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The Juniper Tree


Illustration of The Juniper Tree, by Maurice Sendak

          I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s translation of Grimm’s fairy tales, which includes one of my favorites, The Juniper Tree. I remember reading the story when I was very young, and finding it so grotesque and disturbing that I read it again and again, entranced by its violent savagery. Then I forgot about it, the way people do with things they read when they’re little.
          It wasn’t until about a year ago that I rediscovered the story in a book of folk tales sitting dusty on the shelves of a high school library in China. The strange dark twists of the plot were as primal and mysterious as I remembered, and the whole story was like some deliciously dreadful nightmare you thought you’d forgotten but had been crouching in the corner of your mind all along. There were new and surprising things in it as well – tones and details that I hadn’t noticed as a child, like how elegiac the story is in its grief. One passage in particular, at the very beginning of the story, is especially poetic, where the progress of the mother’s pregnancy is entwined with the passing of the seasons. It is so beautifully done that I stopped to reread it several more times before moving on. Before I left China for good, I went back to the library with my computer and typed out the passage so I would always have it.
          I thought of that document again when I read Pullman’s version. I like Pullman very much, and he seemed particularly well-suited to the task of revising sinister fairy tales. I was especially eager to see what he would do with The Juniper Tree after reading his notes on the story, because he had singled out that same passage that had struck me, describing it as “wonderful,” and one of the few tasks of translation where there was “little any teller of this tale can do to improve [the original.]” Perhaps it was that reverence that made his translation feel so plain in the end, but I found it disappointingly lacking. It made me go to my computer to dig up that old document. The edition I’d found in the library had been very old, and I have no idea who did the translations; I was curious to see if I’d simply remembered incorrectly, and that maybe I wouldn’t feel anything after reading the words this time. But I had not remembered wrong, and I was still moved.

Here is the passage in its entirety, as once transcribed at a high school library, by yours truly:

“Ah, said the woman, sighing deeply, “if only I could have a child as red as blood, and as white as snow!”

And as soon as she said these words, her heart suddenly grew light, and she felt sure she should have her wish. So she went back to the house, and when a month had passed the snow was gone; in two months everything was green; in three months the flowers sprang out of the earth; in four months the trees were in full leaf, and the branches were thickly entwined; the little birds began to sing, so that the woods echoed, and the blossoms fell from the trees; when the fifth month had passed the wife stood under the juniper tree, and it smelled so sweet that her heart leaped within her, and she fell on her knees for joy; and when the sixth month had gone, the fruit was thick and fine, and she remained still; and the seventh month she gathered the berries and ate them eagerly, and was sick and sorrowful; and when the eight month had passed she called to her husband, and said, weeping, “If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.”

That’s all I copied, but you can read another version of the rest here.

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