The Juniper Tree

“Probably the most shocking of all fairy tales…” Maria Tartar

Goble Juniper
Warwick Goble, The Juniper Tree, 1899

Introduction
Origins
Analysis
Scholarship
Adaptations

Introduction

The Juniper Tree is characterized as Aarne-Thompson-Uther index as a tale type 720 My Mother Killed Me; My Father Ate Me. The tale also includes several motifs from the Stith-Thompson Motif Index of Folk Literature: E607.1 Bones of dead collected and buried. Return in another form; E613.0.1 Reincarnation of murdered child as bird; G61 Relative’s flesh eaten unwittingly; N271.4 Murder discovered through knowledge of bird languages; Q211.4 Murder of children punished; Q412 Millstone dropped on guilty person; S121 Murder by slamming down chest lid; S31 Cruel stepmother

This page will focus on the Grimms’ version of the tale as the primary text, working from Jack Zipes translation found in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (Princeton U P, 2014).

The Grimms’ story opens with a childless, pious couple. The wife cuts herself while peeling an apple under the juniper tree and wishes for a child. She becomes pregnant (her pregnancy is described in parallel with the spring-summer cycle of the juniper tree) and dies in childbirth, though the child, a boy, lives. The man remarries and has a stepdaughter, Marlene. His new wife resents the boy for the privileges he enjoys, in her perspective, at Marlene’s expense. One day, she kills the boy by inviting him to take an apple out of a chest and slamming the lid on his head, decapitating him. She ties his head on with a scarf and instructs Marlene to give him a slap if he ignores her. She does this and believes she has killed him. The stepmother cooks the boy and feeds him to his father, who enjoys the meal. Marlene collects and buries the boy’s bones under the juniper tree, where they transform into a bird. The bird sings a song outlining what happened to him and collects a gold chain, red shoes, and a millstone around town in return for singing. He then returns home, where he gives the shoes to Marlene, the chain to his father, and drops the millstone on his stepmother, killing her. He is transformed back into a boy, and he, Marlene, and their father sit down for a meal.

My mother, she killed me.
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene, she made sure to see
my bones were gathered secretly, 
bound nicely in silk, as neat as can be, 
and laid beneath the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet! What a lovely bird I am!

Origins

Maria Tartar writes that there are several hundred versions of this tale, primarily in European folklore. The earliest version of this tale in the record comes from German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge. His story, written in Low German, was first published in 1808 in the journal Zeitung für Einsiedler, edited by Achim von Arnim. Runge did not give a source for his story, though he did pass it along to the Grimm Brothers, who translated the text to a more formal German and included it in the 1812 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen. While Runge’s version is the earliest, there are a significant number of other Juniper Tree variants from other cultures, and the tale was certainly circulating in the oral tradition long before Runge recorded a version. Many versions of the story were recorded and published within a century of the Grimms’ publication. Below are summaries of ten of the most notable versions of the story and text of the bird’s song in each variant. These stories were almost all collected as oral stories, transcribed, and then printed.

Why does the Cuckoo Call ‘Cuckoo’?: The Story of the Little Boy and the Wicked Stepmother, Romania
A poor man and his wife have two children. When their mother dies, the man remarries a foul woman who does not want to be a stepmother. The children go with their father to cut wood, and the little girl leaves a trail of ashes behind her. The father abandons them, but the children follow the ash trail home, where the stepmother greets them in fury. Later, she kills the boy and instructs his sister to cook him. She obeys and her father eats his child. The girl hides her brother’s heart and bones in a tree, where the next morning a singing bird appears. The stepmother hears his song and attempts to kill the bird with salt. Instead, the salt lump falls on her head and kills her. The boy remains a cuckoo.
Cuckoo! My sister has cooked me, and my father has eaten me, but I am now a cuckoo and safe from my stepmother.
Source: Gaster, Moses.  Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories Rednered into English. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1915, pp. 225-27.

The Crow’s Nest, Hungary
A poor couple has two children. While the husband is in the field working, his wife cooks their son and sends her daughter to deliver the food to her father. The husband enjoys the food, but the girl, suspecting what her mother has done, hides the bones in the tree. The next spring, a crow hatches the bones and the boy comes back as a bird, who sings the song and collects gifts – a cloak, a stick, and a millstone. The bird gives the gifts to his family, killing his mother.  

