The Evolution of Snow White: ‘Magic Mirror, on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest One of All?’

Snow White

“We owe it to each other to tell stories.” — Neil Gaiman, Locks (1999)

2012 has seen a minor war of adaptations of the classic fairy tale, “Snow White.” Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror and the forthcoming release from director Rupert Sanders, Snow White and the Huntsman, have been pitted against one another since the two films were announced, despite the disparity between the films’ targeted audiences. A renewed interest in “Snow White” is hardly surprising, given its main themes of adolescent sexuality, witchcraft, ritualistic cannibalism, and a murderous rivalry.

Indeed, “Snow White” has been reinvented time and time again. Variations of the fairy tale were popular prior to the German variant of the Brothers Grimm, though it’s their version of the tale, alongside Walt Disney’s 1937 film, that remains at the forefront of our cultural consciousness.

But what has happened to the “Snow White” story throughout the ages and why?

There’s an argument to be made that the meanings of fairy tales change through periods of significant transitions. One such transition, for example, would be that of the shift from an oral to a written tradition. The successive alterations and adaptations of “Snow White” may also vary based on time and place; reinterpretations of such important stories could reflect what kind of Snow White archetype was required of a particular time and place.

So what do the adaptations of 2012 say? What kind of Snow White are today’s artists providing and how can we compare her to the Snow Whites of the past? Modern reinterpretations of “Snow White,” like Snow White and the Huntsman, have demonstrated a desire to restore the darkness of the earliest known written versions, and elements from “Snow White” can be traced back to oral traditions of antiquity. But how much do we know about the Snow Whites prior to the Brothers Grimm and Disney?

The Earliest Known Snow White in Literature

Though the “Snow White” story has largely become associated with Germany, the earliest known written version of the tale was actually published in Italy in 1634 in Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentaemerone: The Tale of Tales. Basile’s story, “The Young Slave,” focuses on the daughter of a baron’s unmarried sister. The daughter, christened Lisa, is conceived when her mother swallows a rose-leaf. Lisa is born in secret, and as fairies bless the child, the last fairy flounders and curses her. When Lisa reaches the age of seven, she dies as her mother combs her hair. Her body is then encased in seven crystal caskets, which are then concealed in a locked room in the Baron’s palace.coffin

Lisa’s mother, on her deathbed, gives the key to Lisa’s locked room to her brother, making him promise never to enter it. Years later, the Baron inexplicably gives his new bride the key while he is away on a hunt, instructing her not to use it. She, of course , disregards his request and discovers a “sleeping” Lisa who has blossomed into a beautiful maiden.

Driven by jealousy over Lisa’s beauty, the Baroness snatches her by the hair, dislodging the comb and breaking the curse. The Baroness, mistakenly believing Lisa to be her husband’s beautiful mistress, beats her, dresses her in rags and tatters, and relegates her to a life of slavery in her kitchen.

The Baron later sets off again—this time for a fair—promising each member of his household a gift upon his return. Lisa makes several requests, among them a doll and a knife, with which she intends to kill herself. As she readies the knife, she recounts her story to her new doll, which the Baron overhears. Realizing she’s his niece, he sends his wife into exile and restores Lisa to her proper station.

Alterations to the Tale

Today Basile’s tale seems to be an amalgamation of other popular fairy tales: the fairy’s blessing-turned-curse is a recognizable motif from The Sleeping Beauty (1697), while elements from “Bluebeard” (1697), “Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper” (1697)and Beauty and the Beast (1740) are also present.

