Fairy Tales 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Murder Most Fowl

Fairy tales are inherently unrealistic and contain illogical facets, but “The Juniper Tree” pushes the bounds of storytelling liberties for me. For one thing, although humans are often transformed into animals, this bird appeared out of a mist rising from a tree after the boy’s flesh and bones had been eaten and buried (respectively). Also, how exactly does the bird chirping convey such a complex message? And how did this “bird” carry a millstone around its little claws that took 20 men to lift, and was so heavy it could kill someone? The bird must be part human, part animal, part magical spirit to be able to do all of these physical things as well as think of a strategy to kill and be able to communicate. His song... I just love his song. I have a specific tune for it I like to whistle.

Clearly this fairy tale is taking advantage of our suspension of belief. Still, the Juniper Tree still contains some important connections with other tales, especially regarding the rampant problem in fairy tales with child abuse. In “Juniper Tree”, the stepmother slams the lid on the boy’s head and it rolls off, causing her to set his head back on with a kerchief. The mother in “Sweetheart Roland” takes a page out of this storybook and goes to chop off her stepdaughter’s head, but accidentally saws off that of her own daughter. And if this weren’t ghastly enough, the mother in “Juniper Tree” feels the need to feed the boy’s steamed body to his father! This is similar to the attempt of Sanna the old cook to eat Foundling after boiling him into good meat. The Juniper Tree shares a lot of plot characteristics with the other tales, but ultimately all of them end up transformed back into their normal, superior state.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Brothers as animals and defeating death

When I first read “The Juniper Tree,” I was struck by the similarity to another Grimms’ story we read, “Brother and Sister.” In both stories, there is a loving brother-sister relationship, a brother that is transformed into an animal, and the return of a person from death. I would say that, like the fawn in brother and sister, the brother in “The Juniper Tree” is mostly human, even as a bird. He still has the love of his sister and still plots his revenge on his stepmother. In “Brother and Sister,” the sister recognizes that the brother is the fawn, making him still seem very human. Though Marlene does not necessarily know that her brother is the bird, she does seem to have some idea. After the bird first appears, the story says, “Marlene was very happy and gay. It was as if her brother were still alive.”

I found the song to be very eerie in the story, and it bothered me that the people that the bird sings the song to seem overtaken by the beauty and ignore the lyrics. No one seems to even hear the lyrics except the stepmother. I think it bothered me because they understand him when he talks but ignore the chilling song lyrics.

I think in these stories we just have to accept that people come back from the dead. Clearly this is not an ordinary bird, as it can carry a lot of weight. Though the stepmother is never specifically called a witch, she seems to act like one, and in fairytales there is always the idea that witch’s magic can be reversed, as the sister in “Brother and Sister” is brought back to life even though the witch killed her. Also, in the Hansel and Gretel movie we watched in class, the eaten children come back to life. It seems as though murder committed by witches is not permanent, and can be reversed by the right actions.

The Juniper Tree: Boy, then Bird, then Boy

Over 2000 years ago, a boy was born out of his mothers’ blood and the white winter snow that sat beneath a juniper tree. The power of the tree, bodily humors, emotions and/or desires brought the boy into the human world. This formula brings forth the birth and rebirth of the boy two times in the Grimm version of the tale “The Juniper Tree,” first, at the desire and blood of his mother; and secondly, at the desire and weeping of his step- sister, Marlene.

The setting of this tale is at the apogee of Biblical occurrences and the themes present throughout it; such as immaculate conception, and rebirth, suggest to me that although there are times when the boy possesses human qualities, that he is never fully human but is in fact superior to humankind and a god-like figure with zoomorphic qualities that permit him to continue living and exact moral justice on others regardless of whether or not he exists in the human world.

We see the boy; or in this particular instance, the bird, execute his superiority to humankind every time he sings his song. His ability to enchant anyone from goldsmiths, to shoemakers, to mill-stone workers, to even his own family conveys his greatness over mere mortals just as his immaculate conception did, and just as his rebirth at the end of the story does as well.

