There are many different versions of ‘Snow-White’- one scholar has counted as many as 400!
The oldest seems to be the medieval Norse saga written by the 12th century poet Snorri Sturluson, which sets the tale in the time of Harald Fairhair in the 9th century.
The story is called ‘Snow Beauty’, and tells the story of how, one snowy winter’s day, Harald Fairhair fell in love with the most beautiful woman in the world and married her. When Snow-Beauty died, however, her body did not rot and her cheeks were as rosy as they had ever been. The king sat beside her, thinking she would soon come back to life. He sat so for three years, neglecting all his kingly duties, until his wise councillor bade him lift up the dead queen so they could change the bedclothes below her. As soon as she was lifted up, a rank smell of rotting rose with her, the body turned blue, and worms and adders and frogs and toads crawled out. So she was burned, and the king returned to his wits.
Another tale with similar motifs is ‘The Young Slave’ by the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile, written in the early 1600s and published in his ‘Tale of Tales’ collection in 1634.
A young woman became pregnant after swallowing a rose petal. She sent her daughter, named Lisa, to the fairies to give her good luck charms. However, the last fairy slipped and twisted her foot as she was running to see the child, and uttered a curse against her - when the child was seven, her mother would leave a comb in her hair, from which the child would perish.
At seven, the child died in this manner. The mother lamented bitterly, and encased the body in seven caskets of crystal, each one within the other, which she put in a distant room and locked, keeping the key in her pocket. When she was dying, she gave the key to her brother, begging him to never open the last room in the house.
The brother was faithful, but when he left on a hunting party, he gave the keys to his wife, telling her not to open the last room. The wife grew suspicious, and opened the forbidden chamber. Lisa had grown into a woman in her sleep, the caskets lengthening with her, and the wife found a beautiful woman hidden in the caskets. Convinced she was her husband's mistress, she opened the caskets and dragged Lisa out by the hair, causing the comb to drop and Lisa to awake. The jealous wife began to beat Lisa, tearing her hair and clothes, giving her bruises all over, and kept her as a slave.
One day the husband was going out of town again, and asked everyone in the household what presents they would like him to bring them, "even the cats." The wife became furious when the husband asked Lisa as well, but the husband insisted it was only courteous to offer Lisa a gift. Lisa demanded a doll, a knife, and a pumice-stone, and added that if the husband forgot them, he would be unable to cross the first river he came to on his return.
The husband did initially forget the gifts, but upon being unable to cross water on his way home, he remembered, and bought the gifts for Lisa. When Lisa had her doll, she began to tell the doll her story, which the husband overheard. Lisa was weeping and sharpening her knife, telling the doll, "Answer me, dolly, or I will kill myself with this knife." The husband, her uncle, kicked down the door and snatched the knife away. He then drove his cruel wife away and gave Lisa a husband of her own choice.
Of most interest here, in regards to Snow-White, are the poisoned comb and the seven crystal caskets - motifs which later appear in Snow-White. However, this story also shares motifs with Sleeping Beauty (the fairy's curse), Bluebeard (the forbidden room), Cinderella (the girl used as a slave), Beauty and the Beast (requests for gifts) and even the Goose Girl (telling her tale to an inanimate object).
The tale ‘Little Snow White’ was first recorded by the Grimm brothers in 1808, and sent to a friend in 1810 (the poet Clemens Brentano) (source unknown – but in my novel about the Grimm Brothers - THE WILD GIRL
- I give it to the Wild family’s housekeeper Old Marie to tell).
In this version, there is no huntsman – the Queen takes her daughter into the forest to gather roses and then abandons her there.
A fuller version of the tale was then collected by the Grimm Brothers from three sisters – Marie, Jeannette and Amalie Hassenpflug - who lived near the brothers in the small town of Cassel. Their version was published in the first edition of tales in 1812.
The story begins with a queen who sits sewing by the window in winter. She pricks her finger with her needle, causing three drops of blood to fall on to the snow on the black windowsill. Admiring the beauty of the colours, she says to herself, "Oh how I wish that I had a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony".
Soon after that, the Queen gives birth to a baby girl who is named her 'Snow White' for her rare colouring. As the child grows her beauty makes her mother jealous. When Snow-White is seven years old, the queen orders her huntsman to take her daughter into the forest, murder her, and bring back her lungs and her liver to eat. The huntsman is moved by the child’s beauty and terror, and kills a wild boar instead. Snow-White seeks shelter in the house of seven dwarves.
The queen consults her magic mirror:
Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?
The mirror answered once again:
You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But Little Snow-White is still
a thousand times fairer than you.
The queen makes three attempts to kill her daughter: once with by lacing her bodice too tight, once with a deadly hair comb, and finally with a poisoned apple.
