Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The analysis of The Six Swans or How I stopped worrying and learned to love the spaces between the notes.

It is thanks to the demands of real life that Jabberwockery has been dead.  I could tell you about it here but whoever heard of using a blog to provide updates about ones personal life?  What it all boils down to is that Jabberwockery lives once again and without any further ado I present my first posting for 2014. 



It's an undeniable fact that, like so many others, I occasionally wax nostalgic for the old country. This week for instance it was when I was looking at the long list of improbable ingredients involved in creating what I laughingly refer to as a 'simple love spell'.

Aside from the fact that love itself is never simple I take pains to point out the spells of today are even less so. Because what many people don't know is that magic was once very common indeed only instead of mucking around with crystals, familiars and the phases of the moon anybody could point, "Alakazam!" and produce a satisfactory frog from a prince or occasionally vice versa
However the inner workings of the arcane only make up part of tonight's story because what it's really all about is forests, royalty, the importance of family and the great lengths that people will go to to (A) get one and (B) hold on to same.
It is, I believe, also worth noting that this particular Grim Brothers tale wouldn't look out of place under the umbrella of George R R Martins Game of Thrones series although, because of the whole 'children's story' thing, we would have to turn the dragons into swans which is only slightly less threatening as not only can a swan break a mans arm with its wing but will turn vicious pretty quickly as anyone who's ever tried to feed one at a duck pond will attest [1]

ACT 1: Of Magic, malfeasance and Mesalliace.
There was once a king. This fact surprised no one for reasons that will be made clear at a later point. One day he went out hunting boar with such enthusiasm that, by the time he had defeated the beast and began looking around for the rest of his hunting party, he found himself to be quite lost. [2] He travelled about for a while but that only had the effect of making him even more lost than before. Finally he looked up, saw an old woman coming towards him and knew that she was a witch [3]

"My good woman can you show me the way through these woods? I appear to be lost" he said this politely because those who are rude to witches in these kinds of stories seldom get a chance to try again.
"Oh yes your majesty" the witch said knowing that he was a king due to the regal glow about him [4] "I certainly can but only on one condition which, if you don't agree with, I'll make certain that you'll never leave this forest alive"
"You already know I'm a king? I've got a crown and more importantly an army. You might want to take that into consideration before attempting any sort of extortion madam"
"The proper term is mistress actually, As in Mistress of the arcane and wielder of terrible powers and I'd like to point out that if you don't agree to my terms then your conversational abilities will be limited to ribbit. But not" she concluded with an air of triumph "for very long"
"I feel that, perhaps I should hear your terms" the king hazarded "I'm certain they will prove to be reasonable"
"It's like this King Kermit. I've got a daughter but since we live out here in the middle of a dense forest it's difficult for suitors to stumble across her. She's easily the equal of any beauty you care to name"
"Snow White" the king said offhandedly
"Whats that?"
"Is your daughter the equal of Snow White? Who is the fairest in the land and, from what I understand, has rather a thing about witches"
The witch fumed at the kings insolence "Fine, she's the equal of any beauty EXCEPT for Snow White and if you take the time to make her your queen then I'll happily show you the way out of my forest" [5]

In his fear of being changed into an amazingly lifelike replica of a popular children's show host the king agreed and followed the witch to her house where her daughter sat by the fire. Of course she didn't look surprised to see the king because any witch that lets herself be surprised by unexpected visitors doesn't stay a witch for very long. They talked and it wasn't long before he brought her back to the castle where a wedding was celebrated with much rejoicing by the troupe of professional rejoicers that had been brought in especially for the occasion [6]

Now what the king hadn't told his new bride is that he had not only been married once before but was also the loving father of six boys and a girl. In fact he was so afraid that their stepmother might do the children some harm that he took them to a lonely castle which stood in the middle of a forest. [7]
This castle was so well hidden and the path leading to it was so very difficult to find that if one didn't have a magical ball of thread to follow then one would get quite lost and presumably remain so until one happened upon a witch with a daughter whereupon one can go back and restart the story because I'm not about to write this story out ad infinitum [8].
The king, being the aforementioned loving father, went out to visit his children so often that his queen took note of his absences and was full of curiosity to know where he went and what he did in the vast forests of his kingdom.