mirror mirrorOther Italian Snow Whites cast the Evil Queen as the girl’s own mother. For example, “The Crystal Casket” (1885) version of the story utilizes the infamous “evil stepmother” motif. The huntsman is depicted as an eagle or a kitchen boy, and his task is to cut out the girl’s eyes rather than her heart, and drain a bottle of her blood. The dwarfs are kindly fairies or a band of robbers, twelve in all, rather than seven. Instead of a poisoned apple, it’s a basket of poisoned sweetmeats that thrusts Snow White into her deathlike, sleeping state. The “heroic” prince with whom Snow White falls madly in love in the Disney film is instead a disturbing man preoccupied with the body of a dead woman, who refers to her throughout their one-sided courtship as his “doll” and locks himself away in a tower with her. The crystal casket morphs into a hollow tree with another Italian prince, who discovers Snow White’s body, takes it home, and lovingly “tends” to it long before she wakes. And rather than true love’s kiss, it’s instead the accidental dislodging of a hair comb that brings Snow White back to life.

Some Scottish Snow White stories cast the magic mirror as a talking trout. Rather than asking who the “fairest one of all” is, the evil queen—who’s again Snow White’s biological mother rather than stepmother—coyly asks, “Am I not the loveliest woman in the world?” The huntsman is Snow White’s own father— rather than a stranger, a servant, or a boy—who will do almost anything to share the Queen’s bed. Snow White marries a young prince before any evil befalls her. The poisoned apple becomes a poisoned needle, and after her sleeping death, her prince marries another woman. It’s his new wife’s blessing, rather than his kiss, that wakes his first wife. At the tale’s conclusion, the prince happily declares that he shall have both wives now that he has been reunited with his first “true love.” The wives, who are curiously free of jealousy, happily consent to the new arrangement. The Scottish Snow White truly is a fairy tale!

The Beauty Myth

snow whiteWhat seems to remain constant in all versions is both Snow White’s beauty and the evil queen’s belief that her own beauty is the source of her power and strength. Roger Sale writes, “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 is vain, to be sure, but also in a precarious position of power. We are reminded time and time again that beauty fades, and the queen is wise enough to recognize that her own beauty will too. She is safe so long as she is beautiful; she is in an incredible position of power so long as she is the most beautiful. Terri Windling writes that the queen is “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, what power is left to an aging woman? Witchcraft, the tale answers. Potions, poisons, and self-protection.” Just as the magic mirror informs the queen of her own beauty and the threat of Snow White’s, Snow White herself represents all that the queen has had that she will steadily lose.

While the upcoming film, Snow White and the Huntsman, seems to mark a return to Snow White’s macabre origins, it could potentially alter the seemingly eternal emphasis on beauty to demonstrate that the Queen’s and Snow White’s power are not inextricably bound to their physical appearance. The film could show that the Queen is able to find value in her intelligence and cunning, rather than in her mirror’s reflection. Snow White’s beauty could merely be a noted quality, rather than what draws the world to her aid and to her side. The film could also point out that women have more to be angry about than another woman’s looks.

Rupert Sanders, your Snow White is beautiful, to be sure, but let’s hope that on opening day she proves herself to be more than that.
snow glass apples
For those of you interested in modern renditions of Snow White that aim to return her to her dark roots, here are a few suggestions for your summer reading lists:

White as Snow (2000) - Tanith Lee
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – Anne Sexton, from Transformations (1971)
“Snow” Francesca Lia Block, from The Rose and the Beast (2000)
“The Snow Child” - Angela Carter, from The Bloody Chamber (1979)
“The Tale of the Apple” - Emma Donoghue, from Kissing the Witch (1997)
“Snow, Glass, Apples” - Neil Gaiman, from Smoke and Mirrors (1998)
“Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess” – A.R. Morlan, from The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, Volume 8 (1994)

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=809360003 Robert Russin

    I recently unintentionally read two more Snow White related stories back to back — the first is The Stepsister Scheme (first book in what I think is a four book series) by Jim Hines. It's nothing too serious, but it's a fun quick read and I think you'll like it.

    Second, I'm not sure if you're a Discworld fan (if not, you should be) but the witch books in the series usually have some fun references, and Witches Abroad has a lot of stuff about mirror magic in it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/shmerin.berry Erin Abbamondi

      I'll definitely add them to my book list. Thank you!