“On the twelfth day…” The Twelve Grimm Days of Christmas

We are delighted to share these stories from The Complete First Edition of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm with our readers. This series will run for 12 days and each story is accompanied by original art from Andrea Dezsö.

twelve brothers

The Twelve Brothers

Once upon a time there was a king who had twelve children, all boys. Moreover, he didn’t want to have a daughter and said to his wife: “If you give birth to our thirteenth child, and it’s a girl, I shall have the twelve boys killed. However, if it’s a boy, then they’ll all remain alive and stay together.” The queen thought of talking him out of this, but the king refused to hear anything more about this topic.

“If everything turns out like I said, they must die. I’d rather chop off their heads myself than let a girl be among them.”

The queen was sad about this because she loved her sons with all her heart and didn’t know how she could save them. Finally, she went to the youngest, who was her favorite, and revealed to him what the king had decided.

“Dearest child,” she said, “go into the forest with your eleven brothers. Stay there, and don’t come home. One of you should keep watch on a tree and look over here toward the tower. If I give birth to a little son, I’ll raise a white flag on top of the tower. However, if it’s a little daughter, I’ll raise a red flag. If you all see that it’s red, then save yourselves. Flee into the wide world, and may our dear Lord protect you. I’ll get up every night and pray that you won’t freeze in the winter and are able to warm yourselves by a fire and that when it’s hot in the summer, you can rest in a cool forest and sleep.”

After she gave her blessing to her sons, they went out into the forest, where they frequently looked toward the tower. One of them had to sit on top of a high tree and constantly keep watch. Soon a flag was hoisted, but it wasn’t a white one. It was a blood-red flag that foreshadowed their doom. As soon as the brothers caught sight of it, they all became angry and cried out: “Why should we lose our lives because of a girl?”

Then they all swore to remain in the middle of the forest and to keep on their guard, and if a maiden were to appear, they would kill her without mercy.

Soon after this they searched for a cave where the forest was the darkest, and that’s where they began to live. Every morning eleven of the brothers went off to hunt. One of them had to remain home, cook, and keep house. Whenever they encountered a maiden, she was treated without mercy and lost her life. This is how they lived for many years.

In the meantime their little sister grew up and was the only child left at home. One day there was a large amount of washing to do, and among the clothes there were twelve shirts for boys.

“Whose shirts are these?” the princess asked the washerwoman. “They’re much too small for my father.”

It was then that the washerwoman told her that she had once had twelve brothers, but they had mysteriously gone away. Nobody knew where because the king had wanted to have them killed, and the twelve shirts belonged to the twelve brothers. The little sister was astonished that she had never heard of her twelve brothers, and during the afternoon as the clothes were drying and she was sitting in the meadow, she recalled the words of the washerwoman. After giving considerable thought to what she had heard, she stood up, took the twelve shirts, and went into the forest where her brothers were living.

The little sister made her way straight to the cave that served as her brothers’ dwelling. Eleven of them were out hunting, and only one of them who had to cook was at home. When he caught sight of the maiden, he composed himself and drew his sword.

“Kneel down! Your red blood will flow this very second!”

But the maiden pleaded: “Dear sir, let me live. I’ll stay with you and serve you honestly. I’ll cook and keep house.”

She spoke these words to the youngest brother, and he took pity on her because of her beauty and spared her life. Later, when his eleven brothers returned home and were astonished to find a maiden alive in their cave, he said to them: “Dear brothers, this girl came to our cave, and when I wanted to cut her to pieces, she pleaded for her life so much and said that she would serve us faithfully and keep house that I spared her life.”

The others thought that this would be a great benefit to them because now all twelve of them could go hunting, and they were satisfied with this arrangement. Then the maiden showed them the twelve shirts and told them that she was their sister. Indeed, they were all very happy about this and were glad that they hadn’t killed her.

Now the little sister took over all the household chores, and when the brothers went out hunting, she gathered wood and herbs, kept the fire going, made up the beds nice and white and clean, and did everything with zeal and without getting tired.

One day, when she was finished with all the work, she took a walk in the woods and came to a place where there were twelve large beautiful white lilies. Since they pleased her so much, she plucked all twelve of them. No sooner did she do this than an old woman stood before her.

“Oh, my daughter,” she said, “why didn’t you let the twelve budding flowers just stand there? They’re your twelve brothers. Now they’ve been changed into ravens and are lost forever.”

The little sister began to weep and said, “Isn’t there any way that I can save them?”

“No, there isn’t any way in the world except one that’s so difficult you won’t be able to rescue them. You must spend the next twelve years with- out speaking. If you say one single word, even if there’s only an hour left, everything will be in vain, and your brothers will die that very moment.”

Well, the little sister responded by climbing a tall tree in the forest, where she took a place. She wanted to sit there twelve years without say- ing a word to free her brothers. But it so happened that a king was out riding and hunting in the forest, and as he rode by the tree, his dog stood still and barked. So the king stopped, looked up, and was very amazed by the princess’s beauty. He called to her and asked her whether she wanted to become his wife. However, she remained silent and only nodded a bit with her head. So the king himself dismounted, helped her down from the tree, and lifted her up before him onto his horse. Then he brought her home to his castle. Meanwhile the princess did not utter one word, and the king thought that she was mute. They would have lived happily with one another if it hadn’t been for the king’s mother, who began to slander the young queen in front of her son.

“She’s a common beggar that you’ve dug up from nowhere, and she’s doing the most disgraceful things behind your back!”

Since the young queen couldn’t defend herself, the king was led astray and finally believed what his mother said. So, he sentenced his wife to death, and a enormous fire was built in the courtyard, where she was to be burned to death.

Soon the queen was standing in the flames that grazed the fringes of her dress. One minute was left before the twelve years of her silence would be completed. There was a noise in the air, and twelve ravens swooped down into the courtyard. As soon as they touched the ground, they became twelve handsome princes who instantly put out the fire’s flames and led their sister to safety. Then she spoke once again and told the king how everything had happened and how she had to save her twelve brothers. Indeed, they were all pleased that everything turned out so well.

Now they had to decide what they should do with the evil mother-in- law. Well, they stuck her into a barrel full of boiling oil and poisonous snakes, and she died a ghastly death.


bookjacket

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm:
The Complete First Edition
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, Translated and edited by Jack Zipes
Illustrated by Andrea Dezsö
Art credit: Andrea Dezsö
This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< “On the eleventh day…” The Twelve Grimm Days of Christmas