Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 20, 2016
Primary Language: French
Other Language(s): English
The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. The informant’s mother is from Germany and his father is from Spain.
I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and questioned whether he had distinct memories of any bedtime stories that his parents told him when he was a child living in France. He described a tale that his mother would often tell him, called “The Seven Ravens.”
“A girl who is very sick and weak was born among seven brothers, so their father sent the boys to get this holy water to help their sister. But on the way, the brothers get lost, and so the father gets angry and says ‘I wish they were all turned ravens’ and they all turned into ravens. The girl eventually gets over her sickness and as she gets older she sees traces that she once had brothers. She became super curious and wanting nothing else but to find them. She met a witch who would give her this wish but she had to get all these specific materials to knot a sweater for every brother. She got super close but didn’t have time to knit the arm thing on one sweater, and all her brothers came back except one still had a wing.”
This German fairy tale, which describes a sister on a quest to find long lost members of her family, seems to closely follow the syntagmatic structure that the folklorist Vladimir Propp established for all folk tales. It follows a hero, the girl, who is sent on a long quest to fulfill a set of tasks that will satisfy her initial desire to piece together the traces of her brothers and ultimately bring them back into her life. Knowing that this tale is of German origin, I asked the informant if he knew what book his mother had read it to him from, suspecting that it was related to the vast number of fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. His response confirmed my suspicions, as he said that “The Seven Ravens” came from a book of German fairy tales his mother had that mentioned the Grimm brothers. This märchen functioned as a source of entertainment for the informant, and provided his mother a fun and suspenseful story to tell her child while allowing him to settle down for bed. The informant’s mother and father were separated, which may help to explain why his mother was not worried about telling a story that did not shed a positive light on the hero’s father figure. Despite the father’s wrath in the tale, “The Seven Ravens” places importance on themes of family unity and persistence, and in turn functions to encourage young audience members to care for and support their family members and to never give up when faced with a difficult task.
For the version of “The Seven Ravens” first published by the Grimm brothers, see the annotation below.
- Die Sieben Raben, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (1857), no. 25.
- In the ATU categorical index, this falls under Aarne-Thompson type 451, The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds. Tales of this type are found throughout Europe.