My mother killed me, / My father ate me, / My sister gathered up my bones, / She wrapped them in clean white linen, / She placed them in a hollow tree, / And now, behold, I’m a young crow.
Source: Jones, Henry and Lewis Kropf. The Folk-Tales of the Magyars.  Pub. for the Folk-lore Society by E. Stock, 1889, pp. 298-301.

My Mother Killed Me, My Father Ate Me, Isla de Providencia
The story begins with a woman who  kills her son, cooks him, and serves him to her husband, saying that she bought the meat from the neighbors. The boy’s sister buries the bones under an almond tree, where the boy’s spirit turnes into a bird. The boy sings at goldsmiths’ shops for golden slippers and a golden stone. He flies home, where he gives his sister the shoes and kills his mother with the golden grindstone, saying “Mama, you killed me and I killed you.”
My mother killed me, my father ate me, / My sister Marjileta took my bones and laid them under the almond tree.
Source: Abrahams, Roger. Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. Pantheon Books, 1985, pp. 113-14.

Applie and Orangie, Scotland
In this variant, a man has two daughters: Applie is the daughter of his first wife and the other is the daughter of his second wife, the stepmother. Applie is sent to collect milk in her stepmother’s golden jug with the warning that if she breaks it, the stepmother will “murder” her. Her sister trips her on the way, breaking the jug. The stepmother murders her, and cooks her in a soup. The girls’ father finds a pinkie in the soup, beats his wife, gathers the bones, and gives them to the other daughter, who buries them between marble stones.  A pigeon comes out of the stones and goes to buy Christmas presents, singing a song and collecting a doll, a watch, and a sharp axe. She delivers the presents to her family, beheading the stepmother.
My mammy killed me, / My daddy ate me, / My sister Jeannie pickit my banes / An’ put me atween twa marble stanes / An’ I growed intae a bonnie wee doo-doo.
Source: Dorson, Richard.
Folktales Told around the World. U of Chicago P, 1975 pp. 37-40. This story was recorded in 1955 in the home of Bella Stewart of the Stewarts of Blair. This particular text is recorded as a three-way conversation, so there is some debate among the speakers about the actual arc of the story. A recording of Sheila Stewart performing it is available here.

The Milk-White Dove, Scotland
A woman eats the hare her husband brought home for dinner, so she kills her son Johnnie and cooks him instead. Though her husband and Katy, their daughter, insist the hand and foot must be Johnnie’s, she denies it. Katy buries Johnnie’s bones, which transform into a white singing dove. The dove collects clothes, silver, and a millstone, which it gives to Katy, the father, and mother respectively, killing the mother.
Pew, pew, / My minny me slew, / My daddy me chew, / My sister gathered my banes, / And put them between two milk-white stanes; / And I grew, and I grew, / To a milk-white doo, / And I took my wings, and away I flew.
Source: Briggs, Katharine. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language. Indiana U P, 1970, pp. 414.

Little Rosy, Scotland
Rosy’s “wicked” stepmother kills her with a chest lid. Rosy’s father and two little sisters eat her, and the stepmother buries her bones under the “marly stones.” Rosy comes back to life “like a ghostie bird,” and reveals the murder in song, whereupon her father and little sisters run away from the stepmother, who dies alone.
My Mammy her killed I ‘n put I in pies; / My vather did eat I ‘n ‘er said I were nice; / My two liddle zisters they zucked my bones, / And buried I under they marly stones / They marly stones, they marly stones, / And buried I under they marly stones.
Source: Briggs, Katharine and Mary Tongue.
Folktales of England. U of Chicago P, 1968, pp. 26-28.
This version was recorded by Ruth Tongue September 29, 1963 as she heard it from a Blackdown shepherd in Somerset in 1903. The text is written to reflect the Scottish dialect. Tongue’s edition included the lyrics and music to a song titled “The Juniper Tree,” which children used as a kind of singing game.
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The Satin Frock, England
Mary’s mother warns her that she will kill her if she gets her satin frock dirty. Unfortunately, cows and then a horse splash Mary’s frock with mud, and her mother beheads her, hanging her head on the wall. She lies to Mary’s father about it, and makes broth from the head. The father says “this broth is nice, but it does taste like our Mary,” after which he kills his wife in the cellar.
Source: Briggs, Katharine. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language. Indiana U P, 1970, pp. 476-477.

