Some stories are too disturbing to be allowed
A few days ago, I found an illustrated version of The Brothers Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales (1812) in my father’s library.
I had loved fairy tales as a child. I remember reading Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and being fascinated by the beautiful women and the handsome princes they got to marry.
The stories shaped my dreams for me and taught me new fears and fantasies. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said they played a huge part in shaping my childhood.
Now that I am older and more jaded, more cynical, I no longer believe that marriage with a good-looking man would end up as my “happily ever after”.
In spite of that, I was curious by the emotions these stories would evoke in me, and I started reading the book. To my surprise, I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. I came across a story that disturbed me so much, I had to keep the book aside and take a few moments to myself.
This article is about that disturbing piece in a children’s book of fairy tales and all the ways it impacted me as an adult.
What Got Me So Worked Up
The story was called The Juniper Tree. Here is a summary:
Long back, there was a rich and pious couple who had everything they wanted, save a child.
One cold winter evening, the wife was peeling herself an apple by the Juniper tree in their courtyard. She cut herself, and a drop of her shining red blood fell into the snow beneath the tree. She sighed in unhappiness and wished she could bear a child as red as blood and as fair as the snow.
Nine months later, her wish was fulfilled.
The wife was so happy on holding their beautiful boy in her arms, that her heart stopped beating.
Her husband was heartbroken, and couldn’t stop crying as he buried his loving wife beneath the same Juniper tree that had granted her lifelong wish.
After a few months, he took another wife. They had a beautiful daughter together, whom they fondly called Marlene.
The twist in the tale
The new wife was always worried that a part of her husband’s inheritance would go to his son from his first marriage. She couldn’t stop herself from hatching an evil plan to get rid of the little boy once and for all.
One afternoon when the husband was away, the stepmother feigned kindness and asked the boy to pick an apple for himself from a chest filled with the reddest and juiciest fruits. As he reached in, she slammed the heavy lid on his neck, chopping off his head.
Overcome with the fear of discovery, she propped the dead body of the child on a chair, put his severed head back on, and covered his neck wound with a handkerchief.
Here’s where things get graphic
When her daughter, Marlene, came to her complaining that her brother wasn’t answering her call, the new wife pointed to the chair and asked her to box him on the ears if he refused to answer one more time.
Trying in vain to start a conversation with her dead brother, Marlene smacked him hard, causing his head to roll off on the floor.
Shrieking in horror, she went to her mother and told her how she had inadvertently taken her own brother’s life.
Feigning calmness, her mother reassured her that they would hide the dead body in a stew so that no one would find out what had happened. Together, they chopped up the body to little pieces and put the pieces in a pot to boil. Marlene couldn’t stop crying during the whole time, and the salt in her tears acted as the perfect seasoning for the stew that they served up on the table for the father to feast on when he arrived.
Did you think the worst was over?
The man devoured the stew in its entirety, claiming all the while that this was the best food he had ever tasted.
Marlene, who couldn’t stop crying, gathered up the bones her father had clumsily thrown below the table and buried them underneath the Juniper tree — the same place where the boy’s mother was buried.
The branches of the tree began to move, and a bird flew out of them, singing in a hauntingly beautiful voice -
“My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree.”
The bird then flew around the countryside, gathering gifts for his father and sister by singing songs to the country-folk.
A different kind of “happily ever after”
The bird also picked up a millstone from a miller’s apprentice and dropped it on its step-mother’s head, killing her on the spot.
Smoke, flames, and fire rose from the place where the woman lay dead, and when that was over, the little brother stood there — as red as blood and as fair as the snow; hale and hearty once again.
He took his father and Marlene by the hand. All three were very happy. Together, they walked into the house, sat down at the table, and had lunch.
Basically, this was a story of a little girl blamed for her brother’s murder and a boy who was eaten by his own father. This makes me wonder: murder and cannibalism — is that what the children in the 19th century enjoyed?
Apart from that, child abuse is a prevalent theme throughout the story, with the stepmother constantly abusing her stepson and eventually killing him.
There have been scholars who claim that since the story deals with reincarnation, there are biblical messages strewn throughout. The overall message is a message of hope.
To be honest, I didn’t see that.
I was disturbed by the story, and the accompanying illustrations were even more terrifying. I only wonder what the reaction of parents would have been, had such a fairy-tale been available to the children of today.
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