The original ‘color’ of Snow White

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from Sneewittchen, Scholz' Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz 1905

     Most of us know Snow White as the heroine of Disney’s 1937 film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, in which an innocent young girl fleeing her wicked stepmother finds safety with seven funny little dwarfs in the forest.

     But the original folk tale is not innocent or funny.  The first recorded versions that we can recognize as the basis for the story we know showed up in the 1600s and were probably told around the hearth for hundreds of yeas before that.  These stories reflected the harsh and difficult cultures in which they originated and are often shocking to modern readers.

     “Sneewittchen” (Little Snow White), as recorded by the Brothers Grimm, begins with blood.  A queen sits embroidering at her window in winter.  She pricks her finger, drawing blood, and thinks “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.”   The queen gets her wish, but dies at the child’s birth.  The king then marries a cruel and jealous woman capable of great hatred.

     The evil queen has a magic mirror, which some say represents the voice of the king/husband.  When the mirror tells her that seven-year-old Snow White is more beautiful than she, the queen plots to murder the princess.  She sends Snow White into the forest with a huntsman who is instructed to kill the child and bring the girl’s heart back so she can feast upon it.  Fortunately for Snow White, the huntsman is unwilling to carry out his instructions and tells the girl to run into the forest and escape.  The huntsman kills a wild boar and brings its heart back to the queen, saying it is Snow White’s heart.

     The little princess finds refuge with seven dwarfs and happily settles into housekeeping for them.  However, the wicked queen learns the girl is still alive.  Disguised as an old peddler woman, she again tries to murder Snow White.  First she laces the girl’s waist so tightly that she cannot breathe.  The queen leaves, thinking Snow White is dead, but the dwarfs loosen the laces and the princess wakes up.  The queen returns and uses a poisoned comb to comb Snow White’s hair, again leaving her for dead, but the dwarfs again revive the princess.  The evil queen’s final effort, using a poisoned apple, seems successful.  But although Snow White appears truly dead, her body does not deteriorate.  The sorrowing dwarfs put her in a glass coffin and keep vigil over her.


     When a prince rides by and sees the lovely girl in the glass coffin, he falls in love with her.  He convinces the dwarfs to let him take the girl in her casket with him.  As the casket is being transported to his castle, his servants stumble and the poisoned apple pops out of Snow White’s mouth.  She awakens and immediately falls in love with the prince. 

     They are married in his kingdom, and the wicked queen is invited to the wedding.  When she arrives, she is immediately forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes (a unique entertainment for the wedding reception).  Snow White and the prince live happily ever after.

     There are many variations of the story, including some from Italy where robbers or fairies take the place of dwarfs.  In a version from Scotland, the prince keeps Snow White in her coffin, and takes a second wife.  Wife number two revives the “dead” princess and all three live together “happily ever after”. 

     The Grimms themselves described five variations of the tale.  However, when their first books of folk tales sold well, they stopped trying to record the stories exactly as told, and began making them more “sellable.”  They decided to blend the ancient mythology with their own contemporary Christian values.  They also wanted to express their firm views that it was a man’s world, and motherhood should be idealized.  Their adaptations of folk tales reflect these ideas, and have shaped some of ours.  

     For example, the original manuscript and first published edition of “Snow White” (1812) say that the girl’s own birth mother wanted to kill her; but in later editions the story was changed to say that the natural mother dies and the king remarries.  This is because the Grimms revered birth mothers — so they made stepmothers the villains in many of their tales. This has resulted in the “bad stepmother” image often seen in our culture.

     Even among the many “bad stepmothers” in the Grimm’s stories, the queen in “Snow White” is exceptional.  When she learns that her first murder attempt was not successful, she tries to kill Snow White three more times — while disguised as a lovable old peddler woman, hiding her murderous intentions under a harmless and friendly facade.  The wicked queen may be the most terrifying villain in folklore,

     But she is also much more interesting than sweet, domesticated Snow White.  Some say Disney gave personalities to the dwarfs (they are not described as individuals in the Grimm tales) to make Snow White’s boring scenes more interesting.  We may feel for Snow White, but the queen is much more fun to watch.  She is frightening, but it’s a safe kind of fear, far away from our own experiences.  The queen gives us scope for our imaginations. 

     Even so, Snow White herself deserves thought.  After the story ends, does she live the life of an adored wife and queen “ever after”, or does she become jealous when her beauty fades and is surpassed by someone younger?  We can only hope she has learned from her own experience. 

     This is the wonder of fairy tales; we can imagine for ourselves what “happily ever after” means.  In the end, we control Snow White’s fate.

Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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