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Illustration from a 1991 version, by Felicitas Kuhn.

The Six Swans (in German : Die sechs Schwäne) is a German fairy tale, collected by The Brothers Grimm . It's not the only one treating such a story, however: there's also a similar version told by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen ("The Wild Swans" ), one by the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe ("Twelve Wild Ducks" ), other two Grimm-collected stories (The Seven Ravens and The Twelve Brothers), a Northern African tale ("Udea and her Seven Brothers" ), etc. All of them have a common plot at heart: a girl's older brothers are turned into animals, generally birds, and she must work hard save them.

In this particular tale, six brothers from a King's first marriage are targeted by their Wicked Stepmother, a witch who forced her way into their father's life with help from her evil mother and fellow witch. As a consequence, the brothers are transformed into swans and can can only take their human forms for fifteen minutes every evening. There's still hope for them, however: their only sister hasn't been enchanted, so they tell her that they've found out about a way to fix things: she must make six shirts out of nettles (or other magical herbs / flowers) and can't make a sound for six years or the spell will never be broken. The girl accepts this and hides away in a hunter's hut, focusing only on her mission.

Some time later the young King of another country meets the girl in the forest, is taken by her beauty, and marries her despite his mother's objections to seeing a non-noble as Queen Consort, or how the protagonist keeps quietly working on the shirts. When the girl, now Queen, has given birth to their first child, the wicked mother-in-law takes away the child and accuses the Queen of killing and eating him; she cannot properly refute it, being unable to talk AND unwilling to reveal her past. She does this twice more to the protagonist, and her husband defends his wife as much as he can, but the third time is the limit and he can't do anything else. And all through her ordeals, the Queen stays quiet, and she won't stop knitting and sewing...

On the day of her execution, the Queen has all but finished making the shirts for her brothers. Only the last shirt misses a left arm. When she is brought to the stake, she takes the shirts with her and when she is about to be burned, the six years expire and the six swans come flying through the air. She throws the shirts over her brothers and they regain their human form. (Still, since the last shirt's left sleeve is missing, one of the youngest Prince's arms remains a swan wing.) The Queen is now free to speak and defend herself against the accusations, and she and her brothers tell the King and everyone else what's going on. The evil mother-in-law returns the babies she stole and raised in secret, and as punishment she is the one burned at the stake. From then on, the Royal Family and the brothers live their lives in happiness and peace.

The Six Swans has been re-made in one way or another several other times. i.e. an episode of the Japanese series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, the anime movie Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Hakuchou no Õji (The Wild Swans: The Princess of the Swans, which mixes elements of both this and Andersen's versions), Juliet Marillier's book Daughter of the Forest (the first one in The Sevenwaters Trilogy), etc. 

