Twelve Swans, The

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  • Teideal (Title): Twelve Swans, The.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840110.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): story.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 04/10/1983.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Pennsylvania, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): evening class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): navailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

A king and queen have twelve sons. The queen longs for a daughter, says she’d give anything to have one, but no luck. One day, when she is feeling very sad, she sees an old, bent woman standing beside her1. The woman asks the queen if she is serious about being willing to give anything for a little girl. The queen said she is. ‘Even if you were asked to give up your twelve sons?’ asks the old woman. ‘Even so,’ says the queen – instantly regretting her words. Whereupon the old woman vanishes.

The queen enquires if anybody else has seen the old woman, but no one has; and eventually she forgets about the incident. At length, the queen finds herself expecting another child, and this time she has a little girl. But just as the king and the twelve boys are visiting the queen in her bedroom to see the new baby, her sons are turned into swans, fly off out the window and away from the castle.

The king and queen are devastated, and of course the queen remembers the bargain she has struck with the old woman, but can never tell her husband. Meanwhile the little daughter is growing up to be a beautiful girl. She often sees her mother gazing sorrowfully out the window at where her twelve brothers used to practice hurling; but she cannot get her mother to tell her why she is so sad. Finally, when she’s about fifteen, she threatens to leave home if her mother won’t tell her the reason for her sorrow.

When her mother at last tells her the story, the girl vows that she will not rest until she finds her brothers and figures out how to bring them back home. She travels some way, looking for swans everywhere she goes and finding none. At last she meets with an old man, who tells her that twelve swans come to a certain lake every day. [tape ends] He tells her about a castle, but warns her not to go near it, as it is owned by a witch, and anyone who goes there never comes out again. Undaunted, she heads for the castle, and when she walks in she sees a dining room with a table set for twelve people. At nightfall, she hears the swans landing outside the castle, and as they walk in they turn into twelve fine-looking young men. Sensing that a stranger is present, they search until they found their sister, and are on the point of killing her until she is able to tell her story and convince them that she is their sister.

The brothers don’t know if they’ll ever be able to regain their human shape, but they send the girl to a wise old man who might know, telling her to come back and let them know his answer. The old man tells her that the only hope would be if she could make a terrible sacrifice – but it will be very difficult. She must collect all the white fluff that grows on the bog2, card it down, spin it into thread, and make a sweater for each of her brothers from the yarn – and the job will have to be done within ten years, during which time she must keep silent and speak no single word.

She returns to her brothers and tells them what the old man has said, and tells them that the next day she will make a start. They give her a place to live in a secluded part of the castle. The work is hard, but she never stops.

One day as she is gathering bog-cotton, a young prince passes. He falls in love with her, and despite the fact that she appears to be dumb, he asks her to come home with him. She agrees, but indicates that she will need to bring the spinning-wheel with her. The prince tells her she can keep on doing what she is doing, but meanwhile he takes her home with him and marries her. His mother thinks he must be crazy to be marrying a deaf-and-dumb girl, and tells him that his new bride will bring him trouble.

In seven years she manages to knit eight sweaters, and in nine years she has finished ten. By this time she is expecting a child. On the night that the child is born, the witch comes, removes the child, kills a hen, and puts the hen’s blood in the cradle, so it will look as if the young mother has killed her own child. The son is heartbroken, and ‘I-told-you-so’ – the mother-in-law – comes in behind him.

Over the prince’s protestations, they take the young woman away and lock her up, although the prince makes them leave her the spinning wheel so she can keep working. By this time she has eleven sweaters made, and all but one sleeve of the twelfth. At length, they take her out to burn her at the stake – and still she continues knitting.

As the flames rise up around her, she at last falls down and exclaims, ‘My brothers, why have you forgotten me?’ The air immediately fills with swans, which put out the fire by flapping thir wings. She throws a sweater over each of them, but the youngest one – who gets the incomplete sweater – has a wing on his right side for the rest of his life.

Finally, the girl is able to tell the story. They go to the witch’s castle, where they find the girl’s own baby, safe and sound; they bring the baby home, and burn the witch at the stake.


1. This reference causes Joe to digress briefly with a story about two ill-tempered elderly women with whom he was stuck in an elevator for 36 hours.

2. Bog-cotton (Ir. ceannabháin bhána) can be seen growing on bogs all over Conamara.
Other stories involving the enchantment of people into different forms include Oisín in Tír na nÓg, The Seal-Woman, The woman who removed a thorn from a seal’s fin, and The Twelve Swans. This story represents international tale-type, AT 451.