Though we have witnessed transformations in other stories that we have read, they have not been in the style of complete birth, complete death, complete re-birth in a new form, and transformation to the original form as this tale is. Generally, transformations follow in a sequential and progressive order and are maintained within the same body until the very end when say for example an aesthetically displeasing character is rewarded with handsome features as the case with “Hans My Hedgehog.”


The transformation of the brother into a bird and back into a boy is important to the story of The Juniper Tree, but leaves a lot of questions. Where does he fall on a scale between totally human and totally animal? What about his song? And how can he come back from the dead? How does this transformation compare to others we've read about?

The boy's transformation into a bird in the visual medium of a film spoke to me more as a symbolic gesture than in the story. Odd, though, that when I saw the actual transformation, I was less inclined to believe it. As has been said in the earlier posts, I believe that the boy is in some sort of purgatory. This can't be the type of place we normally consider purgatory, though. The boy is not a causal agent of his own demise. Granted, he does not accept the new Stepmother as his family, but it can be argued (more so in the story than the film) that she is evil and the events could only occur one way. This place the boy is in, a metaphysical place, is mostly devoid of repentance. The way he is "rescued" back to life is by no account of his own. Neither the story nor the film ventures into his narrative territory. For all we know, he is fighting monsters and clawing his way back to the land of the living. Anyway, that just means that his resurrection has to be strictly symbolic. The bond of family over all else? Rid the world of some evil, receive some good? In the film, i'd say that the main focus is on narrative continuity--the boy has to be ok. In the story, the boy's resurrection is an afterthought. The heavyness of his departure is inherent in his song. He torments from beyond the living realm. As for this relating to other tales, his transformation back is pretty standard stuff. I like his character better as a bird, but maybe thats just me.
I agree with what has been said so far. It is difficult to determine where he would fall on the scale because no transformation takes place, but rather a resurrection/reincarnation of the boy's spirit into the form of a bird. Most stories we have read, boy figures transform into birds (The Seven Ravens, and Twelve Brothers), as a result of an ill informed wish/desire of the parents to have another child (a daughter). Here, the boy's fate is a result of a deliberate action taken by the commonly Grimm portrayed jealous, cannibalistic, evil Stepmother. What we can compare between Juniper Tree and the Seven ravens and Twelve brothers is that the guilt is always associated with the youngest daughter feeling responsible for something that happened through no fault of her own. Why do so many stories follow this trajectory in the Grimms?

The bird's song is very interesting, not from the actual lyrics or words sung, but by the underlying intentions of the song. I kind of got the idea that the boy (as the bird) was in a purgatory like state and needed to buy his way back to life. He uses his song to entrance the certain individuals (shoemaker, millworker) and to play off of their desires/greed to hear the song again so that the boy can "purchase" material things in order to resurrect himself. Once he has gathered up sufficient things, he uses them to return his soul from the in between stage of life and death, back to life itself

An Aerial Tangent

As for the human-animal continuum, I would say that the boy lands on the other side of it when he transforms. The boy is dead – only his spirit remains. That spirit is given to a bird. There is no in-between; the physical forms are perfectly clear. I read the bird and the boy as two separate entities, and the bird is a keeper of the boys spirit until the time that the boy can be restored. A physical purgatory, or a waiting form of sorts. I am reminded of Pinocchio in this way of thinking about the boy's transformation; was Pinochio on a puppet-boy continuum before he was made human? What about after? We hardly still call him "puppet boy" after he is made human. The difference in Pinocchio's states of being is in when he is an actual puppet and when he is a human boy. There is his preliminary time as a well-crafted chunk of wood, but then we have two distinct conditions: puppet with a spirt ("I got no strings!"), and boy with a spirit ("I'm a real boy!"). Completely different. The same, I feel, can be applied to the boy's change in "The Juniper Tree".

Author's Disclaimer: In re-reading this before positing, I realized that the above argument assumes that humans are the only spirited beings, and that birds (and other living things of similar natures) do not have spirits of their own. I am sure that Pocahontas would be gravely disappointed in me, and you can be assured that I am properly abashed for my inconsiderate oversight. However, I put a great deal of thought into what you just read, so it was still posted as planned.