Tropes used in The Six Swans include:
  • Adult Fear: The King has a Gut Feeling that his new wife will try to hurt his children, so right before the wedding he sends them away to a small castle in the woods to keep them safe, visiting them in secret from then on. The stepmother finds out about the kids anyway via bribing the servants, and then she attacks and enchants the boys.
    • The Princess herself not only loses her birthright and her family, but she almost loses her newborn babies and is falsely accused of killing and eating the children.
  • Ascended Extra: The Wicked Stepmother's Wicked Witch mom becomes this in Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Hakuchou no Õji, and since the wicked mother-in-law also disappears here, she and her daughter form a Big Bad Duumvirate against the protagonist.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Six young boys are unwillingly turned into swans via cursed shirts/capes.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Genderflipped: the sister (also said to be the youngest of all the royal kids) is the one who puts 'self through Hell to save her big brothers. They return the favor by playing the trope straight to save her when she's about to be executed.
  • Big Damn Heroes: When the protagonist is about to die, the six years pass and then her brothers arrive all of a sudden to the execution place, saving her and proving that she's neither a witch nor a baby killer.
  • Burn the Witch!: The protagonist is framed for infanticide and condemned to this, and barely escapes this fate thanks to her brothers.
    • The evil mother-in-law is burned at the stake for kidnapping her grandchildren and framing her daughter-in-law for it. This probably inspired the Wicked Stepmother 's Karmic Death in Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, where she burns herself to death for using wind magic near the protagonist's not-fully-extinguished pyre. It's averted in Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Hakuchou no Õji where the Wicked Stepmother and her mother aren't executed, but instead are vanished into the desert.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Elisa's trials in Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Hakuchou no Õji include her being subjected to this by the Wicked Witch's mother, alias the one who officially accuses her of being a witch (as an expy of The Wild Swans's archbishop). Even when she's being stabbed through her feet, the girl refuses to break her vow of silence.
  • Curse Escape Clause: Staying silent for six years and making six shirts out of magical herbs.
  • Eats Babies: The main and most serious of all the accusations hurled at the princess by the evil mother-in-law.
  • Elective Mute: One of the conditions that the lovely-looking main girl must fulfill to break the curse over her brothers is to not say a single word or show a single emotion for seven years.
  • Emotionless Girl: The main girl is believed to be this by the court of the second kingdom, as she's not supposed to speak or laugh in the seven years.
  • Fallen Princess: The protagonist and her brothers are first taken away from the court for their protection and confined to a small manor, then they're attacked by the Wicked Stepmother . The boys are transformed into swans and the girl must run away into the woods to begin her curse breaking mission without anyone bothering her.
  • Gold Digger: The Wicked Stepmother, oh yes.
  • Lighter and Softer: In the Hello Kitty Animation Theatre version by Sanrio (which has elements of this tale and The Wild Swans), the fairy uses her magic to restore the last brother's wing back to normal hand after she witnesses Eliza (Kitty)'s Plucky Girlhood and her lack of fear being burned at stake in order to break the curse.
  • Love at First Sight: The Young King, for the Princess.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The protagonist is not named in the original tale. The name "Elise / Elisa", used in more recent adaptations like Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics or Sekai Meisaku Dōwa: Hakuchou no Õji, comes from "The Wild Swans" instead.
  • Near Villain Victory: The protagonist is framed for infanticide three times by her evil mother-in-law, and after the third one, her husband can't protect her anymore and she's condemned to being burned at the stake. However, the swans arrive to both save her and prove her innocence. The mother-in-law returns the kids she stole and raised away and is executed instead; the heroine is officially pardoned and she and her family (husband, children and brothers) live happily from then on.
    • More or less the same happens in the animated adaptations, involving less babies and either two witches (Sekai...) or the original Wicked Stepmother taking the place of the mother-in-law (Grimm's Fairy Tales)
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: The villain of the second part is the girl's Rich Bitch of a mother-in-law, who thinks that a Cute Mute of muddled origins like her is not worthy of being a Queen. She goes as far as framing her to get her executed, which gloriously backfires in the end.
  • Offing the Offspring: In the second part, the mother-in-law frames the protagonist for supposedly murdering and eating her babies. When the girl is rescued and exonerated, the King executes his own evil mother as punishment. (Presumably for treason and false testimony)
  • Outnumbered Sibling: Six boys, one girl. But then the girl becomes the heroine of the tale...
  • Plucky Girl: The princess endures all kinds of misfortunes with incredible, quiet courage and stays true to her goal of undoing the curse on her beloved brothers.
  • Rags to Royalty: The protagonist and her brothers starts as Snow Whites and switch to Goose Kids, first forced out of their noble positions in an attempt to protect them from the Wicked Stepmother and then definitely kicked out of the kingdom as the boys are enchanted and the girl runs into the forest to counteract the curse over her brothers. The princess switches to a mix of Goose Girl and Cinderella: she marries a King due to her beauty (and he doesn't know she's a Fallen Princess), is targeted by her Rich Bitch of a mother-in-law and near executed as a result, and ultimately is restored when her innocence is proved.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Neither the Old King nor his wife appear in the second part of the original story, after the protagonist runs off to save herself and undo the curse.
  • Wicked Stepmother : The King's wife from the first part. She disappears from the story after the protagonist runs away, but in the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics version she reappears by "paying a visit" to her and her husband when they have their first (and in this version, only) child, taking up the role of the original's jealous mother-in-law when she recognizes the prince's wife as her stepdaughter.
  • Wicked Witch : The Wicked Stepmother and her mother. (But not the evil mother-in-law)