Monday, February 05, 2007

Obscure Fairy Tale: The Juniper Tree

Eeks -- it's been ages since I last told you guys about an obscure fairy tale. As those of you who have been reading along know (hi, Dad!), I've been retelling some of the random fairy tales that I ran across while doing research for INTO THE WILD. There are tons of bizarre stories out there that I think deserve their day in the sun. Since it's been so long since my last tale, I'm going to give you guys a real doozy: The Juniper Tree. This disturbing little ditty has the dubious distinction of being the one fairy tale that has actually given me nightmares. It does NOT appear in INTO THE WILD.

The Juniper Tree (from the Brothers Grimm)

A woman desperately wants a child. One day, as she pares an apple while standing beneath a juniper tree, she cuts her finger and blood falls on the snow. She says, "If I had but a child as red as blood and as white as snow!"

Talk about an odd request. Most people would wish for a healthy baby or perhaps a boy or a girl. No, she wants a red and white kid. And notice that she doesn't specify which body parts. (In Snow White, the woman is much more specific: she wants a child with black hair, white skin, and red lips.) This seems to me a recipe for disaster. I really thought the kid would turn out polka-dotted.

Nine months later, the woman gives birth to a boy and is so delighted that she dies. Her grieving husband buries her beneath the juniper tree.

"So delighted that she dies"?!? (Note: I'm quoting this phrase directly from Grimm.) There are lots of things that can go wrong in childbirth. Do pregnant women really need to start worrying about being too happy? They don't mention that in "What To Expect When You're Expecting."

Eventually, the man remarries, and his second wife hates the first wife's child. She thinks that he stands in the way of her beloved daughter inheriting the man's fortune. One day, she offers the boy an apple from a chest with a very heavy lid.

Who keeps apples in chests with heavy lids? What's wrong with a nice fruit bowl?

When the boy stoops over to pick out an apple, she slams the lid down on his neck. His head flies off and lands in the apples.

Eww! Did I really need that image in my head?

The woman is terrified that someone will think that she did it. So she finds a white handkerchief, sticks the boy's head back on his neck, and wraps the handkerchief around the wound. Then she props him up by the front door and sticks an apple in his hand. Later, her daughter Marlinchen comes and says, "Mother, my brother is by the door looking really white. I asked him for his apple, and he wouldn't answer me." The woman tells her to go ask him again, and if he doesn't answer, to box his ears. So the girl obeys, hits her brother on the ear, and his head falls off.

Years of psychotherapy for this girl. Frankly, I think what the mother did to her daughter is almost worse than what she did to her stepson.

The girl runs to her mother who says, "What have you done?" Her mother says they need to hide what she's done, so she chops up the body and turns him into black pudding.

Anyone seen "Fried Green Tomatoes"?

When the boy's father comes home, his wife says that the boy has gone to visit some relatives, and then she serves him the black pudding. The girl sobs throughout the meal, but the father gobbles up every bite with gusto.

How about "Soylent Green"?

After dinner, the girl buries her brother's bones in a silk handkerchief under the juniper tree and weeps tears of blood. Then the tree quivers and a beautiful bird flies out, and suddenly Marlinchen feels comforted.

Personally, I think she should be worried about those tears of blood. I'm not a doctor, but that can't be good.

The bird flies to a goldsmith's house and sings: "My mother she killed me, My father he ate me, My sister, little Marlinchen, Gathered together all my bones, Tied them in a silken handkerchief, Laid them beneath the juniper tree, Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I!"

Catchy little jingle.

The goldsmith cries, "What a beautiful song! Sing it again!"

Beautiful? Was he listening? Maybe the bird sang it in bird language, and the Grimms are translating for us.

The bird says he'll sing it again in exchange for a gold necklace. The goldsmith gives him the necklace, and he sings again.

There goes the translation theory. Maybe he's just not the sort of guy who listens to lyrics.

