The Twelve Brothers

The Grimm brothers felt a deep affinity for the following fairy tale and others like it. The Twelve Brothers is just one of three variations on this theme the Grimms included in their collection. The other two are the The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens. These stories are about sibling solidarity, heroic behavior and self-sacrifice in order to survive the destruction of the family unit. This is not unlike the Grimms’ own life story. The children in these tales band together and through “industry, cleanliness, order” as Zipes puts it they overcome adversity.

Unfortunately, as all Grimm fairy tales are, this literary fairy tale is aimed at a male audience and written from a male perspective so the women in this fairy tale get put through the wringer. To be fair to The Twelve Brothers, though, this fairy tale alone of the three features a heroine who is (relatively) independent and aggressive in her pursuit of what she believes to be right.

Two Versions

The opening of this fairy tale was rewritten between the first publication and the second. What remains the same is this. A king and queen have twelve sons, the queen is pregnant for a thirteenth time and the king decrees that if the child is a girl the other twelve children will be killed. The reasoning is what changed between versions.


“I would rather cut off all their heads than have a girl among them.”

That’s version number one. The father would rather his sons be dead than have to have a girl for a sibling. I’m not sure why they went back and changed it but the whole tone of the opening was altered by it. The second version actually inverts this story line.


“If the thirteenth child you are about to bear turns out to be a girl, then the twelve boys will have to be put to death, so that her wealth can be great and so that she alone inherits the kingdom.”

The king acknowledges the unfairness of gendered inheritance laws and seeks to correct this oversight by murdering his sons so that they can’t inherit. Lovely. “So much for sexism in fairy tales,” Margaret Atwood quips. This also, by the way, neatly makes everything that happens after the thirteenth child’s birth her fault. Wait and see.


Freud views all this as a phantasmal fear come to life since it shows fathers murdering their sons, a fear on both sides of the knife. He cites Abraham and Issac of the Bible and Laius and Oedipus in myth as both fathers attempt to murder their sons to avoid a certain fate.

In The Twelve Brothers this murder is avoided with the intervention of the queen. The king gives her a key to a locked room containing twelve wooden coffins with twelve little pillows for their heads. He then tells her to say nothing of this and to show the room to no one.

Her youngest son Benjanmin, another biblical reference, is always at her side and is described throughout the fairy tale as “soft” and “weak” because of this. He begs to know why she is so sad and finally she breaks down and shows him the coffins and then hatches a plan. The boys will go out into the woods and climb the tallest tree so that they can watch the tower. She will run up a white flag is she has a son, but a red one if she has a daughter. If they see a red flag they are to flee.

It’s The Woman’s Fault

The brothers stay out in the woods and take turns climbing the tallest tree to watch the tower. When the queen runs up a red flag at the birth of their little sister the brothers become angry.

“Are we going to die just because of a girl! Let’s take an oath to avenge ourselves. If we run into a girl, her red blood will flow.”

This misogyny is really dark and sinister. It also shows that the brothers don’t want to blame this turn of events on their father whom they love even as they are on the run from him. They would much rather shift the blame to an unknown as they face abandonment and loss of home and parents.

Life In The Forest

The boys manage to find an abandoned cottage. Fairy tale forests are full of those. There they set up a home for themselves. They realize their society construct requires a female for the household but their new oath kind of makes that awkward so…

“Let’s live here. Benjamin, you are the youngest and weakest. You can stay and keep house while we go out and look for food.”

So the eleven brothers hunt and Benjamin stays home and cooks. This works out for several years, much like how the dwarves must have lived before Snow White.

Similar Motifs

Meanwhile back at the castle many years have passed and the princess has grown and become very beautiful. She has a star on her forehead that, according to Maria Tatar, marks has as being of royal descent. Not to mention it is awesomely alliterative, in German it’s Stern (star) Stirn (forehead). On a huge laundry day the princess finds twelve small shirts. She asks her mother about them and her mother breaks down and tells her everything. That’s when the princess decides she needs to go find her brothers right away and make sure they are okay and just like that packs up the shirts and leaves.

In The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens the stories also feature shirts that are central to the story line, identifying the missing brothers, and a star is associated with the lone princess. Each story takes these same elements and remixes them into very different tales. For example the princess in The Six Swans is useless compared to the princess in The Twelve Brothers who just walked out on her parents the moment she found out what they did to her brothers. A streak of aggressive feminine independence rarely seen in Grimm fairy tales.

I’m A Princess

She heads off into the same forest her brothers disappeared into years ago and finds the same cottage. On walking in she finds Benjamin and asks after her brothers, showing him the shirts she had brought with her.

“I’m a princess, and I’m searching for my twelve brothers. I’m willing to go as far as the sky is blue to find them.”

Benjamin tells her she’s in the right place and they have a joyful reunion with lots of tears, kisses and hugs. Then Benjamin remembers his brothers and warns her about their oath to kill the first female they see. The princess isn’t bothered by this.

