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Sci-fi & Fantasy Literature
Senior Paper - Spring 2006
    by Melissa Griffin

Snow White

Snow White is one of the many timeless fairy tales that is still popular today because of its classic underlying themes. This story has been retold for centuries; first through oral tradition from mother to child; then it was recorded in the early 1800's through the efforts of mediators like the Grimm brothers. The Grimm brothers originally recorded "Snow-white" in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although the original Grimm brothers' version of the story can be easily found and read today, it is not the popularly known version of the story.

As time has passed and societies have changed so have fairy tales. The fairy tale of Snow White has been used as a tool to teach children throughout centuries. The story told in the time of the Grimm bothers was reflective of the society and history of that time. During the early 1800s Europe was experiencing the Napoleonic Era. According to Valerie Paradiz, in her book Clever Maids: The Secret History of The Grimm Fairy Tales, the French Occupation of Germany proved very difficult for those affected by it. Napoleon's Civil Code was enforced wherever the French Army invaded which added to the suffering not only of those who weren't French, but particularly of women. Women were especially affected through legal inequalities. The issue of morality is an example of instances where women were dealt with more harshly than men. If a woman was even accused of adultery by a man, the punishments were immediate and harsh, with no evidence required; whereas if a woman was accusing a man of adultery she had to prove, through evidence, that adultery was committed in their own house. Women were also limited in the use of money and owning land. "In essence, under this ruthless system, a wife's obedience to her husband was a legal duty" (Paradiz 53).

The stories that were being told by mothers to children during this time contained many lessons in female virtues and how to act appropriately as an adult. They also held the underlying message of how difficult it was to be a woman and an individual.

Stories were a means of socializing children, especially young girls so they would be able to grow to fill their expected role in society or suffer the consequences. Many of the fairy tales told during this time displayed violent enforcement of punishments for those who broke social rules. In many cases these stories were passed down to protect children. If children didn't understand the consequences of their actions, the punishments of the time period, whether applied legally or through natural consequences, were deadly and violent. In Paradiz's research she found the stories to reflect:

Bad girls lose limbs and fingers in punishment for being stubborn, or they willingly allow their hands to be chopped off in selfless acts of sacrifice. Murderous rapists pursue maidens in the woods. Little men threaten to steal a married woman's children away. Girls' fathers abandon them, pledge them to despicable men in wedlock, or sell them to the devil (53).

In her research on the history of the Grimm's fairy tales she also discovered that these themes were not only common in fairy tales but were also very real in society during their time period.

The potential for severe punishment always lurked around the corner, and, as fairy tales repeated over and over again, puberty and marriage in particular were times in a young woman's life when a great deal was at stake: her honor, her prospects for happiness, and her marital well-being (52).

These same themes are consistent through out the Grimm brother's version of Snow White and other fair tales.

Snow-white, in the original collection of the Grimm's fairy tales, opens with a winter scene. A Queen is working at a window with an embroidery frame made of ebony. The queen pricks her finger and three drops of blood fall onto the snow. The Queen then says to herself, "Oh, that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery-frame (Grimm 219)." Soon after this child was born the Queen died. The King took another wife. This new step-mother to Snow-white had a magic "looking glass" and would converse with it concerning her vanity.

"Looking glass upon the wall,

Who is the fairest of them all?"

And the looking glass would answer,

"You are the fairest of them all."

And she was contented, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth" (Grimm 220).

Snow-white grew up and by the time she was seven her beauty had surpassed the Queen's. The looking-glass, of course, informed the Queen of this, causing the Queen to be unable to have peace day or night. A huntsman was sent by the Queen to kill Snow-white and bring back her heart. Snow-white was able to get out of being killed because she promised to run away into the woods. In this version of the story the text also says that the Huntsman let her go because "…she was so lovely…," and this beauty made the Huntsman feel " if a stone had been rolled away from his heart when he spared to put her to death (Grimm 221)."

Snow-white happened upon a little house and eventually the seven little dwarfs. Snow-white told them her story and she was allowed to stay on the condition that she clean, cook, knit, and sew for them. She in turn was promised that she would lack nothing. The dwarfs left in the morning to dig for gold and when they came home in the evening, "their supper had to be ready for them" (Grimm 223). Snow-white was warned by the dwarfs that her stepmother, the Queen, would come for her soon so Snow-white was not to let anyone in.

