Friday, 17 September 2010

Fairytale Reflections (1)

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 New York 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.  

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.


  1. And just as I finished writing this post, my daughter happend by and told me she visited an artwork at Tate Modern in London only yesterday, centered on The Juniper Tree. You can visit it via this link

  2. I'm really looking forward to these posts, Kath (though with a bit of trepidation as well, because I'm one of the writers taking part and I don't want to let the side down!)

    Fascinated to hear of your storytelling experience... I've had that kind of reaction as well from 10 year olds when reading from my books... horror read aloud always seems stronger than horror on the page, somehow.

  3. This sounds like a really fascinating story! And I think it is definitely acceptable for children. Children know that there is pain and horror in the world, and I think the story is done in a way that it isn't the focus, and the guilt is shown and there is also happiness.

  4. Thanks for a great post, Kath. What a great idea: I look forward to reading your guests' selections. The Juniper Tree has haunted me since I first came across it in a very beautiful edition of Grimms that I bought as a treat for myself while at university. I don't remember the ressurection of the boy, though, my version had a darker and more ambivalent ending. And yes, it fascinated and horrified me at twenty; it is strong meat. I've always found the term 'fairy tale' for these stories inadequate.

  5. Katherine, I'm looking forward to your post very much - no worries there... and yes, I think telling aloud can certainly increase the effect of any story, just as a live performance of a play is so much more than a bare reading. We do need to be careful.

    Amy, I think fairytales often deal with terror and horror in ways which are psychically healing. However, there's always a bit of danger. I remember at least one (read by myself as a child) which scared me to death. But then these stories must once ALWAYS have been told aloud, in an intimate setting, by someone trusted and known. That would make a difference.

    Ellen, one of the problems with 'fairytale' as a noun is that it's too often associated with the rather bland canon of the usual anthologies. Disneyfied, if you like, in the popular imagination. But really, those collections of Grimm and Andersen we used to read that belonged to our mothers and grandmothers - there's nothing sanistised about them.

  6. I agree, Kath. I love The Grimm's tales and know them well; but my point is they were taken from folk tales. Told round fire for and by adults & not specially meant for children. As folktales they will have had a socializing function; many are about women's role in society - and the female is often protrayed as dangerous or evil, as here.

  7. Well, yes... but one woman. The mother, and the little girl are also female. So I think there's a balance: if it wasn't for Marlinchen's loving action, the boy wouldn't rise again as the bird. I don't personally read this story as anti-feminist. There are many strong heroines in fairytales and folklore. (and many weak men.)

  8. ...I suppose what I'm thinking, is that the woman is evil not because she's female, but because of her vividly portrayed jealousy, fear, and selfishness. I don't think the tale is saying all women are like this.

  9. Although I didn't know the Grimm's fairytale before and love your rendition, did you also know of the book of the same name by Barbara Comyns, whose wonderful, naive style suits her own retelling of this macabre tale. It too is haunting and I feel compelled to make sure her excellent work is linked here. Thank you.

  10. Yes, agree. The beauty of the dead mother's love for her child at the beginning of Juniper Tree is heart-wrenching.

  11. I think we need fairy tales in our lives - because they are both real and unreal. They allow us to confront our worst fears and greatest unhappiness and still hope. I will be very interested to see if anyone picks up on something that bothers me about the way fairy tales have sometimes been converted.

  12. Annie, no, I'm not familiar with the book. I'll see if I can locate a copy. Thankyou! Catdownunder, we'll have to see, but if not, perhaps you'll discuss it with us later in the series - it would be a very interesting subject.

  13. I've always looked forward to Fridays, but "Fairy Tale Fridays" will make them even sweeter. Thank you.

  14. What an absolutely stupendous blog! How did I not discover this till now? Fairy tales and children's literature are both my research and my passion, so I'm near-speechless with delight at finding another blog that handles them so adroitly. Well done, Katharine, and expect to see me blundering about here now and again. I'm subscribing.

  15. Mr Pond/John - always pleased to meet another fairytale fan! Thankyou for visiting, and expect to find me dropping in at Paradoxes from tine to time, too!

  16. Thank you, Katherine, for your words of encouragement on my fledgling blog. I've been following yours for quite some time, and am always thrilled to read a new post. (My desk is covered with little bits of paper on which I've written the names of books you recommend!) I've so enjoyed this latest post. As a mother of two young boys, I too have been faced with the question of when is a story too much for children. But, as you wrote, they must go through the horror and come out on the other side. Children have imaginations that let them instinctively know about horror and betrayal, as well as joy and love. (I sometimes wish I could crawl into their sleeping dreams at night and listen to their stories.) Giving them these topics in a story/fairy tale form allows them a safe structure in which to explore and experience them. I'm looking forward to more "Fairytale Reflections".

  17. I love The Juniper Tree and it's one of those stories which has remained with me.
    I think that children have the innate capacity to take in, sieve through and come to their own personal understanding of the darkest events, as long as there is some kind of resolution.