Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The transformation in The Juniper Tree is very different than the other human to animal transformations in the stories we've read. The boy is transformed only after he has already died and the form he is transformed into is not just a bird, but a magical singing bird with more capabilities and intelligence than his human counterpart. In the other stories about human to animal transformations, the "animal" version of the person is either completely animalistic and seemingly without human intelligence, or the animal retained its human faculties and nothing more. The son in Juniper Tree goes from a gullibe boy, easily tricked by his step-mother, to a talented singing bird with the cunning to trick people out of presents. He gains beauty, intelligence, singing talent, and the very un-childlike desire for revenge. He is neither completely animal nor completely human. It is almost as if the juniper tree turned him into a magical bird with extra powers.

All of these attributes distinguish him from the other transformed humans, but one thing is the same. The method of transformation has to be by some magical object. The transformation in The Juniper Tree was brought on by the magic in the juniper tree. The tree performed magic on the boy's mother and again on the boy himself. In stories such as The Six Swans and The Twelve Brothers, a witch or stepmother uses magical shirts or the water in a stream to transform the boys. The transformation from animal back to human is different however. In the other stories, a sister has to undergo some trial or test in order to turn the brothers back into humans. In The Juniper Tree the boy is able to turn himself back into a human throught the use of cunning and the completion of revenge on his evil step-mother. The fact that he comes back from the dead is unique, but not inconcievable considering the tree that initially gave him life is what brings him to life a second time.

Brothers - as humans and birds

The transformation of the boy into a bird in The Juniper Tree is a very different scenario than those that appear in other bird/human transformations. In other stories, like The Seven Ravens, The Twelve Brothers, and The Six Swans, the brothers are changed into birds by some accident or curse. Then, the sister must perform difficult tasks in order to save the brothers and transform them back into humans.

In The Juniper Tree, though, the boy is not turned into a bird until he is dead and his bones are buried. Then, he goes around singing to acquire what he needs to reward the father and sister and kill the stepmother. Once this is accomplished, he can return to his human form. The fact that he still retains his “human ability” to speak and goes around singing a song about what happened shows that he is still more human than animal. This makes it seem like the bird is merely representative of his ghost. And once he is transformed into a human again, life continues happily as if nothing had happened.

Although he transforms into an animal, he still has more human characteristics than animal characteristics. Then, of course when the cause of his destruction is also destroyed, he comes back to life. While this is not logical or realistic (not that it should be), it just goes to show that he was always a human, but had to transform into something else (i.e. a bird because a ghost just wouldn’t have fit the fairy tale image) because he had died.

The Juniper Tree and Resurrection

I find the Juniper Tree to be one of the Grimms more darker and disturbing tales, and I think while the movie is very weird and surrealistic, it does capture the bleakness and sinister mood of the story. The boy's bones are buried under the Juniper tree, where his mother is also buried. It evokes the image of the magic tree in Cinderella, where her mother is buried. The dead mother is seen as an image of good, and often helps her child through magic. Since this is a fairy tale, anything can happen, including the transformation from boy to bird, and back to human. The main difference between the Juniper Tree and all of the other transformation stories is that in The Seven Ravens, Twelve Swans, etc etc, the boys are never dead when they are transformed into birds. However, one theory is that the magic of the dead mother helped her dead son to be resurrected in the form of a bird until the spell was "broken," which meant that he would turn human with the death of the evil stepmother. He is not so much transformed into a bird as he is resurrected as one, as seen in this passage:

"At the same time smoke came out of the tree, and in the middle of the smoke there was a flame that seemed to be burning. Then a beautiful bird flew out of the fire and began singing magnificently." (161).

The rising out of the fire is characteristic of the Phoenix, along with the beautiful singing. (And yes, thanks to Harry Potter and Fawkes, I know this.)
Back to the Grimms and the bird's song. It is interesting to see how the words of his song are so tragic, so bizarre, yet everyone who hears them says "Bird, how beautifully you sing!" Through his song he gains a golden chain, red slippers, and a millstone. His song tortures the stepmother to madness, forcing her to step outside to escape it, but when she does, it's her bad luck that the millstone is dropped on her head. Once the source of evil is crushed, from the fire and smoke rises the boy in his human form. Another difference is that he has to transform himself back, he cannot rely on anyone else to change him back. So while it can be read figuratively, as if the bird is a reincarnation of his spirit, I tend to think that his biological mother's magic made it possible for him to take the form of a bird until he used his power of song to tell the truth and kill the evil stepmother. With magic, anything can happen, especially in a fairy tale, no matter how far fetched it may seem.

Juniper Tree interpretation

In the Juniper Tree, a brother is killed by his wicked stepmother, and when his remains are placed at a sacred site where his mother was buried, he resurrects as a bird. In my view, it was not the brother's physical transformation that took place in this story, but rather his soul's taking of a new form in order to correct and justify a fallen and imperfect situation in the world. When the brother returns as a bird, he ceased to be human altogether and took on the role fully of bird but with that of his human spirit and soul's memory. Thus, he had the knowledge he needed to make the transformation of the world back to perfection.

His song takes on a different form than one would expect as well. Rather than the bird literally somehow singing the words as one might think, the bird's message is somehow carried in normal bird chirps but takes on magical qualities that human's understand. It's similar to how the mother 'sensed' the boy's spirit when she felt "a big storm were on its way." Nature, in this case being bird chirps, somehow transmitted sensations into humans without having to take on human form.

In my view, the boy doesn't necessarily literally come back from the dead, rather the ending is a symbol of a return to spiritual realignment and perfection. The mother, being a wicked character, is excluded from the final scene, but the boy's reappearance shows how the perfect family would have been, with just brother, sister, and father. This transformation is different from others we read in that there was a need for magical properties "smoke, flames, and fire" to appear before the transformation to take place rather than it just happening out of nowhere, such as in "Sweetheart Roland." Also, it is clearly magic taking place here as opposed to human involvement in the transformation such as in Hans the Hedgehog where he is shaved and oiled. Again, I don't think the transformation is so much important as the symbol of a return to order and good spirits.

The Brother as a Bird

"The Juniper Tree" is rather unusual in that the brother transforms posthumously into another living being and only with the death of the one who made it happen is he able to regain life in his original human form. Unlike the other tales in which multiple brothers (who are alive) change into swans or ravens with only their sister's sacrifices having the ability to bring them back, the transformation in "The Juniper Tree" is akin to reincarnation, and the (step)sister makes very little sacrifice other than giving her dead brother a proper burial.

This raises some troubling concerns when you ask whether he is more of a bird or more of a person, for can he be either if he is dead? His human to animal to human transformation might be, instead, a way of looking at death/afterlife. The very fact that the bird sings a song with uniquely human lyrics (my mother, she slew me / my father, he ate me) and that the bird plots vengeance against his stepmother supports the supposition that the brother remains human in his animal state. The bird, from this reading, becomes a sort of ghost-like presence, haunting his stepmother and rewarding his sister to represent his incompleteness with the people in his former life.

Perhaps I'm stretching this too far, but if we continue along this thread, the death/murder of the stepmother rights the wrong and completes the revenge cycle, enabling the bird to return to his human state... or perhaps move from the world/purgatory and into his heaven which contains his kind stepsister and father. Just a theory, and a bit of a stretch.