This fairy tale was passed on to the Grimms by Philipp Otto Runge, a German Romantic painter, who also shared with them ‘The Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife’. Neither are particular well known in comparison to the Disney favourites – ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow-White’, ‘Rapunzel’, etc.- but nevertheless, it is a classic. ‘The Juniper Tree’ is a more literary tale than most of the Grimm’s stories, unlike some of the simpler stories, the writing in this one has a poetic flare.
The story goes as follows:
A wife struggling with conception wishes that she could have a child ‘as red as blood and as white as snow’. Miraculously she falls pregnant, but come the ninth month, she dies in childbirth. It’s a beautiful bouncing baby boy and the mother is buried beneath the Juniper tree.
A while later the father remarries a woman who has a daughter of her own, Marleen. The typically evil stepmother despises the sight of the little boy so much she plots to kill him. She offers him an apple but just as he reaches into a wooden chest to get one she decapitates him by slamming the lid closed on his neck. In an attempt to hide what she has done, she ties a kerchief around his neck and places his head back on. When Marleen comes home the stepmother says to her to go and offer him an apple. When he doesn’t respond she pushes him and, seeing his head rolling across the floor, believes she has killed him. It is in this way that the stepmother shifts the blame from herself to her daughter. Marleen is very upset that she’s killed her stepbrother and so they agree not to tell the father. The stepmother tells him the little boy has gone to stay at a relative’s and that night cooks up a huge stew. The father expects nothing and yes, eats his son.
Marleen buries the remaining bones beneath the Juniper tree alongside his mother but ho and behold, he is reincarnated into a phoenix. He flies over the village and sings the song:
‘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 first listener is a goldsmith, who gives him a gold chain for repeating the song. The second listener is a shoemaker, who gives him a pair of red shoes for repeating the song. The third listener is a young miller lad, who gives him a millstone for repeating the song. The phoenix then gifts the chain to his father and the shoes to his stepsister before dropping the millstone on his stepmother’s head and squashing her flat. The bird-boy has gotten his revenge. He turns back into a boy and the three of them go back into the house to enjoy supper together.
There are so many creepy elements to this story, but maybe that’s why I like it so much. Though it’s not surprising Disney didn’t deem it suitable for a children’s movie. First there’s the murder of the little boy. Then the cannibalism. Then another murder. On top of this there’s the chilling fact that no-one seems to care about the morality of any of it. Everybody apart from the stepmother seems immune to hearing the words of the phoenix’s song, and the father and his two children are happy to resume their banal lives at the end of the story as if nothing ever happened. It’s a strange one if you ask me.