Fairy Tale of the Month: Nov. 2011 The Juniper Tree – Part One

 Warwick Goble

Slippery Slopes

When I first climbed the glass mountain of fairy tales my foot slipped on the revelation that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had not gone out to the villages and fields of Germany with pen and paper to sit at the feet of indigenous folk tellers, transcribing the words that came directly from the fount of provincial wisdom. They collected many of their fairy tales from family, friends and acquaintances, who were well educated and even members of the aristocracy. Significant exceptions were Dorothea Viehmann, a fruit seller, and Johann Friedrich Krause, an old soldier who traded stories with the Grimms for old clothes.  “Field work” was not in Jacob and Wilhelm’s vocabulary, linguists though they were.

Later, I tumbled down the glass mountain while struggling with “The Juniper Tree,” that grim Grimm story of familial decapitation, cannibalism, and murder. Echoing through the story we hear the curse of the House of Atreus, members of that family serving human flesh at banquets more than once. In the form of a goldsmith losing a shoe, we hear the echo of Jason losing his sandal before his search for the Golden Fleece. These are motifs traveling down through the course of time from ancient Greece. The story itself testifies the events might be two thousand years old.

Oh, wait… How does the narrator of this story know its two thousand years old? There is nothing in the story to date it. That’s when my foot slipped.

“The Juniper Tree,” as well as “The Flounder and the Fisherman” were given to the Grimms by Philipp Otto Runge, considered one of the great German Romantic painters. He inserted those echoes of Greek mythology. Nicely done, but this version of the story springs from a classically trained mind. Is it truly a fairy tale? If fairy tales are a sub-genre of folk tales, should they not come from the folk, from the peasants, from the unschooled, from the—stupid? There went the other foot.

Let me start the climb all over again. I recently fell into a conversation with a woman who told me of her grandmother, the neighborhood storyteller. On summer evenings her grandmother would tell the collected children stories. There was one special favorite, a rather long story, that the children insisted she tell a couple of times each summer. The granddaughter, as a grown woman, realized she had been listening to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The flow between literary work and folk work is long standing. Runge was hardly the first, or last, to take folk work and elevate it to higher standards. The Grimm brothers did the same to other stories. Then there is Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. Educated treatments constitute a large part of the fairy tale development in our culture.

Every storyteller has their vision of the tale they tell; they see the story. Every listener has their vision of the story, but will see something different than the teller. The teller was once the listener. We are hearing an educated listener’s vision of the tale when we encounter Runge and the Grimms, and, for that matter, the later collectors like Joseph Jacobs and Andrew Lang. They wrote down what they saw in their vision of the story. Although they worked in a folk form, were they any less fairy tale tellers than their unlettered fellows?

Fairy Tale of the Month: Nov. 2011 The Juniper Tree – Part Two

The Flavor of Juniper

We have Philipp Otto Runge to thank for “The Juniper Tree.” At the age of twenty-two, he started his study of painting at the Copenhagen Academy. At the age of thirty-three he died. In those few years he established himself as a major German Romantic painter. Though deeply Christian, he studied the seventeenth century mystic Jakob Boehme. He also befriended Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. In 1808 he published “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Juniper Tree,” which the Grimms later included in their book. In the matter of writing style, the Grimms were influence by Runge.

Runge took “The Juniper Tree” from a local tale, that location being Hamburg, where he and his family resided. The difference between the story Runge heard and the story Runge wrote down is hard to say. Let me pour myself a glass of gin and tell you what I hear in Runge’s story.

The merchant’s pious wife stands under the juniper tree in the cold of winter, peeling an apple. Cutting her finger, she sees two drops of blood fall to the snow. Blood on the snow forms, for me, one of the more compelling motifs in folklore. It comes up in the Irish legend of Deirdre and in Grimm’s Snow White. Deirdre sees a black crow eating its prey in the snow. Snow White’s mother pricks her finger while sewing at a window for the light. She sees her own drops of blood in the snow through the black wooden frame of the window.

The significant difference between these two treatments of this motif and “The Juniper Tree” treatment is the absence of the color black in the latter. Red, white and black are the colors of the alchemist, the magical philosopher. Red and white, alone, are the colors of hell. The animals of the fairy world—the underworld—are white with red ears. This description includes the hounds of hell.

When the good woman sees the blood in the snow, she wishes for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. As she says this, her mood suddenly changes from sadness to joyfulness, and she has hope this wish will come true.

