Gender-Flipped Tales: The Six Swans

The Wild SwansTale:

A Queen was once hunting in a great wood, and she hunted the game so eagerly that none of her courtiers could follow her. When evening came on she stood still and looked round her, and she saw that she had quite lost herself. She sought a way out, but could find none. Then she saw an old man with a shaking head coming towards her; but he was a warlock.

“Good man,”‘ she said to him, “can you not show me the way out of the wood?”

“Oh, certainly, Madam Queen,” he replied, “I can quite well do that, but on one condition, which if you do not fulfill you will never get out of the wood, and will die of hunger.”

“What is the condition?”‘ asked the Queen.

“I have a son,” said the old man, “who is so handsome that he has not his equal in the world, and is well fitted to be your husband; if you will make him your lord-husband I will show you the way out of the wood.”

The Queen in her anguish of mind consented, and the old man led her to his little house where his son was sitting by the fire. He received the Queen as if he were expecting her, and she saw that he was certainly very handsome; but he did not please her, and she could not look at him without a secret feeling of horror. As soon as she had lifted the youth on to her horse the old man showed her the way, and the Queen reached her palace, where the wedding was celebrated.

The Queen had already been married once, and had by her first husband seven children, six girls and one boy, whom she loved more than anything in the world. And now, because she was afraid that their stepfather might not treat them well and might do them harm, she put them in a lonely castle that stood in the middle of a wood. It lay so hidden, and the way to it was so hard to find, that she herself could not have found it out had not a wise-man given her a reel of thread which possessed a marvelous property: when she threw it before her it unwound itself and showed her the way. But the Queen went so often to her dear children that the King was offended at her absence. He grew curious, and wanted to know what she had to do quite alone in the wood. He gave her servants a great deal of money, and they betrayed the secret to him, and also told him of the reel which alone could point out the way. He had no rest now till he had found out where the Queen guarded the reel, and then he made some little white shirts, and, as he had learnt from his warlock-father, sewed an enchantment in each of them.

And when the Queen had ridden off he took the little shirts and went into the wood, and the reel showed him the way. The children, who saw someone coming in the distance, thought it was their dear mother coming to them, and sprang to meet her very joyfully. Then he threw over each one a little shirt, which when it had touched their bodies changed them into swans, and they flew away over the forest. The King went home quite satisfied, and thought he had got rid of his step-children; but the boy had not run to meet him with his sisters, and he knew nothing of him.

The next day the Queen came to visit her children, but she found no one but the boy.

“Where are your sisters?”‘ asked the Queen.

“Alas! dear mother,” he answered, “they have gone away and left me all alone.” And he told her that looking out of his little window he had seen his sisters flying over the wood in the shape of swans, and he showed her the feathers which they had let fall in the yard, and which he had collected. The Queen mourned, but she did not think that the King had done the wicked deed, and as she was afraid the youth would also be taken from her, she wanted to take him with her. But he was afraid of the stepfather, and begged the Queen to let him stay just one night more in the castle in the wood. The poor youth thought, “My home is no longer here; I will go and seek my sisters.” And when night came he fled away into the forest. He ran all through the night and the next day, till he could go no farther for weariness. Then he saw a little hut, went in, and found a room with six little beds. He was afraid to lie down on one, so he crept under one of them, lay on the hard floor, and was going to spend the night there. But when the sun had set he heard a noise, and saw six swans flying in at the window. They stood on the floor and blew at one another, and blew all their feathers off, and their swan-skin came off like a shirt. Then the youth recognized his sisters, and overjoyed he crept out from under the bed. His sisters were not less delighted than he to see their little brother again, but their joy did not last long.
“You cannot stay here,” they said to him. “This is a den of robbers; if they were to come here and find you they would kill you.”
“Could you not protect me?” asked the little brother.

Swans“No,” they answered, “for we can only lay aside our swan skins for a quarter of an hour every evening. For this time we regain our human forms, but then we are changed into swans again.”

The the little brother cried and said, “Can you not be freed?”

“Oh, no,” they said, “the conditions are too hard. You must not speak or laugh for six years, and must make in that time six shirts for us out of star-flowers. If a single word comes out of your mouth, all your labor is vain.” And when the sisters had said this the quarter of an hour came to an end, and they flew away out of the window as swans.

But the youth had determined to free his sisters even if it should cost him his life. He left the hut, went into the forest, climbed a tree, and spent the night there. The next morning he went out, collected star-flowers, and began to sew. He could speak to no one, and he had no wish to laugh, so he sat there, looking only at his work.

When he had lived there some time, it happened that the Queen of the country was hunting in the forest, and her huntresses came to the tree on which the youth sat. They called to him and said “Who are you?”

But he gave no answer.

“Come down to us,” they said, “we will do you no harm.”

