Märchen Monday: Die zwölf Brüder (The Twelve Brothers)

It seems fitting that the first Märchen of 2018 is both old and new. This will probably be the first time that you read Die zwölf Brüder (The Twelve Brothers); but it will undoubtedly remind you of another, more familiar Märchen. Read it and let me know if my guess is correct: Link.

Märchen Memories

The first time I read Die zwölf Brüder, I remembered Die sechs Schwäne (The Six Swans), which is also one of the Grimms Märchen (Link). In both stories, a girl who is the youngest sibling has to save her older brothers, who have been turned into birds. To rescue them, she must be totally silent for several years. This plot must have really resonated with medieval Germans, because there is a third variant — Die seiben Raben (The Seven Ravens): Link. But this last one does not require the sister to remain silent.

I can see why Die sechs Schwäne became the most popular. It’s the one in which the silent sister also has to weave shirts for her brothers out of Sternenblumen or “aster flowers.” The version I remember reading had the sister making shirts out of nettles. Either way, it must have been a very difficult challenge. And it’s a charming fantasy element to add!

Another way that Die sieben Raben is different is that the little sister goes on a quest. And she walks as far as the sun, the moon, and the stars! But it also has strong sacrificial symbolism, which probably made parents and book editors alike hesitate to pass it on. I suppose they thought it better for a girl to wound her hands with nettles than to cut off her own finger!

Going Back to Grimm

Die zwölf Brüder immediately reminds us of the most famous twelve brothers in history: The sons of Jacob, who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. And I think it’s a deliberate connection, since the youngest brother in both families has the same name: Benjamin.

Interestingly, Jacob’s twelve sons also had a sister: Dinah. She wasn’t, however, the youngest sibling. And her own sad story has nothing in common with this Märchen. I think the heroic sister here points to someone born much later in the Bible: Mary.

And we can say that Mary is the youngest daughter of the Old Covenant as well as the Mother of the New. From the moment she was immaculately conceived, all the old things, represented by her twelve older brothers, began to pass away. We see this twice in the Märchen. First, the king declares that he will kill his sons after the birth of his daughter, so that only she would inherit the kingdom. And later, when the more merciful daughter finds her zwölf Brüder, she turns them into ravens after innocently plucking a lily. Lilies are symbols of the Annunication, the moment when an angel announces to Mary that Jesus would be born.

But Die zwölf Brüder isn’t an anti-Semitic Märchen. The zwölf Brüder are not lost forever. Their sister successfully saves them after seven years of silence. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that these represent the Mass. What we call “low Mass” in English is a stille Messe (silent Mass) in German. And we do see the redemption of the zwölf Brüder in the Traditional Latin liturgy, in the symbolism of the paten. I strongly recommend the following video on this topic.

Next Märchen Monday: Fundevogel (Bird-foundling)

Read it in the langauge of your choice here: Link

2 thoughts on “Märchen Monday: Die zwölf Brüder (The Twelve Brothers)

  1. I was reminded a bit of martyrdom; the sister has to keep the faith right up to the point that the flames are beginning to burn her, and doing so is the salvation of others. And the boiling oil and snakes (which are missing from the French) sounds a lot like hell, the ‘bad death’ that is the opposite.

    The version of the Six Swans that I remember also had nettles; it is a very memorable element.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      And before she faces “red” martyrdom, her sacrifice for her brothers is a kind of “white” martyrdom! I confess I’m disappointed that the nettles weren’t an original element, because they would have strengthened this reading.

      Your comment about the punishment for the king’s mother made me think. Several of the Märchen end very badly for the villains, who merit punishments that are as specific as they are gruesome. I now think these punishments are deliberate metaphors for hell, worthy of some comparison with the tortures in Dante’s Inferno.

      In comparison, the metaphors for Heaven — royal marriage and living happily ever after — are rather bland. This makes sense. For one thing, it reflects the limits of human imagination. (St. Paul taught that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no heart has imagined” what Heaven is really like.) For another, someone who is truly devout, as the Grimm Brothers were, would have a sense of reverence for mysteries that God has not revealed to us yet. It’s not surprising that they — and the medieval storytellers before them — would stick closely to the veiled language of Scripture.

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