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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Snow White

Long ago there lived a princess named Snow White. She was a beautiful princess. And like all princesses she lived in a castle. Her stepmother, the queen, also lived in the castle. The queen had a magic mirror. Every day she looked into the mirror and asked the same thing.

"Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the fairest one of all?"

The mirror always gave her the same answer. "Oh, queen, you are the fairest one of all." But one day the mirror had a different answer. "Snow White is fairest in the land," it said. The proud queen became very angry. She wanted to be the most beautiful lady in the land.

The queen sent for the woodsman. "Take Snow White away," she told him. "She must never come back to the castle. You must kill her." The woodsman took Snow White into the woods. But he could not kill the sweet princess. He loved her too much. Instead, he said, "Run away, child - quickly! You must hide from the queen. She wants to kill you." (Text Disney)

The Snow White storybook is available through Amazon
The Snow White storybook is available through Amazon

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This is the Snow White story, as told by Disney both in its famous animated feature and in modern children's books. In fact, what you just read is a transcription of the first few pages of the current Disney children's book, which are naturally heavily illustrated with drawings of the Disney characters from the film.

If asked what the Snow White story is, most of us would very likely identify elements from the Disney version of the story: goofy dwarves with unique personalities, a princess whose beauty endangers her life, a prince who saves her by kissing her, and a wicked stepmother who meets her end through her own evilness and ineptitude. It turns out, however, that almost none of that is in the original story, from which the Disney version sprang.

Charles Perrault did not include Snow White in his collection of stories, so the Grimms' version is the only one we have. And it is the story upon which Disney based his theatrical version, albeit with a few changes here and there. If we pick up a copy of the Grimms' nowadays, we'd find a number of differences from the Disney version:

  • There is no kiss to wake up Snow White. Instead, she is carted off in a glass coffin by an infatuated prince, and the poisoned apple stuck in her throat becomes dislodged when his cart hits a pothole.
  • The wicked stepmother tries three times to kill Snow White, and is not successful until the third attempt. Even then, the girl eventually cheats death.
  • The dwarves are anonymous short people who happen to work as miners, and are given almost no attention in the story.
  • The stepmother does not die while trying to kill the dwarves; she is found out as the guilty party when Snow White marries the prince, and the stepmother is put to death by the prince. Specifically, she is made to dance in red hot shoes until she falls down dead.

A few other interesting facts leap out. Do you know why the heroine is called Snow White? Because her mother, barren at the start of the story, pines for a baby whose skin would be as white as the snow outside her window, whose hair would be as black as the window frame, and whose cheeks would be as red as the drop of blood on the snow - seems the mother had just finished nicking herself with a sewing needle when she spawned the wish. The baby was conceived soon after, and the girl was named in honor of that wish. The queen, however, dies in childbirth.

Promo art  Disney - Theatrical Poster
Promo art Disney - Theatrical Poster

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Evil stepmother is jealous of beautiful girl, tries to kill her, and very nearly succeeds except for the prince who chances upon the scene. It's a story of jealousy, and of the dangers of beauty. As we've seen in the past few columns, the peasant stories always have a moral to tell, and in this case the moral is that beauty can be dangerous. Children learn about the human foible of jealousy through the telling of Snow White, too. One could even see the element of fantasy creeping in here: Peasants tell this story as a kind of wish-fulfillment, where the spectre of death is overcome.

But that's not all. Very often in fairy tales, the hero or heroine escapes through luck. And this is true of Snow White, too. Even after her apparent death, she has the fortune of being cared for by the short men, and has the extremely good luck of being rescued from said death. Even better, her rescuer is a prince! The underlying message is that even this girl, who has beauty and wealth (heck, she's the daughter of a king!) isn't safe in the world. Thus, the peasant children who heard this realized that if such a princess isn't safe, they certainly aren't either. Message received.

But I've been leading you down a slightly wrong path here, on purpose. You see, the story isn't quite so straightforward. In fact, forget everything you think you know about the story. In the very original version of the story collected by the Grimms, things were even more different. There was no stepmother. There was no prince.

That's right, the princess is persecuted by her own mother, the Queen. The mother tries to kill the daughter, and apparently succeeds, until the father - yes, the King himself - discovers the daughter's preserved body. Enraged, he executes the Queen.