The Queen thinks Snow-white had been killed and had eaten the boar's heart that the Huntsman brought back to her, thinking it was Snow-white's. The magic looking-glass informs the Queen that Snow-white is still alive and that she is living with the seven dwarfs. The Queen, in a disguise, visits Snow-white and tries to kill her three different times. First she gave Snow-white a lace that is tied too tight, then a poisoned hair comb, and finally a poisoned apple.

The dwarfs are not able to rescue Snow-white from the last encounter with the queen. They mourn the loss of Snow-white and can only bear to lay her in a coffin made of glass and keep it near enough that someone can be watching over her day and night.

One day a Prince comes and begs the dwarfs to give or sell him the coffin with the beautiful girl in it. The Prince insists that he can't live without looking at Snow-white and he offers the seven dwarfs honor with the promise to care for them as his brothers. The dwarfs consent and as the Prince's servants carry her away they trip and the poison apple is shaken loose from Snow-white's throat.

Snow-white wakes up and goes with the Prince because she, Snow-white, "was kind". They are to be married with "pomp and great splendor". The Queen is invited to the wedding not knowing that it is Snow-white's; but she knows, because of the looking-glass, that the bride is more beautiful than the Queen. The fairy tale ends at the wedding with the Queen's final encounter with Snow-white:

And when she saw her she knew her for Snow-white, and could not stir from the place for anger and terror. For they had ready red-hot iron shoes, in which she had to dance until she fell down dead (Grimm 231).

The fairy tale of Snow White remains a commonly known one in present society; however, the story has changed since its original recording. "Snow-white", in Grimm's fairy tales, displays many themes and elements that were commonplace and stereotypical of fairy tales of the time. A virtuous and very beautiful girl who is in trouble is taken in and taken care of, if she in turn keeps up with the domestic work that needs to be done. This may seem chauvinistic and demeaning, but it was appropriate for that time period. Snow-white wasn't asked to do more than what women did normally during that time period. The dwarfs didn't require her dig gold with them, pay them rent, or get a job, they just required that she help by doing things that she probably already knew how to do.

A more prominent theme that is seen in the history of the fairy tales is the relationships between women. In these fairy tales, the bond between Mother and child can be very strong. The opposite also holds true. Women within these tales are often at war with each other. In Snow-white, the bond between mother and child seems to transcend death. The gift that arose from the Snow-white's mother's wish, of features red as blood, black as ebony, and white as snow, remained with Snow-white even after the death of her mother. This gift was especially vital because of how important beauty was, not only within the story, but also within the time period. The relationship between Snow-white and her stepmother teaches that beauty alone is not enough, but must be accompanied by humility (which the stepmother did not have), virtue, and a good work ethic.

In the story by the Grimm brothers, this gift of "beauty" from her mother was indeed the reason for her stepmother to want to kill Snow-white but it also saved Snow-white's life at other vital times in the story. Snow-white's life was spared because of her beauty in the encounter in the woods with the Huntsman, who was sent to kill Snow-white and cut her heart out. In this case Snow-white's beauty outweighed the Stepmother's, and probably added to the Stepmother's fury once she found out Snow-white was still alive. These murderous furies showed the lack of virtuousness in the character of the Stepmother (and, for that matter, the Stepmother's lack of a work ethic, for she should have done the dirty work herself).

Following that incident Snow-white was again spared and taken into the home of the seven dwarfs. When they saw a "beautiful child" asleep in one of the small beds, they decide to let her stay and tried to teach her how to stay safe from the murderous Stepmother. (This mirrors how mothers were using fairy tales to teach and protect their own children from danger.)

In the end of the fairy tale, Snow-white's beauty, given to her by her mother, protected her when the evil Stepmother finally thought she had killed Snow-white (showing that she improved her work ethic too late, because she was still unsuccessful) and the seven dwarfs preserved the beautiful unconscious girl above the ground in a glass coffin, so that her beauty could be seen on all sides. Her beauty saved her from being buried alive.

