Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Brother's Journey into the Unknown

Transformations between human and animal are not uncommon in fairy tales. Very often the characters in these stories can harmlessly venture between both worlds. The brothers in the Seven Ravens stories are cursed into birds before returning to their human form, and Hans lives in a perpetual in-between state as a man/hedgehog hybrid. The difference between these tales and The Juniper Tree is that the brothers transformation is not between animal and human, it is between living and dead.

In many of the other stories characters are turned into animals only to return to their human forms and live what we can infer to be a very normal life. However, these characters are victims of curses, not murder. While they do transform physically, the reader can assume that they are still human in thought. For example, in Brother and Sister, the brother begs to go out and play through the hunt, just like a human child would. A natural fawn would likely shy away from any threats, while the brother engages in them. It is clear that his mental state has not changed, even though he is in the body of the fawn. It is not the same for the brother in The Juniper Tree.

One of the the key internal struggles of humankind is the struggle with the unknown of death. No one can really say what happens when one dies, and the awareness of this uncertainty is a mark of a true human. When the brother is killed, he is not immediately and magically transformed. He truly goes through a death stage. This stage and the knowledge of what will happen after one dies is what prevents him from being able to assume a complete human form again. He is neither animal nor human. He has been bestowed with knowledge entirely unavailable to all living things. He is set apart from all else because he has traveled to death and back.

Looking at this story as just a physical transformation would be a mistake. The bigger issue is not the brother's physical appearance, but the knowledge imparted to him through his trials. It is that knowledge that classifies him, not his outward appearance.

Juniper Tree

In the Juniper Tree the boy is still mostly human even when he is in bird form. He can still speak, and he is capable of planning ahead and planning how to get revenge on his stepmother. He uses the song to get the gold chain, shoes and millstone so he can give the chain and shoes to his father and sister and use the millstone to kill his stepmother. The song also is used by him to drive his stepmother crazy before she dies. Since the boy is capable of rational thought and planning ahead, he is more human than bird.
He is able to come back from the dead when he sings the song and kills his stepmother. When he does this he is transformed back from bird to boy. However, none of that would be possible if his sister had not saved his bones and brought them to the Juniper Tree. The Juniper Tree is the real source of magic in the story. At first it allows the father's first wife to have the boy and then when the sister brings the boys bones to it, the tree turns the bones into the bird that then becomes the boy after the stepmother is killed.
This transformation is different from others we read about this week because an outside force is causing the boy to change forms. In the other stories the characters seemed to change form at will and didn't need any outside magic to help them. In the Juniper Tree the tree's magic is what transforms the boy into a bird and then back into a boy.

To Quote "Horton Hears a Who": A Person Is a Person, No Matter How Much It Has Been Turned Into a Bird and Let Loose to Seek Its Revenge!

The title really has little if anything to do with my personal opinions—not that my personal opinions have to do with anything or that I even choose to have an opinion—but I had to start with something clever and catchy or else it might not have been recognized immediately that I was the author and then people might make the mistake of actually reading something of mine. Bear with me for a moment now while I actually ponder the subject for a moment so that I can spout more coherent nonsense and decide if I actually have a stance.

Tuna fish…
Orange juice…
Crock pot…

Soup's Ready!

After careful deliberation and much soup, I have determined that the most appropriate answer is. But I chose is not because the appropriate answer is always too simple…

The boy is no longer human at all, but an enchanted bird after his resurrection in the story. Reasons for this are proven by the fact that the bird does not behave humanly. When the bird sings, it is not understood, but it casts a spell upon the listeners. This spell is the wooing of them in order to secure their items, I pretend, to the point that they offer him the goods of their own accord. It is less of a question of…

Oh I give up.

He remains human the whole time. His ability to cogitate and communicate with people clearly delineates his classification as human encased in an avian exterior. He is more human than the brothers turned into birds in the other stories for multiple reasons, one of which being that he remains the guiding force of his own destiny, a necessary factor for this particular story. In the other stories the boys are no longer human because they give up their ability to interact with the world of humans. Even if they have a limited ability to interact (the boys that could turn human again for an hour a day) this interaction was limited in such a way that even when they were capable of communicating they became incapable of any meaningful interaction. This is the reason that in those stories it is completely upon the sister's character to rescue them and they disappear from the story.

