Jun 1, 2010

Fairytale Origins - Part IV
Snow-white (Part I)

When someone mentions the name, Snow White, it probably calls to mind a vision of seven dwarfs whistling while they work, and a cartoon princess singing, “Some day my prince will come.” Would it surprise you to know that the original Snow White was considered one of the darkest fairy tales of all?

The earliest known written version was called The Young Slave, published in Italy in 1634 by Giambattista Basile. In this version, a baron's unmarried sister swallows a rose leaf and becomes pregnant. She gives birth in secret and names the baby Lisa. Fairies are summoned to bless the child. The last one stumbles in her haste and utters a curse instead. As a result, Lisa dies at the age of seven while her mother is combing her hair. The grieving mother has the body encased in seven caskets made of crystal, and hides it under lock and key.

On her deathbed, she gives the key to her brother, but makes him promise that he will never open the locked door. More years pass, and the baron marries. One day he is away, so he gives the key to his wife with strict instructions not to use it. Suspicious, she immediately goes to the locked room where she discovers a beautiful young girl who seems to be fast asleep. (Basile explains that Lisa has grown and matured in her enchanted state.) The baroness seizes Lisa by the hair — dislodging the comb and waking her. Thinking she's found her husband's secret mistress, the jealous baroness cuts off Lisa's hair, dresses her in rags, and beats her black and blue.

The baron returns and notices the young woman cowering in the shadows. His wife tells him the girl is a kitchen slave, sent by her aunt. Soon after the baron sets off for a fair, and promises everyone a gift, including the slave. Lisa requests that he bring back a doll, a knife, and a pumice stone.

He returns and gives the slave the items she asked for. Alone by the hearth, Lisa talks to the doll as she sharpens the knife to kill herself. The baron overhears her sad tale, and learns she's his own sister's child. The girl is then restored to beauty, health, wealth, and heritage — while the cruel baroness is cast away, sent back to her parents.
The Young Slave, complete text


In another Italian tale called The Crystal Casket, Snow White is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. After the marriage, the teacher treats her stepdaughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The stepmother hires a witch, who takes a basket of poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her. The witch strikes again, disguised as a seamstress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead, and this time the fairies will not revive her. Instead, they place her body in a gem–encrusted casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the city.

Horse and casket are found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes her home. His mother is appalled but the prince will not be parted from his treasure and locks himself away in a tower with the girl. He’s called away to battle and leaves the “doll” in the care of his mother. His mother ignores the macabre creature — until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for the maids to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen has them remove the dress, thinking to have a replacement made. As soon as they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed.

The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." The Queen tells him that she had her buried because of the smell. He’s so upset the queen finally relents. The girl is summoned, her story is told, and the two are properly wed.
The Crystal Casket complete text


In a third Italian version of the tale, it's the girl's own mother who wishes her ill — an innkeeper named Bella Venezia who cannot stand a rival in beauty. First she imprisons her child in a lonely hut by the sea; then she seduces a kitchen boy and demands that he murder the girl. The servant abandons the girl in the woods, returning with the eyes and blood of a lamb.

The girl wanders through the forest and soon finds a cave where twelve robbers live. She keeps house for them, who love her and deck her in jewels every night. Her mother eventually gets wind of this, and is more jealous than ever. Disguised as an old peddler woman, she sells her daughter a poisoned hair broach. When the robbers return, they find the girl dead, so they bury her in a hollow tree.

At length, the fair corpse is discovered by a prince, who takes it home and fawns over it. The queen is appalled, but the prince insists upon marrying the beautiful maiden. Her body is bathed and dressed for a wedding. The royal hairdresser is summoned. As the girl's hair is combed, the broach is discovered, removed, and she comes back to life.


In a Scottish version of the story, a trout in a well takes the role of the magical mirror. Each day a queen asks, "Am I not the loveliest woman in the world?" The trout assures the queen that she is. . .until her daughter comes of age, surpassing the mother in beauty. The queen is filled with envy, summons the king, and demands the death of their daughter. He pretends to comply, but sends the girl off to marry a foreign king.

When the queen finds out the princess is still alive she crosses the sea to her daughter's kingdom, and kills her with a poisoned needle. The young king, grieving, locks his beloved's corpse away in a high tower. Eventually he takes another wife, who notes that he always seems sad. She asks him what gift she could give him that would make him happy and he tells her that nothing can bring him joy but his first wife restored to life.

She sends him up to the tower, where he finds his first wife alive and well. The second wife had found her and removed the poisoned needle from her finger. With the couple reunited, the second wife offers s to go away. The king won’t hear of it and the three of them live happily until the queen hears that her daughter has come back to life. She crosses the ocean again to kill her, this time with a poisoned drink. The second wife tricks her into drinking the poison herself, and the young king and his two wives live happily ever after.
Gold-tree and Silver-tree, complete text


The Grimms' version starts with a barren queen who longs for a child. The queen stands sewing by an open window. She pricks her finger. Blood falls on the snow. She makes her wish for a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame. Her wish is granted, but the queen dies as soon as her baby is born.

The king takes for another wife, a woman who could not bear anyone more beautiful than she. She had a looking glass that could tell her if there was anyone who surpassed her in beauty. All was well until Snow-white turned seven, at which point the looking-glass told the queen that her step-daughter was more beautiful.

In a rage, the queen summoned a huntsman to take the child away and kill her. He was to bring back her heart as proof of the deed. The huntsman couldn’t bring himself to kill a child, so he set her loose in the forest and brought the heart of a young boar back, which the queen cooked and ate.

Snow-white wandered in the forest until she found a cottage and the seven dwarfs who lived there. They agreed to let her stay provided she clean, sew, wash, and cook for them. Of course the queen soon realized she’d been tricked, and tried three times to kill Snow-white. Once by lacing her up too tightly in some stay-laces, once with a poisoned comb for her hair, and finally, with a poisoned apple. The dwarfs made a coffin of glass for her and placed it on the mountain.

Eventually a king’s son found the coffin, with Snow-white in it, and persuaded the dwarfs to part with it. As the coffin was being carried to his palace, it was jostled and the piece of poisoned apple fell out of Snow-white’s mouth. The prince was over-joyed to see she was alive, and immediately asked for her hand in marriage.

The queen was beside herself with rage over the fact Snow-white was still alive. However, she was forced to wear red-hot, iron slippers and was made to dance until she dropped down dead.

Snow-white, full text of the Grimm’s version

Next week we’ll explore how Disney changed the story, and some of the recurring themes.


Erica Chapman said...

Wow! That's fascinating. Interesting the variations in the story. Thanks for sharing ;o)

C R Ward said...

Thanks Erica! Believe me, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to versions of the story. :-0