by Terri Windling
To most people today, the name Snow White evokes visions of dwarfs whistling as they work, and a wide–eyed, fluttery princess singing, "Some day my prince will come." (A friend of mine claims this song is responsible for the problems of a whole generation of American women.) Yet the Snow White theme is one of the darkest and strangest to be found in the fairy tale canon — a chilling tale of murderous rivalry, adolescent sexual ripening, poisoned gifts, blood on snow, witchcraft, and ritual cannibalism. . .in short, not a tale originally intended for children's tender ears.
Disney's well–known film version of the story, released in 1937, was ostensibly based on the German tale popularized by the Brothers Grimm. Originally titled "Snow–drop" and published in Kinder–und Hausmarchen in 1812, the Grimms' "Snow White" is a darker, chillier story than the musical Disney cartoon, yet it too had been cleaned up for publication, edited to emphasize the good Protestant values held by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Although legend has them roaming the countryside collecting stories from stout German peasants, in truth the Grimm brothers acquired most of their tales from a middle–class circle of friends, who in turn were recounting tales learned from nurses, governesses, and servants, not all of them German. Thus the "German folk tales" published by the Grimms included those from the oral folk traditions of other countries, and were also influenced by the literary fairy tales of writers like Straparola, Basile, D'Aulnoy, and Perrault in Italy and France.
Variants of Snow White were popular around the world long before the Grimms claimed it for Germany, but their version of the story (along with Walt Disney's) is the one that most people know today. Elements from the story can be traced back to the oldest oral tales of antiquity, but the earliest known written version was published in Italy in 1634. This version was called The Young Slave, published in Giambattista Basile's Il Pentamerone, and is believed to have influenced subsequent retellings — including a German text published by J. K. Musaus in 1784 and the Grimms' text in 1812. In Basile's story, a baron's unmarried sister swallows a rose leaf and finds herself pregnant. She secretly gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, and names her Lisa. Fairies are summoned to bless the child, but the last one stumbles in her haste and utters an unfortunate curse instead. As a result, Lisa dies at the age of seven while her mother is combing her hair. The grieving mother has the body encased in seven caskets made of crystal, hidden in a distant room of the palace under lock and key.
Some years later, lying on her deathbed, she hands the key to her brother, the baron, but makes him promise that he will never open the little locked door. More years pass, and the baron takes a wife. One day he is called to a hunting party, so he gives the key to his wife with strict instructions not to use it. Impelled by suspicion and jealousy, she heads immediately for the locked room; there she discovers a beautiful young maiden who seems to be fast asleep. (Basile explains that Lisa has grown and matured in her enchanted state.) The baroness seizes Lisa by the hair — dislodging the comb and waking her. Thinking she's found her husband's secret mistress, the jealous baroness cuts off Lisa's hair, dresses her in rags, and beats her black and blue. The baron returns and inquires after the ill–used young woman cowering in the shadows. His wife tells him that the girl is a kitchen slave, sent by her aunt. One day the baron sets off for a fair, having promised everyone in the household a gift, including even the cats and the slave. Lisa requests that he bring back a doll, a knife, and a pumice stone. After various troubles, he procures these things and gives them to the young slave. Alone by the hearth, Lisa talks to the doll as she sharpens the knife to kill herself — but the baron overhears her sad tale, and learns she's his own sister's child. The girl is then restored to beauty, health, wealth, and heritage — while the cruel baroness is cast away, sent back to her parents.
The Young Slave contains motifs we recognize not only from Snow White but also Sleeping Beauty (the fairy's curse), Bluebeard (the locked room), Beauty and the Beast (the troublesome gift), and other tales. An aunt–by–marriage plays the villain here — but a scheming stepmother is front and center in another peculiar Italian tale, titled The Crystal Casket. In this second Snow White variant, a lovely young girl is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. Marriage ensues, but instead of gratitude, the teacher treats her stepdaughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The stepmother hires a witch, who takes a basket of poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her.