The handsome prince then saw Snow-white's glass coffin. He ended up bringing Snow-white back to life and marring her because he could not live with out seeing her beauty. Not only did her virtuous beauty save Snow-white's life, but it also brought her the ultimate reward of the time period, marrying well. This great reward was received by Snow-white because of the gift given to her by her mother.

This version of the story also shows the very gruesome side of fairytales told at this time by showing the vain Queen being punished with red-hot iron shoes that she had to dance in until she died. The text is unclear as to who does the punishing. The punishment for hurting the beautiful and hardworking woman seems violent compared to the fairy tales that are told to children of today's society.

A more recent version of the story is Mira, Mirror by Mette Ivie Harrison. This book focuses on a different character in the Snow-white story. Harrison assumes the reader knows the basic story line of Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs and shows the reader the life of the mirror.

Harrison starts out her book by telling a story of the relationship between two young girls. The main character in the story is Mira, who is one of two young apprentices for a witch. Mira is sold to the witch and left without any family connections. Mira and the other apprentice, who is also sold and abandoned by her family quickly, decide that they are going to be sisters.

They work and learn together, but it is obvious that Mira's sister is dominating and manipulative toward Mira. In the story, magic is not readily available; it is only obtained when a life is ending. Mira's sister keeps most of the magic that they take from dieing animals and bugs for her self. She uses it to make herself more beautiful and to give herself more power over others and Mira.

One day Mira's sister uses her magic to trap Mira in a mirror. The mirror, from that point on, is only given enough magic to make her sister, now a Queen more beautiful. Mira is kept in a little cabin in the wood and visited by her sister less and less as time goes by. Mira hopes that one day her sister will restore Mira to her natural state.

The sister eventually stops coming and Mira is left alone. After one hundred years Mira the mirror, is able to convince a girl, Ivana, who is hiding near by to take her from the cabin. Mira, who is bitter from the actions of her sister, is untrusting and manipulative toward her rescuer. Mira acts kind and convinces Ivana that she can help her; but Mira is just trying to get Ivana to take her to a place where Mira can get enough magic to turn herself back into a human.

Ivana is a runaway and has abandoned her family because her abusive father has arranged a marriage to an abusive old man in exchange for a horse. Ivana is willing to do anything to get away from her terrible future. Mira convinced Ivan to dress as a merchant's daughter and trick a passing merchant into picking her up from the side of the road. The merchant that stops has a daughter as well, who convinces her father to take this girl in as family. Ivana is treated well by the merchant and his daughter, Talia. Mira the mirror convinces Ivana to let her use magic to trade Ivana's face with Talia's and take Talia's place, so that then Ivana would have a better life. Mira does this in hopes that she herself can use this new lifestyle to eventually get enough magic to change back into a human.

After the trade of faces, Talia surprisingly welcomes the change, because she too has been promised in marriage to some one she does not want to marry. The two girls develop a strong relationship as sisters, and although Mira continues to selfishly pursue her desire to find more magic, her heart is slowly softened and she sees that not all sisters or family relationships are self-serving.

Mira grows to see these girls as her own family. The merchant, the girls, and Mira go to meet Talia's betrothed. Mira senses magic near by. She puts the girls in terrible danger to try to get this magic. The source of the magic turns out to be Mira's witch sister. Mira is stolen by the Witch, who doesn't remember Mira or any other part of their past together as a result of interactions with the princess Snow White, whose father the witch had married to become Queen. Mira wants to do something good by helping her sister. Mira is able to aid her sister in remembering who she is and who Mira is through Mira's love and compassion that was learned from watching the relationship of Ivana and Talia. Love turns out to be more powerful than magic. The sisterly love returns Mira and her witch sister to their very old selves and they are able to die together, having repaired their relationship.

This novel, written two hundred years after the Grimm brothers collected their stories, reflects similar themes as the Grimms' version. In Mira, Mirror and "Snow-white", familial relationships have vital roles in the story. In both stories the main character loses immediate family members, is taken into an adopted family that turns out to provide negative relationships within the family, and then is finally taken into a good family relationship that results in a "happy" and resolved ending.

