Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Juniper Tree

Below is a summary of The Juniper Tree, a tale from the collection of the Brothers Grimm, full text can be read here. Look for the significance of food/eating, and the similarities between this tale and Snow White.

A long time ago, a man and his wife loved each other greatly but were sorrowful that they had no children and prayed fervently for one. One day when the woman was peeling an apple under the juniper tree in the garden, she cut her finger and blood dripped on the snow. She wished for a child as red as blood and as white as snow, and felt happy.

Spring came, and as the berries grew on the Juniper Tree, a child grew in her womb. The woman gorged herself on the berries from the Juniper Tree until she felt sick, and asked that if she die, she be buried under the Tree. The woman finally bore a son, as white as snow and as red as blood, and died of joy. The man was heartbroken and wept for days. After a time he felt better and was eventually ready to take a second wife.

The second wife gave birth to a daughter, and was concerned that her daughter receive the entire inheritance, and was harsh and cruel to the son.
One day her daughter asked her for an apple, and she gave her an apple from a chest with a big heavy lid. The girl asked if her brother could have an apple as well, and the woman, annoyed, said that the boy could have one when he got home from school. When he did, the wife acted as if possessed by the devil-she gave him a look of hate but asked sweetly if he would like an apple. He did, and as the little boy bent down into the chest, she slammed the lid down and his head flew off into the apples.

The wife realized with fear what she had done, and quickly fetched a scarf, propped the boy's body up, and tied the head on with the scarf. When his sister Marlene asked him a question and he did not answer, she became frightened of his stillness and pale face, and asked her mother about it. Her mother suggested that, if her brother did not answer her again, she slap his face. Marlene did this, and his head flew right off. Marlene ran crying to her mother, who said, "What a dreadful thing you've done! But don't breathe a word to a soul, for there's nothing we can do. We'll cook him up into a stew."

The mother chopped the little boy into pieces and cooked them into a stew which needed no salt because Marlene sat there and wept into it. When her father returned home, he asked where his son was, and his wife told him he had gone to stay with his uncle. The father was upset that his son had left so suddenly without saying goodbye, but he began eating the stew and thought it was delicious. He kept eating more and more, saying, "No one else can have any of it. Somehow I feel as if it's all for me."

Marlene sat crying through the meal. As her father threw the bones under the table, she collected them, tied them up in a silk handkerchief, and buried them under the Juniper Tree-only then did she feel better and stop crying. Just then a mist arose fom the tree, in which a flame was burning, and from the flame emerged a beautiful bird that began to sing. Marlene felt happy and returned home.

Kay Neilsen

The bird began to sing:
"My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!"

The neighbors who heard the bird all came out and begged him to repeat his song for them, but the bird said he would not repeat his song for nothing. He received a gold chain from the goldsmith, red shoes from the shoemaker, and a millstone from the mill workers, in payment for singing his song to them. Then the bird returned to the house with the Juniper Tree and began to sing his song again. His father felt happier the more the bird sang, the mother more frightened, and Marlene continued to weep. But the bird dropped the gold chain around the father's neck, and the red shoes at Marlene's feet, and she was happy again. The mother went outside to see if she would feel better too, but the bird dropped the millstone on her head and she died. The bird vanished in a cloud of flames, and when they left, their brother and son was standing there, and they all went in to a meal together.

Warwick Goble

This macabre tale adds cannibalism to the list of unsavory events that happen in the fairy tale world. In this tale, I don't find the murder scene nearly as chilling as the dinner scene, with the father obsessed with the stew made of his son's meat-though he is portrayed as a good character, his emotions in this tale are dramatically different than Marlene, the real compassionate hero, who was told that her brother's death was her fault.

This tale is not a true folk tale, but from a text given to the Grimms by Philipp Otto Runge, which is why it is a bit more realistic than some fairy tales. The mother has many emotions, from annoyance with her stepson, and when she kills her stepson it isn't necessarily the natural result of her hate but the result of a moment of temporary insanity; afterwards she is plagued by fear and guilt and tries to cover up what she's done, unusual for evil stepmother characters.

Maria Tatar says that both P.L. Travers and J.R.R. Tolkein thought this was a beautiful tale, despite its gruesome aspects, and I agree. Though the Grimms' version ends with the boy returning, some versions keep him as a bird. Though I'm happy for the family reunion ending (which represents the ideal family as motherless, which is a whole other issue...) I might like the other ending better. Again, it's more realistic. The son has been deeply traumatized and will never be the same, but there is still hope when he is transformed into a different, beautiful creature who recounts his story through song.


  1. Loved reading this story. Do you have any more stories/posts related to Trees?

  2. That's an interesting question-I can't think of any other fairy tales where the tree is so prominently featured (other readers, help me out if you can think of some), but it would be a really interesting study to look at the symbolism of trees in fairy tales. In older variants of Cinderella, she buried her mother's bones under a tree, watered it with her tears, and went to the tree when she wanted to go to the ball. Through the tree, her mother's spirit gave her the dress and shoes.

    That's all I can think of for now, but I'll keep my eye out for tree-related things!

  3. There's a wonderful book based on this fairy tale (it has the same title, too) by Barbara Comyns. She's one of my favorite authors and a couple of her other books have fairy tale elements ("Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead" and "The Vet's Daughter"). I'm a new reader here and just thought I'd mention it!

    Oh and Little One Eye, Little Two Eyes and Little Three Eyes features a tree that bears golden apples that springs from the heart of her goat after her stepmother kills it.

  4. Thanks Kristen. I'm actually starting work on a project now that involved folk tales and myths and legends that revolve around trees. Any help would be great! Thanks :)

    1. I am actually doing a essay on 3 German Fairy Tales. I choose the Grimm brothers since they have written several. This one is actually pretty nice and a short, 5-10 sentence summary would be good.