Fairytales are important to me. They always have been, and I’m not sure why, but in a way that feels connected with the way I love bright colours, sunny spring days, autumn mornings, dark winter nights, snow, ice, my children. They feel, in other words, very close to home.
And so I had the idea this summer to approach a number of well-known writers of fantasy whose books I greatly admire (and many of whom I am lucky enough to be able to count as friends), and ask each of them to write a guest post about fairytales for this blog. I’ve asked them to choose a fairytale (or tales) with some particular personal meaning or resonance for them, and simply talk about it in any way they like.
I’m calling the series, which will be appearing every Friday for as long as I can persuade my friends to contribute, ‘Fairytale Reflections’, and I think it’s going to be fascinating and wonderful to see what each writer has to say. And so, as an introduction to the series, here are my own thoughts on:
A few years ago I used to do quite a lot of storytelling, and one thing I learned early on is that you can only a tell a story well if you really love it. This is a story I’ve told aloud on many occasions. It’s from the Brothers Grimm. The illustration below is by Kay Nielsen.
Long, long ago – over an thousand years ago – a woman longed for a child. Out in the courtyard of her house grew a beautiful juniper tree, and one winter day as she stood beneath it peeling an apple, she cut her finger and blood fell on the snow. “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow,” the woman sighed. And the branches of the juniper tree stirred as if a wind was passing through…
Over the course of nine months, as the spring comes and the summer, and the juniper tree fruits, so the woman becomes joyfully pregnant. She eats the berries, and foresees her death: “If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.” She gives birth to a son, and dies, and her husband buries her under the tree and grieves… but not for long. He marries again, and his second wife bears a daughter, little Marlinchen, and is jealous of the son who will inherit the house.
So the stepmother murders the little boy, and then contrives to make Marlinchen feel responsible. She cooks the child and serves him to his father in a stew, swearing Marlinchen to secrecy. The father is troubled, he knows not why, but Marlinchen gathers up her brother’s bones in a handkerchief and buries them under the juniper tree. A mist rises from the juniper tree, the branches stir, and out flies a beautiful fiery bird – her brother’s spirit. At once her sorrow vanishes and she dances into the house.
The bird flies away into the village, where it sings a wonderful song which tempts everyone out to listen.
My mother killed her little son,
My father grieved that I had gone.
My gentle sister pitied me
And buried me under the juniper tree.
Keewit, keewit, what a happy bird I am!
What happens next, you must read the story to find out (there's a version if you click on the title above), but it’s entirely appropriate. The burning, blazing spirit bird with its paradoxically joyful song brings delight to the innocent, but terror and death to the guilty.
Telling this story aloud, I made up a lilting little tune to fit the words of the song – it seemed impossible to baldly say them. And I remember telling it aloud in a school hall in upstate
to about an hundred and fifty ten-year olds. When I reached the part about the murder, where the mother manages to unload the guilt onto her own daughter, I saw the face of a young girl sitting on the front row. Her lips had parted and her eyes were dark with horror. I did feel compunction, but the only way out of the horror is to go on through it, telling the story to the very end. And the end is happy, one that does not negate the horror but transcends it. When I’d finished, you could feel all the children relaxing. They’d trusted me to lead them through a very dark place, but we’d come out into the light. New York
Was it right to tell this story to children?
I have done, several times, and no one yet has told me it was a mistake.On this occasion some of the children came up at the end and said, ‘thanks for the awesome story’, ‘cool story!’ But one of the teachers caught me and said, “Thankyou, these children don’t often hear stories like that.”
What is the meaning of The Juniper Tree? It’s a very strong story, full of joy and pain. It seems to say that you can’t have the joy without the pain, but that pain will always be mitigated by joy. It’s about the power of beauty and music. It acknowledges dreadful evil, but is still full of hope. Like a poem, it means different things at different times, but you can’t reduce it to this or that message. It’s itself. It’s ‘The Juniper Tree.’ It haunts me.