Analyzing the Grimm’s fairy tale ‘The Juniper Tree’
The Juniper Tree falls into the category of the darker Grimms’ Fairy Tales. On the surface, it reads like an odd enough story, but the themes that accompany it and the way that the writer evokes certain emotions makes for a very intriguing read. This analysis will make more sense if you’ve read the tale before. To revive your memory, you can read it again here!
The story begins with a trademark fairytale motif — a wealthy couple, longing for a child. One day, as the woman sits under a juniper tree, she accidentally cuts her hand on a knife and wishes for a child “as white as snow and as red as blood” (p.187). This is the first (of many) sentences in the story that set a dark and eerie undertone to the story for it is creepy to think about why that is the first thing the woman thinks of as she bleeds. Afterwards, as she gets up from the tree she feels quite content and at peace as if her wish had come true. The tale symbolizes the woman’s pregnancy with the passing seasons (“a month has passed and all the snow had all disappeared, then another month went by, and all the earth was green”, p.187), in a sentence that combines the description with the events that are taking place. By giving the different months’ specific characteristics, the reader is able to attribute the passing of time with the growth of the baby. This was also noted in the book A Literary Approach to the Brothers Grimm in what the authors describe to be a beautiful paragraph “where the mother’s pregnancy is described in terms of the fruit- fullness of nature, especially of the juniper itself” (David & David, 1964, p.185).
Many months later, the woman stands under the same tree and eats one of the berries from it, consequently falling ill and dying. Before her death, however, she gives birth to a child and asks her husband to bury her under the juniper tree. The tree, as it has now been established, is no ordinary tree for it evokes feelings of both extreme sadness and happiness. The line “her joy was so great that she died” (p.187) might make little sense at first but on closer look, the real cause of her death might come forward. The berries caused the woman to become very sad and ill — perhaps the sickness here refers to depression at the distressing thought that she couldn’t spend her life with the child she had desired for so long. Perhaps it was this thought that overwhelmed and grieved her and thus took her life away. Though this might sound farfetched, it is an interesting aspect to think about. Nevertheless, after the wife passes away, the husband eventually remarries and has another child with his new wife. The girl, named Marlene, is much loved by her mother who loathes the fact that her stepbrother will end up inheriting everything. It is interesting to note how you have a mother who hates a boy — in other stories, traditionally, we have the girl who is hated on (Snow White, Cinderella etc). Here, however, it is the boy who is at the mercy of a stepmother and despite his father being alive, there is little he can do about it. Perhaps this indicates the authority of his father in the household or perhaps it points to a careless father who is unaware of everything that happens within the family. It is also interesting to note how the two female characters in the book are polar opposites of each other — one portrayed as an angel while the other as the devil. Consequently, the stepmother is successful in killing her stepson by decapitating his head. This horrifying event only serves to set the tone of the story and points to the fact that this just the beginning of a series of events that will leave the reader with a sour taste in their mouth.
After the stepmother kills the boy, she is suddenly overcome with fear and horror at what she’s done and how she will hide this evil deed. It is then that an idea hits her — she grabs the handkerchief and ties the dead boy’s head with the handkerchief. If the decapitation wasn’t insane enough, the idea that the boy’s head is being held by a handkerchief certainly takes the cake. The young girl then comes home and tells her mother that her brother isn’t replying to her. The sly mother, in an attempt to save herself from the situation, asks the daughter to talk to her brother again and if he doesn’t reply, she can hit him. The young girl does just that and in doing so, the boy’s head falls off. Terrified, the young girl runs to her mother and tells her what has happened. The mother pretends to be shocked and tells her daughter that no one must know about what Marlene did so she cuts the body up and serves it to her husband for dinner, and all the while Marlene weeps and cries. The father, upon returning for work, asks his wife about the whereabouts of his son. The wife lies and tells him that the boy left to stay with his mother’s great uncle. The father, though surprised and saddened at first, does not take long to forget about this and gets on with his dinner. This raises an interesting question of whether the writer of this story was trying to point to the seven deadly sins found in Roman Catholic theology, which in this case could be greed, envy and gluttony. The wife commits the sin of greed for it is her envy and greed of the inheritance for her daughter that leads to the boy’s murder. The father, on the other hand, falls victim to the sin of gluttony — he is far too concerned with the food that his wife makes for him to think about how his son left in such strange circumstances or to ask why his daughter keeps on crying for such a long time. This scene also serves to highlight the authority the stepmother holds — she is successful in killing her stepson, manipulating her daughter into believing she killed him and making the father eat his son’s remains thus making him a part of the events. The theme of cannibalism and murder is undertaken in a highly fascinating way here.
After dinner, Marlene picks up the bones her father threw after his meal and heads out to the juniper tree, where she covers them with her silk handkerchief and feels contended after having done this. It is ironic to note how Marlene, the character with the least authority, is now responsible for the disposal of her brother’s bones. The juniper tree then starts to move about and a great mist covers it and out comes a beautiful bird, which we are to assume is the boy. The bird then roams around town singing a song detailing how his mother murdered him, his father ate him and his sister buried his bones. The townspeople, ignoring the lyrics of the song, are impressed by the bird’s song and ask him to sing again. Could this be a metaphor about how the world is blind to the horrors of the abuse the boy faced, even though he very clearly and loudly sings it in front of the town? One might say so.