The witch strikes again, disguised as a tailoress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead, and this time the fairies will not revive her. (They're miffed that she keeps ignoring their warnings.) They place her body in a gem–encrusted casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the city.
Horse and casket are found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes her home. "But my son, she's dead!" protests the queen. The prince will not be parted from his treasure; he locks himself away in a tower with the girl, "consumed by love." Soon he is called away to battle, leaving the doll in the care of his mother. His mother ignores the macabre creature — until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for her chambermaids and commands them to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen thinks quickly. "Take off the dress! We'll have another one made, and my son will never know." As they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed.
The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." (What on earth was he doing in that locked room?) "My son," says the Queen, "that girl was dead. She smelled so badly that we buried her." He rages and weeps. The queen relents. The girl is summoned, her story is told, and the two are now properly wed.
In a third Italian version of the tale, it's the girl's own mother who wishes her ill — an innkeeper named Bella Venezia who cannot stand a rival in beauty. First she imprisons her blossoming child in a lonely hut by the sea; then she seduces a kitchen boy and demands that he murder the girl. "Bring back her eyes and a bottle of her blood," she says, "and I'll marry you." The servant abandons the girl in the woods, returning with the eyes and blood of a lamb. The girl wanders through the forest and soon finds a cave where twelve robbers live. She keeps house for the burly men, who love her and deck her in jewels every night — but her mother eventually gets wind of this, and is now more jealous than ever. Disguised as an old peddler woman, she sells her daughter a poisoned hair broach. When the robbers return, they find the girl dead, so they bury her in a hollow tree. At length, the fair corpse is discovered by a prince, who takes it home and fawns over it. The queen is appalled, but the prince insists upon marrying the beautiful maiden. Her body is bathed and dressed for a wedding. The royal hairdresser is summoned. As the girl's hair is combed, the broach is discovered, removed, and she comes back to life.
In a Scottish version of the story, a trout in a well takes the role we now associate with a magical mirror. Each day a queen asks, "Am I not the loveliest woman in the world?" The trout assures the queen that she is. . .until her daughter comes of age, surpassing the mother in beauty. The queen falls ill with envy, summons the king, and demands the death of their daughter. He pretends to comply, but sends the girl off to marry a foreign king. Eventually the trout informs the queen that the princess is still alive — so she crosses the sea to her daughter's kingdom, and kills her with a poisoned needle. The young king, grieving, locks his beloved's corpse away in a high tower. Eventually he takes another wife, who notes that he always seems sad. "What gift," she asks, "could I give to you, husband, so that you would know joy and laughter again?" He tells her that nothing can bring him joy but his first wife restored to life. She sends her husband up to the tower, where he find his beloved alive and well — for his second wife had discovered the girl, and removed the poisoned needle from her finger. The lovers thus reunited, the good–hearted second wife offers to go away. "Oh! indeed you shall not go away," says the king, "but I shall have both of you now." They live happily together until (blast that trout!) the jealous queen gets wind of the fact that her daughter has come back to life. She crosses the ocean once again, bearing a poisoned drink this time. The clever second wife takes matters in hand. She greets the wicked queen on the shore, and tricks the woman into drinking from the poisoned cup herself. After this, the young king and his two wives enjoy a long, peaceful life. (I've always particularly liked this rendition, contrasting the toxic mother–daughter relationship with the envy–free bond forged between the two wives.)