The dwarves cannot revive her the third time and so they put her in a glass coffin. The prince comes by and falls in love with the dead girl, and insists on taking her everywhere with him. After a long while, one of his servants grows angry and opens the coffin, lifted Snow-White upright, and said, "We are plagued the whole day long, just because of a dead girl," and hit her in the back with his hand. ‘Then the terrible piece of apple that she had bitten off came out of her throat, and Snow-White came back to life.’
The prince and Snow-White are to be married, and send her mother an invitation to the wedding.
Wondering who this new princess is, the queen asks:
Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?
The mirror answered:
You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But the young queen
Is a thousand times fairer than you.
The queen was horrified to hear this, unable to believe that Snow-White could still be alive. She goes to the wedding to see for herself, and the prince and princess ‘put a pair of iron shoes into the fire until they glowed, and she had to put them on and dance in them. Her feet were terribly burned, and she could not stop until she had danced herself to death.’
The Grimms noted there were a few variations to this version. In one, it is a count who wishes for a girl with this combination of colours, and his love for the child makes his wife jealous. In another tale, it is three ravens who fly over who provide the colour black.
In the next Grimm brothers’ edition, Snow-White’s mother dies at birth and so it is her step-mother that tries to kill her; and the piece of poisoned apple is dislodged when the prince’s servant stumbles over a root.
When the story was translated into English by Edgar Taylor, he softened the cruelty and violence of the tale, taking out the queen’s desire to eat her step-daughter’s liver and lungs, and changed the ending so the queen choked in her rage rather than being made to dance in red-hot iron shoes. And although Snow-White (called Snow-drop) is still only seven years old, Edgar Taylor describes her lying in her glass coffin ‘a long, long time’ with the inference, perhaps, that she grows up before the prince comes along.
In 1912, the story was made into a comic Broadway play called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The dwarves were named for the first time: Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, & Quee (the youngest of the seven, at nearly ninety-nine years old)
Famously the story was then made into Walt Disney's 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Dwarves’ names changed; Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy.
Instead of her lungs and liver, as written in the original, the huntsman is asked by the queen to bring back Snow White’s heart. Snow White is no longer a little girl (though she is still very young-looking). The evil queen tries to kill Snow White only once (by a poisoned apple). Disney also added the famous awakening by the prince’s kiss, while the queen dies by falling down a cliff, after being hit by lightning.
Interestingly, in 1994 a German scholar Eckhard Sander published Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?
He wonders whether the story of Snow White was in any way inspired by the life of Margarete von Waldeck (1513-1534), whom he suspected was poisoned by her jealous step-mother.
Motifs & Meaning Of The Tale
Snow-White is a resurrection tale, and thus in mythological terms her ‘sleeping death’ can be linked to the idea of the coming of spring and the rebirth of life after the dead of winter.
The use of the three colours is very striking. Snow White has skin white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony.
Each of these colours has significant symbolic implications and represents a time of life.
White, representing birth, is for purity, virginity, and innocence.
Red, representing life, symbolizes blood, in the menstrual flow and the breaking of the hymen and childbirth.
Black, symbolizing death, connotes the absolute and eternity.
In some interpretations, the bodice-laces, the comb, and the apple are all seen as erotic symbols.
Certainly, the red apple has always had connotations of sin and the loss of innocence, with its links back to Adam & Eve and the fall.
The mirror can be seen as a projection of the queen’s unconscious.
Most Freudian interpretations see the story of Snow-White as the playing out of Oedipal conflicts (called the Electra complex by Jung). Both female characters try to gain the father's affection (although he is absent from the tale). The father raises an unconscious conflict between mother and daughter, because the daughter’s beauty makes her more desirable and so arouses the mother's jealousy which makes her wish to get rid of the daughter. This has been called the Snow White complex.
Feminist readings of the tale also focus on the difficulties of the mother-daughter relationship, with some seeing Snow-White as an image of patriarchy’s ideal female (beautiful, youthful, passive, silent) contrasted against the vigorous, strong-willed, outspoken and vain mother.
Finally, it can simply be seen as a parable for the dangers of vanity.
Modern Retellings (films)
Snow White (
1988). Michael Berz, director.
With Diana Rigg as the Evil Queen and Sarah Patterson as Snow White.
Snow White and the Huntsman (
2012, Rupert Sanders (director), With Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen and Kirsten Stewart as Snow-White.
Mirror Mirror (
also in 2012), stars Julia Roberts as Evil Queen and Lily Collins as Snow White (directed by Tarsem Singh)
Modern Retellings (novels)
Jane Yolen - Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All.
Carolyn Turgeon - The Fairest of Them All
Gregory Maguire - Mirror, Mirror
Tanith Lee - White as Snow
Gail Carson Levine - Fairest
Adele Geras - Pictures of the Night
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