The Rose-Tree, England
A man’s first wife has a daughter and his second wife has a son. His girl is “white as milk . . . her lips like cherries . . . her hair like golden silk” (16). The girl’s stepmother sends her to buy candles, but three times a dog steals them. When the girl returns home, her stepmother beheads her under the guise of parting the girl’s hair with an axe. She then cooks the girl’s heart and liver, though the father dislikes the taste and the boy refuses to eat. The little boy buries his sister’s body under the rose-tree and weeps over it daily. The tree eventually flowers and so appears a white bird, singing. She runs her errands, collecting red shoes from the cobbler, a watch from the jeweler, and a millstone from the millers. The bird drops the stone on the stepmother, who dies.
My wicked mother slew me, / My dear father ate me, / My little brother whom I love / Sits below and I sing above / stick, stock, stone dead.”
Source: Jacobs, Joseph. English Folk and Fairy Tales. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900, pp. 16-20.

The Green Bird, Palestine
A man has two children, whose mother has died. Their neighbor, a widow, enlists the children’s help in courting their father, who eventually acquiesces to marriage. One day, the father articulates a craving for stuffed tripe, and though his wife prepares it, she eats it all herself while her husband is working in the field. To avoid punishment, she kills the boy in front of his sister and cooks him. The girl buries her brother’s bones in the garden. Later, when her parents are at a wedding, she attempts to dig up the bones but instead finds a marble urn filled with gold bracelets, rings, earrings, a dress, and a green bird that flies out. The sister attends the wedding, attracting attention but not recognition, along with the bird who sings his song. The bird insists he will not repeat his song until his stepmother opens her mouth. He drops nails and needles into it and she dies. The process is repeated with his father. It is similarly repeated with his sister, though instead of killing her, he lands on her lap and turns into a boy again.
I am the green bird / Who graces this gathering! / My stepmother slaughtered me / And my father devoured me / Only my kind sister / (Allah shower mercy on her!) / Gathered up my bones / And saved them in the urn of stone.

Source: Muhawi, Ibrahim and Sharīf Kanāʻnah, editors. Speak Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. U of California P, 1989, pp. 98-102.

The June Apple Tree, Eastern Kentucky
The story opens with a woman, sitting under her beloved apple tree, who cuts her finger in an injury that never heals. She has a baby boy the next year and is buried under her june apple tree. Her husband remarries a woman who hates his son; they have a daughter. The stepmother forbids the boy playing in the apple tree, but instead picks the apples herself. She eventually kills him by slamming a chest on his head when he attempts to get an apple. She places his head on his body with a scarf and lets his sister slap him, leading the girl to think she has killed him. The stepmother cooks the boy and his father eats the meal. The sister buries the bones under the tree, out of which a bird flies. The bird sings and collects golden jewels, red silk, and a millstone. He flies home, where he delivers his gifts and kills his stepmother. After her death, the bird becomes a boy again.
My stepmother she killed me; / My father he ate me; / My sister buried my bones, / Tied up in her red silk apron, / Buried them under the June apple tree. / This pretty little bird is me.”

Source: Campbell, Marie. Tales from Cloud-Walking Country. Indiana U P, 1958, pp. 212-16.

Analysis

Themes and Motifs:

  • Gender functions as a means of moral differentiation in the Juniper Tree. The two main male characters in the story are somewhat morally ambiguous. The father, for instance, is complicit in consuming his own son, but is nevertheless forgiven at the end. Similarly, the boy executes an act of extreme violence – killing his stepmother – but because it is done in the name of revenge it is excused. In contrast, the women – Marlene and the stepmother – function as moral opposites. Marlene apparently embodies innocence and goodness in the extreme, acting selflessly and compassionately throughout the entire tale. In contrast, her mother is literally entered into by Satan, apparently the pure representation of evil. The morally-polarized female characters and the morally-ambiguous male characters suggest that ethics is gendered in this story, with women subjected to a different code of morality than men.
  • The text raises the question of authority and responsibility. The nature of responsibility is questioned in this fairy tale because of the blended family. The stepmother does not feel a responsibility for her stepson, though Marlene feels it for her stepbrother. The father is absolved for his failure to care responsibly for his son. In contrast, the stepmother uses her authority to manipulate all the members of her family – killing the boy, making Marlene feel guilty, and making the father complicit by feeding his son to him. Marlene, the character with the least authority, is the only one who acts with responsibility to others, caring for her brother’s remains with the only power she does have. The brother’s triumph – a triumph of the powerless over the powerful – suggests an altruistic message that authority wielded without responsibility merits punishment. 
  • The Juniper Tree explores the problems and usefulness of desire. In the beginning of the story, the mother’s desire for a child leads to her death. Similarly, the stepmother’s desire to provide for her daughter apparently makes her vulnerable to the devil and leads to the murder. The father consumes his son because of his gluttonous desire for the food. However, the bird-boy is able to leverage people’s desire to hear his song to accomplish his plan for revenge, giving the tale it’s happy ending. Thus while desire is problematized as an instrument of evil, the story also suggests it can be harnessed for better purposes. 

