Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | "Snow White" by The Brothers Grimm

Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

My watch-through of various Grimm adaptations isn't at all going to be exhaustive. Even though it's more than I'll be able to talk about on Filthy Horrors, I've only got about a month to watch and read everything I want to. So I'm hitting the high points. I decided to start with "Snow White" because it's so well known and also because the Disney adaptation is the first of the films I'll be watching.

I'm going to get myself a copy of the Grimms' complete works, but right now I'm reading Maria Tatar's Annotated Brothers Grimm. It doesn't have every single thing, but there are a bunch of stories in it and I love Tatar's notes. The character of Snow White has a justifiably bad reputation as a helpless, reactionary character, but Tatar helped me see that Snow isn't actually the main character of her story at all. That would be the Queen. And while she's never sympathetic, her plight is. In every way that women were valued at the time of the story, the Queen is being undermined by Snow. Even motherhood, as I'll get to in a minute.

In the earliest, oral versions of the story, the Queen isn't Snow's step-mother, but her actual, biological mother. And in at least one version, it's Snow's father who specifically wishes for a daughter with snow white skin, ebony black hair, and blood red lips. Because of this, the king feels a special relationship with Snow and the Queen feels threatened about being replaced by the younger, prettier girl. Motherhood is valued by the culture, but the Queen has already fulfilled that role while Snow is just starting to get ready for it. The best is ahead for her, as it were. Tatar points out that when Snow keeps house for the dwarfs, she's taking her first step towards becoming a wife and mother (though not specifically for the dwarfs who are deliberately asexual and non-threatening; Snow is just practicing in their house).

The Grimms weren't satisfied with only documenting the oral stories they collected. They modified them to suit the tastes and values of their own, then-modern culture. And since motherhood was highly valued, evil mothers in the stories usually became less problematic step-mothers. Which is what happened to the Queen. The story is more horrifying if the Queen is Snow's biological mother, but it also makes a lot more sense because it keeps the overall theme of the story intact.

Snow is innocent in all of this. That's part of her allure and a lot of what the Queen hates about her. But society isn't pure. It assigns disproportionate value to youth and beauty, both of which are fading for the Queen while Snow increasingly becomes the center of attention. I understand why the Queen feels threatened, even while I judge her harshly for what she does about it. And it's telling that she instructs her huntsman to bring back Snow's organs once he's murdered the girl, so that the Queen can eat them, ritually consuming Snow's essence so that the Queen can possess her youth and beauty.

With the Queen as the tragic main character, Snow becomes the antagonist and mostly a symbolic one. That's why she doesn't have a lot of agency. I'm curious to see which adaptations, if any, try to fix that. I'm also curious to see which adaptations keep the focus on the Queen. I know some pay more attention to her than others.

The dwarfs and the prince are just obstacles to the Queen's plans, so they're not super fleshed out either. The dwarfs only give Snow temporary shelter and don't have names or even personalities in the Grimms' version. The prince unintentionally rescues Snow at the end by falling in love with her beauty through the glass coffin. He doesn't appear in the story until the very end, so there's no previous relationship. She is literally just a piece of art that he wants in his home. But as he's transporting her from the forest to his palace, the carriage hits a bump, jostles Snow's coffin, and loosens the chunk of poison apple that's caught in her throat and is keeping her comatose. She's released by happenstance as if the universe is conspiring against the Queen. The value of youth and beauty is a powerful force and the story relentlessly rewards it.

Another example of this is how the Queen dies. Once Snow is revived, the Queen's mirror again proclaims that the Queen is no longer the fairest in the land. It doesn't mention Snow by name though, but only that the prince is now married and his bride now holds the title. The Queen has to go check this out and is horrified to learn that Snow is still alive. The couple seem to have anticipated the Queen's visit though, because there are a pair of white-hot iron shoes that the Queen is forced to wear and dance herself to death. It's violently sadistic, but the Queen is no hero and has more or less earned her fate. Rather than withdraw gracefully into old age, she's tried to murder Snow multiple times. Her comeuppance is fascinatingly brutal.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

So the Grimms incorporated their own values to the stories of another group of people. Would that count as cultural appropriation?

I remember “Snow White: A Tale of Terror” from 1997 casts the Queen (played by Sigourney Weaver) in a sympathetic light, however I don’t think it’s full antagonist role reversal like you might expect from something like Wicked or the recent Maleficent.

Michael May said...

I have mixed feelings about the concept of cultural appropriation, but I don't think this fits any definition. The Grimms were recording and adapting stories from their own culture.

I'll definitely be watching that Sigourney Weaver version. I've never seen it before and I'm eager to see the story played as straight up horror.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I’ve heard the term used in a way that seemed nebulously defined so I was looking to field your feelings on the term so I guess I have my answer.

Michael May said...

It's hard. It's a difficult topic with a lot of nuance and I haven't yet heard the perspective that addresses my specific questions. My experience has been the same as yours. When it comes up, it's nebulously defined and just accepted as a negative thing.

In my bones, I don't understand how adopting elements of other cultures is a bad thing, but I 100% understand that I'm coming at it from a privileged perspective and there are probably factors that I'm not taking into consideration. But are we talking about just adopting elements of other cultures or is the discussion actually about something more insidious? Frankly, I don't understand the discussion enough to feel like I can have an opinion, which is frustrating.


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