Hero Sisters of the Grimm Fairy Tales

By December 2, 2015Art, Blog, Grimm Fairy Tales

I was reading the Seven Ravens this week, and I realized it is extremely similar to another Grimm Tale, The Twelve Brothers. Not only that, but my husband had requested I do an illustration of the Six Swans, which shares elements as well. Each story has brothers turned into birds and a sister who must rescue them.  But the similarities don’t stop there, let’s explore them in more detail.

Sisters, Birds, Brothers and Blood

Here we have three tales, each about a sister whose bothers are turned into birds.

In all tales the sisters are the heroes who save their bothers, but they are equally condemned for things that are not their fault. In the Raven tales it is the sisters who are blamed for turning their brothers into Ravens. For the swans this sister isn’t to blame for their transformation, but she is wrongly accused of killing her own babies.

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Blaming the Daughters 

Seven Ravens

In the Seven Ravens it is the brothers who bring about their own trauma with their over eagerness to bring home some baptism water. They lose their buckets in the well and end up very late. Their father cries out and curses them to become Ravens! The boys are turned into Raven’s simply for being late! Their sister has literally just been born, and couldn’t be more innocent if she was still in her mother’s womb. Yet she is blamed for their curse.

Even the town’s people blame her, as we see here “However, one day she accidentally overheard some people talking about her. They said that she was beautiful enough, but that in truth she was to blame for her seven brothers’ misfortune.” Strangers are blaming her for nothing else but being born!

Twelve Brothers

The sister in the Twelve Brothers, suffers the same fate. Her only crime is being born and picking some flowers. It is her father, the King, who tells his wife if she has a girl he will kill all their sons so the daughter can inherit everything. Why does he do this?! He even prepares coffins for the sons! He has terrified his wife by threatening the lives of her sons if she bears a daughter, and brought her to constant tears. Nice guy.

When the Queen’s daughter is born the sons are pissed off and vow to kill any girl they see. How about killing any King they see? Since he’s the one who came up with the stupid situation in the first place.

After finding her brothers she innocently picks some flowers and the boys turn into Ravens. How could she have known this would happen? What’s so bad about picking flowers in your own garden?

Six Swans

In the six swans it is not the daughter who is too blame for her bothers transformation, but her stepmother. Later it is her new step mother (mother of the King she marries) who again tries to ruin her life! The stepmother attempts to convince the King his new wife has killed their new born children three times!

 

Sisters to the Rescue

Seven Ravens

The daughter in the Seven Ravens, despite being blamed for ever being born, is the only one willing to go search for her brothers. When she finds them (after literally traveling to the sun, moon and stars) she cuts off her own finger to use as a key to open a mountain and find her lost brothers.

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Twelve Brothers

After finding out her brothers had run away because of her birth, she sets out to save them.  After finding her brothers they live happily… for a while. When she accidentally turns them into Ravens by picking some flowers a random woman appears and starts telling her it’s her fault her brothers are ravens, and the only way she can save them is not to speak for seven years. 

During this seven year span a Kings finds her and falls in love. Luckily, being beautiful is enough for a King, even if you can’t speak. So they get married and she lives with him for a while. But her mean, old, step mother (of course) hates her because she is beautiful, and convinces the King to kill her. She is tied to a stake and a fire is lit beneath her. As she is literally burning to death she still doesn’t say a word. The seven year mark arrives and her brothers are returned to their true form. They save her just in time. She didn’t speak for seven years even when being burned to death.

Six Swans

In the Six Swans the sister must knit six sweaters for her brothers in order to turn them back, but to make this task harder she is cursed so that she cannot speak. Like the daughter in the Twelves Brothers, a woman without a voice is a perfect match for a King, and one finds her and marries her. Perhaps they like wives who can’t talk back? In this tale we again have an evil step mother trying to kill the young girl. Luckily she finishes the sweaters just in time, saves herself and transforms her brothers back into human form (almost…)

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Not So Happily Ever After

 So at the end of each tale the sisters triumphs and frees her brothers from the spells (one brother is stuck with a swan wing, but what can you do…) and the evil step mothers are either burned to death or boiled alive.

 

Meanings

There are several interpretations I read of these tales. One interpretation I found was that these tales represent a time when sons would be sent to war, and would perhaps die, leaving the daughters to inherit the family wealth. But the daughters would be under the watch of their fathers, perhaps making reference to the Kings causing all the trouble in these tales?

There are other interpretations we can explore:

  • The daughters who lose their voice are seen as polite and alluring. They are married off to Kings without even a saying word! Is this encouraging the idea that women should be seen and not heard?
  • The Evil Step Mother. Such a trope, but let’s really dissect it for a minute. We have young beautiful maidens and older step mothers. The old mother is always jealous of the younger girl, with no cause. These stories often pit women against each other, older women against younger women. Even if the young girl triumphs in the tale, an older mean woman always “gets hers” in the end.

Though these are negative interpretations, but let’s not forget that the girls in these stories are badass heroes who save their brothers from their feathered fates. They work against all odds and show incredible strength and determination.

 

Why draw these tales?

Why did I choose these stories to draw? I was definitely attracted to these stories because of their strong female heroes. But I also wanted to draw them because they all hold some very interesting visual elements, a flock of Swans, a murder of Ravens, and young girls fighting against adversity. I thought it would be striking to illustrate three different tales with very similar elements.

 

Why are these tales so similar?

If you read my last post you’ll know that the Grimm tales were taken from oral folk tales passed from mother to daughter. When folk tales are passed around orally, the story tends to change like a game of telephone. Characters, settings and even the endings may change from person to person. I’m only exploring the Grimm Fairy Tales for this art series, but it the similarities between tales gets really interesting when you start to look at different writers from different cultures. I hope that’s something you’ll start to explore on your own.

 

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