The following is an annotated version
of the fairy tale. I recommend reading the entire story before
exploring the annotations, especially if you have not read the tale recently.
A KING1 was once hunting2 in a great wood,3 and he hunted the game so eagerly that none of his courtiers4 could follow him. When evening came on he stood still and looked round him, and he saw that he had quite lost himself. He sought a way out, but could find none. Then he saw an old woman with a shaking head coming towards him; but she was a witch.5
"Good woman,"' he said to her, "can you not show me the way out of the wood?"
"Oh, certainly, Sir King," she replied, "I can quite well do that, but on one condition,6 which if you do not fulfil you will never get out of the wood, and will die of hunger."
The King in his anguish of mind consented, and the old woman led him to her little house where her daughter was sitting by the fire. She received the King as if she were expecting him,10 and he saw that she was certainly very beautiful; but she did not please him, and he could not look at her without a secret feeling of horror.11 As soon as he had lifted the maiden on to his horse the old woman showed him the way, and the King reached his palace, where the wedding was celebrated.
And when the King had ridden off she took the little shirts and went into the wood, and the reel showed her the way. The children, who saw someone coming in the distance, thought it was their dear father coming to them, and sprang to meet him very joyfully. Then she threw over each one a little shirt, which when it had touched their bodies changed them into swans,21 and they flew away over the forest. The Queen went home quite satisfied, and thought she had got rid of her step-children; but the girl had not run to meet her with her brothers, and she knew nothing of her.
The next day the King came to visit his children, but he found no one but the girl.
"Where are your brothers?"' asked the King.
"Alas! dear father," she answered, "they have gone away and left me all alone."22 And she told him that looking out of her little window she had seen her brothers flying over the wood in the shape of swans,23 and she showed him the feathers which they had let fall in the yard, and which she had collected. The King mourned, but he did not think that the Queen had done the wicked deed, and as he was afraid the maiden would also be taken from him, he wanted to take her with him. But she was afraid of the stepmother, and begged the King to let her stay just one night more in the castle in the wood. The poor maiden thought, "My home is no longer here; I will go and seek my brothers."24 And when night came she fled away into the forest. She ran all through the night and the next day, till she could go no farther for weariness. Then she saw a little hut,25 went in, and founda room with six little beds.26 She was afraid to lie down on one, so she crept under one of them, lay on the hard floor, and was going to spend the night there. But when the sun had set she 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 maiden recognised her brothers, and overjoyed she crept out from under the bed. Her brothers were not less delighted than she to see their little sister again, but their joy did not last long.
"Come down to us," they said, "we will do you no harm."
But she shook her head silently. As they pressed her further with questions, she threw them the golden chain from her neck.36 But they did not leave off, and she threw them her girdle,37 and when this was no use, her garters,38 and then her dress.39 The huntsmen would not leave her alone, but climbed the tree, lifted the maiden down, and led her to the King. The King asked, "Who are you? What are you doing up that tree?"
But she answered nothing.
He asked her in all the languages he knew,40 but she remained as dumb41 as a fish. Because she was so beautiful, however, the King's heart was touched, and he was seized with a great love for her. He wrapped her up in his cloak, placed her before him on his horse. and brought her to his castle. There he had her dressed in rich clothes, and her beauty shone out as bright as day, but not a word could be drawn from her. He set her at table by his side, and her modest ways and behaviour pleased him so much that he said, "I will marry this maiden and none other in the world," and after some days he married her.42 But the King had a wicked mother who was displeased with the marriage, and said wicked things of the young Queen. "Who knows who this girl is?" she said; "she cannot speak, and is not worthy of a king."43
When she was led to the stake, she laid the shirts on her arm, and as she stood on the pile and the fire was about to be lighted, she looked around her and saw six swans flying through the air. Then she knew that her release was at hand and her heart danced for joy. The swans fluttered round her, and hovered low so that she could throw the shirts over them. When they had touched them the swan-skins fell off, and her brothers stood before her living, well and beautiful. Only the youngest had a swan's wing instead of his left arm.52 They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen went to the King, who was standing by in great astonishment, and began to speak to him, saying, "Dearest husband, now I can speak and tell you openly that I am innocent and have been falsely accused."