In my previous post, I covered two of the more disturbing stories about brothers who are turned into birds, “The Twelve Wild Geese” and “The Twelve Wild Ducks.” Those two tales get points for blood and wickedness, but I just can’t get behind Snow-White-and-Rose-Red as a character, partly because her name is ridiculous, and partly because literally the only thing she does is make shirts. I know she couldn’t talk (or laugh, or cry), but don’t tell me she also couldn’t write or even draw. Maybe she was just stupid, or all that weaving made her hands too sore to do anything else. Or maybe it’s just a fairy tale, and logic and character-building weren’t the main point.
My favorite variant, however is “The Seven Ravens” from the Grimm brothers. In this story, the brothers and sister are from a peasant family. The brothers get turned to ravens when their sister is born weak, and they are sent to get water for her christening in case she dies. They screw around and take too long, so their father curses them, saying he hopes they all turn to ravens. Which they do.
No worries though. Their sister, when she gets older and learns what happened to her brothers, of course feels it’s her fault somehow and goes off into the world to rectify this, taking nothing but a ring from her parents and way too little food and water.
She reaches the end of the world, where the sun is an asshole, and the moon too, but the stars are nice. In fact, they give her…a single chicken bone. She’ll need it to open the door in the glass mountain where her brothers are.
Okay. She gets to the mountain. She climbs the mountain. She reaches the door and…she has lost the bone. Does she give up? Does she find herself a chicken? No. She cuts off her little finger and uses it instead. Imagine if that hadn’t worked.
She meets a dwarf, who tells her that seven brothers live there. On the table in that room is a table set for seven, and she drops her parents’ ring in a cup, then hides as the ravens come in. On finding the ring, the brothers realize their sister has found them and broken their curse. They all rejoice and go home happily.
This tale has a nice mix of the wondrous and the grotesque: bewitched ravens, anthropomorphized (and bloodthirsty) celestial bodies, a key made from a finger, and a young woman who is brave and pragmatic. Sure, she goes through some crap, and isn’t the greatest at packing for trips or not losing important items, but she manages all right. She certainly does better for herself than either Elisa/Elise or Snow-White-and-Rose-Red, who make rather lifeless protagonists.
One of the more intriguing characters in “The Wild Swans” is only mentioned in passing: the youngest brother, who ends up with one human arm and one swan’s wing where his shirt was incomplete. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know what happened to him. I have encountered him twice in contemporary novels: as the main character, Ardwin, in Birdwing, a YA fantasy novel by Rafe Martin, and in Karen Maitland’s adult historical fiction novel Company of Liars as a supporting character named Cygnus, whose wing may or may not be a clever fake.
The four stories I have covered in this and my previous post are far from the only tales in this category–in fact, the list I drew from on D. L. Ashliman’s Folktexts contains 12 versions in total, some of which vary greatly from the variants I talked about here. I may return to this topic later on, but if you are interested in more stories of this type, I urge you to take a look at the full list.