On another hand, the boy's revival from the dead really emphasizes the "kill or be killed" concept we see in "Hansel and Gretel" as well. The inversion is interesting, though: first, the boy falls victim to the KOBK mentality, and was clearly the one who was slaughtered. But in his alternate life as a bird, it is as if he awakened to the idea, and so he goes on to murder his stepmother. His revelation is seemingly rewarded by the restoration to his life as a human.

Something completely unrelated to birds, transformations, and ressurections, but equally interesting/mind-boggling/troublesome, is the fact that the only named character in the Grimms' version of the story is Marlene. I know in class, we spoke briefly about the role of siblings, with particular emphasis on brother-sister combinations, but it seems that this focus is unwarranted. It almost makes the story about her, and that really caught my attention. Any thoughts?

Juniper Tree

I see the boy as falling into the same scale as the frog in "The Frog Prince." His soul is still in tact even though his physical form is in that of an animal. He does not have the same liberties as the frog, since the frog is able to still talk freely and is pretty much the same as he was when he was a prince, in spite of being a frog. The boy, on the other hand, was killed which means that he is "dead" but not completely since this is fairy tale world. Unlike the frog, the boy hasn't been placed under some sort of spell since he was actually killed but he does experience the sort of "grace" that is common in fairy tales. Fairy tale characters who have proven themselves to be "good"and "innocent" do not die. They either avert death or like the boy in "The Juniper Tree" are reincarnated. His speech, however, is severely limited and he only speaks in song. The boy gets to live but only so that he can attempt to regain his human form and to haunt his murderer. The good are always rewarded in fairy tales so the boy is killed but doesn't completely die, therefore, he is able to come back to life so easily after the truth behind his death is discovered and the evil have been punished.

The Unsettled Spirt

I see the bird in the Juniper Tree as something more akin to a ghost or a reincarnation than to the other transformations in the fairy tales we have read. For this reason I actually feel like the bird/brother is neither human nor animal, he is something entirely supernatural. I see him in many ways as something that has returned to haunt and disrupt the lives of those who destroyed his previous life, to seek revenge upon the mother/stepmother and to reward his sister who treated the dead with respect. This is sort of the way I justify the resurrection at the end of the story as something entirely supernatural, which makes sense if the bird is neither human nor animal. I think this helps explain the song, for I see it as an omen, the supernatural world's way of communicate. I think the transformation is very different because it takes place between life and death, while the other transformations, while the other take place during life. The brothers live as humans, then animals, and then humans again. While the transformation in the other stories is also supernatural, it does not transcend the break between life and death. The other animals, other than the frog prince do not speak. I think this difference makes the Juniper Tree unique in its animal transformation, because it is, like all others, supernatural, but one that crosses over the bounds of life and death and therefore becomes strange and different.
If you compare the Juniper Tree movie to the written Fairy Tale, there is a fuzzy live between totally human and totally animal. Because, in the movie, he does not turn back into a boy, suggesting that he was totally animal all along and was just in a human form. But, because of the familial aspect of the story it seems strange to confine the boy into only an animal. In the story, the bird sings to all kinds of men and characters in the story such as shoemakers, and wives, etc. He will never repeat the song and he continues on his journey. In order for him to turn back into a boy, he brings Marlene new shoes. The mother was so unhappy that she did not have them she had to step outside, and in the meantime, the bird drops a stone on her head and kills her.

The song would not make sense to anyone except Marlene or the mother if they heard it. For they were the only ones who knew what had happened. Marlene especially would be the one to recognize the bird of all characters, and she did. She knew that the satin shoes were from him and rejoiced to her mother. This transformation compares to other bird stories that we have read about because it is usually the sister who saves the brothers from being birds their whole lives. In this case, the same is true, he brings her the shoes in which she makes the mother jealous, who then goes outside and is killed. While this story has many dramatic differences, the sister could still be viewed as the savior.