The meaning of a classic fairy tale
Blood wishes, talking mirrors, and poisoned fruit: it’s all here in ‘Snow White’, one of the most enduringly popular and recognisable fairy tales in western literature. Yet what is the story of Snow White and the seven dwarfs really about? Does it have a moral? And what are the fairy tale’s origins? Closer analysis of the Snow White story reveals a hideous and gruesome tale which Disney had to sanitise to make it palatable for family audiences.
First, a brief summary of the Snow White story. One day, a queen sat working at a window with an ebony frame, with the snow falling outside. She pricked her finger (presumably she was sewing or knitting, though her precise occupation, other than ‘queen’, is not usually stated), and, watching the drops of blood, she made a wish that her little daughter would grow up to be as white as snow, as red as her blood, and as black as the ebony window frame. And sure enough, the queen’s daughter grew up to have snow-white skin, cheeks as red as her mother’s blood, and hair as black as ebony.
When the queen died shortly after this, the king remarried a vain woman who became Snow White’s stepmother. This stepmother liked to look in her magical looking-glass and ask it who was the fairest in the land, to which the obliging mirror would always return the answer, ‘You, queen.’ Except that one day, when Snow White was seven years old and her beauty has surpassed her stepmother’s, the looking-glass returned the answer, when the queen asked it who was the fairest of them all, ‘Snow White is lovelier than you!’ The wicked stepmother can’t be doing with a beautiful rival, so she orders a huntsman to take Snow White out to the woods and kill her. The huntsman can’t bring himself to kill the little girl, so he merely abandons her in the forest.
Snow White wanders, lost and forlorn, through the forest until she comes to a cottage, which she enters in the hope of finding shelter. Instead, what she finds are seven places laid out for dinner, seven beds: seven of everything. She has a bit out of each of the food and drink set out at the dinner table, before trying each of the beds, until she finds one that’s comfortable, and falls asleep. Much like the situation the three bears come back to in the ‘Goldilocks’ story, the occupants of the cottage – seven dwarfs – then return from a hard day mining for gold in the nearby caves, and spot that an intruder’s been nibbling at their food.
But unlike the three bears, who are angry upon discovering a juvenile delinquent in their home, the seven dwarfs are so impressed by Snow White’s beauty that they are overjoyed to see her and leave her to sleep. In the morning she wakes and tells them her story, and they agree to let her stay with them, and look after the cottage while they go out to work. They warn her, though, that the evil queen is bound to learn that she is still alive, and seek to kill her again. Meanwhile, the wicked stepmother’s talking mirror is busy blabbing about Snow White’s whereabouts, and when the evil queen asks it who is the fairest in the land, the bigmouthed looking-glass replies that Snow White still is, and adds where the girl can be found.
Having learned that her plan has been foiled and the girl still lives, the wicked stepmother disguises herself as a pedlar and travels to the dwarfs’ cottage, and sells the naïve Snow White some new laces for her shoes. She ties the girl’s laces so tightly that Snow White falls down, unconscious. When the dwarfs return, they undo the laces and revive the girl, warning her to be more vigilant – they, unlike Snow White, have realised that the pedlar was the wicked queen in disguise. When the wicked queen gets home and learns from the mirror that her plan has been thwarted again, she sets off in a different disguise and convinces Snow White to take a comb as a gift. When the comb makes contact with Snow White’s black hair, she drops down again, and the wicked stepmother returns, her mission supposedly accomplished.
But once again the dwarfs manage to revive Snow White, and the wicked queen learns from the mirror that the girl is still alive. So she contrives a third plan, and sets off for the dwarfs’ cottage a third time, this time dressed as an old peasant’s wife. She tempts Snow White to eat a delicious apple she has brought with her, and Snow White reluctantly assents when she is reassured that the peasant’s wife will eat half the apple with her. But the queen has cunningly poisoned only half the apple, and makes sure that that’s the half that Snow White munches on. The girl drops down dead, and the queen is overjoyed, when she returns home and asks the magic mirror who is the fairest of them all, to receive the answer, ‘You, my queen.’
