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A story that reveals the apocalyptic leaning of many fairy tales, “The Juniper Tree” has an exquisite narrative shape. It is too artful and delicious to summarize, but here are the juiciest details.
The story begins with a loving couple eager to become parents. Often the wife visits the beautiful woods, full of singing birds and flowering trees, ardently hoping for a child. Eventually she becomes a mother, but, alas, she is so happy she dies.
Enter the Grimm trope of the stepmother — ominous music — that much-maligned figure the brothers introduced when they learned the Kinder und Hausmarchen was becoming popular with parents reading to their children. (In earlier editions, many Grimm tales featured murderous biological mothers; they decided a substitute mother would be less offensive, perhaps. As an adoptive mother, I take issue with this!) Soon, the new mother and the husband have a biological daughter, Marlene, whom the story claims the mother does love, though she cannot bear her stepson. Just looking at him makes her feel ill.
Ah well, what’s a mother to do? After torturing the boy with slaps and nasty remarks, she finally can’t bear the sight of him any longer. So she decapitates him with the heavy metal lid of an apple chest. A real sociopath, she then sets up beloved Marlene to believe she’s the one who brings on his death! She ties the boy’s head back on with a kerchief, sets him down on the chest with an apple propped in his hand, and tells Marlene to ask him to give her the apple. When he doesn’t answer, the mother tells Marlene to slap him; she does. Off flies his head! …