More Juniper Tree


Jan and I spent a few minutes talking about The Juniper Tree last night, and on Jan’s first hearing of the tale, while half asleep, she gave an elegant, cogent discussion to which I owe a debt of gratitude.

Taking up where we left off with (good) mom dead and under the juniper tree and the step-mom offering the boy a chest with an apple in it. When he reaches for the apple she slams the chest shut and beheads him. Karen’s question: what does it all mean?

Start with the box and the apple. A chest, a box, a container–what is inside is hidden. And the apple? A biblical symbol of forbidden knowledge, maybe. But when you think about boxes and containers you also think about wombs and women’s sexuality, right? So we start with the bad mom offering forbidden hidden knowledge, presumably sexual and then lopping off the boy’s head with with the box. OK, maybe I’m a little slow but even I know that us guys think with our genitals. His decapitation is really a symbolic castration in response to sexual thoughts about his (step-) mother.

Feeding him to his father is appropriate punishment (I’ll eat you up) for the crime of thinking about taking the father’s place with the mother.

But step-mom has him reenact the death with his sister. He holds the apple (of sexuality/knowledge), the sister asks for it, he doesn’t give it to her and she again decapitates him, literally displacing the guilt from the (step-) mom.

His sister buries his bones. I’m not going to go further into why, since there’s so much more I want to talk about.

He’s reborn/transmuted/transformed into a bird: think mother’s slang for a potty-training child’s penis. The bird is a symbol not only of male sex organs, though, it’s also a symbol of freedom. He’s been granted the freedom of adult sexuality, and now he’s able to grant gifts.

What gifts? Gold to his father, to honor him; red shoes to his sister??? In context, the red shoes are compensation for his refusal to give his sister the apple–he offers her adult female sexuality.

What about the millstone that destroys the evil stepmother, and leaves our boy standing whole again, and happy? Luke 17:2 reads: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” I.e. cause a child to fall into sin.

Finally, I’m mostly a developmentalist, which means that I look at this, depending on the gender and age of the person listening, as a story of oedipal resolution, separation-individuation and sexual coming of age but you could with equal validity find within it existential and feminist themes.



2 Responses to “More Juniper Tree”

  1. 1 Karen

    Awesome. For the purpose of my exam, I had to look at death in a few different fairy tales, and I admit that I saw similar themes. For the protagonist, death acts as a method of transformative freedom, access to greater knowledge, and distance from harshness and consequences. Could you write a book about this please?

    • 2 Karen

      Also, your response was much more coherent than that which I wrote for my exam. I’m jealous.

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