“I would gladly give my life if I could save my twelve brothers.”

Your brothers do not deserve you. Benjamin comes up with a plan and hides her under a tub until the brothers come home. Then he plays the “I know something you don’t know” game and annoys them so much with it they promise not to kill the first female they see. At that moment the princess is revealed and shown to be their sister that caused all the trouble in the first place. They are so happy to see her they all hug and kiss her. She is no longer an unknown and clearly values their lives to seek them out like this.

She then sets to work keeping the house clean, picking herbs, keeping food on the table and so on with Benjamin there to help her. Much like Snow White this is to show the princess’ goodness through her industriousness and good housekeeping skills. While she did do the cooking the fairy tale goes to pains to show that she puts things on the fire but does not light or put it out herself, presumably Benjamin does. According to Ruth Bottigheimer women in Grimm fairy tales never control fire. Ever.

It’s The Woman’s Fault. Again.

One day the princess goes out into the garden and sees twelve white lilies growing there. She decides to pick them so that she can give one to each brother at dinner that evening. On picking the lilies her brothers suddenly turn into ravens. Frightened and now alone in the forest she turns to see an old woman who scolds her.

“Dear child, what have you done? Why didn’t you leave those twelve white flowers alone? They were your brothers, and now they’ve been turned into ravens forever.”

The princess bursts into tears and begs for a way to disenchant them. The old woman tells her there is one way but it so difficult as to be impossible. The princess must be completely silent and not smile for seven years. If she says even one word her brothers will die.

This Is For The Birds

In fairy tales men are far more likely to be transformed into animals by an enchantment. Women remain human but are rendered catatonic and are forever still and beautiful like in the fairy tales Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Males on the other hand are transformed into an animal shape, often at the hands of an older woman. Just look at any of the many animal bridegroom stories for proof of this, from The Princess and the Frog to Beauty and the Beast. Maria Tatar points out how this can be viewed as commentary on women’s attitudes toward male sexuality. Of course silent and still Snow White and Briar Rose, the fairest of them all, can also be seen as “a statement on folkloristic visions of the ideal bride.”

Joyce Thomas points out how in The Twelve Brothers and similar fairy tales the brothers are always turned into birds, and because there are so many flock grouped birds at that. There is some word play involved in that as well as the German word for bird, Voegel, also is commonly used to refer to the penis. And for those that argue that some of these tales originated in France the word for bird there is Zoizeau which sounds very similar to zizi a common childish word for penis in French. The brothers in these three fairy tales are reduced to this basic form for years until long after the sister has reached adulthood.

Silence is Golden

Ruth Bottigheimer describes the princess’ sentence as a “redemptive silence” she also points out that while women are sentenced to long periods of silence the rare male character who faces a vow of silence finds they are “brief and attenuated.” Joyce Thomas points out how the terms for breaking the enchantment in fairy tales like these are more often ones of longevity and endurance not ones of feeling. The sister suffers in silence, but again is confident in herself.

“I know that I will be able to free my brothers.”

She climbs into a tree and starts silently spinning and many years pass. According to Maria Tatar the princess is spinning her way to salvation and finds deliverance by withdrawing from the world and retreating into silent domestic activities.

Marina Warner points out the irony in that many storytellers were women so in telling a tale like The Twelve Brothers they violate the edicts of silence and forbearance that the fairy tale attempts to teach.

A New Villain

One day a king passes through the wood and finds the princess spinning in the tree. He asks her if she will be his wife and she nods to give her consent. He then plucks her out of the tree and takes her back to the palace where they marry and are happy together for many years, though in all of that time the princess is silent and never smiles or laughs.

Enter the mother-in-law. She begins to stir up trouble, slandering the princess and accusing her of terrible things. The mother-in-law tells her son the girl must be a common beggar, that she was up to godless tricks and that even as a mute she should at least smile and laugh.

“A person who can’t laugh must have a bad conscience.”

More word play in the word Rabenmutter, there is no word for it in English but in German it literally translates as “mother of ravens” and is commonly used to refer to an abusive mother, or step-mother. In this story the mother-in-law is certainly that.

The king didn’t believe her at first but his mother kept up the accusations for so long, and his wife of course could say nothing in her defense, that finally the king became convinced that the princess was evil. He sentenced his wife to death.

Happily Ever After

So the princess was to be burned at the stake. The king watches on from an upstairs window with tears in his eyes as he still loved her. As the flames began to lick at the (still silent) princess’ clothes the seventh year came to a close. Her brothers fly in to the rescue transforming all around her from twelve ravens into the twelve brothers she loved. They then turned and began stomping out the flames, saving their sister’s life.

Once she was free and safe, reunited with her brothers once again, she told her husband everything. Once the king learned of the vow of silence and the curse he was relieved and they “lived together in harmony until their death.”

The mother-in-law on the other hand was brought before a judge and sentenced to death by being boiled in oil in a barrel full of poisonous snakes. Both of these death sentences were common at the time for witch craft. Her death ends the fairy tale.

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