Next, the bird flies to a shoemaker's house and sings the same song. The shoemaker cries, "What a beautiful song! Sing it again!" The bird says he'll sing it again in exchange for a pair of red shoes. The shoemaker gives him the shoes, and he sings again. Lastly, he goes to a mill and sings the song. The millers give him a millstone in exchange for an encore. The bird puts the millstone around his neck like a collar and flies home.

Strong bird.

Perched in the juniper tree, the bird sings, "My mother she killed me, My father he ate me, My sister, little Marlinchen, Gathered together all my bones, Tied them in a silken handkerchief, Laid them beneath the juniper tree, Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I!"

The father runs outside to hear the bird, and the bird drops the gold necklace down on him. He is elated. The sister runs outside to hear the bird, and he drops the red shoes down on her. She is elated. The stepmother runs outside to hear the bird, and the bird drops the millstone down on her and kills her.

Can't really complain about the justice here, though the millstone seems an odd choice.

Then smoke and flames rise from the juniper tree, and suddenly, the boy stands there alive and well. The father, the girl, and the boy join hands, go inside, and have dinner.

Dinner? Dinner?!? After all that, they're feeling peckish? And isn't anyone going to do anything about the dead body on the lawn??

Guess not.

See, I told you this one was disturbing. If you'd like to read a less disturbing obscure fairy tale, check out Molly Whuppie, Tatterhood, Jack My Hedgehog, or The Wishing Table.



At 11:33 AM, Blogger Faith said...

Okay, that was just gross, sick, and disturbing. Ugh! I wonder if Shakespeare knew of that one, and stole from it for Titus Andronicus?

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Erin said...

*gasps* That was so fun (in a disgusting way of course) to read!

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Susan Adrian said...

[Personally, I think she should be worried about those tears of blood. I'm not a doctor, but that can't be good.]

LOLOL! I loved your comments! I've read this one before, and it is one of the weirdest ever.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Jacquelyn said...

I remember this story from my rather large collection of Grimm fairytales, and I must say I found it disturbing, too, almost as disturbing as the one about the girl whose father sold her to the devil and ended up cutting off her hands. o.O

Anyway, thanks for sharing this with us! As usually, your comments are dead-on (pun not intended) and quite hilarious! =D

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

FAITH: I'm not sure about Titus, but it wouldn't surprise me (though I've heard that Shakespeare's usual source material was old episodes of "Three's Company").

ERIN: This is the story I was telling you about in the Comments to my "Molly Whuppie" post. Glad you liked my version!

SUSAN: This one definitely puts the "grim" in Grimm. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.) Thanks for the LOL!

SHERRY: Glad it made you laugh! As disturbing as the story is, I always crack up on the "kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I" line. I mean, seriously, after all those revelations, the final climax of his song is "gee, my feathers are nice"?!?

JACQUELYN: Ooh, yeah, that's a good one. Thanks for reminding me about it!

At 9:25 AM, Blogger Liz Jones said...

Sarah! It's great to see you here-- I recognized your lj icon from myspace. I read the Juniper Tree as part of a course on fantasy and romance lit in college-- this was back in the day of Iron John and finding one's shadow, so of course we made plenty of hay out of it. My fvorite grotesque fairy tale is One Eyes Two Eyes Three Eyes-- I'm guessing it might be a wrinkly on your "Wishing Table", so I'm going to go back and check. Some of those stories are sooo creepy!

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Liz Jones said...

Oh-- PS, If you were wondering-- I saw your link to this post in re_mused...

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Hi, Liz! Thanks for finding me here! Just wandered over to your blog. I LOVE your Little Red Riding Hood illustration. Very cool.

(Everyone, here's the link if you want to check it out:

At 3:06 PM, Blogger David T. Macknet said...

German conceptions of 'Karma'? Oh, my!

At 9:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your work. You should do some "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast" variants like "Allerleirauh" or "East of the Sun & West of the Moon".

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: Thanks! I adore those variants. Also Coat-of-Rushes.

At 4:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This tale is CREEPY!!! I actually remeber having nightmares of a headless Snow White (The kid in here reminds me of her because of what his mother wished).