It seems that the relationships between the women in both the stories play very diverse roles. On one side there is the negative relationship between the wicked Queen Stepmother and Snow-white, as well as between Mira and her Witch sister (who was also the wicked Queen Stepmother). On the opposite side, there are good and enduring relationships between women in these stories. The good female relationship in "Snow-white" is between the birth mother and Snow-white. This relationship is short but the effects are long lasting. This relationship also seems to be carried on by the dwarfs and the handsome Prince, who, although they are male, play the nurturing role of taking care of Snow-white's needs. The dwarfs not only took care of Snow-white's needs but they also tried to teach her to protect herself from her Stepmother (just as the mothers who told and tell this story tried and try to teach their children to protect themselves). The Prince was so nurturing that he not only takes care of Snow-white but he also provides care for the seven dwarfs as well. This was a reward in and of itself especially for the time period it was told in.

The importance of a child learning the lesson that they need to marry well has changed drastically with society. A good marriage, one that is healthy and loving, doesn't seem to be as crucial in today's society nor is it as vital to one's survival. In today's society both men and women have many ways of providing for themselves and their families with out being dependant on a spouse.

In Mira, Mirror, Mira not only develops a good motherly relationship with two young girls, but children can learn that through a good relationship she is able to learn how to repair the bad relationship between herself and her own sister. This story is reflective of today's society because the story was more focused on effective relationships rather than on being virtuous and beautiful enough to find a spouse.

Red as Blood by Tanith Lee is another more recently written version of the Snow White story. The story began with a beautiful Witch Queen who opened an Ivory case of the magic mirror. The Witch Queen asked the mirror who it saw. The mirror replied, "I see you, mistress…And all in the land. But one ( Lee 26)." The Witch Queen asked who the mirror did not see and the mirror told her that it did not see Bianca and the Witch Queen crossed her self. The story then flashes back 14 years to when there was another Queen. This first Queen was "far gone with child ( Lee 26)." The first queen was out walking in the garden in the snow. This Queen pricked her finger with a needle and shook three drops of blood on to the ground and said,

"Let my daughter have," said the woman, "hair black as mine, black as these warped and arcane trees. Let her have skin like mine, white as the snow. And let her have my mouth, red as my blood."

The text explains that the Queen was wearing a crown that glowed like a star at dusk. Dusk was the only time that the Queen went near the sun light because she did not like the day (Lee 27). The first Queen died at childbirth and rumors went around the kingdom about how a drop of holy water splashed on the Queen's body and on her dead flesh had smoked. The Kingdom had been experiencing an incurable plague that had arrived at the same time as the Queen so the kingdom had reckoned her unlucky. Seven years after the first Queen's death the King remarried. The new Witch Queen was introduced to the king's daughter, Bianca. The Witch Queen invited Bianca to come and look into the magic mirror but Bianca said she didn't like mirrors. The King explained to the Witch Queen that Bianca was modest and delicate. Bianca, like her Mother, didn't go out side during the day because the sun distressed her. This night was the first night that the Witch Queen looked into her mirror and found that the mirror couldn't see Bianca. The Witch Queen tried to offer Bianca a crucifix as a present. Bianca did not accept it, but ran to her father and claimed, "I am afraid. I do not like to think of Our Lord dying in agony on His cross. She means to frighten me. Tell her to take it away (Lee 28)". The queen tried to do nice things for or with Bianca but Bianca continues to claim that the Witch Queen was trying to scare or hurt her. When Bianca was thirteen the Witch Queen suggested to the King that Bianca is confirmed in the Church so that she could take the communion with them. The King said that Bianca had not been christened and would not be confirmed because it was against Bianca's late mother's religion and wishes. The Witch Queen tried to talk to Bianca about being confirmed but Bianca went to her Father again and claimed that the Witch Queen was trying to torment her and wished for her to betray her Mother. On the day that Bianca awoke to a red stain on her bed and was now "a woman" Bianca went out at dusk with her Mother's crown. The crown also glowed for her as it did her mother. The plague that had ended when Bianca's mother died suddenly returned. The Witch queen looked out her window and saw Bianca walking in the garden. The Witch Queen called the huntsman and pointed out Bianca in the garden. The Witch Queen asked the huntsman if he could see if Bianca was evil and if he was brave enough to kill Bianca. When he told her he did and was the Witch Queen gave him a crucifix and he left to kill her. The huntsman went to Bianca and convinced her to follow him to the forest and told her the Queen wanted to kill her. They stopped to rest and as the huntsman pulled out his knife Bianca whispered some thing that her mother had taught her. As the huntsman grabbed Bianca by the hair to slit her throat Bianca's face and hair turned into the Witch Queen's face and hair. In the form of the Witch Queen Bianca told him she knew that he loved her and she acted like she loved him. The huntsman fell for the facade and Bianca leaned in to kiss his neck and gave him a fatal bite to the throat. Bianca summoned seven gnarly trees that where living in the garden she walked. She stayed in the forest in a sepulcher with the seven trees near by. The Witch Queen found out that Bianca was still alive and had killed the huntsmen. The Witch Queen calls upon Lucifiel (Satan) for help. The Witch Queen is turned into a wretched old hag by Lucifiel. The Witch Queen, disguised as a hag, went to Bianca. She told Bianca that the other local witches feared her and wanted to offer her gifts to gain her favor. Bianca consulted with her seven trees. The trees warned her about the gifts and the hag but Bianca wanted the gifts any way. The gifts where: a girdle of human hair, a comb from the sea, and an apple. Before Bianca accepted the last gift she told the hag to take a bite of the apple first. The hag took a bite and was fine but when Bianca took a bite she screamed and choked, for the apple had a piece of, "the flesh of Christ, the sacred wafer, the Eucharist (Lee 34)." The hag left to return to her kingdom and return to her normal self. When she returned and looked in the mirror, the mirror told her that it could not see Bianca but just a coffin. The piece of Eucharist had not killed Bianca but had only gotten stuck in her throat. Bianca's seven trees protected her coffin in the forest until one day a Prince came by and asked if the coffin was Bianca's coffin. The trees didn't want the Prince to take Bianca and as they tried to move their roots shook her and shook the Eucharist loose. The coffin shattered and as Bianca moved to go with the prince she went through a transformation and in turned into a white dove and landed on The Prince's shoulder. The story ended with the Witch Queen looking into the magic mirror and it told her that it can now see Bianca. Bianca is taken back to the time when she was seven and was able to live her life again as her newly transformed self.

