The Juniper Tree – Brothers Grimm, T.S. Eliot & Nietzchka Keene

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,

Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,

Forgetting themselves and each other, united

In the quiet of the desert.

T.S. Eliot

Black screen, white text, so opens the 1990 film ‘The Juniper Tree’, written and directed by Nietzchka Keene, based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. The quote is a short piece taken from the much longer work by T.S. Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday”.

The juniper tree is mentioned only twice in Eliot’s poem, both references in part II of the poem, the one above appearing at the end of the section, the other reference at the beginning:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been

contained

In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

Reading Eliot’s poem, I found the juniper tree reference removed from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, although there are some similarities.

‘The Juniper Tree’ published in the Grimms’ collection was written by Philipp Otto Range, and has been seen as a counterpart of the Greek myth of Cronus, who devours his children in order to ensure he retains his power. The tale opens:

A long time ago, as many as two thousand years ago, there lived a rich man with a wife who was both beautiful and good. They loved each other dearly, but they had no children, even though they longed for them. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still they had none.

She becomes pregnant and “in the seventh month, she picked the berries from the juniper tree and gorged herself on them until she became miserable and was ailing. According to the classical antiquity physician Galen, the juniper tree’s berries can be used for contraceptive purposes and to induce abortion. However the mother eventually “bore a child as white as snow and as red as blood. When she saw the child, she felt so happy that she died of joy.” The child was a boy, the husband buries the mother under the juniper tree.

He remarries and his second wife gives birth to a daughter. “When the woman looked at her daughter, she felt nothing but love for her, but whenever she looked at the little boy, she felt sick at heart….The devil got hold of her so that she began to hate the little boy, and she slapped him around and pinched him here and cuffed him there.” The second wife eventually beheads the young boy by slamming the lid of an apple chest onto him as he is reaching for an apple. “The mother then took the little boy and chopped him up. She put the pieces into a pot and cooked them up into a stew.” The father thought the stew tasted really good and as he ate “he threw the bones under the table.” The daughter collects the bones in her silk handkerchief and puts them “down in the green grass under the juniper tree.”

“The juniper tree began stirring. Its branches parted and came back together again as though it were clapping its hands for joy. A mist arose from the tree, and right in the middle of the mist a flame was burning, and from the flame a beautiful bird emerged and began signing gloriously.”

The bird, the boy reincarnated, sings:

“My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!”

Singing and collecting, a golden chain, a pair of red shoes and a mill stone. Continually singing his song, he drops the golden chain for his father, the red shoes for his sister and drops the millstone on the mother’s head crushing “her to death.” The smoke, flames and fire return and the “little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the three of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

A fable filled with eating aligned with death, gorging the juniper berries, apple chest, the child cooked as stew, happily dining once the step-mother is deceased, it is also a tale of childhood innocence vanishing and, according to the notes in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”,  “by crushing the mother and joining the father, the children have been seen as “successfully” negotiating the path from dependence to autonomy.”

T.S. Eliot’s poem has a few similar references, primarily the bones, other interpretations of his poem state that the juniper tree in Eliot’s poem references the Bible – I Kings 19 (in some Bible versions it is a “broom bush” or “broom tree”, however in the King James Bible it is a “juniper tree”).

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.

The poet is lost in the woods and like Elijah in the Bible, who is lost in the desert, he is nourished and renewed by an angel.

Onto the film, where we have a single father, with a son, Jonas, and two sisters who are seeking a new home as their mother has been stoned and burned for being a witch. The older sister becomes the stepmother, by using witchcraft, potions and incantations to attract the single father as her husband. The connection to nature, as appears in the Grimm Brothers tale is here, an early scene showing Björk, who plays the youngest sister Margit, reciting an incantation to stop the buzzing of the fly, and soon thereafter she entertains the young Jonas with shadow puppets, using her hands, whose actions align perfectly with the crowing of the rooster or the barking of the dog. Margit has a power over nature.

The film is filled with religious symbolism, crucifixes, prayer as well as the witchcraft elements. Margit also having visions of a mother figure.

Whilst the film does have elements of the Grimm fairy story, it deviates in a significant number of areas, a stand alone work that feels more aligned to religious and witchcraft themes, and less to the family, natural world, eating associated with death and childhood growth themes.

I loved the Brothers Grimm tale for its extreme themes, I rather enjoyed the movie and I question the T.S. Eliot reference, did the director just see a juniper tree in a poem and thought “I’ll make that the epigraph”?

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