Runge follows the changes of the season, and the merchant’s wife’s emotional changes, through nine months. Over the months she moves from joy to sadness. In the seventh month she gorges herself on the ripe juniper berries and becomes ill. In the eighth month she makes her husband promise he will bury her beneath the juniper tree. In the ninth month she gives birth and dies, leaving behind her husband and a child as red as blood and as white as snow.

I feel Runge is suggesting that the child is demonically conceived. The merchant’s wife, at first joyful, comes to realize the child will be unnatural and tries to abort the fetus with the juniper berries. The pharmacological effects of juniper berries are largely beneficial, but the berries can be used to stimulate the uterus so as to bring on an abortion.

Failing in her attempt to destroy the child, she relents, accepting her own death. When the child is born, her maternal instincts return, and she looks lovingly upon the child before she dies. The stage is set for the second attempt to destroy this child and for his eventual resurrection.

I’d say more, but the gin has gone to my head, so I will end my speculations here.

Fairy Tale of the Month: Nov. 2011 The Juniper Tree – Part Three

 Louis Rhead

A Few Branches

After recovering from my imbibing with the berry, I began ruminating about that juniper tree. I’d be happy to have someone correct me, but I believe this is the only fairy tale with a juniper tree.

There are many varieties of juniper and they grow in all climates that can grow anything.  Many of these varieties are of remarkably twisted shape. Some types are used as bonsai trees. For being a common sight and yet of notable appearance, they haven’t caught the fancy of storytellers outside of Runge.

Some presentations of this tale it speak of an almond tree, due to the name’s translation from Low German. As storyteller Richard Martin explained it to me, the Low German title is “Von Dem Machandelboom.” In modern German, the almond tree is “mandelbaum”, and the juniper tree is “wacholderbaum”.

In another version of the story it is a rose-tree (The Rose-tree, England), and in yet another, a birch tree (The Magic Birch Tree, Russia). In “The Crow’s Nest” (Hungary) and “The Little Boy and the Wicked Stepmother” (Romania) the bones are put into a hollow tree.  In “The Girl and the Boy” (Austria), “The Satin Frock” (England), and “The Milk-White Doo” (Scotland) trees do not play a role at all. The above mentioned stories can be found at  D. L. Ashliman’s  most useful site. (Also check out his main page.)

If standing alone in the fairy tale forest, the juniper tree still fulfils its role as a magical tree that houses a female spirit. In the case of the juniper—not in  Runge’s version, but traditionally—her name is Frau Wachholder, and she can be invoked to recover stolen property.

The purpose of magical trees in fairy tales is not to recover stolen property, but to render aid and bestow gifts. Staying with Grimm, a good example is their “Cinderella” in which the heroine asks her father for a twig that brushes against his hat, rather than an expensive gift, as do her stepsisters. He returns with a hazel twig, which she plants on her mother’s grave and waters with her tears. The twig grows into a tree in which perches a white bird that gives the daughter whatever she wishes.

In our story, it is the hero, in the shape of a bird, who collects the gifts to bestow upon his family, not all the gifts being beneficial. The bird’s first journey it to the goldsmith, upon whom Runge overlays an image of the Greek hero Jason.

The second journey is to the shoemaker, where he gets a pair of red shoes. Runge predates Hans Christian Andersen by a number of decades, so he is not referring to Andersen’s “The Red Shoes”. I am sure Runge is citing something, but I don’t know what.

Then the bird flies off to acquire a millstone from the twenty millers. The millstone and millers appear in every version of this tale that involves gifts, but only Runge has twenty millers. What jumps to my mind is the conical of twenty bishops, who meet to decide on matters of the church.

In the versions where gifts are given—that is, the ones most similar to “The Juniper Tree”—the bird sings a morbid song that the listeners think is beautiful, and all these versions include the millstone that kills the wicked wife. However, in none of the versions, with or without gifts, is the child restored to life except in Runge’s story.

One more striking feature of Runge’s treatment: when the son is resurrected, he, his father, and sister go back inside the house to eat. The hero’s mother consumed the juniper berries; his sister wanted an apple; his father ate all the stew; and after his sister puts the bones under the juniper tree she returns to the house to eat. When the bird returns to his father’s house with the gifts, the family is sitting at the table in the parlor. I am going to assume they are at least snacking on something.

That is what I see in Runge’s “The Juniper Tree.” I haven’t decided what it all means to me, but therein lies the fun and further exploration of fairy tale.

Your thoughts?


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