Thanks to the rich imagination of the animators at Walt Disney, the fairy tale of Snow White, her wicked stepmother and the seven dwarfs who harbour her hardly needs an introduction. In Disney’s cartoon version, Snow White is the original princess of modern childhood: huge-eyed, costumed from the dressing-up box of European folklore, both victim and heroine; a perfect innocent, fit only for a prince. But, as Maria Tatar points out in her introduction to this fascinating collection of tales, at the centre of the story of Snow White, in all its many and varied tellings, is monstrous female jealousy, the hatred felt by older women for the beauty of youth. It is about mothers who would rather kill their daughters than relinquish their position as ‘fairest of them all’.
Disney based his Snow White on the tale, itself a composite of many, that appeared in the Grimm brothers’ collection of folk tales in 1812. The film created the ‘standard version’ that no fairy tale should ever have, for these are stories that are elastic, mischievous, adaptable, meant to be spoken and elaborated on, becoming slightly different with each telling. In the 1812 story (and the film), it is a wicked stepmother who is the villain, but in an earlier edition of their collection, the Grimms included a Snow White tale in which it is the girl’s biological mother who orders the huntsman to kill her daughter and joyously eats the animal entrails he brings back as proof.
Tatar’s collection includes stories from across the world that contain all or some of the elements to be found in the tale of Snow White. She has identified them using Types of International Folktales, the huge three-volume catalogue of folklore, categorised by tale type, which has long been the first port of call for scholars specialising in fairy tales and children’s literature. ATU 709 is the category headed ‘Snow White’, though Tatar thinks it should be called, more broadly, ‘The Beautiful Girl’. Never has a cataloguing system sounded so enticing. The story of Snow White, writes Tatar, is ‘so capacious’ it can be adopted all round the world.
In its different versions, the tale has several recurring elements, though not all of them are present in every case. The chief one is the jealousy that rages in a beautiful mother (or stepmother, or mother-in-law) for her even more beautiful daughter. Then there is the mirror (or sometimes the sun or the moon and, in one version, a trout in a deep well) that reflects back to the mother the truth about her own beauty being surpassed. Someone is sent to kill the girl in the forest, sometimes a huntsman but occasionally an old woman or a witch; beguiled by the child’s beauty, they set her free, returning to the mother with a bloodstained shirt or an animal’s entrails. Lost in the forest, the child often comes upon a house in which to shelter. It might be lived in by untidy dwarfs (this gave Disney an opportunity to make Snow White into a perfect 1930s housewife), but often its inhabitants are immaculately tidy dwarfs (as in the Grimms’ version), and occasionally they are gangs of robbers or even brothers who look upon Snow White as a sister to be protected. Sometimes there are seven of them in the house, sometimes twelve. The enraged mother, hearing that Snow White is still alive, tries to poison her daughter, though the object used for this purpose varies: apples, slippers, pins, seeds and combs all feature, while in a Mongolian telling, an anklebone is thrown down the throat. Snow White falls into a catatonic trance that resembles death and is then buried in some kind of ornate casket, commonly a glass coffin, where her undecaying beauty can be displayed. In a Hungarian version, the coffin is placed on the antlers of an elk and the Mongolian tale has her pulled through the snow on a sledge. She is eventually discovered by a prince (or, in the earlier Grimms’ version, her father), whereupon the poison (or poisonous object) is removed and Snow White reawakens into life – and usually marries the prince who has saved her. ‘Everything was quickly settled, and the two were married’ is a typical, unsentimental sign-off.
The colours red, black and white recur in different renderings of the tale. In one of the Grimms’ versions, the sight of blood dropping from a pricked finger onto snow makes Snow White’s mother wish for a perfectly white child with red cheeks and black hair; in other versions the white is provided by marble or cheese. In one Italian version of the tale, which also contains elements of the story of Rapunzel, the girl is called Snow-white-fire-red. In a Tsonga version, the mother has a moon on her forehead and the daughter a blazing star; in a Scottish one, the mother is called Silver-tree and the daughter Gold-tree. In some tellings, the prince is tricked by a witch, ogress or mother-in-law into thinking his wife has killed their children or given birth to animals; in another, he is bewitched into forgetting his wife the moment he sets eyes on his own mother. The villain of course – the green-eyed, ageing mother figure – has to be dispatched in spectacularly gruesome fashion: in the Grimms’ version, she is forced to dance to her death in red-hot iron shoes, but other tellings have her torn apart by horses or thrown into a pit of scorpions. Living happily ever after is, of course, where the narrative arc of the fairy tale must lead – but girls (and sometimes boys) have to kill their mothers first.
Shocking yet familiar, these stories of regeneration and transformation even when written down retain the secret whisper of storytelling. This is a properly magical, erudite book that follows Snow White’s trail into the darker forests of the human psyche in which she originated.