But he shook his head silently. As they pressed him further with questions, he threw them the golden chain from his neck. But they did not leave off, and he threw them his belt, and when this was no use, his garters, and then his tunic. The huntresses would not leave him alone, but climbed the tree, lifted the youth down, and led him to the Queen. The Queen asked, “Who are you? What are you doing up that tree?”

But he answered nothing.

She asked him in all the languages she knew, but he remained as dumb as a fish. Because he was so handsome, however, the Queen’s heart was touched, and she was seized with a great love for him. She wrapped him up in her cloak, placed him before her on her horse. and brought him to her castle. There she had him dressed in rich clothes, and his handsomeness shone out as bright as day, but not a word could be drawn from him. She set him at table by her side, and his modest ways and behavior pleased her so much that she said, “I will marry this youth and none other in the world,” and after some days she married him. But the Queen had a wicked father who was displeased with the marriage, and said wicked things of the young King. “Who knows who this boy is?” he said; “he cannot speak, and is not worthy of a queen.”

After a year, when the King had his first child, the old father took it away from him. Then he went to the Queen and said that the King had killed it. The Queen would not believe it, and would not allow any harm to be done him. But he sat quietly sewing at the shirts and troubling himself about nothing. The next time he had a child the wicked father did the same thing, but the Queen could not make up her mind to believe him. She said, “He is too sweet and good to do such a thing as that. If he were not dumb and could defend himself, his innocence would be proved.” But when the third child was taken away, and the King was again accused, and could not utter a word in his own defense, the Queen was obliged to give him over to the law, which decreed that he must be burnt to death. When the day came on which the sentence was to be executed, it was the last day of the six years in which he must not speak or laugh, and now he had freed his dear sisters from the power of the enchantment. The six shirts were done; there was only the left sleeve wanting to the last.

When he was led to the stake, he laid the shirts on his arm, and as he stood on the pile and the fire was about to be lighted, he looked around him and saw six swans flying through the air. Then he knew that his release was at hand and his heart danced for joy. The swans fluttered round him, and hovered low so that he could throw the shirts over them. When they had touched them the swan-skins fell off, and his sisters stood before him living, well and beautiful. Only the youngest had a swan’s wing instead of her left arm. They embraced and kissed each other, and the King went to the Queen, who was standing by in great astonishment, and began to speak to her, saying, “Dearest wife, now I can speak and tell you openly that I am innocent and have been falsely accused.”

StarflowerHe told him of the old man’s deceit, and how he had taken the three children away and hidden them. Then they were fetched, to the great joy of the Queen, and the wicked father came to no good end.

But the Queen and the King with their six sisters lived many years in happiness and peace.

by The Brothers Grimm (available in its original form at SurLaLune Fairy Tales)

Thoughts:

There were two places in this story where oddnesses crept up in the gender-flipped version. The first was when the protagonist is throwing clothes down to the huntresses/hunters. I contemplated leaving it a girdle and dress, but decided to change them instead. It just makes more sense this way and I don’t see that it changes the scene in any meaningful way. The second place was near the end when the children are being born and taken away. I decided to leave it “the King had his first child” rather than fiddle with it because it doesn’t actually say he gave birth to the children and because fiddling would have been too complicated. I think it works ok, but it is slightly odd.

Overall I thought that this story flipped pretty well. I wasn’t sure how it would work at first, but somehow it seems fine even with the boy sewing the shirts and the Kings being changed to Queens. The sisters being the swans actually works pretty well as far as story symbols go (girls turn into swans and things regularly in fairy tales, but it doesn’t seem to happen to boys as often). This story when gender-flipped does put the power of textile arts in the hands of men, where it rarely is. It’s an interesting story. I’m glad it worked out as well as it did.

2 Comments

  1. Eva said,

    November 14, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    I think this one has been the most seamless for me so far. :)

    It’s a lovely story and of all the things you mentioned in the thoughts section only the king “having” his children seemed a touch weird to me. Throwing down the clothing and sewing the shirts both seemed completely natural. I think it helped that sewing the shirts was part of an exceptional act that he had to perform to break a curse and we often expect people to do things that are strange of unpleasant in such a situation.

    I did have a touch of confusion as to which queen was finding him in the woods, but I’m guessing that’s because of the phrasing in the original version rather than yours. ;)

    Overall awesome job! :D

  2. Rachel said,

    September 24, 2008 at 10:46 am

    I find the strangest gender change to be the old father of the Queen who is stealing the babies away. It’s interesting though because in another version of the story, the King sends all his sons away because he’s finally had a daughter. Or agreed to send all his sons away if only he could have a daughter. It’s very unusual for the father to be a source of danger for a daughter; danger usually comes from a mother or step-mother in the fairy tales, and by the end of the story, it’s the mother-in-law. (Or sometimes an advisor who is usually cast as male.) So with this reversal you still have that unusual element of a father figure causing menace, although in this case to his son-in-law.

    I’m really enjoying reading through these things. It’s one thing to think of the stereotypes and recognize the roles as such, but I like that you’ve taken it a step farther to see how they play out!

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