Jun 8, 2010

Fairy Tale Origins - Part V
Snow White, Part II

There are an astounding number of versions of Snow White, last week we explored just a few. What’s interesting is how the story changes with the region it’s told in, as well as the country. Italy has several versions, including one where Snow White grows while in her crystal coffin; ones with neither dwarfs nor prince; and ones with necrophiliac princes (the ones who fall in love with what appears to be a corpse). A Scottish version has her ending up in a three-some when her husband’s second wife is able to defeat the evil mother.

The Italian versions can’t seen to decide whether it’s the mother or the step-mother who’s the villain, but the Grimm’s settle that question in 1819 when they kill off the “good” queen in their version and add the “evil” step-mother. Without a doubt, their murderous queen remains one of the most vivid villains in folkloric history. She orders the death of an innocent girl and demands her heart. In many versions she cooks and eats it.

The queen is a woman whose power comes from her beauty; the implication being that it’s this beauty that gives her an important place in the world. If she loses that beauty, what power is left to this aging woman? The answer would seem to be witchcraft – potions and poisons, deadly combs and strangling stay-laces.

The magic mirror serves not only as a source of information for the queen, but a symbol of her insecurity and growing madness. Snow White is a kind of reverse mirror for the queen, reflecting all the good that the queen has lost.

Blood and consumption seem to be a large part of the story. The three drops of red blood spark the queen’s wish for a child. You can be sure there was blood in the death of the mother in childbirth. Blood is also a symbol of sexual maturity, the point at which the “bad” queen decides to dispose of Snow White. As proof, the queen demands to see the blood on the hunter’s knife, then makes a meal of the heart, echoing the ancient pagan belief that ingesting an enemy's flesh would enable one to claim their strength and magic.

The number of dwarfs in Snow White is significant. The number seven is regarded as a magical number. It took seven days to create the world, and ancient astronomers believed that there were seven planets. All the great Jewish feasts lasted for seven days, and there are legends of seven hills, seven cities and seven sacred trees.

What is important to remember about these versions of the Snow White tale is that they provide an interesting glimpse into the late Middle Ages. Women, it seemed, could either have the innocence and purity of Snow-white, or the conspiring, vindictive nature of the evil stepmother. In this era women were seen as unpredictable, in need of the control and stability that only a male partner (such as the prince or the dwarfs) could provide.

It’s hard to believe that this dark tale was the basis for Disney’s feature film. Walt Disney was fond of fairy tales and not shy about reshaping them to suit his needs, turning them into the simple tales he believed that his audience, a generation marked by economic depression and two world wars, wanted.

At the time, no one knew whether audiences would actually sit through an eighty–four minute cartoon, and the film was called "Disney's folly" as he poured more and more time and money into it.

He emphasized the dwarfs (who were not dwarfs but robbers in some versions), giving them names, distinct personalities, and a cozy cottage. The prince’s role was expanded, and he became pivotal to the story. His love for Snow White, demonstrated at the very beginning of the film, becomes the spark that sets off the powder keg of the stepmother's rage.

Only the queen retains some of the real power of the traditional tale. She's a genuinely frightening figure, and far more compelling than Snow White (who was drawn as a blonde at one point), a wide–eyed, childish figure wearing rags.

Although the film was a commercial triumph, and has been beloved by generations of children, critics through the years have protested the sweeping changes Disney Studios made, and continues to make, when retelling such tales. Walt himself responded, "It's just that people now don't want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they'll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway."

Sad, but true.

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