Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Good and Evil

Birds have been symbolically referred to in literature as having the ability to communicate, having the ability of ultimate freedom, flight, and a mediator between heaven and earth. Flight can also be seen as a stand in for an awakening of some sorts which is exactly the metaphorical transformation the boy experiences in "The Juniper Tree". The boy began his life as human, and unfortunately ended rather abruptly and in no means naturally. The boys transformation into an animal that represents "freedom" is by no means surprising as he escapes and begins setting his plan of revenge into motion. By punishing the wicked stepmother, he "earns" his life back as a human being, never getting lost in the momentary transformation of becoming a bird. Birds often beautiful and representing freedom, can also bring a sense of impending doom, black or white. As we have read in Cinderella and Snow White, the hero/heroine continues to suffer until the stepmother's evil regime comes to an end. Cinderella was protected by doves, and they ended up pecking her stepsisters eyes out at the conclusion of the story. Serving as protection for the good, as they took Cinderella under their wing and made her beautiful for the ball, were Snow White's best friends and aided her during dark times, while also serving as a mediary of existences for the boy in the Juniper Tree.

The Juniper Tree's "beautiful" song (and thoughts on transformations)

We've seen a lot of examples of transformation from animal to human on film so far, most of which haven't come off very well in practice (they work better in imagination). It's interesting that the two animal metamorpheses we're looking at this week (if you count today's film as one of those) involved food in some fashion. The people were turned into gingerbread and the boy was chopped up into a stew and, as a bird, sat upon a Juniper tree, whose berries caused his birth in the first place. I don't know if there's anything to the food link; it's just something I noticed.

Most of the transformations we've seen have been into animals that aren't really desirable, in my opinion. They don't use lions or tigers or bears (oh my) - the boys are all turned into birds. But they're all incredibly wily in figuring out how to use their position for the best. They make the most of what they've been given.

In reference to the song, can I ask a semi obvious question: Why is that song so beautiful? Every person in the story comments on how beautiful his song is. I don't think that song is beautiful, so maybe they are all referring to his voice? Which would be perhaps saying something about how his voice (his agency) is pure and true, and how innocent children who have been abused by their bad mothers can be beautiful?

The Juniper Tree

Trying to place the boy from the Juniper Tree in a category of human or animal is hard. In some myths or wives tales or religious beliefs (whichever you prefer) there are tales of birds who are the souls of the past; they seem to be the human but in animal form as a means of guidance, protection or fore-warning. In the case of the boy I would assume that the tales would be true, the spirit of the boy is in this bird. I would suggest that the whole belief in reincarnation could be placed within this story along with the myth belief as to why the boy came back as a bird which is interesting in its own right. The song that the bird/boy sings could be an indication of actually being him to his family. Though birds sing many ways this song was specific such that the family knew it was him which was significant for the boy to do in order to get recognized but also I would assume for the story to come full circle. As far as others transformations, this one would be the only one not aided in. He transformed on his own and couldn't transform back to an original "human" though he portrayed qualities of a human. Nevertheless, I feel his being turned into a bird in the first place was aided by a force if not his own yet he has to stay as a bird and not ever return to the human realm.

Murderous Bird

Obviously the boy in The Juniper Tree does not fall at the extremes of totally human or animal and consequently he lies somewhere in between, but "in between" is a large place. As far as this particular story is concerned I believe he falls much closer to the totally human side of the plane. Not only does he begin his life as human but after he dies and is transformed into a bird he goes about the task - whether knowingly or not - of trying to become human again. If he were more bird than human I think it would be safe to say he would have remained in the form at the conclusion of the story.

To me, the bird embodies the guilt of the mother (though she did not appear overly broken up over the murder of her step-son initially). The song serves as the record of her misdeed and consequently she is tormented by it.

This particular transformation is interesting to me because unlike many fairy tales the transformation occurs so that the boy can apparently seek revenge on his stepmother. He is given a second chance at life to punish his stepmother and then he is rewarded with the completion of his transformation cycle. Also, the transformation in a lot of other stories is less literal, such as in Donkeyskin where the girl remains a girl the entire story but her status in the kingdoms changes.