The Grimms' version starts, like so many fairy stories, with a barren queen who longs for a child. It's a winter's tale in this northern clime, set in a landscape of vast, icy forests. The queen stands sewing by an open window. She pricks her finger. Blood falls on the snow. "Would that I had a child," she sighs, "as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame." Her wish is granted, but the gentle queen expires as soon as her baby is born...or so most readers now believe. Yet the death of the queen, the "good mother," was a plot twist introduced by the Grimms. In their earliest versions of the tale (the manuscript of 1810, and the first edition of 1812), it is Snow White's natural mother whose jealousy takes a murderous bent. She was turned into an evil stepmother in editions from 1819 onward. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected their version of Snow White from Jeannette and Amalie Hassenpflug, family friends in the town of Cassel. (Ludwig Grimm, their brother, was engaged to marry a third Hassenpflug sister.) The Hassenpflug's tale contains several elements from the earlier Italian stories, combined with imagery distinct to the lore of northern Europe. Dwarfs do not appear in the Italian variants, for instance, as dwarfs play little part in the Italian folk tradition. The Nordic and Germanic traditions, by contrast, contain a wealth of magical lore about burly little men who toil under the earth, associated with gems, iron ore, alchemy, and the blacksmith's craft.
"The Grimm Brothers worked on the Kinder- und Hausmarchen in draft after draft after the first edition of 1812," Marina Warner explains (in her excellent fairy tale study, From the Beast to the Blonde), "Wilhelm in particular infusing the new editions with his Christian fervor, emboldening the moral strokes of the plot, meting out penalties to the wicked and rewards to the just to conform with prevailing Christian and social values. They also softened the harshness -- especially in family dramas. They could not make it disappear altogether, but in Hansel and Gretel, for instance, they added the father's miserable reluctance to an earlier version in which both parents had proposed the abandonment of their children, and turned the mother into a wicked stepmother. On the whole, they tended toward sparing the father's villainy, and substituting another wife for the natural mother, who had figured as the villain in versions they were told....For them, the bad mother had to disappear in order for the ideal to survive and allow Mother to flourish as symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum."
It should also be noted that early Grimms' fairy tales were not published with children in mind -- they were published for scholars, in editions replete with footnotes and annotations. It was later, as the tales became popular with lay readers, families, and children, that the brothers took more care to delete material they deemed inappropriate, editing, revising, and sometimes rewriting the tales altogether.
Whether mother or stepmother, the murderous queen remains one of the most vivid villains in folkloric history. She orders the death of an innocent girl, demands her heart (or liver, or tongue), then boils, salts, and eats the tender organ with a gourmand's pleasure. "The term 'narcissism' seems altogether too slippery to be the only one we want here," writes Roger Sale (in Fairy Tales and After). "There is, for instance, no suggestion that the queen's absorption in her beauty ever gives her pleasure, or that the desire for power through sexual attractiveness is itself a sexual feeling. What is stressed is the anger and fear that attend the queen's realization that as she and Snow White both get older, she must lose. That is why the major feeling invoked is not jealousy but envy: to make beauty that important is to reduce the world to one in which only two people count."
Snow White's father, the king, is notable only by his absence, his apparent indifference, and his failure to protect his own child. Yet, as Angela Carter once pointed out in a comment about Cinderella's father, the king in Snow White is also "the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absent father, there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict."
The queen's actions are attributed to vanity-run-amok, but perhaps also fear and self-preservation. She's a woman whose power is derived from her beauty; it is this, the tale implies, that provides her place in the castle's hierarchy. If the king's attention turns from his wife to another (or even his daughter, as it does in stories like Allerleirauh), what power is left to an aging woman? Witchcraft, the tale answers. Potions, poisons, and self-protection. In the Grimms' tale, an enchanted mirror serves not only as a clever plot device and a useful agent of information, but as a symbolic representation of the queen's insecurity, solipsism, and growing madness. Snow White, too, is a mirror -- a reversed mirror of the queen, reflecting all she is not. Each day she becomes more lovely, more good -- as the queen becomes the opposite.
