Reading Grimm: Mental Illness and “The Juniper Tree”

"Junipertree Liesetiawan" | Art by LieSetiawan. Used with permission.
Baking your murder victim into a pudding may not be the best way to dispose of the evidence, but that’s what we get in Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree.”

In this story, a rich man and his beautiful wife love each other deeply, but they have no children even though the wife prays for it everyday. One day, while she is peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in their courtyard, she cuts her finger and blood falls on the snow. She sighs, “if I had but a child, as red as blood and as white as snow.” The juniper tree fills her with a sense of joy and comfort, and she feels that her wish will come true. But, eight months later she eats some juniper berries and becomes ill. One month after that, she has a baby boy and dies because she is filled with so much joy at the sight of him. She is buried beneath the juniper tree.

The man marries another woman and they have a daughter. There is an immediate contrast between the boy’s biological mother—who essentially died from her own “goodness”—and the stepmother, who beats the boy because he stands in the way of her daughter receiving an inheritance. In order to get him our of the way, she kills him, but frames her daughter for the murder and then bakes the boy into black puddings (something more akin to a cake, for those who are unfamiliar with British colloquialisms for desserts), which she serves to the father when he returns home.

The little girl, however, is so distraught that she collects the boy’s bones, wraps them in her best handkerchief, and places them beneath the juniper tree. There, the bones are turned into a bird, who flies over town and trades his song for three items: a golden chain, a pair of red shoes, and a mill stone (adding to the stack of familiar fairy tale tropes in this story, such as a child who is “white as snow and red as blood,” an apple, the transformation of a character into an animal, and an evil stepmother).

The question of what to do with mentally ill people who commit violent crimes is much more complicated.

The bird flies back to the juniper tree and sings to bring his family out; he gives the gold chain to his father, the red shoes to his sister, and drops the stone on his stepmother so that she is crushed beneath it. Mist and flame rise from the earth—I assume to devour the stepmother—and when they have gone, the boy is alive again.

This tale blames the stepmother’s abuse and murder of her stepson on an evil spirit entering her mind. While I certainly don’t condone her actions, I’m wondering if what we’re seeing here is an antiquated understanding of mental illness. People used to believe that “madness” and mental illness were moral issues: you excise the evil spirit to get well.

Our understanding of mental illness now is based in science, but our treatment of people with mental illness isn’t much better than it was in the days of Bedlam. In “The Juniper Tree,” it seems like the stepmother got what she deserved, but the question of what to do with mentally ill people who commit violent crimes is much more complicated. Prisons are not adequately equipped to treat mental illness—inmates with mental illness are more likely to be restricted to solitary confinement, raped, commit suicide, or hurt themselves—and yet many would rather see perpetrators thrown in jail than treated properly.

How would a modern version of this story play out? Would we see the stepmother checked into a psychiatric institution where she is treated for her illness and eventually comes to terms with her actions, thus repenting and seeking forgiveness? Or would we see her thrown in jail to live out the rest of her days behind bars? I still don’t think I know the answer.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld