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“For I’ll be your prince, and you’ll be my…dwarf.”
– The Prince’s tune after receiving a surprise audience
I have a confession to make: I feel like I skimped out on Thumbelina’s origins last month. Had circumstances not prevented me from doing so, I would have done a deep dive into other thumb-sized characters in folklore around the world, how they fed into her creation, and the similarities and differences between them. Well this month’s review isn’t gonna leave the history buffs high and dry, baby. I’m going the full hog with Snow White, one of the most iconic fairy tales with a rich, detailed historical background to match, so strap in!
The Fairest One of All might just hold the record for most variants of her story worldwide. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification of folklore, she has a category all to herself! Richilde, Gold-tree and Silver-tree, Myrsina, The Young Slave, Bella Venezia, Bright Star of Ireland, Hajir, La petite Toute-Belle, Der zauberspiegel, Rose-Neige, Lé Roi Pan, La hermosa hijastra, and Anghjulina are but a few folktales from around the globe that retell Snow White’s adventures. Each one shares the tropes common to the story we know (a jealous queen, a magical fairness-rating artifact, multiple assassination attempts, poisoned objects, glass coffins, a prince partly responsible for waking her, etc.) though the details vary. For example, the dwarfs who take Snow White in aren’t always dwarfs, or even miners. Sometimes they’re robbers, sometimes they’re the twelve months personified, sometimes they’re purely magical characters like djinns and dragons!
The biggest revelation one can take away from these retellings, however, is that Snow White usually isn’t menaced by a wicked stepmother but her own mother. Indeed, the German oral tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 had the evil Queen be Snow White’s birth mother, until they revised it seven years later to keep the fable more in line with their patriarchal beliefs. See, Jacob and Wilhelm envisioned motherhood as something pure and infallible. They didn’t want to rock the familial boat by suggesting mothers could be capable of spite and cruelty. So they pinned the queen’s jealousy and murderous tendencies on a figure that was already on the outs with the family unit, one seen as new, unfamiliar and untrustworthy: the stepmother. It also doesn’t help that the Queen is the most proactive character in the story, spinning the narrative that clever women with agency and authority are evil, self-serving and dangerous. Between this, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the Grimms are the source of the evil stepmother/queen stereotype that’s plagued so many narratives and even negatively colors real women to this day.
As for her origins, Snow White and her assorted fair counterparts have roots going all the way back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One story featured within, the legend of Chione (whose name translates to “Snow”, by the way) is about a woman described as the most beautiful in the land, which earns her the enmity of the goddess Diana and the lust of gods Apollo and Mercury. Apollo visits Chione disguised as an old woman and…has his way with her, as deities do (blegh). One could also draw parallels to Adam and Eve and the infamous apple, if you’re willing to dig that deep.
That’s not the half of it, though. Scholars may have found precedence that the tale of Snow White might be based on actual historical figures. According to German historian Eckhard Sander, young countess Margaretha von Waldeck fits the bill for a real life Snow White. She was renowned for her beauty, raised by her stepmother, her father owned several copper mines that employed child labor (which explains the dwarfs), she had to travel to the next kingdom “seven hills” over for a goodwill mission, and she died tragically young; the rumor circulating the court was that she was poisoned. Another theory that was initially tongue-in-cheek but turned out to have some credibility was that Snow White was inspired by Baroness Maria Sophia Margarethe Catharine of Lohr. Mirrors from Lohr were said to always speak the truth thanks to their high quality, hence the Magic Mirror. One such Lohr mirror that still exists was owned by Maria’s stepmother, Claudia Elizabeth von Reichenstein. Claudia is described as a domineering woman who favored the children from her first marriage. There’s a history of nightshade poison growing in abundance in Lohr, a mining town stood close to there, and the glass coffin may be another nod to the city’s famous glassworks. While there are sound arguments disproving these hypotheses, I find it fascinating that Snow White has taken such root into culture as a whole that historians and folklorists alike are willing to connect the dots between the story and factual occurrences.
When it comes to modern iterations, though, the Disney film is the one that obviously stands foremost in the public consciousness. It’s inspired nearly every adaptation going forward since 1937, and Faerie Tale Theatre’s is no exception…Continue reading