There was once a king and queen that lived very happily together, and they had twelve sons and not a single daughter. We are always wishing for what we haven't, and don't care for what we have, and so it was with the queen. One day in winter, when the bawn was covered with snow, she was looking out of the parlor window, and saw there a calf that was just killed by the butcher, and a raven standing near it.
"Oh," says she, "if I had only a daughter with her skin as white as that snow, her cheeks as red as that blood, and her hair as black as that raven, I'd give away every one of my twelve sons for her."
The moment she said the word, she got a great fright, and a shiver went through her, and in an instant after, a severe-looking old woman stood before her.
"That was a wicked wish you made," said she, "and to punish you it will be granted. You will have such a daughter as you desire, but the very day of her birth you will lose your other children."
This is from the Irish story of "The Twelve Wild Geese," a variant of Aarne-Thompson type 451, the Brothers Turned into Birds. Interestingly, it begins with nearly the same incident as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."
In many stories of Type 451, the birth of a daughter somehow coincides with the loss of her older brothers. When she grows older, she takes on the responsibility of seeking them out and saving them. She travels into the wilderness until she finds her brothers' new home. Sometimes she hides or secretly does housework for them until they discover her. For various reasons, the brothers are cursed (usually turned into birds). She can only free them by remaining silent for years while she makes shirts for them. At this point, a king finds her alone in the forest. He marries her, but his mother takes a dislike to her and tries to convince him that the girl is a witch. The mother goes so far as to kidnap the heroine's newborn children, cast them out to die, and then accuse the heroine of killing and eating them. The heroine, still sworn to silence, can do nothing to defend herself even when she's about to be burnt at the stake. However, she manages to finish her task in the nick of time, restores her brothers to human form, and everything turns out fine. She gets her kids back, the king learns the truth, and the mother-in-law is punished.
It's possible that some Type 451 stories were influenced by elements of Snow White. In "The Twelve Wild Ducks" (from Norway) and "The Twelve Wild Geese" (from Ireland), a queen wishes for a child who is white, red and black, and this child is subsequently named Snow-White-and-Rose-Red. In "The Six Swans," it is a hateful stepmother who curses the brothers.
On the other hand, quite a few versions of Snow White begin exactly like Type 451, with the brothers going missing. Instead of moving in with dwarfs, the Snow White character winds up with her long-lost brothers. Some examples of this are "Udea and her Seven Brothers" from Libya, "The Girl of the Woodlands, Her Brothers and the Rakshasa" from India, a tale from Asia Minor collected by R. M. Dawkins, and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."
If you bring "Sleeping Beauty" into the mix, there are even more similarities. The Italian "Sun, Moon and Talia" and Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" don't end when the heroine awakens from her sleep. In "Sun, Moon and Talia," a king rapes the sleeping Talia and begets twins upon her, which eventually wakes her. However, he already has a wife, who in a jealous rage tries to have Talia and her children cooked and eaten. Fortunately, she fails. In Perrault, the first wife is adapted into the king's mother instead.
This episode seems unfamiliar until you realize it's really a version of "Snow White," with the sequence of events switched around. Similarly, in the Indian "Princess Aubergine" (yes, Aubergine), when a king takes an interest in the heroine, his first wife becomes jealous. There are no seven dwarfs, but the first wife has seven sons whose deaths stall her and thus protect Aubergine. Eventually, the wife's plots succeed and Aubergine is left in a deathlike coma. Here, again, the king impregnates the heroine while she's unconscious.
In these three tale types - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and "The Brothers Turned into Birds" - the sequence of events are a little different, but they are generally the same events.
First, there's the main character's birth. Snow White stories often begin with a childless woman's wish for a child. "The Brothers Turned into Birds" has a woman with many sons wishing for a daughter instead. In the Grimms' "Briar Rose," the heroine is born after her parents long for a child.
The colors white, red and black are a long-standing theme across literature, but tend to recur in Snow White tales. In all three of the tale types discussed here, it's common to find mentions of roses. The heroines have names like Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red, Briar Rose, Blanca Rosa or Rose-Neige. Red and white flowers, particularly roses, are associated with the heroine of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans." When turned into ravens or swans, the enchanted brothers tie into a black or white color scheme.
In both "Snow White" and "The Brothers Turned into Birds," the heroine goes out into the wilderness and discovers a house inhabited by a group of men, whether they be dwarves, robbers, or her long-lost brothers. She does domestic work for them, and they protect her from outside threats, at least for a while.
Then there's the jealous rival who attempts to send her to her death. All three tales focus on a maternal figure devouring her children. Snow White's stepmother wants to eat her lungs and liver. Sleeping Beauty's mother-in-law tries to cook her and her children as a meal. In both cases, the executioner (a huntsman in Snow White, a chef in Sleeping Beauty) takes pity on the heroine and substitutes an animal to be eaten in her place. Meanwhile, in "The Twelve Wild Ducks," the mother-in-law accuses the heroine of cannibalizing her own children. To enforce the lie, she throws the heroine's children to wild animals, but the animals spare them. The same basic ideas are there, just a little scrambled.
While Sleeping Beauty and Snow White narrowly escape being cooked, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" faces burning at the stake. Similarly, Snow White's stepmother gets the punishment of dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
In all three cases, there's a curse involved. Sometimes there's also textile work. Talia and other Sleeping Beauties fall into a coma when they pierce their fingers spinning thread. The heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" often has to break her brothers' curse by making shirts for them - a process which involves picking, carding, spinning and knitting.
The biggest difference is that unlike Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" never undergoes an enchanted sleep. Instead she spends a period of self-imposed silence while she labors to break her brothers' curse.
However, the long isolation in the wilderness until her discovery by a king is still the same. The king finds her deep in the forest - whether in a castle surrounded by thorns, in a glass casket, or sitting in a tree. Stricken by her beauty, he immediately claims her. Uncomfortably for modern readers, the heroine is unable to communicate, since at this point she is either unconscious or sworn to silence. She gives birth while still in this state.
As said before, many stories share motifs. However, these three stories dovetail in fascinating ways.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.