An English learner recently posted about the tale The Juniper Tree, collected by the Brothers Grimm (possibly related – who knows?).
She notes that a woman wishes for a child “as red as blood and as white as snow”, and wants to know how a child can be both red and white. (Without being pink, of course!)
Does it mean that the parts of the child that are red are as red as blood, and that the parts of the child that are white are as white as snow?
Searching for “red as blood” came across the following quote, from a different fairy tale:
“I can love only a man with those three colors: cheeks red as blood,
hair black as a raven, and body white as snow.”
Should I assume that in The Juniper Tree, the woman is referring to wanting a child with cheeks as red as blood, and the rest of her skin as white as snow?
The only alternative I can think of is if “red” and “white” had some sort of metaphorical, rather than literal, meanings. But looking up Wiktionary for red, the main metaphorical meanings are from politics, which would post-date the story.
Children’s author Philip Pullman explains explains the challenges of retelling Grimms’ tales:
Imagery and description: there is no imagery in
fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white
as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is
there any close description of the natural world or
of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is
beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what
happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can
He then describes “a great and rare exception”:
In one story, however, there is a passage that
successfully combines beautiful description with
the relation of events in such a way that one
would not work without the other. The story is
“The Juniper Tree”, and the passage I mean
comes after the wife has made her wish for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. It
links her pregnancy with the passing seasons:
One month went by, and the snow vanished.
Two months went by, and the world turned
Three months went by, and flowers bloomed out of the earth.
Four months went by, and all the twigs on all the
trees in the forest grew stronger and pressed
themselves together, and the birds sang so loud
that the woods resounded, and the blossom fell
from the trees.
Five months went by, and the woman stood
under the juniper tree. It smelled so sweet that
her heart leaped in her breast, and she fell to her
knees with joy.
Six months went by, and the fruit grew firm and
heavy, and the woman fell still.
When seven months had gone by, she plucked
the juniper berries and ate so many that she felt
sick and sorrowful.
After the eighth month had gone, she called her
husband and said to him, weeping, ‘If I die, bury
me under the juniper tree.’
This is wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a curious
way: there’s little any teller of this tale can do to
improve it. It has to be rendered exactly as it is
here, or at least the different months have to be
given equally different characteristics, and
carefully linked in equally meaningful ways with the growth of the child in his mother’s womb,
and that growth with the juniper tree that will be
instrumental in his later resurrection.
She spoke the words when unhappy that despite having a prefect marriage, she could not have a baby, try as they might. She was standing in snow and had just cut her finger and was looking at the blood as it fell into the snow.
The baby in this story is born of supernatural origins. When I read it, I interpreted “red as blood” to mean “real-life and fully living”, and “white as snow” to mean “beautiful and innocent”.