As to the reasoning behind the boy's resurrection, well, why not? I've never known a fairy tale to be bound by the laws of physics and nature that regulate our own world, so if a boy wants to come back to to life as a bird and murder his grandmother, so be it.

Sorry if this is short or not particularly insightful, I just got my splint off today and my hand is still really stiff. And though the nerve damage in my hand is not permanent, it will take about 18 months for me to regain full mobility and feeling in it, so typing is still a little tough.

Also, has anybody seen that movie The Crow with Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee's son)? Similar idea, check it out.

The Juniper Tree and the Law of Conservation of Mass

The law of conservation of mass states that mass is neither created nor destroyed in any ordinary chemical reaction.

One of the most puzzling aspects of "The Juniper Tree" is the boy’s transformation from human to animal and back to human, especially since the change to bird form and the return to human form both result in the brother breaking the law of conservation of mass. Granted, the folk fairy tale is allowed to take liberties with the natural order of things, but because I wonder where on the scale of human to bird the brother fits, I recall this particular law. As a result of this law, the answer would be that the boy dies forever and for always when his stepmother decapitates him with the lid of the trunk and that his corpse would be the physical mass left over, as mass is not destroyed (just separated). On the other hand, the bird’s appearance and the boy’s reappearance occur in puffs of smoke and flame, indicating that they have been constituted out of thin air. Again, the law of conservation of mass would beg to differ.

By the statutes of this law, the boy was always human and will always be human, dead or alive. Although the folk fairy tale permits his soul to reappear in bird form and, later, in a renewed human body, he could never be more than human, as he was created (and destroyed).

However, I am forgetting that this law states that “mass is neither created nor destroyed” in any ordinary chemical reaction. The situation presented in "The Juniper Tree" is clearly not “ordinary.” I do not know how human nor how bird he is, then. If I had to postulate, I would say that the boy as a being is tied more to his soul than to any sentient human or animal shell. In that case, it would be true that his soul is neither “created nor destroyed” and lives on, although the physical shell dies or transforms. (But can a “soul” count under the statutes of the law of conservation of mass?)


The Juniper Tree

The Juniper Tree employs a common motif found in fairy tales: the transformation of a human into an animal (in this case a bird). However, The Juniper Tree also includes the transformation of the bird back into human form, which is an aspect that not all fairy tale transformations include. Leading up to this, a boy is killed by his stepmother, who then tries to blame her daughter and makes her swear not to tell anyone. Doing what any person trying to hide a dead body would do, the stepmother chops up the boy and makes a stew out of it for the father to eat. The daughter, Marlene, then buries the boy's bones beneath a juniper tree. At this moment, the tree starts moving to and fro and, with a puff of smoke, a bird flies out of the tree. The bird then enchants a goldsmith, a shoemaker, and a miller with his beautiful song recounting his (the boy's) death and receives a gold chain, a pair of red shoes, and a millstone. Upon receiving his prizes, the bird flies back and sings the same song to his family, all of whom are enchanted by it except for the stepmother. Each member of the family comes out one at a time to hear the song, which prompts the bird to give the gold chain to the father and the shoes to the daughter. Once the stepmother comes out, the bird graciously gives her the millstone, which comes crashing down on her and killing her. The boy then appeared at the site of the boulder impact and the family, like any good fairy tale family, does not question the events and goes back inside to eat together happily.

I think that Son 2.0 is primarily human, but his animal side can't be discounted either. Unlike other fairy tales where a human is changed into an animal and changed back, this character was killed (pretty definitively at that unless decapitations aren't a surefire way of killing someone anymore) and then resurrected as a bird. It's not that it would be illogical for this new son to be entirely human because logic doesn't really have a place in fairy tales. Rather, the fact that Son 2.0 originally came from a bird and not his first human form can't be ignored.

His song and his plot to gather the items necessary to lure out his family and kill his stepmother further suggest that Son 2.0 are primarily human. It is not entirely implausible to give higher reasoning skills to an animal in a fairy tale, but it is more of a human characteristic considering how many fairy tales assert that humans are better than animals.

Son 2.0 can come back from the dead for the exact same reason the bird can sing a song that its listeners can not only understand, but be enchanted by; for the same reason that the same bird can carry a milestone big enough to crush a woman; for the same reason that the juniper tree can clap its branches together and produce a flame and smoke without erupting in flames itself:

...it's a fairy tale, anything is possible.