Promo art  Disney - Theatrical Poster
Promo art Disney - Theatrical Poster

Stop and think about the implications for a moment. It's no longer a story about beauty, it's gone into caricature (specifically, the mother as a caricature of jealousy). Here is a mother who is so vain that she tosses family ties aside and tries to murder her own daughter. Even worse, the father's rescue at the end of the tale carries more than a whiff of incest. After all, the mother and daughter here compete for the father's attention, and when the daughter is discovered, the father executes the mother, as if discarding her in favor of the younger, more beautiful rival. Sounds like an ideal movie for a family audience, don't you think?

The idea behind the peasant version, of course, is once again a reinforcement of the old peasant adage: You are never really safe, so be on your guard at all times. You cannot even trust your own parents! This is a stark reality unknown to most of us nowadays, perhaps, but these were vital life lessons for the peasants to survive.

The Grimms collected the story in 1810 and recorded it as they heard it, without altering it. This 1810 manuscript was never published, though, and only discovered decades after their death. By the time the Grimms published their first edition in two parts (1812 / 1814), they had already altered the tale. Suddenly the father is absent from the tale, and it is an anonymous and unrelated prince who rescues Snow White. The incest was removed by the Grimms because it conflicted rather heavily with their Christian mores. A few years later when they published the second edition (their collection was wildly popular and sold out quickly, running through seven editions in its lifetime), the mother had become a stepmother. It seems the Grimms did not like the notion of a family so dysfunctional that a mother would kill her own daughter for such superficial reasons. Score one for the beginnings of the nuclear family in the 19th Century!

By removing the biological mother and father from the tale, the Grimms effectively created a new story, one without the shock value. Of course stepmothers are jealous and princes are sexually attracted to princesses, but that wasn't the point of the original tale. Still, it was the sanitized version that caught Disney's attention.

Promo art  Disney - Multi-plane Camera
Promo art Disney - Multi-plane Camera

In the 1930s, Walt wanted to expand his studio's outlook by venturing into the uncharted waters of full- length feature animation. Conventional wisdom held at the time that this was a ludicrous proposition, since everyone knew that all animation was confined to shorts of only a few minutes long. How many crude sight gags could the public take all at once? Walt, of course, had something different in mind; something romantic, witty, clever, arty, and musical. The Disney studio had used fairy tale material before, of course, among other reasons because animation lent itself well to the notion of children's literature. So Walt's first grand fairy tale movie was going to feature love prominently, and goodness was going to win out over evil. Accordingly, Disney changed a number of points in the story:

  • The morbid glass coffin would be minimized. Disney didn't want necrophiliac princes as heroes, after all ... OK, I admit it, I stole that joke from Garrison Keillor.
  • Luck and happenstance would be replaced by the higher power of love. This prince was around beforehand rather than chancing upon her prone body, and he would free her with a kiss, not a pothole.
  • The evil stepmother would die because of her own wickedness (trying to kill the dwarves) rather than from punishments meted out by the "good" side. This allowed the wholesome characters to appear entirely without character blemishes, since they didn't execute her.
  • The dwarves would have an expanded role, given personalities, provide comic relief, and sing songs to liven up the movie. The mixture of comic tone, musical interludes, and romantic themes - pioneered right at this moment by Disney - continues to this day in most animated features. We have the dwarves to thank for that.

Promo art  Disney - Deluxe Laserdisc edition
Promo art Disney - Deluxe Laserdisc edition

I'll leave you with a list of the various dwarves names considered by Disney, but discarded for one reason or another. It's funny to imagine what kinds of characters these would have made. But don't let the whimsy lull you into automatic acceptance of the Disney vision. The next time you see Snow White, you'll know the true story. And, I'm sure, you'll appreciate your own family that much more, for not being Snow White's family.

Discarded Dwarf Names

Awful | Biggo-Ego | Biggy | Biggy-Wiggy | Blabby
Busy
| Chesty | Crabby | Cranky | Daffy
Dippy
| Dirty | Dizzy | Doleful | Dumpy
Flabby
| Gabby | Gaspy | Gloomy | Goopy
Graceful
| Helpful | Hoppy | Hotsy | Hungry
Jaunty
| Jumpy | Lazy | Neurtsy | Nifty
Puffy
| Sappy | Scrappy | Shifty | Silly
Snappy
| Sneezy-Wheezy | Soulful | Strutty
Tearful
| Thrifty | Weepy | Wistful | Woeful


Snow White - Promo art  Disney
Promo art Disney

IMPORTANT TERMS

Grimms - published their fairy tales in 1812/1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw stories in 1810

Perrault - published his tales in France, 1697.

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