While doing research on the various “Brothers Turned Into Birds & Sister Rescues Them” tales (There are A LOT. You would think Disney would have tapped this market by now based on all the choices, but alas, their time has not yet come.) I found two general views that take a deeper look at what the story is about.
The first view says that stories like the Wild Swans are about sisters longing for their brothers to return from war. In some regions of the world–and in certain eras–it was occasionally practiced that a daughter would be her father’s heir. This was done because the sons were conscripted as soldiers, or willingly left as mercenaries. Their survival rate was not the best, and it was never guaranteed that the sons would decide to come back home even if they lived. As such, it was safer for the father to pass off his business/whatever to his daughter. Sounds pretty cool, right? Not quite. The downside is that the daughter was the heir, but as a result her father cared a great deal about whom she married. He exerted much more control over her life, in particularly in the realm of her marriage.
Keeping that in mind, some say the bird-brother tales represent the longing sisters have for their brothers to come home and become the heirs so they are freed from marital responsibility. The only thing that keeps this analysis from being commonly believed is that no one is certain if all the bird-brother stories were collected in regions and during times that this method was practiced.
The second, more widely believed school of thought is that the Wild Swans and the Six Swans (as well as their numerous incarnates) are about family love and sacrifice. There is a remarkable lack of jealousy among the siblings (and jealousy is something fairy tales commonly use, particularly between family members) and, in fact, the heroine’s relationship with her brothers is the only relationship that is never compromised. Her husband nearly lets her be torched and allows people to accuse her of witchcraft. (He defends her once or twice, but in the end he lets it happen.) The people in her husband’s kingdom think she’s weird and don’t try to befriend her, and her Father marries the witch that turns her brothers into swans. The heroine’s brothers are the only characters who are consistently on her side. They save her from being burned at the stake, and they defend her after they are human and can speak again.
Secondly, the heroine puts saving her brothers before everything. Talking to her husband, clearing her name, saving herself, and in some stories she even has kids (kids–more than one!) all take a back seat to freeing her brothers. Some critics use these facts to say the story is supposed to illustrate how important it is for families (or at least siblings) to stick together and help each other out in difficult times.
Another hting I found interesting is that the Bird-Brother type stories are one of the few kinds of fairy tales where the heroine actually does something. Not to hate on Cinderella or Snow White, but the Wild Swan heroine has no help. She performs a difficult task on her own to free her brothers. It had nothing to do with romantic love and everything to do with family ties. This fact really played into my version of the story, as you can see the strong ties between Elise and her foster-brothers. It was also why I was unwilling to tie Elise to Prince Toril. Elise is one of the few–if not the only–females who saves someone, she didn’t deserve to be stuck with a husband that nearly allows her to be killed.
I find it interesting to research what fairy tales reveal about our history and culture. Anyway! Champions, I hope you have a great weekend and I will see you next week.
There are very few Fairy Tales where the girl actually saves anyone let alone herself. I think the Snow Queen has Gerda save Kay and of course it really is Gretel who saves the day. I love Fairy Tales. Thanks for the background information. Leslie
I agree it’s pretty rare to have a heroine actively doing something in a Fairy Tale. Because of that I was really disappointed with the entertainment industry for passing up the dozens of “Brothers-turned-into-birds-little-sister-saves-them” type stories. (There are so many of this kind of fairy tale that they actually have a numbered type.) I can’t believe there are so many variations of this story, and there’s only about four or five books and zero movies that take a closer look at it. On the upside I suppose one could count Belle from Beauty and the Beast as a heroine who does something? She doesn’t do much, but she does break the beast’s spell.