Brief History: Raise your hand if you’ve read this one? Okay, about five of you. Good. The history of the folklore behind this story is complicated and disputed. Just believe me when I say the Brothers Grimm picked it up from . . . someplace or another. And as far as Grimm themes go, this is a doozy. A woman, possibly under the influence of the devil, murders the stepson she’d been abusing. She does this by dropping the lid of a heavy chest on his head when he reaches for an apple (side note: Real life Frankish Queen Fredegund tried to kill one of her kids by similar means in the 6th century, but that might be a coincidence). She then feeds him to her unknowing husband and lets her daughter take the blame. The guilt ridden daughter puts what is left of her brother under a tree in the yard (sometimes an almond tree instead of a juniper tree) and he comes back as a bird. In his new winged form, the stepson sings of the crimes done to him while bestowing gifts to his father and sister. Finally, he drops a millstone on the stepmother and, with her death, he is brought back to life. His father, a clueless idiot, then announces that he and his children will be just fine. And the three walk away from the dust cloud surrounding his wife’s crushed corpse in the yard. Because that’s a happy ending apparently.
Analysis: This story has been analyzed to death by academics. You can focus on the cannibalism, the child abuse, the Biblical themes, but I’m going to focus on the sister (and a little bit on the cannibalism). Unlike stories where the stepsister/favored child acorn does not fall far from the wicked tree (i.e. Cinderella, The Faeries, etc.), the daughter feels legitimate remorse. Marlinchen (or Margery) is a little girl who was too afraid to warn her stepfather that he’s eating his own son, but she is the one who starts a cycle of kindness towards her brother. Granted, everyone else is kind to him after he’s been devoured and changed into a bird, but better late than never?
Blame it on the Victorians: This one was too dark, even from the morbid loving Victorians. As the decades went by the story got tamer. The devil plays a more obvious role in the Stepmother’s actions. The abuse is downplayed. And, most notably, the little boy stew was removed. By the 1920s, it was standard to censor the cannibalism.
Last thoughts: Seriously! How dumb was his father? The song the boy-bird sings says, “My mother slew me, my father ate me”. But nope. He was just happy to get a gold chain out of the deal.
*If you want know any of the places where some of my research comes from, just contact me.