Regardless, the bird refuses to sing any more until it is paid something of value. In this manner, the bird earns a gold chain, a pair of red shoes and a stone. What makes this scene ironic is that his stepmother killed him in the pursuit of inheritance and now the boy himself is after money. Perhaps, this is an attempt to make his own money so that he may never suffer such a fate at the hands of greed again or so that he can secure his future without any need of his father’s inheritance. In any case, the bird now moves on to his own home where he waits till his stepmother comes out and then throws the millstone at her which crushes her to death. When Marlene and the boy’s father come out to see what caused the noise, they find that the boy is alive again who takes their hand as the three rejoice and head on to dinner. This again, seems to highlight the lack of sense in the father who doesn’t question where his wife went and instead heads on to have dinner, once again. This also brings out a surprise turn of events where the victimized protagonist, unlike other fairy tales we normally encounter, seeks his revenge directly and is not punished for his actions. Moreover, it is interesting to note how the different genders function in this story. The father and son are portrayed as morally-ambiguous male characters — the father eats his son but it still pardoned at the end and the boy’s act of violence of murdering his stepmother is also justified because it was carried out in revenge. On the other hand, Marlene and her mother are, as mentioned above, portrayed as complete opposites of one another and this characterization points to the question of whether the male and female characters were judged with different moral codes. Another important thing that is consistent throughout the story is the theme of desire. Each main character seems to desire something. At the starting, the mother desires a child. In the middle of the story, the stepmother desires the wealth of the boy for her daughter. In the same way, the father also eats his son because of his desire for food. Whether this seems to suggest that desire is a tool of evil is a question that remains.
The symbolism of the tree is also an interesting writing element to note. The tree perhaps acts as a guardian spirit for the boy since his mother was buried underneath it. But more importantly, the tree comes to be seen as the symbol of nature and it is through the tree that the boy is back to life and the stepmother is destroyed — the stepmother being seen as an unnatural object for she brought chaos in the cycle of life by killing a child (David & David, 1964). Moreover, the authors (1964) also believe that this tale points to the connection between fairy tales and ancient mythology and religion that the Grimms perceived.
The story — though dark and strange — has appealed strongly to readers around the world. What is most striking to me, however, is how normally everything takes place. The boy’s murder, for example or even the stepmother’s murder at that. This is familiar in most fairytales we grew up reading — this sense of mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar and the strange with the everyday that perhaps attracts us most. But perhaps what stays with the reader long after they’ve finished reading is the mood the story set. Much like the story A Mouthful of Birds, this story also sets a tone that is strange, bizarre and downright horrifying in places. With murder, cannibalism and mutilation, there’s certainly a lot that the story leaves behind it. As Neile writes in his paper titled Deconstructing the Magic Spell, “Yet there is something about the Grimms’ tales — indeed, the same is true for all folklore — that compels those who touch them to put on them their personal stamp, whether or not they realize it” (Neile, 2015). It is precisely the tale’s dealing of the absurd with such normality that intrigues the reader. The story is also very visually appealing and the imagery is strong in the sense that the boy is portrayed as a beautiful bird (“a beautiful bird flew out of the fire and began singing magnificently”, p.152) and the juniper tree is attributed to feelings of happiness and joy. The parallels between life and death and resurrection, the themes and motifs of cannibalism and greed and the contrasts with other fairytales are all elements that make the Juniper Tree a very fascinating read.
However, apart from the obvious motifs and underlying themes, it is important to write about what discourse these lead to. Many authors have written extensively about the Juniper Tree and talked about the notion of femininity within this tale. In their paper titled Mourning Mothers and Seeing Siblings: Feminism and Place in The Juniper Tree, the authors note that stories such as the juniper tree have a transformative power — “when real violence is treated at a comfortable distance, as in a seemingly unrealistic folktale, both teller and listeners create their own space for making personal connections” (Greenhill & Brydon, 2010, p.128). Moreover, some believe that that these stories serve as an emotional release for the stresses of everyday life or childhood fantasies (Stone 1998, p.192). Another author links the father’s incestuous cannibalism with the myth of Kronos (the Greek God) who ate all his children and then vomited them up whole — “a motif of male parturition or, in effect, of male biological motherhood” (Warner, 1998, p.63). Warner (1998) notes that even after the father eats his son’s bones, he does not die and is instead later resurrected. Thus, paternity, much as it did with the Greek myth, serves to make the child whole again. An example of this is found even in other fairy tales — in Fairy Tale as Myth, Zipes writes that there were certain fairy tales by the Grimms that conveyed messages that seemed innocent as maxims. In Sleeping Beauty, for example, it seems that male energy and will power “restore anything to life, even an immense realm in a comma” (Zipes, 1987, p.5). Another interesting contrast is drawn with Snow White by authors Gilbert and Gubar (1999) who claim that both sleeping beauty and the boy have stepmothers who try to kill them but while the female protagonist turns into a ‘silent art object’, the boy turns into a bird who sings songs of vengeance and eventually seeks his revenge. What this difference points to is how the girl is expected to be “mute” while the boy must fight for himself and speak up.
Authors Greenhill and Byrdon (2010) also write that “scapegoating” mothers is a common trait found in traditional folklore and is also popular in cultural media narrative, with the characters of women often being one dimensional — the good mother who is nurturing, the bad mother who is full of envy, the heroic mother who suffers quietly for the sake of her husband and children and the vain or weak mother (Greenhill & Brydon, 2010, p.130). There is no representation, argues feminist film theorist Ann Kaplan (2010), for the mother as a complex person with her own needs and desires. In the Juniper Tree the stepmother is securing the financial freedom of her daughter and though she goes to extreme measures to do so, the reasons for her committing this act are not explored.
To sum up, The Juniper Tree is… weird. There’s no other way to put it. Regardless, it makes for an interesting read and the accompanying motifs certainly leave lots of room for analysis!