This version of the story, in switching the roles of who is good and who is evil, seems to tell readers that society today has need for stories that teach about trust. The roles of both the Witch Queen and The Snow White character, Bianca, are reversed causing readers who are familiar with the more well-known version of the story to be caught off guard. It is untraditional for the Snow White figure to be the antagonist who brings a plague to her kingdom and is killing in her early teens; and the Queen to be the Protagonist who is trying to save the kingdom from the ill effects of her step daughter. This role reversal alone tells the reader that people aren't always what they seem. It also teaches that we need to be careful who we perceive as "good guys" in today's society because they may turn out to bring misery or commit murder.

Even though these aren't traditional roles for these characters the use of a story to teach the reader to be careful of whom they trust is a common theme in today's society. It is also a common theme amongst all three stories. In all three versions of the story the relationships between the Witch and the Snow White characters are enough to cause a person to be wary of whom they put their trust in. This need to have stories to teach children to be careful who they trust may have been an issue when the Grimm brothers first recorded the story of Snow White but it seems to be an even stronger dilemma today. With all of the access children have to the world around them and the access the world has to children it is practically impossible for parents to control every influence upon their children. Stories such as these can be useful in helping to teach children to be careful in their relationships with others and in whom they put their trust.

With common themes, such as the roles of good and bad relationships and happy endings for the characters that do good things, the fairy tale of Snow White is still being shared between generations. The necessity to have stories to teach children is the same but because society has changed so much in the last two hundred years the focus for what children learn from these stories is not the same. Although fairy tales, society, and society's standards change over time the story within the fairy tales share common themes that allow them to continue to be around in modern times.


Harrison, Mette Ivie. Mira, Mirror. Penguin Young Readers Group. New York, NY. 2004

Lee, Tanith. Red as Blood. Donald A. Wollheim, Publisher. New York, NY. 1983

Paradiz, Valerie. Clever Maids, The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy tales. Basic books. Cambride, MA. 2005

Grimm, the Brothers. "Snow-white". Household Stories from the collection of the Brothers Grimm, Macmillian and Company, New York, 1886

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