Biblical Allusions:

The Juniper Tree is somewhat unique among the Grimms’ story in that it is densely packed with Biblical allusions. The story is replete with language and imagery that directly and obliquely allude to the Old and New Testament. This analysis will consider Luther’s translation of the Bible, which would have been most popular in the time and place in which the Grimms wrote down the story. King James Bible translations are included in parentheses. Taken together, these Biblical allusions create a somewhat heavy-handed morality in a fairy tale that modern readers frequently criticize for its unnecessarily gruesome violence.

  • The title of the story itself is an allusion. When the mother becomes sick during pregnancy, she instructs her husband “If I die . . . busy me under the juniper tree” (149). Later, Marlene buries gathers her brother’s bones and “laid the bones beneath the juniper tree” (151). This alludes to 1 Kings 19:5, which says, “er legte sich und schlief unter dem Wacholder” (“he lay and slept under a juniper tree”). In this Biblical moment, Elijah, having fled from Jezebel, prays for death before resting under the juniper tree. An angel awakes him and feeds him in preparation for an encounter with the LORD. Thus the juniper tree functions as a liminal space of rest between terrestrial suffering and celestial relief. The juniper tree in the text similarly serves as a liminal resting point where the mystical and real meet, as for instance, the location where the boy’s bones are turned into a bird.
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Juan Antonio Escalante, An Angel Awakens the Prophet Elijah, 1667
  • The story begins with a mother who desires “a child as white as snow and as red as blood” (149). The dichotomy is a Biblical allusion to Isaiah 1:18, which says “Wenn eure Sünde gleich blutrot ist, soll sie doch schneeweiß warden” (literally translated “if your sin is blood-red, it shall be snow-white”; KJV “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”). The child around which the entire story revolves thus embodies both parts of this biblical dichotomy and represents a transformative power.
  • In the murder scene, “the devil took possession of [the stepmother,]” prompting her to offer her stepson an apple, “coax[ing] him” to partake, and ultimately murdering him in the act of partaking (150). This scene reflects the Biblical Garden of Eden scene in which Eve, having succumbed to the Devil, coaxes Adam to partake of the apple ultimately leading to his death (Genesis 3). The parallel between the stepmother and Eve emphasizes the stepmother’s role as wife and mother while also condemning her unholy and selfish fulfillment of those roles. 
  • Immediately after she knocks her brother’s head off, Marlene “wept and wept and couldn’t be comforted” (151). The language used to describe Marlene alludes to the scripture Matthew 2:18, which in Luther’s translation read “Rahel beweinte ihre Kinder und wollte sich nicht trösten lassen” (“Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted”). The story thus identifies Marlene with the Jewish mothers whose infants were slaughtered by Herod, emphasizing her innocence in the whole affair.
  • After murdering the boy, the stepmother “took the little boy and chopped him into pieces” and then “put them into a pot and let them stew” (151). She then proceeded to feed them to the boy’s father who “ate and ate” (151). The flesh-eating is possibly allusive to the Eucharist (Lutherans maintained a belief in the Real Presence of Christ). Though this allusion is certainly interpretive rather than overt, considering cannibalism as transformative rather than simply violent allows richer interpretation as the boy’s eventual return as a bird and then again as a living child. The boy becomes a resurrected Christ-figure, who forgives his father his crime and restores his family to a morally-safe space.
  • Another more indirect, interpretive allusion is the boy’s transformation into a bird, which can be read as a reference to the Holy Spirit in the form of a bird, a motif which appears frequently throughout the Gospels and is particularly emphasized in Christian imagery. This allusion offers the possibility of the bird-boy’s final acts of revenge and reward as the implementation of divine justice.
  • At the end of the story, the bird flies to his father’s house with “around his neck the millstone” (155). At home, the bird “threw the millstone down on [the stepmother’s] head and she was crushed to death” (157). This alludes to Matthew 18:6, which according to Luther’s translation, says “Wer aber ärgert dieser Geringsten einen, die an mich glauben, dem wäre es besser, daß ein Mühlstein an seinen Hals gehängt und er ersäuft werde im Meer, da es am tiefsten ist” (“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”). This allusion emphasizes the boy’s childness and the stepmother’s consequent guilt for harming him. The possibility that her actions justified by her acting for Marlene’s benefit is eliminated by an overt condemnation of her actions, not only as immoral on the basis of murder but furthermore because they were perpetrated against an innocent.

