Rory Coyne, Po Pables
Po Pables

Graphite on maple panel with handmade frame

12 x 12 inches


This artwork is based on The Six Swans—a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.

A King gets lost in a forest, and an old woman helps him, on the condition that he marry her beautiful daughter. The King has a bad feeling about this but accepts anyway. He has six sons and a daughter from his first marriage, however, and fears that the children will be targeted by his new wife; so he sends them away and visits them in secret.

The new queen and now stepmother, who has learned witchcraft from her mother, finds out about her six stepsons and decides to get them out of her way. She sews six magical shirts and goes to the hidden castle where the children are hidden for safety, then tosses the shirts over the boys and transforms them into swans.

The brothers can only take their human forms for fifteen minutes every evening. They tell their still human younger sister that they have heard of a way to break such curses: she must make six shirts out of nettles and can’t make a sound for six years or the spell will never be broken. The girl agrees to do this and runs away, hiding in a hunter’s hut and dedicating herself solely to gathering the nettles and sewing in silence.

Years later, the King of another country finds the girl doing this, is taken by her beauty, and takes her into the court with the intention of making her his queen. However, the King’s snobbish mother hates her and does not consider her fit to be a Queen. When she gives birth to their first child, the wicked mother-in-law takes away the child and accuses the queen of killing and eating him, but the King refuses to believe it.

The young Queen gives birth to two other children, but twice again the mother-in-law hides them away and falsely claims that she has killed and eaten her babies. The King is unable to keep protecting her, and unable to properly defend herself, the queen is sentenced to be burned at the stake as a witch. All this time, she has held back her tears and her words, sewing and sewing the nettle shirts no matter what.

On the day of her execution, the Queen has all but finished making the shirts for her brothers. Only the last shirt misses a left arm. When she is brought to the stake she takes the shirts with her and when she is about to be burned, the six years expire and the six swans come flying through the air. She throws the shirts over her brothers and they regain their human form, though the youngest prince’s left arm remains a wing due to the missing sleeve.

The queen is now free to speak, and she can defend herself against the accusations. She does so with the support of her brothers. In the end, the evil mother-in-law is the one who is burned at the stake as punishment.

Work by Rory Coyne