The Legacy of Snow White

This week, I will be breaking down individual fairy tales, beginning with the fairest of them all. The story of "Snow White" has a complex history, rooted in both reality and mythology. It has become even more complex over the past decade or so, in which the character has been revived as something entirely different in an attempt to make her less of a passive victim and more of a warrior princess.

It is believed that Snow White was inspired by two real women. The first, Margaret von Waldreck, had a stepmother who sent her away to Brussels because she hated her. The princess was later discovered to have been poisoned after an illicit love affair with a prince that neither kingdom approved of. The second, Maria Sophia Margarethe Catharina von Erthal, who was also disliked by her stepmother, lived in a kingdom that produced "talking mirrors," which were essentially very expensive 18th-century novelty items. It is believed that her stepmother owned one of them. She lived in close proximity to a mining town called Bieber that employed child laborers, whose growths were stunted due to the toll it took on their bodies. This was thought to be the inspiration for the seven dwarfs. When Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Snow White on ABC's Once Upon a Time learned that her character's alter ego was called Mary Margaret, she thought this was an intentional reference and complimented the creators on how clever they were. They responded with confusion.

Until Disney released their first animated feature in 1937, the most common version of "Snow White" was written by the Brothers Grimm. It is rather similar to the Disney version with a few exceptions. In the original story, when the queen asks her huntsman to bring back one of Snow White's organs as proof of slaying her, he chops out the lung and liver a doe and tells her that they belonged to the princess. The queen, thinking that the organs are Snow White's, proceeds to gleefully eat them for her evening meal so she can feel as though she played a part in the poor girl's utter demolition. This is similar to what Disney put in their version except that the huntsman brings her a heart from a pig instead of a liver and lung from a doe, and the queen simply stores it in a keepsake box, a far less gruesome prospect than cannibalism. It's rather obvious why Disney left this part out, but there are darker versions of the tale that do include it. The next major difference is that in the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White's stepmother attempts to kill her three times while the princess is living with the seven dwarfs. Snow White falls for her tricks every time. The first time, she brings a poison comb that pierces her scalp, which the dwarfs later remove. This comb becomes a key plot item at the end of The 10th Kingdom miniseries. The second time, the wicked queen brings a tight corset that cuts off Snow White's circulation, which the dwarfs also later remove. Finally, she brings Snow White a poison apple, which is the most famous attempt as well as the only one that nearly succeeded.

Since the dwarfs couldn't see the apple lodged in her throat like they could the comb or the corset, they eventually give up searching for a way to revive her and build her a glass coffin. Later, when the prince discovers her, he asks his footmen to bring the glass coffin containing the sleeping maiden back to his kingdom so he could gaze upon her always. This is admittedly pretty creepy. A clumsy footman trips while attempting to carry the coffin, bumping it into his surroundings. Snow White's unconscious body gets hit just hard enough to dislodge the piece of poison apple from her throat, which wakes her up. Everyone rejoices, and the prince marries Snow White, a welcome alternative to having to stare at her dead body all the time. There was no kiss. It's pretty obvious why Disney changed this part, but it did create a misconception about the kiss being part of the original tale. Even stories that tried to change the Brothers Grimm tale heavily, such as Snow White and the Huntsman, used the kiss as a mandatory part of the story. Disney also cut a scene from the original story that took place after the wedding. The dwarfs crafted shoes of iron and heated them on hot coals and forced Snow White's wicked stepmother to dance in these burning shoes until she died. This is another reference to their profession as miners, which is something that Disney did include in their version. I guess they thought a quick and painless death by falling off a cliff was more humane. Who knows?

Ever since Disney's hugely successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there have been several other remakes and adaptions of the film, including an animated sequel that was not produced by Disney called Happily Ever After in 1990, and an obscure live-action TV version starring Kristen Kreuk of Smallville fame in 2001. Gail Carson Levine's novel, Fairest, tells a version of "Snow White" in which she is not beautiful, but has a lovely singing voice. Vertigo's Fables comic series, that started in 2002, features Snow White as the mayor of Fabletown. She is immortal in this version because her story is so famous that it keeps her alive no matter what happens. Until fairly recently, Cinderella used to be the story that everyone was obsessed with retelling and modernizing. In 2012, a huge media makeover campaign of Snow White's character and story began.

Once Upon a Time premiered on ABC in the fall of 2011. It centered on Snow White's daughter, Emma Swan, who grew up in the real world when Regina, Snow White's evil stepmother, cursed all the fairy tale characters to live in our world without any memory of their magical past. It was quickly revealed that Snow White was a badass, shooting off her bow and arrow at anything that got in her way. This Snow White was not a domestic housewife figure who would have fallen for the same trap three times in a row. A few months later, in 2012, the movies Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman came out. Both also featured our ebony-haired white-skinned heroine wielding a weapon and being trained in the art of war so she could take on the evil queen in combat. This was not your mother's Snow White. Even now Disney is planning a live-action feature around Snow White's sister, Rose Red, leading a war against the evil queen. The funny thing about this is that Rose Red is the sister of a different Snow White from another Brothers Grimm tale, but Disney wants to retroactively turn them into the same character, similar to what Vertigo Comics did.

As I've said in may other blog posts, times have changed, and princes are no longer necessary for rescue missions. The media is determined to show us that even the most helpless of princesses still has the capability of saving herself. In some ways, it's only logical that Snow White's modernization requires her to learn how to fight. Unlike Cinderella, Snow White's life was put at stake multiple times. If she can't fight back, all she can do is hope that one of the footmen carrying her unconscious body will be clumsy enough to drop her so that darned apple can come out.


Haha... we were just talking about Happily Ever After! It's quite a nostalgia trip. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a beautiful animated film, my second favorite Disney movie.

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