Scholarship

Maria Tatar has written perhaps more extensively on the Juniper Tree than any other scholar. In her commentary in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (Norton, 1999), she notes that this fairy tale is “probably the most shocking of all fairy tales,” yet it is also a story that critics return to for its beauty (183). This beauty, she argues, is found in the straightforward engagement in cultural anxieties about weakness and helplessness, particularly in the face of powerful cruelty. In another essay “Telling Differences: Parents vs. Children in ‘The Juniper Tree’” (Off with Their Heads!, Princeton U P, 1992, pp. 212–28), Tartar suggest that in dealing with this anxiety the story is ultimately one of  “empowering children, or at least making children feel less inferior to adults” (228). The tale serves as a cautionary tale for adults about the dangers of abusing children, “siding at all times with the children,” – a  warning that is amplified by the Biblical allusion of the millstone as the instrument of revenge (214). Simultaneously, the conclusion of the story – a motherless family sitting down for dinner – seems to reflect an independence and coming of age for the children, with growing up considered as the process of growing away from dependence on a mother in favor of autonomy employed in conjunction with the father. According to Tartar, the tale’s success in conveying these messages is due to its antirealistic elements, which allows the reader distance from the melodrama of the tale.

In “The Soul Music of the Juniper Tree,” (Cambridge Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, Cambridge U P,  2015, pp. 166-85), Stephen Benson attends particularly to the bird-boy’s song, repeated eight times throughout the text. He notes the meta-ness of the song, which is part of the story, yet also tells the story itself. It thus serves as “a recounting of events that becomes an event in itself” (168). This is amplified by the bird-boy, who functions as an embodied parallel to the song, “a being of body bits and yet a body unto itself” (172). Benson argues that the song and the listeners’ responses – the townspeople’s admiration for the beauty of the song and the stepmother’s ability to hear only the horror of the words – ultimately constructs the synthesized horror and beauty that defines the Juniper Tree. 

In “Bones and Black Puddings: Revisiting ‘The Juniper Tree’” (Mirror Mirror on the Wall, edited by Kate Bernheimer, Doubleday, 1998, pp. 295-317), Linda Gray Sexton creates an personal essay that weaves together her experiences and the Juniper Tree. The mother’s infertility and mixed experiences of pleasure and pain mingle with her miscarriages and emotions as a parent; the stepmother’s abuse merges with her mother’s violent episodes; she sympathizes with Marlene, who assumes “unearned guilt” for her brother’s murder just as she assumed guilt for her mother’s suicide attempts; the boy’s abandoned bones parallel her mother’s crematorium box, sitting three years in her father’s closet until she took it to the cemetery for burial. This story, often celebrated for its out-of-time nature derived from exaggerated cruelty, Sexton renders familiar, making it more tragic because the violence and emotions are both more mundane and more real. She transforms her family drama that played out in public into a fairy tale.

There is a now-and-then aspect to reading fairy tales: I remember the child I was as I read today, but I drag in the woman I am as well. The full cycle of my life is captured in this one seven-page story: the abused child, the child with fantasies of revenge, the child with fantasies of rescue, the child who both adored and hated the omnipotent parent who controlled everything in her life; and then the mother I am today as well, who identifies with the woman dying from joy at her child’s birth who empathizes with the stepmother raging with envy at her child, who rejoices when that stepmother is vanquished by that child.
(Sexton, 315)

Other sources that include scholarship on the Juniper Tree:

In their article “A Literary Approach to the Brothers Grimm,” Alfred and Mary Elizabeth David argue that “the Grimms applied romantic theories of nature and art to the folktale” (186). They cite the Juniper Tree as a particularly rich example of Grimms’ stories tying the human life cycle to nature. In the the beginning of the story, the first wife’s pregnancy is described in tandem with the fruit and flowering of the  juniper tree. Furthermore, the juniper tree becomes the instrument of a natural justice through which the boy is brought back and the stepmother is punished.