The film inverts this, and I would suggest quite rightly so, in that the purpose of the film was to make the story more coherent. By making him into an actual bird, the suspension of belief of the magical, an important aspect of the film, was preserved. The film tried quite thoroughly to put the magic under scrutiny and question if it was there at all. Although the juniper tree did suddenly appear, along with the bird, the lack of his becoming an agent and character after his death allows for there still to be a question of whether it was him or not. This element is also a direct link to the stories the girl tells wherein the boy returns "knowing what the birds know" but is thereby no longer a part of the human world. Other reasons for the bird being an actual bird in this story are that the remoteness of the location did not allow for the insertion of a village nearby with the required roles to end the story in the way the Grimms did, not to mention the difficult special effects that would have been required. Also, the step-mother in the film was not meant to be evil like in the story, but a realistic person. The attempts to humanize her made the prospects for killing her vanish.

Happy Birthday to all and to all a good millstone… as the saying goes…

Somewhere In Between

I thought that the Juniper Tree story was very interesting! It seemed a little more violent that some of the other tales, especially with the decapitation, father being fed his own son, and the crushed skull death of the step mother. The revenge at the end was both fitting and a little unexpected to me. I knew something bad was going to happen, but it ended falling right into place! (Forgive the bad pun.)

While reading it I was actually reminded of a few other old stories. The most obvious was the reference to the phoenix being born out of its own ashes. Similarly, the boy became a bird only after his bones were buried under the Juniper Tree and he burst forth from the smoke. The next might be a stretch, but the mother feeding the boy to his father reminded me of a story from Greek Mythology - A human man named Lycaon attempted to trick Zeus into eating flesh of his son (who he killed) and was punished by being turned into a wolf. Zeus then resurrected the son Lycaon tried to feed him.

In my opinion the boy was resurrected as something in between. The bird was kind of like a ghost - his soul could not rest until the step-mother was punished and the whole 'world' knew what she had done. Only once his revenge was exacted could his soul finally rest. I initially interpreted the end of the story to mean that he turned back into a boy in the real world, but upon a second reading I think it is more likely that him 'turning back into a human' was more like his soul being able to finally rest and the description of him, his sister and his father going back inside and living happily ever after represented his heaven.

The Little Human Bird

In fairy tales, the distinction between man and beast is usually ambiguous - most tales contain animals that can talk or have personalities, while other tales are about humans who transform into animals for various reasons. These transformations are particularly interesting because of the different levels of "humanity" that the transformed retain. In some tales, those transformed lose all humanity and are transformed fully into animals. In others, the "animals" completely retain their human personalities, memories, and traits. The transformation of the son in "The Juniper Tree"falls into the latter category.

Although the son is only transformed into a bird after this death, his actions as a "bird" are very human. He gathers presents for his loving father and sister and a weapon to kill his murderess step-mother, and he demands these items as gifts from those that hear his beautiful singing. He then presents the gifts to his family and kills his step-mother. These actions are highly uncharacteristic of a normal bird, or even the magical beasts that inhabit fairy tales. Typical fairy tale beasts serve as helpers to the hero - the birds in "Cinderella," for example. However, in "The Juniper Tree" it is the hero who is the bird.

Ultimately, the "transformation" into a bird is representative of the magical reincarnation. Birds are generally mystical in tales, helping the heroes - in "Cinderella" they help the heroine, in "Hansel and Gretel" it is a bird that guides the children to the cottage, etc. In "The Juniper Tree," the son is magically transformed into a bird so that he can exact revenge upon his step-mother and ultimately live happily ever after with his father and faithful half-sister. Nonetheless, he retains his humanity for the duration of the tale, even while in the form of a bird.

The Brother as bird: Somewhere in between?

In consideration of the other stories that we have read, I believe that it can not be definitively said whether the boy from The Juniper Tree is totally anything on a scale between totally human and totally animal. The brothers from other stories were shown to be transformed as a result of some form of curse while the brother from the Juniper Tree transformed from the bare minimal remains of his body. But would that necessarily be considered a transformation? Or would that be a resurrection? In the other stories, the brothers were alive and then became birds, which I believe signifies a transformation. In the Juniper Tree, the brother is alive, then is killed, goes from inanimate to animate in his resurrection from his own bones to a new bird, and then finally transforms back to the brother after an eye for an eye event. Due to the incorporation of the resurrection stage of the brother's cycle in the Juniper Tree, I believe any definitiveness of his being is lost and his being can not be measured in the totality of anything. Thus I propose that the brother is somewhere in between. The bird is personified when he is able to 1) sing, 2) hold a conversation with the people that he encounters, and 3) comprise a plan of 'vengeance' and act it out. At the very least, I would say that the boy is more bird than human. This is due to the fact that the boy re-enters the world of the living or becomes animate, first as a bird and then is transformed to a human boy later. Some may say that birds can sing, but this birds lyrics consist of personal account, showing that he can not be totally bird. The fact that he remembers and sings about the activities that occurred after his death and before his resurrection, implicates that he is something of higher being and not just totally a bird or totally a human.