Blood is a recurrent image in this story, warm red blood against virgin white snow. Three drops of blood symbolize Snow White's conception. And the death of the (good) mother in childbirth. And menstruation: the beginning of both sexual maturation and the (bad) mother's hatred. The queen demands blood on the knife of the hunter as proof that her daughter is dead, as instructed. The bloody meal she then makes of the heart carries the echo of ancient pagan beliefs in which ingesting an enemy's flesh is a method of claiming their strength and their magic. Fairy tale writer Carrie Miner reflects that as children come forth from a mother's womb, "it seems as though some women feel they 'own' their child -- that it's nothing but an extension of them. This theme is beautifully wrought in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. The consumption of the apple by Snow White seems to mirror the stepmother's desire to consume her daughter -- to take Snow White's very essence into herself."
The queen in Anne Sexton's poem "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (from her brilliant collection Transformations) cries: "'Bring me her heart...and I will salt it and eat it.' The hunter, however, let his prisoner go and brought a boar's heart back to the castle. The queen chewed it up like a cube steak. 'Now I am the fairest,' she said, lapping her slim white fingers."
Driven out of her home, out of her past, away from all that is harsh but familiar, Snow White makes her way through the wilderness to an unknown destination. This, as novelist Midori Snyder has pointed out, is often the fate of heroines in the arc of traditional folk narratives. Unlike sons who set off to win their fortune, who are journeying toward adventure, the daughters are outcasts, running away. The princes usually return at the end of the story, bringing treasure and magical brides. Princesses do not return; they must forge new lives, new alliances. Snow White's journey begins with the huntsman — who is the queen's henchman, in Grimms, and the queen's lover in other versions of the tale. He defies his mistress and does not slay the girl, but he is no true ally, merely a coward. He declares that Snow White is too beautiful to kill, but note that he does not lead her to safety; he abandons her in the forest, aware that wolves will soon finish his job.
Yet even here, the girl's blossoming beauty, the agent of all of her troubles at home, begins to assert itself as a form of power in the world of men. Beauty aids her once again when she finds the house of the dwarfs and falls asleep in one of their little beds. Anger toward the unknown intruder turns to wonder as they watch her sleep; enchanted by physical perfection, the dwarfs decide she may stay with them. This was later revised by the Grimms, and Snow White must consent to a long list of household duties before they'll agree to let her stay. (The Disney version takes this one step further, and Snow White does the work unasked.) The change not only emphasizes the virtues of a proper work ethic, but it leads attention away from the sheer peculiarity of a ripe young girl keeping house with seven burly, earthy, and clearly unmarried men. Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, who looked at fairy tales through a Freudian lens, claimed the dwarfs "were not men in any sexual sense — their way of life, their interest in material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre–oedipal existence." This reading of the tale ignores the fact that the dwarfs take the place of robbers or human miners found in older renditions of the story. Some of the older narratives assure us that the robbers "loved the girl as they would a sister," while others are mute on the subject, or else intriguingly ambiguous.
Soon, the queen learns that Snow White still lives. She determines to kill her young rival herself. Here the queen stands revealed as a full–fledged witch, sorceress, or alchemist, creating potions in a "secret, lonely room where no one ever came." Disguised as an old peddler woman, she sells the girl poisoned bodice laces, then combs her hair with a poisoned comb. After each of her visits, the dwarfs return home to find their young housekeeper dead. "Why couldn't she heed our warnings?" asked "The Seventh Dwarf" in a poem by Gwen Strauss (from Trail of Stones). "Time and again we told her to stay inside the house, to do her tasks away from the door. We urged her daily, but she was a flitting butterfly. . . .She was driven by something."
In imagery old as Adam and Eve, the disguised queen comes one last time to tempt Snow White with a crisp, red apple. "Do you think I did not know her?..." writes Delia Sherman, explaining the princess's point of view in her heart-breaking poem "Snow White to the Prince." "Of course I took her poisoned gifts. I wanted to feel her hands coming out of my hair, to let her lace me up, to take an apple from her hand, a smile from her lips, as when I was a child." In Sherman's poem, Snow White is every abused child who ever longed for a parent's love.