Maria Warner makes a similar point in her book Once Upon a Time (Oxford U P, 2010), arguing that because the juniper tree is the source for the boy’s metamorphic rebirth, the tree demonstrates nature’s role as magical friend to the protagonists, ultimately helping to regroup the family.

In the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien, discusses The Juniper Tree as a tale whose horror and gore created an intense sense of otherness within the tale, locating it beyond “a great abyss of time.” He laments that contemporary versions of the tale censor the most gruesome parts of the tale, robbing children of the power of folklore to enter “Other Time.”

Walter Scherf argues in his article “Family Conflicts and Emancipation in Fairy Tales” that Runge’s mode of adapting the fairy tale – rendering a tale adapted to bourgeois lifestyle by the teller (a nurse of a peasant’s wife) into a high literary style – became the basic model for Wilhelm Grimm as he adapted material throughout his career.

Jeana Jorgensen, in the article “Quantifying the Grimm Corpus: Transgressive and Transformative Bodies in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” considers the role of gendered bodies in the Grimm fairy tales. She notes in particular the way that tears are gendered in the Grimms’ work, citing Marlene’s tears as one example of the ways in which women’s bodies become physical mediums for their emotion, such that their pain is not only naturalized but expected.

In “Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother,” (The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales Norton, 1999, pp. 291-97) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar  consider the Juniper Tree in connection to Snow White as a way to compare female voices in fairy tales. They note that both children have stepmothers who try to kill them. After the murder/attempted murder, however, Snow White is turned into “a silent art object,” wheas the male child of the Juniper Tree becomes a “furious golden bird who sings a song of vengeance against his murderess and finally crushes her to death with a millstone” (297). Whereas the female child must learn to be mute, the male child must learn to speak and assert himself.   

Adaptations

Literary Adaptations

Novels

  • Comyns, Barbara. The Juniper Tree. St Martin’s, 1986. The novel opens with the narrator Bella, who has a scarred face and a mixed-race child. She becomes friends with Gertrude, a wealthy women with an idyllic marriage, newly pregnant after 16 years of infertility. Their friendship builds over the course of the next 9 months, until Gertrude dies in childbirth, after giving birth to a son. Bella eventually marries Gertrude’s widower. The boy dies due to her negligence, in an accident involving an antique case full of apples. She buries the child under the juniper tree next to his mother’s ashes, and then goes mad. 
  • Gidwitz, Adam. The Grimm Conclusion. Dutton Children’s Books, 2013. Gidwitz includes The Juniper Tree in this, the concluding book in his trilogy of young adult novels. The premise of the series is that a pair of children travel through various fairy tales. In the Juniper Tree chapter, the protagonist of the novel, Jordina, plays the role of Marlene and the story unfolds almost without variation from the Grimms’ version. The only significant change is that the stepfather kills and cooks the boy, rather than the stepmother. At the conclusion of the tale, after the bird is turned back into her brother, the prince arrives to take Jordina to the castle to marry her, and she leaves her brother. The siblings’ plot continues in the next tale. 

Short Stories

  • Coover, Robert. “The Crabapple Tree.The New Yorker, 12 January 2015. In this small town version, the parents marry young and the woman dies in childbirth, after Dickie-boy is born. The father is an alcoholic and the stepmother, the Vamp, is a prostitute who abuses Dickie-boy. Marleen is the Vamp’s daughter from an earlier relationship. Marleen treats Dickie-boy like a dog, literally, training him to fetch and putting a collar on him. She has healing powers, but when Dickie-boy’s head comes off one day, she can’t heal him. Though she insists her mother must have cut the head off and glued it back on, the police find it is a household accident. Dickie-boy is buried under the crabapple tree with his mother, but Marleen plays with bones she says she found after her mother cooked Dickie-boy in a stew which her father ate.  A year later, the father dies (or is possibly murdered) and the stepmother leaves, abandoning Marleen. At the funeral, Marleen tells her friend that her stepbrother has come back alive. Marleen grows up to be a prostitute and uses the farm as an informal wildlife refuge.
  • Moore, Lorrie. “The Juniper Tree.” The New Yorker, 17 January 2005. This very loose adaptation reflects the Grimm’s story most in title, though it employs imagery of the tale as well. It is narrated by a woman, whose friend Robin, a fairytale playwright, has just died. The narrator is seeing a man who Robin dated briefly. The narrator and her two friends go to Robin’s house, where she appears as a ghost, with a scarf around her neck to hold her head on. All three friends present gifts – a painting, a dance, and a slow rendering of the Star-Spangled Banner – and then they leave.
  • Nutting, Alissa. “The Brother and The Bird.” My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. Edited by Kate Bernheimer, Penguin, 2010, pp. 30-41. In Nutting’s adaptation, Mother is an unstable woman, obsessed with cleaning and her quasi-religious beliefs. Father is present but very distant. Marlene falls in love with Brother, and one night, when Mother finds she has fallen asleep in his bed, Mother beats and then smothers him. She insists Marlene strip naked and help her butcher him. They hide the body parts in twelve bags in the basement freezer. Mother cooks her way through three before Marlene takes them an buries them under the juniper tree, assisted by the mother’s ashes/the juniper berries. Eventually, after the song plays on the radio, Mother runs out to the juniper tree with an axe, where she is swallowed by the earth. Brother returns in her place. 

