When you think of Snow White, your mind invariably flashes on the story of a young girl hunted by her stepmother, the evil Queen, who runs away to live with dwarves and is eventually saved by true love’s kiss. We owe this image largely to Disney’s 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as the Grimm’s fairytale they based it on, Snow White. However, the original story published by the Brother’s Grimm lacked true love’s kiss, but was abundant in other horrific details such as torture, pediphilia, necrophilia, and implied cannibalism.
First of all, the first published Grimm’s version, “Little Snow Drop” was adapted from an earlier publication in 1731, “Father Tuck’s Play & Pleasure Series”, which was a collaborative effort between Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grace C. Floyd, Raphael Tuck and sons. In the first Grimm’s Fairy Tales version, Snow White’s main villain was her mother, in the later version her stepmother, who asks a servant to kill the little girl and bring back her lungs and liver. Also the Queen meets her end by attending the new Queen’s wedding, not knowing that it is Snow White, and she is forced to dance to death.
In the original Grimm’s story, similar to what most children are familiar with, Snow White’s mother wishes for a daughter who is “White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony.” Could there be a deeper significance to these colors than simple beauty? In alchemy, these color represent the process of transmuting baser metals into gold, and their importance in the story seems more than coincidental.
However, after Snow White’s birth, (in the second Grimm’s version) her mother dies and the father remarries a beautiful but vain woman. Every day she asks her magic mirror if she is the fairest in the land, because SHE KNOWS THE MIRROR ALWAYS TELLS THE TRUTH. There’s a lot of psychological debate about the meaning of the Queen’s mirror, but one opinion is that it reflects the Queen’s unconscious mind. Regardless of whether or not it’s a threshold between conscious and unconscious, as soon as the Mirror tells her she is not the fairest, it spells trouble for little Snow White. Like Narcissus being captured by his reflection in the pool, she’s obsessed with her own image, and it ultimately spells her doom.
The Queen orders a servant to take the beautiful, seven-year old Snow White into the woods, kill her and bring back her lungs and liver (or heart). However, because of her beauty, the servant lets her escape and brings the Queen the organs of a boar instead. The Queen, quite ravenous – murderous rage must build up an appetite, eats the organ(s) because she thinks they belong to Snow White. Was physically consuming her youth and beauty a way to preserve her own beauty, or was she, *“capturing an enemy’s power for oneself”?
After running away, Snow White happens across the home of the dwarves, and – similar to Goldilocks – breaks in. Only the little girl is a bit nicer about what she steals. Not wanting to take too much from any one person, she samples a little from each of the seven place settings and eventually falls asleep on the bed of the seventh dwarf. When the dwarves come home from a hard day in the mines, they are shocked when they notice things are different. However, when they finally find the little girl asleep in the bed, her beauty beguiles them and they let her sleep. In the morning, when she wakes up, she relates her story and they offer her a job as their housekeeper in exchange for room and board.
Then things get a bit trickier. They can’t stay home with her because they need to work all day, so they warn her not to open the door to strangers because the Queen will soon figure things out and try to hurt her again. She promises but fails to keep her promise, not once but three times. THREE TIMES. The first time, the Queen comes disguised as an old woman selling bodice laces; when she laces the little girl too tightly, she faints and the Queen leaves her for dead. The second time, she brings a poison comb; as soon as it touches her hair, Snow White falls down as if dead. The final time, she brings a poison apple. Now, this one is the Queen’s masterpiece, so beautiful that anyone who sees it longs to take a bite, yet poison within. Much like the Queen herself, it is wonderfully attractive, yet deadly.
Now, the third time, Snow White really insists she can’t open the door. The disguised Queen tells her the apple is perfectly harmless, not poison at all, and even cuts the apple in half and takes a bite to prove this. However, the apple was so “cunningly made” that only one half was poisoned, so when the little girl takes a bite of the other half, she falls down DEAD.
