Disturbing acts of kindness

A recent comment about fairy tales being a guide for life had me wondering if I’d taken anything from the fairy tales I learned or read. I didn’t come up with more than the obvious: that breaking and entering is bad, for example, as is telling lots of lies. But certain qualities stuck with me, bizarre little passages that made some of the most grisly tales hopeful, if strange.

Take, for example, “The Juniper Tree”. As little Ann Marie (or Marlene, depending on the version) buries her stepbrother’s bones under the juniper, weeping, there is this: “But the juniper began to stir and the branches kept opening out and coming back together again, just like someone who is really happy and goes like this with his hands.” Other versions describe the tree as “clapping its hands for joy.” Either way, it seems like a really inappropriate thing to do under the circumstances. Why is the tree clapping as an inconsolable girl buries the brother she thinks she killed?

Likewise, “Binnorie”. What possesses a musician to make a harp from the corpse of a drowned woman, then stand her before her father’s court? Patricia Wrede’s take in The Book of Enchantments condemns it as an act of desecration.

But I keep coming back to the possibility of compassion. The harper doesn’t turn away; he allows the memory of the woman to trouble him until he must give her a voice, working his own fingers to the bone in the process. In this way, she tells her story for the necessary justice. The juniper is so happy that it catches fire briefly and changes bone into bird, who sings the true story until revenge is served and Ann Marie can finally stop crying.

I keep thinking of that tree and Ann Marie, ashamed and grieving at her secret. The tree’s applause, I imagine, is solemn and patient, as though in response to a complicated tale. The tree hears and acts, while most people would turn away or tune out. I suppose the value of these tales lies in the skillful listeners, who are rarer than good tellers.

Do you know of any other incidents of weird kindness in your reading?

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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