The Twelve Brothers
: The Red Fairy Book
THERE were once upon a time a King and a Queen who lived
happily together, and they had twelve children, all of whom
were boys. One day the King said to his wife:
`If our thirteenth child is a girl, all her twelve brothers must
die, so that she may be very rich and the kingdom hers alone.'
Then he ordered twelve coffins to be made, and filled them with
shavings, and placed a little pillow in
each. These he put away in
an empty room, and, giving the key to his wife, he bade her tell no
one of it.
The Queen grieved over the sad fate of her sons and refused to
be comforted, so much so that the youngest boy, who was always
with her, and whom she had christened Benjamin, said to her one
`Dear mother, why are you so sad?'
`My child,' she answered, `I may not tell you the reason.'
But he left her no peace, till she went and unlocked the room
and showed him the twelve coffins filled with shavings, and with
the little pillow laid in each.
Then she said: `My dearest Benjamin, your father has had
these coffins made for you and your eleven brothers, because if I
bring a girl into the world you are all to be killed and buried in
She wept bitterly as she spoke, but her son comforted her and
`Don't cry, dear mother; we'll manage to escape somehow, and
will fly for our lives.'
`Yes,' replied his mother, `that is what you must do--go with
your eleven brothers out into the wood, and let one of you always
sit on the highest tree you can find, keeping watch on the tower of
the castle. If I give birth to a little son I will wave a white
flag, and then you may safely return; but if I give birth to a little
daughter I will wave a red flag, which will warn you to fly away as
quickly as you can, and may the kind Heaven have pity on you.
Every night I will get up and pray for you, in winter that you may
always have a fire to warm yourselves by, and in summer that you
may not languish in the heat.'
Then she blessed her sons and they set out into the wood.
They found a very high oak tree, and there they sat, turn about,
keeping their eyes always fixed on the castle tower. On the
twelfth day, when the turn came to Benjamin, he noticed a flag
waving in the air, but alas! it was not white, but blood red, the
sign which told them they must all die. When the brothers heard
this they were very angry, and said:
`Shall we forsooth suffer death for the sake of a wretched girl?
Let us swear vengeance, and vow that wherever and whenever we
shall meet one of her sex, she shall die at our hands.'
Then they went their way deeper into the wood, and in the
middle of it, where it was thickest and darkest, they came upon a
little enchanted house which stood empty.
`Here,' they said, `let us take up our abode, and you, Benjamin,
you are the youngest and weakest, you shall stay at home and keep
house for us; we others will go out and fetch food.' So they went
forth into the wood, and shot hares and roe-deer, birds and wood-
pigeons, and any other game they came across. They always
brought their spoils home to Benjamin, who soon learnt to make
them into dainty dishes. So they lived for ten years in this little
house, and the time slipped merrily away.
In the meantime their little sister at home was growing up quickly.
She was kind-hearted and of a fair countenance, and she had a gold
star right in the middle of her forehead. One day a big washing was
going on at the palace, and the girl looking down from her window
saw twelve men's shirts hanging up to dry, and asked her mother:
`Who in the world do these shirts belong to? Surely they are
far too small for my father?'
And the Queen answered sadly: `Dear child, they belong to your
`But where are my twelve brothers?' said the girl. `I have
never even heard of them.'
`Heaven alone knows in what part of the wide world they are
wandering,' replied her mother.
Then she took the girl and opened the locked-up room; she
showed her the twelve coffins filled with shavings, and with the
little pillow laid in each.
`These coffins,' she said, `were intended for your brothers, but
they stole secretly away before you were born.'
Then she to tell her all that had happened, and when
she had finished her daughter said:
`Do not cry, dearest mother; I will go and seek my brothers till
I find them.'
So she took the twelve shirts and went on straight into the
middle of the big wood. She walked all day long, and came in the
evening to the little enchanted house. She stepped in and found a
youth who, marvelling at her beauty, at the royal robes she wore,
and at the golden star on her forehead, asked her where she came
from and whither she was going.
`I am a Princess,' she answered, `and am seeking for my twelve
brothers. I mean to wander as far as the blue sky stretches over
the earth till I find them.'
Then she showed him the twelve shirts which she had taken
with her, and Benjamin saw that it must be his sister, and
`I am Benjamin, your youngest brother.'
So they wept for joy, and kissed and hugged each other again
and again. After a time Benjamin said:
`Dear sister, there is still a little difficulty, for we had all agreed
that any girl we met should die at our hands, because it was for the
sake of a girl that we had to leave our kingdom.'