Death by/of Evil

The brother's time as a bird in The Juniper Tree marks a stark contrast to transformations and the role of the birds in other stories. In the similar tale of Hansel and Gretel, for instance, the bird serves as an otherworldly guide that not only directly helps the children (get across the lake), but also indirectly helps the children (eats the bread that represents gluttony and stupidity to help them become the intellectual individuals they need to be). In such a way, birds seem to possess knowledge and purpose of another dimension that mortal humans cannot fully understand. Furthermore, the white birds traditionally symbolize "superior benevolent powers" of Christian times (Tatar 277). In many fairy tales, even when a human is transformed into a bird, he still cannot speak in his bird form nor fully fathom what happened when he returns to his proper state. However, in this tale, the boy is not a supreme being in his bird form, but rather an anthropomorphic figure. He becomes a bird who cannot only speak but also can remember exactly what happened in his human state, and can express it in his new form by singing in a language humans can process. He can only return to his proper form when evil is conquered through death, just as he could only transform into a bird when he was killed by evil. Death by evil or the death of evil are the triggers of the transformation, and because the witch in the movie The Juniper Tree does not die, the bird cannot return to his boy state.

Maternal Figures Win

In the fairytale world it is quite common for characters to go through transformation; however, The Juniper Tree does stand out in the way that the boy is transformed only after he dies. Let's look at another tale that deals with the aspect of transformation: Brother and Sister. Two kids, a boy and a girl, decide to leave home because their stepmother is an evil witch. The transformation of the boy into a fawn happens only after he drinks from a spring that his stepmother had cursed (going against his sister's advice). After the maiden is discovered by a king and married, she again encounters an evil mother figure, her mother-in-law. And after she and her ugly daughter do their evil deeds, they are found out by the king and both killed. When nothing is left of the mother except ashes, the fawn returns to his human form.

So let's compare both stories. Both boys can talk as animals and both return human. What differences are there then? The brother's transformation in Brother and Sister involves a curse and the boy ignoring his sister's concerns. In The Juniper Tree, the boy is transformed because the devil "took hold of her [the stepmother] and influenced her feelings toward the boy" and she later killed him, which upon he turned into a bird. But how did he get there...what events lead up to him becoming a bird?

I think it may be important to note that the boy's actual mother is buried under the juniper tree, especially considering her death was caused by his birth. After the boy is dead, the sister collects his bones and places them beneath the tree as well. As soon as she does this the tree moves as if it's clapping its hands in joy. Perhaps the mother is happy to see her son. And it only makes sense that the boy is turned into a bird, to me at least, considering a tree is a home for these particular animals. The song the bird sings also supports this idea because the last two lines are: "and laid beneath the juniper tree. Tweet, tweet! What a lovely bird I am!" The song seems to leave a gap, some missing piece of info, in between these lines. By doing this it implies that one is contingent upon the other, despite the fact the song doesn't explain the actual connection. So after he sings the song for a few times, receives his gifts and presents them to his sister, father, and then evil stepmother, he is restored to human form.

So in sum, I'm trying to make the case that the boy is able to transform after death, if you can call it that, simply because his sister placed his bones near his deceased mother. This true maternal love is what allows the boy to become a bird, and the moral of the tale is that evil women never win. Through the pure characters of the mother and the sister, maternal qualities are displayed and prevail against the stepmother.

What are you guys thoughts on this? Did you all understand what I was trying to say?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Bird for a Brother

In The Juniper Tree, the transformation of brother-into-bird is significantly different from the other "brothers as birds" stories that we've read. In this story, the brother transforms only after he is killed. In the other stories, the brothers transform either as a result of a curse, a wish, or a threat. This makes the brother in The Juniper Tree more animal than any of the other brothers. While he does eventually come back to life as a human, he also must first end life as a human before he transforms. His song is another factor that separates him from the bird/brothers of the other stories: the majority of transformed birds cannot speak in their bird from. The brother of The Juniper Tree needs to be able to tell his story to regain his human form by killing his stepmother, so his being able to speak is a necessity. This implies that although he is a bird, he also retains some of his innate humanity.

This transformation, then, is a puzzle: he appears to both be less and more human than the birds of the other stories. I believe that he is in fact more human than the other transformed brothers. Despite his death, he retains all of his memory and intelligence while he is a bird. He also retains the ability to communicate with other humans and to get his point across. Because of this communication he is able to ultimately succeed in rewarding his faithful stepsister and father. That he comes back from the dead in the fairy tale does not surprise me, it is just as magical as how he was transformed into a bird in the first place. What I do find interesting is the choice not to bring him back in the movie version of The Juniper Tree. This makes for an altogether more depressing ending where the witch ultimately triumphs.