So after one of the servants spilled the beans in return for an undisclosed sum of money she searched the castle until she found the magic thread in the bottom of the royal underwear drawer.
She also made, from several pairs of the royal underwear, some tight fitting silk shirts and into these shirts was sewn a spell because she was a witch after all and it had been a long while since she had done anything to make trouble for anyone. Her chance to act came when one day the king went hunting and she followed the thread in the opposite direction.
Of course the princes, having no reason to think otherwise, believed it was their father coming down the little path and ran out to meet him but before they knew what was happening the queen had thrown the silk shirts over each of them and uttered the magic word of "Hoopla!"[9] The witch-queen went away quite happily thinking that she had gotten rid of all her stepchildren but the Princess was missed because she hadn't run outside with her brothers since, with all due respect to our modern day princess's who pride themselves on kicking in doors and smashing glass ceilings everywhere, that's not the type of thing that a well brought up princess actually does.

It was particularly early on the morrow that the royal father came to visit his children but to his horror he found nobody home except for the royal daughter.
"What's happened? Where are your brothers?"
"They've gone father, all gone and I am alone. It is so tragic, thus even now I die" as she spoke the princess moved with practiced ease from one sad pose to another and despite the gravity of the situation the king was gratified to see that her acting lessons had indeed been money well spent.
After she had finished dying the princess revealed the swan feathers, explained how her brothers had all run outside and the next thing she saw had been the six swans flying over the castle which must mean that her brothers had all been turned into swans.

So intent was the kings grieving at this magical turn of events that the fact that his wife, who was the daughter of a witch and an individual that he had actively taken pains to limit her access to his children. the majority of whom were, even now, flying about the place might actually have been responsible. I mention this as it only proves that a surplus of brains are not required for one to sit upon the throne. [10]

For the rest of the day the king made plans for the princess to return to the main castle with him but the princess, being clever and rather sensible, had other plans
"I can't remain with my father when my brothers are out in the wild world" she thought as she escaped into the densest part of the wood to where the wild things were and, after a long night of wild rumpusing of a variety sadly lost to us she came across a little house with six beds.

Unlike Snow White her first thought upon coming across this house was not
"I'll clean this house in the hopes that whoever lives here will be kind and sing the Hiho song"
but rather
"I don't know who lives in this house and they might not be friendly. So I'll just sleep underneath the bed until I can make a decision based on observational evidence"
She was just getting as comfortable as the dusty, cold, damp and very splintery floor would allow when she heard a rustling and saw six swans flying through the window. As if that wasn't surprising enough they sat down in a circle and blew at one another in a special way until their feathers blew off like an extreme case of dandruff [11] and when the feathers were cleared away her brothers were standing, once again human and taking off the silken shirts that had caused so much trouble.

Thus they were reunited and everyone went home to jam, scones and lashings of ginger beer or, to be more accurate, the exact opposite happened.

ACT 2: Of Swans and Siblings and Silence.
It was after everyone had finished rejoicing that the brothers told our Princess Sensible not to hang around this little house in the woods because it belonged to robbers.
"They're all out robbing right now but if they came back and found you then they'd kill you for certain
"What, without even singing the Hiho song?" Princess Sensible asked, in a shocked tone
"They're truly evil" her brothers assured her "This is why we'll never get a Disney film. We've got plenty of villains but none of them have catchy musical numbers"
"But you're my brothers, can't you protect me?"
"We can't at all. we can only take off the swan skins for quarter of an hour every evening but then we change into swans again. Anyway, the only way to break the spell is for you to make us six shirts out of stitchweed and you can't laugh, speak or sing for six years. We're not even joking a little bit about that, if a single sound comes from your mouth before six years has passed then all your work will be of no use and you'd have to start all over again"
"That's a highly specific spell"
"Don't look at us, we didn't write the rules on magic" [12]

After her brothers time in humanity had expired the brave princess left the robbers house with the silverware, because the ironic karma was too great to resist, and ended up living in a tree right in the middle of the forest because, once again, royalty doesn't do things the way the common people do and that's how you know they're royal. Every morning she would descend to the ground and gather the stitchweed in total silence and every night she would sit and sew until she fell asleep.

Now as it happened that the king of this particular country happened to be hunting in this particular wood and his hunters happened upon the particular tree where the princess was sewing the stitchweed shirts.
"Who are you?" they called out
"What are you doing? Come down to us"
"This is the kings forest you know, technically you're poaching that stitchweed"
But the princess wouldn't answer. In an effort to satisfy them, she threw down her golden necklace and when that didn't work her sash floated down followed by her garters and everything that she had on in a sort of terribly unsexy striptease.
Unsurprisingly the hunters didn't go away and one of them eventually climbed up the tree, brought the young lady down from Terra-aboria to Terra-firma and presented her to their King as a kind of exotic bird.