`But,' she replied, `I will gladly die if by that means I can restore
my twelve brothers to their own.'
`No,' he answered, `there is no need for that; only go and hide
under that tub till our eleven brothers come in, and I'll soon make
matters right with them.'
She did as she was bid, and soon the others came home from
the chase and sat down to supper.
`Well, Benjamin, what's the news?' they asked.
But he replied, `I like that; have you nothing to tell me?'
`No,' they answered.
Then he said: `Well, now, you've been out in the wood all the
day and I've stayed quietly at home, and all the same I know more
than you do.'
`Then tell us,' they cried.
But he answered: `Only on condition that you promise faithfully
that the first girl we meet shall not be killed.'
`She shall be spared,' they promised, `only tell us the news.'
Then Benjamin said: `Our sister is here!' and he lifted up the
tub and the Princess stepped forward, with her royal robes and with
the golden star on her forehead, looking so lovely and sweet and
charming that they all fell in love with her on the spot.
They arranged that she should stay at home with Benjamin and
help him in the house work, while the rest of the brothers went out
into the wood and shot hares and roe-deer, birds and wood-pigeons.
And Benjamin and his sister cooked their meals for them. She
gathered herbs to cook the vegetables in, fetched the wood, and
watched the pots on the fire, and always when her eleven brothers
returned she had their supper ready for them. Besides this, she
kept the house in order, tidied all the rooms, and made herself so
generally useful that her brothers were delighted, and they all lived
One day the two at home prepared a fine feast, and when they were
all assembled they sat down and ate and drank and made merry.
Now there was a little garden round the enchanted house, in
which grew twelve tall lilies. The girl, wishing to please her
brothers, plucked the twelve flowers, meaning to present one to
each of them as they sat at supper. But hardly had she plucked
the flowers when her brothers were turned into twelve ravens, who
flew croaking over the wood, and the house and garden vanished also.
So the poor girl found herself left all alone in the wood, and as
she looked round her she noticed an old woman standing close
beside her, who said:
`My child, what have you done? Why didn't you leave the
flowers alone? They were your twelve brothers. Now they are
changed for ever into ravens.'
The girl asked, sobbing: `Is there no means of setting them
`No,' said the old woman, `there is only one way in the whole
world, and that is so difficult that you won't free them by it, for
you would have to be dumb and not laugh for seven years, and if
you spoke a single word, though but an hour were wanting to the
time, your silence would all have been in vain, and that one word
would slay your brothers.'
Then the girl said to herself: `If that is all I am quite sure I
can free my brothers.' So she searched for a high tree, and when
she had found one she climbed up it and spun all day long, never
laughing or speaking one word.
Now it happened one day that a King who was hunting in the
wood had a large greyhound, who ran sniffing to the tree on which
the girl sat, and jumped round it, yelping and barking furiously.
The King's attention was attracted, and when he looked up and beheld
the beautiful Princess with the golden star on her forehead, he
was so enchanted by her beauty that he asked her on the spot to
be his wife. She gave no answer, but nodded slightly with her
head. Then he climbed up the tree himself, lifted her down, put
her on his horse and bore her home to his palace.
The marriage was celebrated with much pomp and ceremony,
but the bride neither spoke nor laughed.
When they had lived a few years happily together, the King's
mother, who was a wicked old woman, began to slander the young
Queen, and said to the King:
`She is only a low-born beggar maid that you have married;
who knows what mischief she is up to? If she is deaf and can't
speak, she might at least laugh; depend upon it, those who don't
laugh have a bad conscience.' At first the King paid no heed to
her words, but the old woman harped so long on the subject, and
accused the young Queen of so many bad things, that at last he let
himself be talked over, and condemned his beautiful wife to death.
So a great fire was lit in the courtyard of the palace, where she
was to be burnt, and the King watched the proceedings from an
upper window, crying bitterly the while, for he still loved his wife
dearly. But just as she had been bound to the stake, and the
flames were licking her garments with their red tongues, the very
last moment of the seven years had come. Then a sudden rushing
sound was heard in the air, and twelve ravens were seen flying
overhead. They swooped downwards, and as soon as they touched
the ground they turned into her twelve brothers, and she knew that
she had freed them.
They quenched the flames and put out the fire, and, unbinding
their dear sister from the stake. they kissed and hugged her again
and again. And now that she was able to open her mouth and
speak, she told the King why she had been dumb and not able to
The King rejoiced greatly when he heard she was innocent, and
they all lived happily ever afterwards.