Allusions

  • In Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen, imprisoned for infanticide sings, “Who killed me dead? / My mother the whore! / Who ate my flesh? / My father, for sure! / Little sister gathered / The bones he scattered; / In a cool, cool place they lie. / And then I became a birdie so fine, / And away I fly – away I fly.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I, trans. David Luke Oxford U P, 1987, 4412-20).
  • The second part of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday,” references the tale with imagery of resting under the juniper tree, consuming human flesh for food, and singing bones.

Other Adaptations

Visual Art

  • Jonas, Joan. The Juniper Tree. Performance Art, 24 January 1978, Franklin – Furnace Archive, Inc. 112 Franklin St. New York, NY. In this performance art piece, Jonas used 29 wooden balls, a ladder, a kimono and more to retell the tale.
The Juniper Tree 1976, reconstructed 1994 by Joan Jonas born 1936
Materials from Jonas’s piece, reassembled and exhibited at the Tate Modern
  • Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak The Juniper Tree (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973). This collection of Grimm fairy tales, translated by Lore Segal, features illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Below is the image included with the Juniper Tree.  
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Oh, how the poor little sister did grieve!

Film

  • Le piège d’Issoudun. Directed by Micheline Lanctôt, 2003. Esther drowns her two children and then fails to kill herself. She gets in the car hoping to kill herself in a car accident, but is stopped by a police office. He takes her home and the two bond in the car, but at home he discovers the children’s’ bodies. He then helps her kill herself. 
  • The Juniper Tree. Directed by Nietzchka Keene, 1990. Two sisters, Katla and Margit, flee after their mother is burned for witchcraft. Katla finds a widower Jóhann, who binds with spells so he will take care of them. His son Jónas does not trust her. Margit, however, forms a bond with Jónas over their shared grief at the loss of their mothers. Jónas resists all of Katla’s attempts to gain form a relationship with him. Eventually a pregnant Katla taunts Jónas to show how his mother will protect him if he leaps from a cliff. He falls and dies. Katla sews one finger from Jónas’s body into his mouth and puts another into a stew for the family. Margit finds it and does not eat any stew, though Jóhann and Katla do. When a raven appears on a tree that grows from the mother’s grave, where Margit buried Jónas’s finger, she tells Jóhann that Katla killed his son. Katla flees, but at the film’s end, Jóhann has gone in search of her with the apparent intention of resuming their relationship. The final scene focuses on Margit. Her voice-over tells the haunting tale of two children whose mother was a bird, and whose human father fails to recognize them when they return from the land of the birds. (Film Synopsis)

Performance

  • The Juniper Tree: an Opera in Two Acts. Robert Moran and Philip Glass, Liberetto by Arthur Yorinks. Commissioned by American Repertory Theater, 1985. The opera stays true to the original tale is most respects, though it places additional emphasis on the stepmother’s resentment of the first wife. The tale is told through vignettes with moments of intense action rather than as a longer, continuous story. Excerpts of the music are available here.
  • Emily Portman. “Stick Stock.” The Glamourly. This song plays more on the Applie and Orangie variant, using the concluding line of the bird’s song from that version. The story of the song is a female narrator, describing how her stepmother stole her father’s heart, murdered her with an axe, fed her to her father in a pie, and her little brother buried her.