"Who are you?" the king asked kindly "what were you doing up in the tree?"
But she couldn't answer even though he asked in all the languages that he knew and at least one that he made up on the spur of the moment. Despite her silence her beauty moved the kings heart and he fell deeply in love.
After she had been brought back to the castle, bathed and dressed in a manner befitting a proper princess her beauty shone forth like a bright sunshine [13] it was obvious to anyone with half an eye that the two were deeply in love even after so short a time and nobody was surprised when the king announced that he would marry the silent princess and nobody else.

So finally the story ends happily for everyone. The princess is married and no doubt her brothers found that they enjoyed being swans so much that they all lived happily ever after.
Or, as might be expected, once again the exact opposite happened.

Act 3: Of Wives and Were-swans and Wings
The king had a mother who was as bad as he was good and what made it worse was that she wasn't the 'minions and twirly twirly moustache' kind of bad but rather the 'all smiles on the outside' version which is worse because they can do so much more damage and are difficult to spot.
In truth she hated to see anyone happy for any reason and with the kings marriage to a silent but beautiful and unknown but unquestionably regal woman that he'd found in the forest she was seeing a great many happy people which clearly meant that something had to be done.
"Quite apart from the danger of her being a witch she can't speak and certainly isn't good enough for my son. It's my high standards I suppose" she would remark casually and carefully watch every other mother as they took pains to agree with her because they all had terribly high standards for their own sons and if they didn't then, as loath as I am to actually stoop to word play, the aforementioned sons would start taking terrible pains.

In this manner a year passed and the Princess Sensible, now known as 'the Silent Queen', sewed the stitchweed shirts, remained silent and brought her first child into the world. But not all was sunshine and happiness because it was on a dark night that the kings mother, being unable to bear the sight of the happiest new mother in the kingdom, finally snapped and stole the child taking pains to smear her daughter in laws mouth with blood while she was asleep. Then she went to her son and accused the queen of eating the child. [14]
The king, being just as sensible as his wife, refused to believe it and took pains to make certain that nobody would do his wife any harm.

The next time the queen gave birth the old woman waited for another dark night and did the same as before except with more blood. Again the king refused to believe that his wife had eaten her second child.
"Mum you're mistaken. My wife is much too pious and good to do such a thing. If she were not dumb then she would defend herself and her innocence would be made clear but I'll stand by her no matter what"

The kings mother was not without guile though and when the third child suffered a "mysterious disappearance in the night" she made certain to voice her accusations of cannibalism at a time that would cause the most uproar which was in front of the entire royal court.
This time her planning paid off and by the law of the land the king was forced to give his wife up to the court of justice. In a remarkably short amount of time and after a bit of judicious prodding in the due process the Silent Queen was declared to be guilty and condemned to suffer death by fire on the morrow.

The morning of the morrow dawned and it should be noted that this particular morrow was exactly the last day of the six years which was part one of the conditions required for the lifting of the were-swan curse which had last been mentioned way back in Act 2.
Bravely the queen walked to the pyre with her head held high and with her she carried the six stitchweed shirts which happened to be part two of the aforementioned requirements for curse lifting.

Just as the fire was going to be lit the six swans flew over the heads of the crowd and surrounded the silent queen at the stake so that she could throw the shirts over them. Thankfully the magic worked quickly and her brothers stood close by her side. They had each grown strong and handsome except for the youngest who retained a swans wing instead of his left arm because the princess hadn't been able to gather enough stitchweed what with dealing with baseless accusations of infant cannibalism. [15]

After the group had gotten to the ground and the princes had formed an honor guard around their sister she went to her husband.
"Now at last I may speak to you my king and I declare to you that I'm innocent and have been very falsely accused. Oh and I love you, I've been wanting to say that for a long time"
Of course the king believed her at once because he always had but even he paled when she told him about the deceitful tactics of his mother who had stolen away with her three children and hidden them in yet another forest.

To the great joy of the sensible king and his silent queen. The assorted princes and the crowd of onlookers the young children were quickly found and returned to their parents.
The king passed judgement on his mad mother and for her crimes she was tied to the stake and quickly burnt to ashes in a method of death usually reserved for cannibals and witches which was something of an irony becase she was neither.

Thus it was that the King, Queen, the six princes and all those of narrative importance lived for many years in peace and happiness.

What happened to the Princess's father?
You know the first king. Despite the tremendous amount of building up to a confrontation he doesn't seem to catch onto the fact that his wife is the one responsible for the whole mess. Were I given to speculating wildly on the scantiest of evidence I might suggest that after he found his daughter missing he returned home to confront the witch-queen and after a series of loud arguments they both agree to attend some medieval couples counselling. Certainly at some point he kicked down her door screaming 'J'accuse!' or possibly 'J'accursed!' [16] but only because I remain a slave to the muse of drama.

