This week is another Grimm Brothers tale: The Twelve Brothers.
Here is my summary:
Once upon a time there lived a King and a Queen. They were very happy together and had twelve children, who were all boys. The Queen was happily anticipating the arrival of a thirteenth child.
“If this thirteenth child is a girl, then I will put to death all her twelve brothers so that the kingdom and its possessions shall fall to her alone,” the King said to the Queen. He ordered twelve coffins to be made, and placed them in a locked room, leaving the key with the Queen. He ordered her not to speak of this to anyone.
The Queen was quite distraught, and as she sat weeping in her room, her youngest son, Benjamin, asked “Why are you so sad, mother?”
“I cannot tell you, my dear son,” replied the Queen. Benjamin was persistent and would not give up until finally his mother took him to the locked room and showed him all the coffins lying in waiting. “Your father, the King, had these coffins made for you and your brothers. In the event I bear a girl, he has decreed that you are all to be killed,” the Queen related, sobbing.
“Do not cry and do not worry,” Benjamin told his mother, “we will go away and thus be saved!”
“Go into the forest with your eleven brothers. Have one of you climb the tallest tree you can find, and keep watch of the castle. If this baby is a boy, I will send up a white flag and then you may come home. If I have a girl, I will send up a red flag and you must flee as quickly as you can,” replied the Queen, taking heart.
The Queen said a secret goodbye to her sons and they took refuge in the forest. The boys took turns watching. On the twelfth day, when it was Benjamin’s turn to watch, he saw looked to the tower ans saw a red flag being raised. The Queen had borne a girl, and the twelve brothers were to free. Benjamin rushed down to tell them.
The brothers were angry and muttered, “We are all to suffer because of a girl! We will avenge ourselves! Whenever we find a girl, we shall kill her in revenge!” With heavy hearts, the brother went deep into the forest where they came across a little bewitched hut. The hut was empty and they took it for their residence. They said, “Benjamin, you are the youngest and the weakest. You stay here and keep house and we shall go out and get food.” The elven older brothers went into the forest to hunt and brought back their game for Benjamin to dress and cook. They lived together in the hut for ten years, but the time did not seem long.
The little princess was now grown up. She had a good heart, a fair face, and a golden star on her forehead. One day, amongst the laundry, she spotted twelve men’s shirts and asked the queen, “Mother, whose shirts are these? They are too small for my father.”
“My sweet, these shirts belong to your twelve brothers,” the Queen replied sadly.
“Where are they? Why have I never heard of having brothers?” exclaimed the princess.
“I do not know, for they have gone to wander the world,” said the queen. Then she took the princess to the locked room where the coffins still sat and explained why the brothers had left. The Queen wept as she related the story, for she missed her sons and worried about them.
“Do not cry,” the princess said comfortingly. “I will go and seek my brothers!” The princess then took the twelve shirts and went straight into the forest. She walked far and as the day drew to a close she came across the bewitched hut. Upon entering, she say a young boy.
“Who are you? Where do you come from?” the boy exclaimed, astonished by her beauty, royal clothes, and the star upon her forehead.
“I am a King’s daughter, and I am looking for my twelve brothers who went away before I was born. I will walk until the ends of the earth until I find them.” She then showed the twelve shirts.
Benjamin was astonished, and saw that she was his sister. “I am Benjamin, your youngest brother,” he exclaimed. They both wept with joy and embraced each other. Benjamin then said, “I am so happy you have found us! There is a problem, for in revenge for leaving our kingdom because of a girl, we have sworn that every maiden that we meet shall die.”
“I shall willingly die, if it means I can save my brothers,” the princess said fiercely.
“That will not do,” said Benjamin. He instructed her to hide under a wash tub, until the brothers returned.
As night fell, the brothers returned from their hunting and Benjamin laid out dinner. As they were sitting and eating, they asked “Any news?”
“I know more than you do,” replied Benjamin, “even though you have been in the forest and I stayed home.”