More than meets the eye

In a lot of the stories we've read--Hans the Hedgehog comes to mind--a character is transformed until he completes a task, be it finding someone to love him in his hideous form or in the case of The Juniper Tree, vanquishing his evil step-mother. I view the brother's transformation as a consequence of his father marrying the wrong type of woman. This needs to be put right before their family life can continue as normal.

Thus I do not think the brother ever truly dies. The bird is a vehicle of escape, one of flight. The story reminds me in a way of Where The Wild Things Are in that the boy has to escape a family situation he finds disagreeable. His step-mother is cruel to him so he wishes to turn to a bird and get away. In a fairy tale land, he can do so. In a fairy tale land, his father finally sees how awful his new wife is and she gets her comeuppance by having a rock dropped on her head.

In that sense, to me the boy is all human. The bird transformation is merely metaphoric. He can only maintain his normal form when his family situation has become normal and stable.

Transformation in the The Juniper Tree

The transformation in The Juniper Tree is very interesting. As the story goes, the stepmother kills the stepson, convinces her daughter that it was her fault, and then chops him up and serves him for dinner. The little girl feels sorry for him and gathers his bones in a silk cloth and takes him to the Juniper tree to lay him to rest. At that moment the tree begins to move with life and smoke mixed with flames give rise to a singing bird. Interestingly, the boy’s spirit enters the tree and bird not because he is has been forced into the transformation by a witch’s curse, but rather uses the transformation as a vehicle to avenge his death. Once he has become he bird he visits a goldsmith, shoemaker and mill to get the necessary tools for his plan. (Which he acquires by singing once, and then requiring payment for the second song.) Again he sings to lure the family out of their home to the tree, and gives the father a gold chain, the daughter red shoes, and kills the stepmother with a millstone. Then he is suddenly transformed back into a boy and the three live happily ever after.

I think that in this case the bird falls more on the human spectrum than animal, even though he is trapped in an animal’s body. This is because he uses the transformation to get revenge for the stepmother’s horrible act and reward the father and sister. Normally I feel like transformations are used as a mechanism for escape (for example, the princess and Roland in Sweetheart Roland) or is the result of a curse (for the ravens in the Seven Ravens or swans in The Six Swans). I also think that the bird’s most powerful tool is his song. He uses it to get the chain, shoes and millstone, and to lure the family out of the house. It is also beautiful to listen to everyone but the stepmother who harmed him (to her it sounds like a storm).

On a complete side note, isn’t it interesting that in the sixth month of pregnancy the fetus is described as a large and firm fruit, and then the stepmother kills the boy while he reaches for a fruit? –It may be insignificant but it is an interesting subtle foreshadowing.

Transformation in the Juniper Tree

The premise of The Juniper Tree is, to put it bluntly, bizarre. In the tale, we find a wicked stepmother who devises a twisted, perverse scheme to kill her stepchild: first, she chops his head off, Guillotine-style, and then stirs his dismembered body parts into a stew, which she proceeds to serve to the unsuspecting family at suppertime. It’s like a bad family drama with a little Silence of the Lambs mixed in.

One of the most intriguing developments in the tale involves the reincarnation of the dead stepchild into an exquisite, mystical bird. Birds emerge as common tenants of classic folklore—time and time again, sons are transformed into ravens or swans or black crows. In this sense, then, the boy’s magical rebirth into a bird is nothing surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the boy seems to retain a good deal of agency in his bird form. Unlike other fairy tale transformations—in which the victim of transformation becomes passive, exiled to some unspecified, enchanted imprisonment where he or she is utterly powerless to change their condition—the boy in The Juniper Tree evolves into something of a hybrid bird species, a powerful juxtaposition of his human and bird beings.

