The Quintessential Snow White

I’ve been reading and/or watching about two dozen versions of Snow White by now, and started to ask myself the question: what exactly is the basic story of Snow White? When we hear “Snow White”, what story do we think of? And I found that one of the little books I’ve got summarises it quite nicely. It’s a board book for toddlers, so it really gets the story down to its most basic elements. Here it is:

SNOW WHITE (by Melanie Joyce of Fairydust Fairytales)

Once there was a wicked queen. She had a magic mirror. “Snow White is prettier than you,” said the mirror. The queen was jealous.

The queen sent Snow White to live in the woods. Snow White wandered all alone. Then she found a little house.

Seven dwarves lived in the house. The dwarves said Snow White could live with them. Snow White was very happy. She tidied the little house, and made the dwarves their dinner.

But the mirror spoke again. “Snow White is still the prettiest.” So the queen dressed up as an old woman. She found Snow White in the woods and gave her a poison apple. Snow White fell to the ground.

The seven dwarves lay Snow White in the wood. One day a prince came by. He woke Snow White with a kiss. Snow White and the prince fell in love. The wicked queen could never harm her again.

That about covers it. It’s got all the elements: a girl called Snow White, a jealous queen (they leave out the “stepmother” aspect, which is understandable in a story for very young kids), a magic mirror who tells the queen she’s not the prettiest after all, Snow White in the woods, seven dwarfs (-ves), the queen’s disguise, a poisoned apple, a magic sleep, a prince, a kiss and a happily ever after.

Not every adaptation utilises all those elements, but most do. A great many of them also add what’s been left out here, namely the reason she is called Snow White – skin white as snow, lips (and/or cheeks) red as blood (or a rose, sometimes) and hair (and/or eyes) black as ebony. And the ones that follow the Grimms, rather than Disney, go with the thump on the back or the tripping servant instead of the kiss to break the spell, and sometimes add the two failed attempts to murder Snow White (the tightly-laced bodice and poisoned comb). Oh, and there’s the huntsman who’s supposed to kill Snow White in the woods and bring back her heart (or lungs and liver) for the queen to eat. Strangely enough, they left that bit out of the toddler version – I wonder why. Most of the “older” versions (adult or young adult) capitalise on that part; the studly huntsman seems to hold more interest for writers than the (potential) milksop of a prince. Another plot point that most stories leave out or change is the demise of the queen, which is quite gruesome in Grimm (she is made to dance in red-hot shoes at the wedding until she falls down dead). The only adaptation which I’ve seen elaborate on it is Tanith Lee’s White as Snow, which gives Snow White and the Huntsman a run for its money as far as revelling in pain and violence is concerned.

Also, the prince presents a knotty problem for almost all modern adaptations (i.e. 20th century and onwards). In Grimm, as in the little board book version, he just shows up at the very end of the story in order to marry the girl. That’s ALL he does, he’s a non-entity, a prop. Modern storytellers can’t cope with that. From the 1916 silent movie onwards, they expand his role, have him & Snow White meet up and fall in love early in the story so the ending would make sense. The late-20th-century versions in many cases drop him out of the story, make Snow White an independent girl who can defend herself (because we all know that a princess without a prince is like a fish without a bicycle). Several of those adaptations hook her up with the huntsman or one of the dwarfs (I’m sure Bashful or Dopey would gladly have volunteered). None of the ones I’ve seen so far stick with the folktale’s idea of the prince as the trophy husband, the reward Snow White gets at the end – her life back, a house to live in, and a husband to go with it (he’s just an accessory to a happy life, but doesn’t have to have a personality) – it doesn’t go with our 20th/21st-century mythos of how marriages are supposed to work.

Which ones of the elements of the Snow White tale are retained in an adaptation is quite telling – it’ll be worth a really close look.


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