"Don't curse me, Mother," echoes Olga Broumas in her poem "Snow White" (in Beginning With O). "...No salve, no ointment in a doctor's tube, no brew in a witch's kettle, no lover's mouth, no friend or god could heal me if your heart turned in anathema, grew stone against me."
In other versions of the story, taking on local coloration as it travels around the world, the princess is slain through poisoned flowers, cake, wine, pomegranate seeds, a golden ring, a corset, shoes, coins, or the ink of a letter. The dwarfs (robbers, miners, or monks) can revive her once, and even twice; but with the third act of poisoning, she seems indisputably dead. Her body (too beautiful to bury, and strangely incorruptible) is then carefully, almost fetishistically displayed in a clear glass casket — or else on a woodland bier, or a four–poster bed, or a shrine surrounded by candles. (In other variants, she is thrown into the sea, abandoned on a doorstep or windowsill, sent to the fairies, stolen by gypsies, even carried on a reindeer's antlers.)
There are various ways Snow White's spell of death/sleep is broken, but generally not with a kiss. (That seems to be a modern addition.) The poisoned item must be removed, usually by pure accident. In the chaste Grimms' version of the tale, where the necrophiliac imagery is strictly toned down, Snow White's body is handed over to a prince who happens to be passing by. Struck, as all men in this tale are struck, by the girl's extraordinary beauty, he swears he can't live without her. The dwarfs consent. (He's a prince, after all.) "I will prize her as my dearest possession," the prince promises the sad little men. As his servants bear the casket away, one stumbles and the fatal piece of poisoned apple flies from her mouth. "Oh heavens, where am I?" she cries as she wakes. "You're with me," he quickly assures the girl. (He is, remember, a stranger to her. Only in the Disney film do they meet at the onset of the tale.) He declares his love, offers marriage, and promptly spirits the beautiful maiden away.
One dwarf protests this end to the story in Gerald Locklin's poem "The Dwarf" (in Disenchantments): "She went away from us upon a snow–white steed, the forest virgin scented with the rain of evergreen, to while the mythic hours in a prince's castle. Was it right of her to take away her apple innocence from seven dappled dwarfs, to arbitrarily absent us from felicity?"
Even Snow White protests in Delia Sherman's "Snow White to the Prince," saying: "...you woke me, or your horses did, stumbling as they bore me down the path, shaking the poisoned apple from my throat. And now you say you love me, and would wed me for my beauty's sake. My cursed beauty. Will you hear now why I curse it? It should have been my mother's -- it had been, until I took it from her."
The prince responds to her in Polly Peterson's poem "The Prince to Snow White": "Did you think that I found you by chance, Maiden? Did you believe I was drawn to your crystal casket, like a hummingbird to its nectar, by the allure of ruby lips, the gaze of azure eyes? ...You are beautiful, sublime, yet not so lovely as our daughter will be: your mother's daughter's child -- her immortality."
In the final scene of the Grimms' version, the queen is invited to Snow White's wedding, then forced to dance in red-hot shoes. "First your toes will smoke," writes Anne Sexton (in Transformations), "and then your heels will turn black and you will fry upward like a frog, she was told. And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet." It's a scene left out of the Disney film and most modern children's renditions.
Walt Disney made several other significant changes to the Grimms' fairy tale when he chose Snow White as the subject of his very first full–length animated film. At the time, no one knew whether audiences would actually sit through an eighty-four minute cartoon, and the film was called "Disney's folly" as he poured more and more time and money into it. Walt Disney was fond of fairy tales, but he was not shy of reshaping them to suit his needs, turning them into the simple, comedic tales he believed that his audiences wanted (a generation marked by economic depression and two world wars). He emphasized the dwarfs, giving them names, distinct personalities, and a cozy cottage in a sun-dappled wood full of bluebirds, bunnies, and flowers, not snow. The role of the prince is greatly expanded, and the handsome young fellow becomes pivotal to the story. His love for Snow White, demonstrated at the very beginning of the Disney film, becomes the spark that sets off the powder keg of the stepmother's rage.
