Thursday, April 22, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

ONCE upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, "Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame."
~Little Snow White or Schneeweißchen
The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, made famous by the Brothers Grimm and later by Walt Disney, originated in the Middle Ages, with several versions of the tale cropping up in various lands and cultures. According to Sur La Lune:
Although the most famous version of the tale today is Disney's classic animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has existed in many versions in the centuries preceding Disney. The Grimms collected the tale from two sisters--Jeannette and Amalie Hassenpflug--who lived in the town of Cassel. The tale was well known before the Grimms collection however and appeared with little variation from Ireland to Asia Minor to Central Africa (Opies 175).

Except for one Portuguese tale which appeared in Brazil, the tale did not apparently travel verbally to the Americas. The earliest literary versions of the tale can be found in Giambattista Basile's Il Pentamerone, especially the tale traditionally titled "The Young Slave." A link to the tale is available on the Tales Similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs page. Both Stith Thompson and the Opies believe that Basile's literary version influenced the versions which followed (Thompson 124).

Disney based his film on the Grimm's version of the tale. Disney actually resurrected some of the more gruesome aspects of the tale which had been edited out in previous versions intended for children, especially the queen's demand that Snow White's heart be delivered to her as proof of the child's death.
 There may be a connection with the tale of Snow White and a medieval myth about Charlemagne's mother Queen Bertrada. I found the myth in its entirety, HERE. It involves a princess betrayed by an older female relative and forced to take refuge with simple folk in the wilderness until her prince comes to find her. The Snow White story also has similarities to both the Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty stories, sharing the wicked stepmother and sleeping princess themes. Envy on the part of a mother figure, more than anything else, is at the heart of Snow White's travails. It is an envy so intense that it does not rest until Snow White is perceived to be dead. As Terri Windling describes in her article "Snow, Glass and Apples":
...The murderous queen remains one of the most vivid villains in folkloric history. She orders the death of an innocent girl, demands her heart....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." 

....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.... 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....

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.
 Snow White in her glass coffin always intrigued me as a child, especially since I knew she was not really dead but asleep. When I later discovered that there are in reality incorrupt saints who sleep in glass coffins, I wondered if the fairy tale had borrowed something from hagiography. In Snow White's case, she rested in a comatose state, to be revived by her prince, showing once again that while envy and jealousy can kill, only love can give life.

Regina Doman's Black as Night is a modern retelling of Snow White, heartily recommended for teens and young adults.

(Artwork: HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.) Share


Julygirl said...

I have known of real life mothers who are jealous of their daughter's beauty, and fathers who are jealous of their son's accomplishments. Go figure.

Thanks for this further insight into a beloved tale. The illustrations are lovely as well.

May said...

This always struck me as quite a frightening tale...but I also have to say that the ideal of beauty represented by Snow White (black hair, white skin, red lips etc.)is one that I have always admired, since childhood. A rare and striking look.

The glass coffin idea used to fascinate me, too...