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Literature / The Juniper Tree

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It was my mother who butchered me,
It was my father who ate me,
My sister, little Marleen,
Found all my little bones,
Bound them in a silken cloth,
And laid them under the juniper tree.
Peewit, peewit, what a beautiful bird am I!

The Juniper Tree (Low German: Von dem Machandelboom) is a Fairy Tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. It is the forty-seventh story anthologized in Kinder und Hausmärchen, or Children's and Household Tales, their landmark collection of German folklore first published in 1812. It is one of the most violent stories in the entire collection.

2000 years ago, there lived a rich man and his beautiful wife. Though they loved each other dearly, they longed for a child. One winter day under the juniper tree, the woman cuts her finger and wishes for a child as red as the blood and white as the snow. Sure enough, she soon discovers she is pregnant, and gives birth to a beautiful baby boy. Tragically, she dies in childbirth.

Following his wife's request, the man buries her beneath the juniper tree. Years later, he remarries and has a daughter with his second wife. The second wife loves her own child, Marlene, but despises and abuses her stepson.

One fateful day, the stepmother lures the boy into an empty room on the pretense of giving him an apple for an afternoon snack, where she beheads him. At first she is horrified by her actions and tries to tie the head back onto the body. But when Marlene tries to talk to her half-brother and sees the head fall off, the wicked mother convinces Marlene that she is responsible for the boy's death.

The mother makes a stew from the boy's remains, salted with Marlene's tears. Convincing the father that his son went to visit his extended family, she feeds him the stew, which he greedily devours.

In secret, Marlene wraps her half-brother's bones in her best scarf and lays them to rest beneath the juniper tree, and something miraculous happens. Mist surrounds the tree, the bones and cloth vanish, and a beautiful bird flies out.

The bird flies around town, singing this tune:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

The goldsmith, the shoemaker, and the millers all find the song so lovely that they offer payment to hear him sing it again: a gold chain, a pair of red shoes, and the millstone. With these objects, he returns to the house, where he performs his song for his awestruck father, terrified stepmother, and grieving sister. He gives the golden chain to his father, the new red shoes to his sister, and throws the millstone on the stepmother, crushing her to death.

Then the bird is engulfed in smoke and flames, and when it dissipates, the bird is a living human boy again. The children and their father reunite and live happily ever after.

In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index, this is tale type 720: "Mother Killed Me, Father Ate Me". Another tale of this type is "The Rose Tree", collected by Joseph Jacobs. D. L. Ashliman's translation, along with other tales of this type, can be found on his site here. SurLaLune also has a translation that is closer to the original German (calling the sister by her German name, Marlinchen), which can be read here.

In the original Grimm collection, this tale is in Low German (Plattdeutsch); it was written by the painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810). For another Low German fairy tale by Runge, see "The Fisherman and His Wife".

Due to its violent subject matter, the tale is rarely adapted or retold for children, but they do exist. These include the 1985 novel The Juniper Tree by Barbara Carr, a 1985 opera, and a 1990 film from Iceland (which featured the musician Björk in her debut role).

"The Juniper Tree" contains examples of:

  • Back from the Dead: The boy reincarnates as a bird, and once he kills his stepmother, he returns to life as a human child.
  • Child Eater: The wicked stepmother has no qualms about eating her stepson's body, and her ignorant husband compliments the dish.
  • Color Motif: Like Snow White, the boy is described as white and red, associated with apples, blood, and snow.
  • Death by Childbirth: The boy's biological mother suffers this fate.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: The beheading, dismemberment, and cannibalization of the boy's body are all unsettling, as is the stepmother's end in which she is crushed to death beneath a millstone.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook: A nightmarish example. The mother makes a very appetizing stew out of her stepson, with little Marlene helping by providing the salt in her tears.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Grimms stop short of making the stepmother a complete monster by repeatedly telling the readers that she is doing this because "the Evil One", aka Satan, is guiding her actions.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The stepmother hates the boy because he will inherit the family fortune and not Marlene. She does not account for sibling solidarity between the children, which is ultimately her undoing.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The main character's parents longed for a child but they could not have one until the woman cut her finger and wished for a child under the juniper tree.
  • Kick the Dog: The stepmother after killing her stepson convinces her daughter that she killed her older brother when she causes his head to roll away, leaving the poor girl in tears. On top of that, the stepmother uses her grieving tears to salt the dish made of the boy's body.
  • Off with His Head!: The stepmother kills the boy by slamming his neck with the lid of a chest full of apples. Then she sits the body upright, ties the head back in place with a scarf, and when Marlene is a little too rough with her half-brother and causes the head to roll away, she convinces the child that she is responsible.
  • Rule of Three: Three different villagers hear the boy-bird sing, offering three different objects as payment for a reprise.
  • Talking Animal: The boy-turned-bird haggles with the villagers when they ask for an encore of his song.
  • Tears of Blood: Marlene cries blood at her impromptu funeral for her brother, though her eyes dry when the miracle begins and the bones change into the magnificent bird.
  • Tempting Apple: At the start of the story, the boy's mother eats an apple under the juniper tree. This, along with the sight of blood on the freshly fallen snow, foreshadow her red-and-white baby. Then the stepmother lures the boy to his death by telling him to follow her to get an apple for an afternoon snack. When Marlene asks her brother to share the apple, she is tricked into believing that she has knocked his head off.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The murderous stepmother wants her child to inherit the family fortune. Marlene, however, stands by her half-brother and gets to be part of the happy ending.