In this singing, dancing, whistling version, only the queen retains some of the real power of the traditional tale. She's a genuinely frightening figure, and far more compelling than little Snow White (despite early notes in the making of the film in which, it's suggested, the queen should be a "vain-batty-self-satisfied, comedy type" and "verging on the ridiculous"). Snow White (who was drawn as a blonde at one point) is wide-eyed, giddy, and childish, down-trodden but plucky. Disney's rendition has a peculiarly American flavor, implying that what we are watching is a Horatio-Alger-type "rags to riches" story -- when in fact, it's a story of "riches to rags to riches," in which privilege is lost then restored. Snow White's pedigree beauty and class origins assure her salvation, not her housekeeping skills.
Although the film was a commercial triumph, and has been beloved by generations of children, critics through the years have protested the sweeping changes Disney Studios made, and continues to make, when retelling such tales. Walt himself responded, "It's just that people now don't want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they'll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway."
Regrettably, time has proved him right. Through films, books, toys, and merchandise recognized all around the world, Disney became the major disseminator of fairy tales in his century. "Disney's vision," writes Marina Warner, "has affected everybody's idea of fairy tales themselves: until writers and anthologists began looking again, passive hapless heroines and vigorous wicked older women seemed generic. Disney selected certain stories and stressed certain sides to them; the wise children, the cunning little vixens, the teeming populations of the stories were drastically purged. The disequilibrium between good and evil in these films has influenced contemporary perceptions of fairy tale, as a form where sinister and gruesome forces are magnified and prevail throughout -- until the very last moment where, ex machina, right and goodness overcome them."
Fortunately, writers and anthologists have been looking again at Snow White and other fairy tales, finding that there is much more to the old material than Disney would have us believe. In the late 20th century (prompted by pioneering writers like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter), fairy tales found their way into many novels, stories, and poems for adult readers, reclaiming the tales from Disney cartoons and shelves marked "children only." For modern renditions of Snow White's story that restore the dark magic and power of the original tale, see the recommendations that follow.
Some further reading:
Snow White by Donald Barthelme
The Mirror's Tale by P.W. Catanese
Mira, Mirror by Mette Ivie Harrison
White as Snow by Tanith Lee
Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire
"Snow" by Francesca Lia Block (from The Rose and the Beast)
"Snow in Dirt" by Michael Blumlein (from Black Swan, White Raven)
"The Snow Child" by Angela Carter (from The Bloody Chamber)
"The Dead Queen" by Robert Coover (from Spells of Enchantment)
"The Tale of the Apple" by Emma Donoghue (from Kissing the Witch)
"Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman (from Smoke and Mirrors)
"A Taste for Beauty" by Priscilla Galloway (from Truly Grim Tales)
"The Session" by Steven Gould (from The Armless Maiden)
"Glass Coffin" by Caitlin R. Kiernan (from Silver Birch, Blood Moon)
"Red as Blood" by Tanith Lee (from Red as Blood: Or,Tales from the Sisters Grimmer)
"Snow–Drop" by Tanith Lee (from Snow White, Blood Red)
"The True Story" by Pat Murphy (in Black Swan, White Raven)
"Blanca Nieves and the Seven Vaqueritos" by Patricia Santos Marcantonio (from Red Ridin' in the Hood: and Other Cuentos)
"Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess" by A.R. Morlan (from The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror Vol. 8)
"Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs" by Don Webb (from Black Swan, White Raven)
"Snow in Summer" by Jane Yolen (from Black Heart, Ivory Bones)
Disenchantments: An Anthology of Modern Fairy Tale Poetry, edited by Wolfgang Mieder
The Poets' Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimms Fairy Tales, edited by Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson
Snow White history:
The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales by Jack Zipes
"Ice, Snow, Glass" by A.S. Byatt (essay, from Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales)
The Madwoman in the Attic: Part I by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
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