden star in the middle of her forehead, observes twelve little white shirts bobbing on the line. She asks her mother to whom they belong, and her mother says, oh, your twelve brothers you don’t know about. She tells the princess about them and shows her the twelve coffins. The princess tells her not to weep, she will find her brothers.
The princess takes the twelve shirts and walks into the forest. She reaches the cottage, where she finds Benjamin, and they quickly realise that they must be brother and sister. Benjamin warns her of the other brothers’ murderous vow, and hides her. When the boys return home, he extracts from them a promise that they won’t kill the first girl they see, and then explains that their sister is there. Much rejoicing, and the sister says she will stay with them. She washes their sheets white, and seems to introduce a few vegetables to their diet.
Everything is fine until… Had you forgotten the cottage was enchanted? In the garden twelve lilies (‘that some call “student lilies”’), and the sister picks them to give them to her brothers as a treat. Oops! Immediately the boys turn into twelve ravens and fly away, and the cottage and garden vanish, leaving the sister alone in the wild wood with an old woman. The lilies were the brothers, explains the old woman, and:
there is no remedy in the world but one, but that is so hard that you will not be able to save them with it, for you must be silent for seven years. You may not speak, nor laugh, and if you utter a single word, and there is only one hour of the seven years left to run, it will all be in vain, and your brothers will be killed by that one word.
The girl vows in her heart, ‘I know for sure I will save my brothers.’ She climbs up a tall tree and sits there, silently, spinning, until one day a king is out hunting in the forest, claps eyes on her, falls in love and asks her to marry him. She gives a little nod. At their wedding she neither speaks nor laughs. The king’s mother, ‘a wicked woman’, begins to slander the new queen, saying someone who behaves as she does must have a ‘bad conscience’ and accusing her of all sorts of crimes until her son ‘allowed himself to be persuaded and condemned her to death’. Although he does have the decency to weep as she is bound to the stake and the fire is lit. Luckily, just as the flames are licking her dress, the seven years expire, and the ravens arrive and turn into young men who liberate their sister. Now she is free to speak and explain to her husband why she was silent. Everyone lives happily ever after – oh, except the wicked mother-in-law, who is thrown into a barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes and comes to a nasty end.
(John B. Gruelle, illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, translated by Margaret Hunt, New York: Cupple & Leon, 1914; found here; I must say those ravens look a little too far off, considering how high the flames are leaping)
So. This was one of the first tales the Grimms collected. Another of their tales, ‘The Seven Ravens’, features a girl who sets forth to rescue her transformed brothers. ‘The Six Swans’ is even closer: the heroine must remain silent for six years and sew six shirts from star-flowers (could there be ‘traces’ here of the white shirts the princess sees in the laundry, the golden star on her forehead?); she’s also discovered in a tree by a king who is in search of a wife and in possession of an evil mother. There are parallels with the second part of ‘Our Lady’s Child’ too, and, as we shall see, with biblical stories. Fairy tales seem to be allusive, or at least fond of recycling. But a king who wants to murder all his sons so that a girl can inherit everything? That is something else.
It seems to me that the tale is bookended by two stories of parents threatened by children: first the father who will destroy his sons, then the Bad Mother(-in-law) who perceives her daughter(-in-law) as a rival who must be eliminated. Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, noted that in older versions of some fairy tales like ‘Snow White’, the mother who initially loves her daughter becomes jealous and murderous when the girl reaches puberty. Since later audiences found this distasteful, the Bad Mother was split away into a stepmother while the original Good Mother died during the girl’s infancy, her virtue intact. So, perhaps, in ‘The Twelve Ravens’, we can see two faces of motherhood. The dangerous, Bad Mother is now the mother-in-law who exerts control over her rather weak son. Interestingly, there is no balancing Good Father to the Bad Father of the king at the beginning of the tale, and while the Bad Mother is punished with rather cheery gruesomeness, the king seems to escape retribution (although he does lose all his heirs, someone else pays for his crime). The Good Mother, on the other hand, loses all her children and never knows their fates. I thought there was a lot of loneliness in this tale, hers not least.
(H.J. Ford, illustration from The Red Fairy Book, London: Longmans and Co., 1890; found here)
Most of the action is initiated by women: the mother-figures and the old woman do so through their use words to persuade and advise, the young princess through her actions, seeking the boys and plucking the lilies. This gender distinction may be reinforced by the use of colour in the tale. The white shirts, the white sheets, the (perhaps, I couldn’t find ‘student-lilies’ described or pictured anywhere) white lilies – white is the colour associated with the boys, the colour of innocence and purity. White lilies were often associated with martyrs in Christian art. In contrast, red is the colour of girls, signalled through the red flag. It’s the colour of the ‘blood’ (hymenal or other) of the girls the brothers swear they will let ‘flow’, maybe also the flames of the fire which nearly consume the princess, the colour of experience, of passion and power.
However, the princess ceases to take the initiative once she has chosen to save her brothers. The rescue is effected through her passivity, her silence. It’s a sort of death, a death which somehow fulfils the brothers’ vow to kill girls and redresses the imbalance caused by the father’s promise to kill the boys, while restoring her brothers to their human form. When she gathers the lilies and the boys turn into ravens, we are reminded that her very existence threatened theirs. It is also a moment when, though innocent herself, she assumes the responsibility for her father’s crime and takes on the penance for it. The younger generation are both victims and redeemers of their parents. I think this story is a palimpsest, and beneath it we can discern both the story of Christ’s death and resurrection and the story of Joseph (Benjamin, we are explicitly informed, was named ‘according to the Bible’). Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him out of jealousy because he was the favoured son, but he went on to be greater than any of them and to forgive them; while much of the narrative is very different from that of ‘The Twelve Ravens’ the theme of punishment and forgiveness is a link.
What do you think?
(Decorations by Walter Crane from Household Stories from the Collection of the Bros. Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane, London: Macmillan and Co., 1886, found here)
Next week(ish): ‘The Pack of No-good, Low-life Ruffians’.