Once upon a time, there were two German brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. You may remember them from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which once were read to small children before the advent of the iPhone ended most parent/child reading time.
The Grimm boys liked folklore from the Middle Ages. They collected these stories and published them as a series of books beginning in 1812. Many of our fairy tales originated with the Grimms, who brought us Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White and Rumplestiltskin, among many others.
The original versions of the folk stories were not the sanitized versions that ended up in Disney movies. Life was rough in the Middle Ages. People lived in vast, dark forests. Wolves were literally at their doors. A lot of things happened in the Middle Ages. Not all of them were good.
For your consideration, kindly ponder the story of “The Juniper Tree,” which features things you would not be comfortable reading to your 5-year-old. If you are faint of heart, or not inclined to think of anything more unpleasant than the daily news, skip the rest of this column and go read “News of the Weird.”
If anyone is still out there reading this stain on world literature, allow me to commence with the unfiltered story of “The Juniper Tree.”
Once upon a time, there lived a wealthy couple who had everything they wanted but a child. They offered daily prayers to be sent a child, but for many years, the prayers went unanswered.
One winter day, the wife was standing in the snow peeling an apple under a Juniper tree. Why she chose to stand in the snow to peel the apple instead of remaining inside remains a mystery. Perhaps a case of cabin fever.
In any event, she managed to cut her finger while peeling the apple. Drops of her blood fell into the snow. Thinking this might be an omen, she prayed for a child who was white as snow and red as blood. That summer, the wife ate too many berries from the Juniper tree and became deathly ill. She made her husband promise to bury her under the Juniper tree if she died. As luck would have it, she gave birth to a son about a month later and died of happiness. Her husband kept his promise, burying her under the Juniper tree.
After a decent interval, the husband married a lady who brought him a series of casseroles, once again proving the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The new wife, who is the prototype for the Wicked Stepmother of a zillion tales, had a daughter of her own, Marlinchen. Naturally, the Wicked Stepmother hated her stepson. She was mean to him. If the Department of Social Services had existed, she would have been hauled off to juvenile court for her abuse of her stepson. Stepmom wants her daughter Marlinchen to inherit the husband’s wealth instead of his son. You can see where this is going.
Stepmom lures stepson into the kitchen, promising him a treat from a cedar chest full of Honeycrisp apples. Stepson leans over the chest to take an apple. Stepmom slams the lid onto his neck, cutting off his head. Yuck.
To cover up her crime, Stepmom straps sonny boy’s head to his body, propping him up in a chair with an apple in his lap. Marlinchen, who knows nothing of Stepmom’s bad behavior, comes home from school and asks her brother for the apple. Stepson, being dead, doesn’t answer. Stepmom makes Marlinchen swat her brother on the ear, causing his head to fall off. Marlinchen thinks she has killed her brother and cries her a river.
Stepmom cuts up stepson and makes a tasty stew out of him, which she feeds to her husband. (I told you this was a rough story.) Marlinchen buries her brother’s bones under the Juniper tree to hide the uneaten evidence.
After burying the bones, a dense mist appears around the tree, and a bird flies out. The bird flies into the village, telling anyone who will listen that Stepmom killed her stepson. The bird’s story is so interesting that a goldsmith makes the bird a gold chain, a shoemaker makes a pair of red shoes, and a miller gives the bird a millstone.
The bird flies back home and delivers the gold chain to the husband and the red shoes to Marlinchen. This makes the Stepmom madder than a wet hen. She goes outside to cool off. The bird drops the millstone square on her head, killing her deader than a bug on a 60-mile-an-hour windshield. Flames break out, and the bird turns back into the son. Everyone is happy as a clam to be rid of Wicked Stepmom. They all go back inside where they finish off the stew and live happily ever after.
So, what have we learned today? Do not eat too many Juniper berries. Some stepmothers are better cooks than parents. If a bird flies over your head carrying a millstone, go back inside.