Joseph Anderson

Grimm Brothers, “The Juniper Tree”

In an earlier mythopoetic phase of my life (it was the 80s, Robert Bly was ascendant) my male friends and I were memorizing poems and folk tales. Now in a different context I am once again memorizing poems and folk tales – and I wish I’d never stopped. One of my favorite stories from that time was the Grimm tale “The Juniper Tree”. In keeping with the many reclamations and revisitings that are filling my current phase of life, I’m relearning the story.

This week the Soul Cartography class makes the big shift from Pattern to Line: from looking for themes and repetitions, to seeking order, meaning, and purpose. The question is no longer “How many times did I do that same thing?” but “Why have I done that same thing so many times? What am I learning? Where is this taking me?” It’s a different and really a more challenging set of questions, and I confess to some trepidation as we make this shift. I sense a shadow of directedness: that by asking these hard questions I’m somehow imposing my will on my students. But since you are courageous souls and eagerly embrace every challenge that’s been set for you, I really do think it’s just a shadow. I have every reason to think you signed up for the class in order to face the tough questions, not to dodge them!

Still, I can’t quite shake that uneasy feeling. And what does a teacher do with anxiety? Develop more course content! And so I find myself taking refuge in this story. And as it turns out, it is quite a gift.

“The Juniper Tree”, like all Grimm tales, assumes that there is a coherence that underlies the experiences of life. If there’s a magical bird and it takes up a golden chain in its right claw, surely there will be something for its left claw, and just as surely both items will be put to good use. Our ordinary consciousness doesn’t seem like that. It seems like things just happen, without balance, transformation, revelations, and reckonings.

If practicing shamanism has taught me anything, it has taught me to see patterns in the apparent chaos of everyday life, and to see meaning and purpose in those patterns. We need to train ourselves to trust. We need to relearn the skill of recognition. It’s the great virtue of fairy tales that they teach us to do exactly that. Writing about the work of anthropologist Michael Taussig, Hans Rollman says “The fact that the wonder and magic of the everyday world has been demystified by science is a sort of magical transformation itself.” He goes on to describe the power of storytelling and poetry to counter the delusive effects of what Taussig calls “agribusiness writing” – the conventional demystified, scientistic discourse that academics are compelled to use. Our education weaves for us a deceptive magic that conceals the truly magical, meaningful, purposeful nature of reality. But we can wake up.

“The Juniper Tree” is special among Grimm tales for its use of the elements of ritual to induce a trance-like state in the telling and listening. There’s a passage describing the months of a pregnancy that links it to the cycle of the seasons:

Then she went into the house, and a month went by, and the snow was gone.

And two months, and everything was green.

And three months, and all the flowers came out of the earth.

And four months, and all the trees in the woods grew thicker, and the green branches were all entwined in one another, and the birds sang until the woods resounded and the blossoms fell from the trees.

Then the fifth month passed, and she stood beneath the juniper tree, which smelled so sweet that her heart jumped for joy, and she fell on her knees and was beside herself.

And when the sixth month was over, the fruit was thick and large, and then she was quite still.

And after the seventh month she picked the juniper berries and ate them greedily. Then she grew sick and sorrowful.

Then the eighth month passed, and she called her husband to her, and cried, and said, “If I die, then bury me beneath the juniper tree.”

Then she was quite comforted and happy until the next month was over, and then she had a child as white as snow and as red as blood, and when she saw it, she was so happy that she died.

There’s a repeated song that is a key driver of the plot. In a scene at a mill, the sounds of the machinery are evoked (almost like a drumbeat) to aid in creating a mesmerizing experience. I had forgotten all that, and it’s a pleasure to remember!

Then there’s the potent emotional content of the story: extreme violence, betrayals, shocking developments, and the ultimate reversal that restores order and brings justice. The emotional arc of the story is deeply moving, and that too has its purpose in waking up our sleepy attentiveness to the meanings in our own lives, lying just beneath the surface and waiting to wake up.

Through cathartic experiences like this we can find the energy to look again at the chaotic surface of our lives. We can look within that chaos and discern the heroic, destiny-laden, unmistakably meaningful reality waiting to be discovered, celebrated, and lived into.