Consider The Seven Ravens. In this tale, a father’s curse transforms his seven sons into ravens, and the birds are banished to confinement in a mountain. The sons do regain their human forms eventually, but only because their sister intervenes on their behalf. Let’s contrast this scenario to The Juniper Tree. Rather than passively waiting to be saved, the boy in this story mobilizes into action and sheds his bird persona strictly through his own craft and wit. In a cleverly designed scheme, the bird-boy charms several merchants with his beautiful song into donating certain valuables to him. He then travels back to his former home and drops one of his gifts, a millstone, on the malicious stepmother’s head, crushing her to death. In this way, we see the bird of the Juniper Tree as an autonomous creature, capable of employing intelligence to exact revenge and resume human form.

The Birds and The Boys

As we have discussed in class, magic, fantastical elements, and the human interaction with nature play a key part in the characterization of fairy tales. The transformation stories that we read 2 weeks ago as well as the Juniper Tree exemplify these three key elements of fairy tales. In both stories, boys are cursed and transformed into birds. However, the types of transformation are significant. In the stories such as the "Seven Ravens" and the "Twelve Brothers," the boys are transformed while they are living as a result of some magical element such as a wicked witch or a malicious wish. In these stories the boys are more animalistic than the Juniper Tree transformation. The boys cannot communicate with humans, however they clearly maintain their humanistic morals and thoughts.
Conversly, in the Juniper Tree story, the boy is transformed into a bird only after he is dead. The transformation, many people would argue, represents a reincarnation or afterlife. I believe this transformation represents the middle ground between death and life- the boy cannot die an unjustified and unavenged death. I believe this speaks to the supposed purity of children and the sense that children should not die a wrongful death (I realize this may be a stretch). Therefore, the boy is reincarnated to a bird like exterior, but maintains his human interior. I dont think he is purely animal or human- he is a mixture of both (animal exterior and human interior). That is one of the advantages of using fantasy and magic in fairy tales- anything is fair game. The song the bird sings represents this hybrid of bird and boy. In the other tales, the birds were unable to communicate with humans. I think the fact that the bird in the Juniper Tree can communicate with humans demonstrates his human like qualities. For one of the main characteristics of a humans is their ability to communicate with one another.
The fact that the boy comes back from the dead, only after the malicious step mother who wronged him in the first place, represents the righteousness of justice. When justice is served, the wrong doings of the accused is made right. The boy comes back to life because he was not meant to die in the first place and when the step mother dies, she takes his place in the afterlife. And in fairy tales authors can bring people back from the dead- they can do whatever they want.

The Juniper Tree

While the transformation in "The Juniper Tree" is important, it’s hard to comprehend in terms of the purpose it is supposed to serve. I find myself wondering why the boy specifically changed into a bird, as opposed to some other animal, or why the little boy only communicated through song and only with strangers, as opposed to his father or sister. That said, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the boy being totally human or totally animal. In my opinion, he seems to fall more towards totally human on the scale, because his animal form is only temporary. While he physically loses his human shape, he can still reason and sing.

While the boy was a bird, he had to sing his beautiful song in order to get humans to listen and obtain the necessary materials through bargaining to get his revenge and become human again. As we know, the little bird sang his song twice in exchange for a golden chain from the goldsmith, a pair of red shoes from the shoemaker, and a millstone from the miller. In the end, the bird gives the red shoes to his sister Marlene, the golden chain to his father, and he drops the millstone on the stepmother’s head to kill her. It is interesting that the humans never pay attention to the words in the bird’s song; instead, they simply notice his pleasing voice. The little boy is only able to come back from the dead once he gets his revenge and kills the evil stepmother. Thus, the “spell”, if it can be considered one, is broken and the little boy changes from a bird back to a human.

In comparison with other transformations, it is similar in the fact that a certain spell must be broken in order for the animal to revert back to its previous human form. For instance, in "The Twelve Brothers", the brothers can only be changed back from ravens to humans if their sister is silent for seven years, and only then will the spell be broken. In addition, because this person’s life was taken and therefore he or she temporarily becomes an animal, another life must be exchanged so that the animal can live again as a human. This exchange can be seen in "Brother and Sister", when the brother, who had previously been turned into a fawn by his evil stepmother, became human again after the king issued the stepmother's execution. Likewise, in "The Jupiter Tree", the little boy drops the millstone on the evil stepmother’s head, similar to how she slammed his head against the chest, and as she dies he instantly becomes human again. He then lives happily ever after with his father and sister.