The Witch-queen:
Something I'm finding hard to understand is exactly why the witch-queen turns the princes into swans in the first place. What, I wonder, is her motivation?
The only thing I can think of is that it's the old bloodline issue coming into play. I'm a little fuzzy on the royal rules of succession as it pertains to Farfaraway but as I see it with the kings heirs "mysteriously disappeared" any children that the witch-queen has would be declared the rightful heirs to the throne and after the king "mysteriously disappears" they would take their places as the rightful kings. [17]
Of course since they would be too young to rule then the witch-queen would rule, as steward if not the actual queen. Unless the throne passes down the male line then this whole thing really has been a waste of time.

The Were-swan Princes:
They could transform for 15 minutes each night which is fair enough but why didn't they fly to the king, wait until it was time for them to shed their swan skins and then denounce the witch-queen? I'm certain that it wouldn't be easy and they'd have to contend with the powers of the witch-queen but you can get quite a bit done in 15 minutes, if you're motivated enough that is.

It is nice to see a capable female protagonist who doesn't just sit and wait for Prince or indeed, King Charming to come along and rescue her. I'm not counting the appearance of her brothers at the end because, while they do appear in time to stop her being burnt at the stake, they don't actually do anything to help her physically during the story.

Although having said that I will concede that, in some versions, they are the ones who take care of the children that get abandoned in the forest and I note with interest that in these versions the princes get changed into crows or ravens rather than swans. I point this out because while swans are good at swimming and looking regal it's the Corvus branch that seems to have all the problem solvers.

However I'm moving off topic. The kings mother, I feel it must be said, was mad There can be no question about it. When you take into account the vast number of princes in these stories who return from their wanderings with princesses that are enchanting rather than enchanted then what we have here is a case of a woman who is rebelling against all accepted marriage traditions.
Only slightly less alarming is the fact that she steals children and then accuses people of eating them. In my humble opinion this woman is clearly not playing chess with a full set of cheesecakes.

But aside from the strong female role model what does this tale have to teach us?
"Politeness to everyone, especially witches that you happen to be married to, goes a long way and costs nothing" [18]

If the first king had taken the time to sit down with his wife to explain about his children then maybe none of this would have actually happened. I'm not saying there wouldn't have been plotting because throne = plots.
But if he had pointed out his current good standing with the local chapters of the assassins guild and also his complete lack of a sense of humor regarding the children, magic and the application of the latter to the former then the family might have been able to live together in relative harmony.

It is only when we consider the sheer amount of things that happen in the forests of this story that we realise the biggest lesson that we must take away is:
"If ever you manage to become a king then the first thing you must do is chop down all the forests. Nothing good will come of allowing kings and forests to mix as Macbeth, Robert Barathian and Bad Prince John have all learned to their cost"


  1. Especially when they realize that you're hiding bread from them.
  2. Three sentences in and we're already reduced to doing logic puzzles. If you've found yourself to be lost then you are not lost. You just don't know where you are except that you've found yourself so technically speaking it's everyone else who's lost.
  3. Don't ask me exactly how he knew this as witch identification would seem to be something that kings get taught
  4. It's a thing that royals do in these kinds of stories. As you can see it's helpful in dealing with peasants, witches and reading in bed.
  5. I don't think that this witch has a very good grasp on how marriages actually work. Blackmailing prospective husbands works but rarely.
  6. They're royalty. They don't do things as we common folk might do.
  7. Presumably a different forest than the first one that he'd gotten lost in.
  8. I did try but there's only so many jokes I can make before resorting to the old 'which-witch' puns and nobody wants that.
  9. Strictly speaking "Hoopla!" wasn't necessary for the spell to work but there's such a thing as showmanship.
  10. But are essential if you want to sit on the throne AND avoid any messages along the lines of "The Lannisters send their regards"
  11. which, rather ironically, is something that is traditionally curable by the hand of a king. Points if you knew this already.
  12. I mean if you've got to blame anyone then you should start with Gygaxx.
  13. It's that regal glow again.
  14. Aside from a generic and rather vague reference to 'cravings' the cannibalistic tendencies of new mothers is something that is largely glossed over in these modern times.
  15. He took this well enough and was heard to say later that at least the important parts of him were human.
  16. Apologies for my atrocious French grammar but not for my equally atrocious wordplay.
  17. Which would make her a getter of kings though she herself be none. - Ha! A Shakespearean joke at last. They said it couldn't be done!
  18. Of course we're talking Canadian levels of politeness which are not to be attempted without special equipment and training.

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