“What then? Tell us your news!” cried the brothers, full of curiosity.
“You must promise me that the first maiden who meets us shall not be killed,” replied Benjamin.
“We promise! She shall have our mercy, but tell us the news!” exclaimed the brothers.
“Alright then,” said Benjamin, and with a flourish he lifted up the tub and proclaimed, “Our sister is here!” The princess came forward in her royal clothes, with the golden star upon her forehead. She was beautiful and fair, and the brothers rejoiced and hugged and kissed her.
Now the princess and Benjamin stayed home and kept house, while the eleven older brothers hunted during the days. With a light heart, the princess gathered firewood and vegetables, cooked and cleaned, and kept the house in order. She and her brothers lived in harmony and they were all happy together.
One night, Benjamin and the princess prepared a lovely meal and the thirteen siblings sat down together. They ate and drank and were filled with gladness that they should be together. The princess, wishing to give her brothers a present, ran out to the back garden where there grew twelve lily flowers. Thinking to present each brother a flower at dinner, the princess picked them.
The moment she plucked the flowers from the ground, the twelve brothers transformed into ravens and flew away over the forest. The house and garden vanished and the poor princess stood bewildered in the clearing. An old woman had appeared, and she asked, “What have you done, child? Why did you not leave the flowers growing? Now your brothers are turned into ravens forevermore.”
“How can I save them?” asked the princess as tears slipped down her cheeks.
“There is only one way to save them, but it is too difficult and you will not succeed. You must be dumb for seven years, and you must not speak or laugh at all. If you speak even a single word before the seven years have passed, your brothers will die.”
The princess steeled her heart and resolved that she would certainly set her brothers free. She found a high tree and climbed up into it. There she sat spinning and she did not speak nor laugh. As she sat, a King who had been hunting in the forest, passed near by. His dog ran to the tree in which the maiden perched and sat jumped about, barking and whining at her. This drew the King to her tree and he was struck by the girl’s beauty. He was charmed by the princess and asked if she would be his wife. The princess made no answer, but nodded a little. So the King climbed the tree himself and carried her down. He put her on his horse and they went to his home. Their wedding was magnificent and there was much rejoicing in the kingdom, but the bride did not speak or smile at all.
The King and his new Queen lived happily together for many years, though the Queen never spoke or laughed at all. The King’s stepmother, who was a wicked woman, began to bad-mouth the Queen. “This is a common beggar girl that you have brought back. Who knows what tricks she gets up to secretly! Even if she could not speak, she should still laugh. Those who do not laugh have bad consciences. Who knows what she has done?”
At first, the King would not listen or believe it, but his stepmother was persistent. The old woman constantly and insidiously accused the Queen of many things and this slowly worked to change the King’s mind. At last, the King was persuaded and sentenced his wife to death.
The Queen was taken to the courtyard and fastened to a stake. Wood was piled up around her, and as it was lit the King looked on with tearful eyes, for he still loved her greatly. As the fire began licking at her clothes, the last moment of the seven years passed. A whirring sound filled the air, and twelve ravens swooped down into the courtyard. As they touched the ground they transformed into her twelve brothers. The brothers tore the fire apart, stomping out the flames and freeing their sister. They kissed and embraced her, and now free to speak she laughed and embraced them back. The King, astonished, then heard from his Queen’s own lips why she had been dumb and never laughed. The King was relieved and overjoyed.
The wicked stepmother was condemned to death. She was put into a barrel filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes and thus expired.
The King rejoiced that his Queen was innocent and they lived happily ever after.
I really liked this tale! I’d never heard nor read it before, and it seems like such a classic. I have several thoughts:
- The King who condemned his twelve sons to die should they have a sister was one crazy guy. That makes no sense at all!
- How convenient that they should find a bewitched house. Too bad it didn’t come with instructions.
- Props to the princess. SEVEN YEARS of not talking or laughing is a looooong time. That is some serious dedication.
- Of course there is a wicked / evil stepmother. Of course!
Until next time, happy Tuesday!