The dwarfs are distraught by Snow White’s death, and lay her to rest in a glass coffin. But then a prince comes by (for some unspecified reason) and is captivated by the dead girl’s beauty as she lies in the glass coffin (a detail bordering on the morbid, but we’ll gloss over that). He begs the dwarfs to let him take the coffin with him (a detail it’s harder to gloss over), and they reluctantly agree. Which is just as well, since as soon as the prince picks up the coffin, the piece of poisoned apple falls from Snow White’s mouth and she is revived. The prince asks her if she will marry him, and she says yes. The wicked stepmother learns that a new queen is getting married (thanks to that perennial blabbermouth, her magical looking-glass), and goes to the wedding to see this new queen. When she sees that it is Snow White, back from the dead, she is so consumed with rage that she falls down dead. And that’s the end of the wicked stepmother, and the end of the story of Snow White, who lives happily ever after with the prince.
(The above plot summary is based on the version of ‘Snow White’ included in the indispensable book by Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales. There are alternative plot details in other versions: in the version by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the Queen doesn’t drop down dead but is forced to dance herself to death in red-hot clogs.)
How should we analyse the story of Snow White? Like many other classic fairy tales, such as Rumpelstiltskin and the story of Goldilocks, the tale is haunted by the number three: there are three drops of blood that drip from the first queen’s hand, there are three queens (Snow White’s mother, her wicked stepmother, and finally Snow White herself), the wicked stepmother has to come up with three plans to murder the girl at the dwarfs’ cottage, and the dwarfs mourn Snow White’s death for three days before burying her. Like the significance of the number in the Goldilocks tale, the wicked stepmother’s three attempts to kill her rival may be seen as an example of the ‘just right’ balance in classic narratives: the first establishes a plot point, the second is a result of the thwarting of the first attempt and so redoubles the efforts, and the third ends with success. This can be seen in the countless fantasy trilogies produced in the wake of The Lord of the Rings: the first volume establishes the quest or danger at hand, the second sees that danger doubled, and the third volume sees good triumph over evil (or law triumph over chaos in Michael Moorcock’s trilogies of the 1960s and 1970s). But enough of this digression into fantasy literature.
The story of ‘Snow White’ was first made popular in printed literature by the Brothers Grimm in the early nineteenth century: the tale of ‘Schneewittchen’ appears in their volumes of classic fairy tales. In the Grimms’ version, and indeed all nineteenth-century retellings of the Snow White story, the seven dwarfs don’t have names. But nor was the 1937 Disney film the first version to give them individual names. That happened in a 1912 Broadway play, which called the dwarfs Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, and Quee. The Disney film then came up with the names with which we forever associate the seven dwarfs (spelt ‘dwarfs’ rather than ‘dwarves’, by the way: Tolkien was largely responsible for the latter spelling, though he argued that strictly speaking the plural of ‘dwarf’ should probably be dwerrows).
What is the moral of ‘Snow White’? Should we even attempt an analysis of the story in this respect? Like the tale of ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’, it may partly be to teach children that the world is big and bad, and that they shouldn’t trust blindly in what strangers tell them (as evinced by the innocent Snow White’s readiness to believe what the wicked stepmother tells her); from another angle, it is about finding peace and happiness even in humbler surroundings (being the daughter of a queen, Snow White is a princess who actually finds she is happy living among miners in their cottage, though she does leave this world behind when she re-attains her exalted social status through marrying the prince). Perhaps such interpretations are pointless, because fairy tales were not devised primarily to teach children clear morals but to fuel their imaginations and introduce them to the way stories work structurally and emotionally, bringing to light universal human truths through narrative and character. There is evil in the world, but there is also good; death is a part of life, but so is marriage and love; being beautiful isn’t the picnic it may appear to less attractive people; envy and jealousy ultimately eat away at the person who feels them, and are therefore self-destructive. Vanity, too – that magic mirror a clear symbol of the wicked stepmother’s (literal) self-regard – will lead to unhappiness, because you will be destined always to compare yourself with others. Perhaps the moral value of a tale such as ‘Snow White’ is to be found as much in the fate of the wicked queen as it is in the younger heroine.
In summary, the fairy tale of Snow White is a classic that contains many of the genre’s most recognisable features: the wicked stepmother; a love interest in the form of the prince; the patterning of three; the woodland setting; the generous helpers (the huntsman, the dwarfs); and the happy ending. Not all fairy tales end happily, but this one does.
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Image: Illustration from 1852 Icelandic version of the Snow White fairy tale (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.