Thoughts on “The Twelve Brothers”
“The Twelve Brothers” is not only a lovely story on its own, but it’s part of a classification of tales—Aarne-Thompson type 451, “The Maiden Seeking Her Brothers” or “The Brothers Turned Into Birds”—that is especially evocative, delicate, epic, and beautiful. Other tales of this type from Grimm include “The Six Swans” and “The Seven Ravens”, and the Norwegian “The Twelve Wild Ducks” and Afanasyev’s “The Magic Geese”.
In these tales, a young woman goes out into the world to seek her lost brother or brothers, but once found, they are transformed into birds. She must endure a great trial or set of tasks to rescue them. In “The Twelve Brothers” in particular, the girl is a princess, born with a star on her forehead. Her brothers are sent away before her birth, because the king has vowed that if his queen bears a girl as their thirteenth child, he will kill the twelve older boys so that the girl will inherit the kingdom. It’s worth noting that in earlier drafts of the tale, the king is so distressed at the thought of a daughter that he makes this pledge to kill his sons, rather than have them in the company of an inferior girl. The boys make a home for themselves in the woods, and when the little princess grows up, she finds out about her brothers and goes into the woods to find them.
The brothers love her immediately, and allow her to live with them, much like Snow White’s dwarves—she learns to cook and clean for them, along with the youngest brother, Benjamin, who is the most sensitive of the group. One day, she finds twelve lilies growing in the garden and decides to pick them for the table. The moment she does, the twelve boys transform into twelve ravens and fly away. The cottage disappears, and the girl is alone. An old woman appears, and tells her that the only way to return her brothers to their human form is to stay silent for seven years—to neither speak nor laugh. If she does, then the brothers will be killed by that one utterance. The girl agrees, and becomes a mute in the woods, another familiar trope which we’ve seen already on A Grimm Project in “The Virgin Mary’s Child.” Like the girl of that tale, the princess is found in the woods by a young royal, who asks to marry her. He loves her, they have a family, but tongues wag—why is she so silent? The king’s mother poisons him with theories until he agrees to have the girl burned as a witch. In the final moments of the seven-year curse, the girl is tied to a stake and set alight. Finally the brothers appear and put out the flames with their wings before turning into young men, and the girl is set free to be with her family.
Naturally, the old queen dies a horrible, painful, snake-and-oil-barreled death.
We never quite know why the girl has a star on her forehead, and we never quite know what’s up with those lilies. Philip Pullman, in his recent translations of selected Grimm tales, introduces the witch who appears to the girl earlier—he has her welcome the boys when they first discover the cottage along with the twelve lilies, making her sudden appearance to the girl more balanced, and her presence in the story even more foreboding. For a writer, this tale has all sorts of little eggs to be cracked open, motives to be explained, imagery to be unfurled. Plus, it’s gorgeous. Let’s have at it.