Fairy Tale Architecture: The Juniper Tree

The brother-sister duo of writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer curate a series in which diverse architects explore the intimate relationship between the domestic structure of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture.

Detail, decapitation.
All images by Bernheimer Architecture.

Fairy tales have transfixed readers for thousands of years, and for many reasons; one of the most compelling is the promise of a magical home. How many architects, young and old, have been inspired by a hero or heroine who must imagine new realms and new spaces — new ways of being in this strange world? Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming.

— Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

The Juniper Tree

A story that reveals the apocalyptic leaning of many fairy tales, “The Juniper Tree” has an exquisite narrative shape. It is too artful and delicious to summarize, but here are the juiciest details.

The story begins with a loving couple eager to become parents. Often the wife visits the beautiful woods, full of singing birds and flowering trees, ardently hoping for a child. Eventually she becomes a mother, but, alas, she is so happy she dies.

Enter the Grimm trope of the stepmother — ominous music — that much-maligned figure the brothers introduced when they learned the Kinder und Hausmarchen was becoming popular with parents reading to their children. (In earlier editions, many Grimm tales featured murderous biological mothers; they decided a substitute mother would be less offensive, perhaps. As an adoptive mother, I take issue with this!) Soon, the new mother and the husband have a biological daughter, Marlene, whom the story claims the mother does love, though she cannot bear her stepson. Just looking at him makes her feel ill.

Ah well, what’s a mother to do? After torturing the boy with slaps and nasty remarks, she finally can’t bear the sight of him any longer. So she decapitates him with the heavy metal lid of an apple chest. A real sociopath, she then sets up beloved Marlene to believe she’s the one who brings on his death! She ties the boy’s head back on with a kerchief, sets him down on the chest with an apple propped in his hand, and tells Marlene to ask him to give her the apple. When he doesn’t answer, the mother tells Marlene to slap him; she does. Off flies his head!

Poor Marlene — she’s horrified — and her mother chops him up and cooks him into a stew. Marlene’s tears flavor the stew as she stands by the fire and stirs it. The father finds the stew simply delicious and cannot understand why his daughter weeps throughout dinner. Bones pile up under the table and Marlene gathers them in a kerchief and buries them outside, under the juniper tree, where the boy’s mother also is buried. Smoke rises from the tree; flames burst; Marlene’s heart sings! It feels like her brother is living again. She returns to the table to continue eating her supper. (I’ll return to this special detail in a bit.) Then there are a few pages featuring a bird traveling around town, singing this famous refrain:

My mother, she slew me
My father, he ate me
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!

The bird arrives at the family cottage. The father feels happy, but the mother is frightened. Little Marlene sits there, still weeping. The mother feels an increasing sense of dread — fire filling her veins — and she even tears open her bodice. (The Gothic is all fairy tale.) The bird continues singing its bright, damning song and the mother finally runs out the door with her hair standing up “like tongues of flame.” The bird drops a millstone onto her head. As Maria Tatar’s marvelous translation closes the story: “Smoke, flames and fire were rising up from the spot, and when they vanished, little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the tree of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

The end.

But wait! On what — or whom — do they happily dine?

Fairy tales are astonishing incomplete spaces.

— Kate Bernheimer

View Slideshow


Three Questions for Andrew Bernheimer from Kate Bernheimer

Continuing our brother-sister collaboration, I assigned you “The Juniper Tree,” in response to your request for a fairy tale with a tree in it. I love how specific that request was — and also how specific the techniques by which you made these images appears to be. Can you describe your process?

These drawings are digitized tracings of photographic images. A text band at the top identifies key elements of the story (characters, object), and alludes to the story as a construction of items. The drawing contains notation (in the lower right) which articulates the way the tracing is done: settings for Adobe Illustrator’s trace tool.

This is meant to expose technique — coldly. The drawing is a found and distorted object, a photograph traced by an automated process but set by hand. Part of this investigation is thus procedural. Instead of thinking,“Hey, I will just draw the house the way I think the house looks,” like I did with “Baba Yaga,” I wanted to show something about drawing technique and storytelling technique — how the act of making a drawing exposes a process (or hides a process). The work also asks, “How does the image represent the actions and characters of the story?”

What is the source of the images, and how do they relate to the fairy tale via motif and emotion?

These are photographs of mixed provenance, both found and personal (a picture of my son lying on a soccer field is transformed into the headless boy of the tale), traced by code. The subjects are therefore anonymous and intimate, purified or violated, the process automated yet composed. So the project is technical (but not without perverted emotion or strangeness); these are not just “illustrations” of the space of the story.

How has your relationship to the very notion of “fairy tale architecture” evolved over the four designs you have produced for this series in three years (among other architecture and narrative collaborations you and I have done in that time)?

This is admittedly a bit of architectural gobbledygook, but over the course of drawing these stories, the idea of delineating the literal “spaces” and/or “architectures” of the stories we read becomes procedural. I can only imagine the same fairy-tale house so many times. Crafting the spaces of woods, castles, talking flowers and murderous birds in terms of architecture has slowly become an impossibility, and that blockage necessitated a deeper look into the techniques of how I draw.

About the Series: Fairy Tale Architecture

Places’ ongoing series on fairy tale architecture is curated by writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer.

Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: The Juniper Tree,” Places Journal, December 2013. Accessed 05 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/131218

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