The Juniper Tree (fairy tale)
It is tale number 47 and Aarne-Thompson type 720: "my mother slew me, my father ate me". Another such tale is the English The Rose-Tree, although it reverses the sexes from The Juniper Tree; The Juniper Tree follows the more common pattern of having the dead child be the boy.
A woman wishes for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. She knows she is about to die, so she requests that she be buried under a juniper tree that her family has outside, as that is where she wished for the child. After a few months she gives birth to a son and dies a few days later. She is buried underneath the Juniper tree. Her husband grieves for a long time, and gets married again. His second wife gives birth to a daughter, Marjory, but hates the son because he would be the one to inherit all the family's money, and she wishes it to be her daughter. One day, she offers Marjory an apple and she graciously accepts it. Then she has an evil thought and cruelly offers the boy one. As he reaches in a box to get it, she slams the box's heavy lid on him, beheading him. She then takes a bandage and ties his head back to his body, and tells Marjory to ask him for the apple, and if he doesn't give it, to give him a good box on the ear. Marjory kindly asks for the apple, and then boxes him on the ear, resulting in the boy's head falling off. Marjory goes to her mother and tells her in sobs that she killed her brother. Her mother reassures Marjory and they both agree not to tell the father. Marjory cannot stop weeping. When the father returns the boy has 'gone to stay with his uncle'. The father is upset that the boy did not say goodbye and tells Marjory that he will be home soon. The stepmother then turns the boy's body into a stew, and in some other versions, black sausages, without anyone knowing apart from her and Marjory.
The father eats the stew, suspecting nothing, and declares it delicious. Marjory, however, keeps the bones left over from the meal and buries them beneath the Juniper tree. A beautiful bird flies out of the tree. It goes and sings a song to a goldsmith about its cruel death at the hands of its mother and how caring his sister is. The goldsmith gives the bird a golden chain because the song is so beautiful. The bird also sings the same song to a shoemaker, who gives it a pair of red shoes, and to millers, who give it a millstone. It then flies back home and sings its song. The father goes out to see what is singing such a beautiful song and the golden chain falls about his neck. The father tells everyone that a beautiful bird gave him a chain. It sings again and Marjory goes out to see if this is true, and the red shoes fall to her. She comes in giggling happily and tells everyone how happy she is with what the bird has given her. All this time the stepmother is complaining of heat, claiming she has a horrid fire burning in her veins. It sings a third time, the stepmother goes out, hoping for relief, and the bird drops the millstone on her, crushing and killing her. The father and Marjory go out to see what caused the loud crash, but find nothing but a swirl of smoke and a stone. The brother is standing there, looking happy, and they all go inside for dinner.
Many folklorists interpret evil stepmothers as stemming from actual competition between a woman and her stepchildren for resources. In this tale, the motive is made explicit: the stepmother wants her daughter to inherit everything.
The millstone in the story would have had Biblical connotations for the readers of the Grimms' days, especially as the verse Luke 17:2 says that anyone who causes a child to sin would be better off being thrown into the sea with a millstone about his neck; both refer to a millstone as a punishment for those who harm the young and innocent.
In his essay "On Fairy-Stories", J.R.R. Tolkien cited The Juniper Tree as an example of the evils of censorship for children; many versions in his day omitted the stew, and Tolkien thought children should not be spared it, unless they were spared the whole fairy tale.
The story was adapted:
- For the comic book Grimm Fairy Tales as issue 17. The story goes: a woman kills her stepson in order to prevent him from eloping with her daughter, then buries his body underneath the juniper tree in their yard. The next day, a bird on the branch of the tree tells the daughter the truth, and out of grief, she hangs herself from the tree. The story is told to a woman named Patricia, who was contemplating having her drug-addict stepson Bryan killed because of the horrible example he set for her daughter, Carolyn. But, in a sense of twisted irony, her daughter dies anyway from a drug overdose.
- By Barbara Comyns Carr in her novel, The Juniper Tree, published by Methuen in 1985. In Comyns Carr's adaptation the stepmother is a sympathetic character and the son's death an accident. Whereas in Grimm's fairy tale it is Marlene (the daughter) who buries the bones of the son, Comyns Carr makes Marlene ignorant of the death and has the stepmother, desperate to prevent her husband from finding out and in the throes of a nervous breakdown, bury the little boy under the juniper tree. At the end of the adaptation, the stepmother does not die but is treated and begins a new life. The Juniper Tree was Barbara Comyns Carr's first novel after an 18-year hiatus in her work and was described in The Financial Times, at the time of publication, as "delicate, tough, quick-moving .... haunting".
- As The Juniper Tree, an opera in two acts by Philip Glass & Robert Moran, (1985); libretto by Arthur Yorinks.
- As the 1990 Icelandic film The Juniper Tree, based on the Grimm Brothers' tale, starring Björk as a visionary young girl whose mother has been put to death as a witch.
- Jacob and Wilheim Grimm, "The Juniper-Tree", Household Tales
- Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 209 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
- Maria Tatar, p 161, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
- Maria Tatar, Off with Their Heads! p. 213 ISBN 0-691-06943-3
- J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories", The Tolkien Reader, p 31
- Comyns Carr, Barbara: The Juniper Tree, Adapted from a children's fairy story of the same name by the Brother's Grimm, which is far too macabre for adult reading. Published by Methuen, 1985. ISBN 0-413-59180-8