When the dwarves come back, they can’t revive her for obvious reasons, so they put her body on a bier for three days of mourning. After all that time, she still looks pretty good for a dead kid so they put her in a glass coffin. Lo and behold, a prince happens along, sees her, and notices how pretty she is. The prince asks TO BUY HER, but the dwarves refuse. Finally, he said he couldn’t live without seeing her, so the dwarves gave her to him. In the first Grimm’s version of the story, the prince couldn’t function at all – eat, sleep, whatever- unless the coffin was next to him. Finally, the servants got tired of carrying a dead girl in a coffin all around; one of them opened the coffin and whacked the corpse on the back of her head with his hand. That popped the apple out of her throat, and Snow White came back to life.
So much for true love’s first kiss, but a possible case of necrophilia.
Anyway, the prince was so thrilled his dead girl was alive, they had a nice meal together and planned their wedding for the very next day. I mean, she was seven when the whole mess started and she’d already died, so a child bride should be no big deal, right? (Read: sarcasm**) Needless to say, the evil Queen found out that the “young queen” was fairer and came to the wedding – where she recognized Snow White. That, in itself, would have been shocking enough, but they “put a pair of iron shoes into the fire until they glowed” and the Queen was made to “dance(d) herself to death in them.”
Lovely ending, right?
So, the cleaned-up children’s versions with the heart, true love’s kiss, and a wedding where the girl lives happily ever after with her prince differs quite a bit from the older tales. The queen murders Snow White, the prince falls in love with a corpse and marries a seven-year old girl before torturing the evil queen to death quite horrifically. Yet, like with Ginsu knives, but wait! There’s more!
There is much debate over the meaning of the repetition of numbers throughout the story. There are three colors associated with Snow White, three attempts made on her life by the Queen, and she lies on the bier for three days before being put in the glass coffin. Three has often been associated with the three aspects of a person: body, mind, and spirit. The number three also symbolizes the Christian divine Trinity, a single God with three aspects of Father, son, and Holy Ghost corresponding to the three parts of man, who was made in the image of God.
The seven dwarves live beyond the seven mountains and take in the seven-year old princess, Snow White. The prime number seven is often associated with the heavens and the divine; the seven days of the week are named after seven gods and goddesses. If three symbolizes spirituality and four represents material things, than seven is the sum of both. Shakespeare even wrote about the seven ages of man.
The Queen is repeatedly associated with the number two. The two sides of the apple are opposites – visually appealing but internally poisonous, just as the mirror reflects her dual nature as a beautiful queen and an internally corrupt woman; like the mirror, people only see what’s reflected on the surface but when she looks deeper (by asking the mirror questions) she finds hidden depths. The mirror also acts as the **male perspective or the wicked Queen’s animus.
The evil Queen herself could be considered another version of the Hebrew Lilith, thought by some to be Adam’s first wife, a woman who rebelled against both God and her husband. Lilith is closely associated with female sexuality and temptation, even considered a killer of babies – which would seem to be a good fit for the Queen. The fact that she brings about Snow White’s downfall with an apple, a fruit closely associated in Judeo-Christianity with temptation, makes the comparison even more believable.
However, more modern versions of the tale portray the main characters in a different light. In Once Upon a Time, Snow White is a feminist bandit who first meets the prince she’s destined to love when she robs him of his mother’s wedding ring. Snow White and the Huntsman also shows a more modern feminist protagonist; her main plot revolves around the taking back of her kingdom rather than a love story. Mirror Mirror starts off with a lighter approach, telling the story from the wicked Queen’s point of view and ending with a dance number – notably, not one in which the Queen dances herself to death.
So, like the Magic Mirror of the Queen herself, there is so much more to Snow White than meets the eye.
*quote taken from the NY Times article, “What is the meaning of Cannibalism?” by Eric Eckholm
**Child brides are currently a real problem. I am not, in any way, making light of the problem but rather pointing out that the prince marrying a seven-year old is quite horrific.
*** additional information http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/sevendwarfs/notes.html
****image courtesy of BigFoto.com