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Alessia said...

I loved it! :)
Yes it was (note the imaginary emphasis on the "was") but with your comments it made it utterly.. funny.
How ironic, I noticed I get engrossed on the "old, back then" kind of folktales, with the unnecessary disturbing details.. they are just more peculiar than the "now day" ones!
Can't wait to enjoy more.

P.S. It's been a while since I've "stalked" your site.. though I finally gave up and registered to blogger a couple weeks ago.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Welcome back, Alessia! I like the peculiar ones too, especially the ones with random unexplained extra details and unmotivated actions.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Zombie Girrrl said...

Is it wrong that I was laughing the way through? That was just too weird! Do you think they ate the stepmother for dinner? And what is it with stepmothers and fairy tales?!?

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The millstone makes sense. It's big, it's heavy (like an anvil in modern-day cartoons), and it's vaguely Biblical.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard the scottish version of this story, "The Milk White Doo", in that version the evil stepmother makes soup, and she tastes it, and tastes it until it's nearly all gone and then calls in the son, kills him and cooks him, but his sister picks up his bones and puts them under a white stone and he grows into a dove and sings
"coo coo ma mimmy me slew
ma daddy me chew
ma sister gathered ma banes
and put them between to milk white stanes
and I grew and grew
to a milk white doo
I took to my wings and away I flew"
after that the story is identical to the Juniper tree but at the end the dove doesn't turn into a human

At 6:44 PM, Anonymous uncle ism said...

awesome, hadn't heard of this one, im on a sort of "re"guest through tales and folklore, i love your comments, they mirror my own thoughts in many ways.

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous JakobD said...

Once read this one from the book "Grimm's Grimmest". It had illustrations. Very good, DETAILED illustrations.
I actually recommend it though, the added creepiness and over-all ambience of the book gave the story added deimobility*.
*deimobility- from Greek "deimos", or "mass terror and panic". A noun meaning the ability to cause said deimos.

At 10:07 PM, Anonymous AL Tan said...

Sound like one to Tim Burton classic, tears of blood, cannibalism, put the blame on someone else and sudden resurrection of the boy.

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous JIm Allan said...

J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fair y Stories” is available in various anthologies, notably in the volume “Tales from the Perilous Realm”. In this essay Tolkien writes the following paragraph:

For one thing they are now _old_, and antiquity has an appeal in itself. The beauty and horror of _The Juniper Tree_ (_Von dem Machandelboom_), with its exquisite and tragic beginning, the abominable cannibal stew, the gruesome bones, the gay and vengeful bird-spirit coming out of a mist that rose from the tree, has remained with me since childhood; and yet always the chief flavour of that tale lingering in the memory was not beauty or horror, but distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by _twe tusend Johr_. Without the stew and the bones – which children are now too often spared in mollified versions of Grimm¹ – that vision would largely have been lost. I do not think I was harmed by the horror in the fairytale setting, out of whatever dark beliefs and practices of the past it may have come. Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect, an effect quite independent of the findings of Comparative Folk-lore, and one which it cannot spoil or explain; they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.

¹ They should not be spared it – unless they are spared the whole story until their digestions are stronger.

At 8:07 PM, Blogger Echo said...

Wow, I had no idea. My mother used to recite this poem (this was in the 1950s):

Pew, pew,
Me mimmy me slew
Me daddy me chew
Me sister she gather me banes
And wrapped them up with three milk-white skanes*
Pew, pew, pew

I was too young to be frightened by it. Instead, of course, I thought something that started out "Pew, pew," was hilarious. And the rhythm was catchy. Obviously she recited it at enough odd moments that I still remember it today, and I will be 72 this year.

*I have always thought (once I was old enough to unravel the words) that the sister wrapped the bones in three white silken cloths called skanes or skeins. Given how often I must have heard it, it's not likely the last word was different, but still now that I've read the story, I wonder if the bones were wrapped up with stones ("stanes"). Pew, pew, pew,


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