The Juniper Tree


image from Wikipedia

Karen asked about the death of the mother in the Brothers Grimm version of The Juniper Tree. In this fairy tale the mother wishes for her child, dies after his birth and is buried at her request under a juniper tree. The step-mother, to make a short story shorter, murders the boy and makes her daughter, the step-sister, believe she’d done the deed. Step-mommy Dearest makes a pudding of the boy and serves it to his father, but the step-sister buries his bones under the same juniper tree. A beautiful bird flies out of the tree the next morning and gathers gifts from the village, which it bestows on dad and step-sister, then drops a mill-stone (biblical reference, anyone?) on step-mom. Step-mom is gone and the boy reappears.

Compare this with Bros. Grimm version of Cinderella, in which the mother dies and the twig planted on the mother’s grave becomes a tree. The birds in that tree become Cinderella’s helpers and ultimately peck the eyes out of the wicked step-sisters.

What do children want their mothers to become? Ultimately? I think the almost universal subconscious hope, especially in the child on the verge of sexual awakening, is that mom will be a basically distant, benign and helpful presence. And I think the early kill-off of the good mother is a function of the disguise that we put on reality as we tell a tale: we split mom into two parts, the good part which isn’t here right now, and the wicked part who damages us and eventually gets her comeuppance. We keep the good part in the story because we want her and need her. And trees, in particular, are reborn each spring or else, like the juniper are evergreen.

What about the boy’s death and rebirth, and the facts that 1) he was fed to his father by the wicked step-mother, and 2) that he effected his own rebirth?

That’s my topic for tomorrow, I guess.


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