What Happened to the Girl?
Now, where are we?
In one of the deep valleys between Brugg and Waldshut near the dark forests, seven dwarfs
Ah ha! Snow White!
were living together in a small hut. Late one evening a pretty, young peasant girl
Well, that’s not quite right, because Snow White was a princess. Maybe her clothes have become torn as she ran through the woods, or the dwarfs just perceive her this way?
appeared at the door asking for shelter. She was hungry and had lost her way in the woods.
Is she covering her tracks by not telling the whole truth about why she was hungry and lost?
The dwarfs had only seven beds, and they fell to arguing with each other, since each one wanted to give up his bed for the girl. Finally the oldest in the group gave his bed up. Just as they were all about to go to sleep, an old peasant woman started knocking at the door
That was fast! But I knew the wicked stepmother was clever and ruthless.
and wanted to be let inside. The girl climbed out of bed when she heard the knocking, and she told the woman that there were only seven beds and not enough room for another person.
Snow White is pretty quick thinking too.
The woman flew into a rage and accused the girl of being a slut
Whoa! Where did that come from?
and of sleeping with all seven of the men.
Threatening to make a quick end to such a scandalous business, she stormed off. That very night she returned with two men whom she had found down by the banks of the Rhine. They broke into the house and killed the seven dwarfs. They buried the bodies outdoors in the garden and burned the house down. No one has any idea what happened to the girl.
What just happened?
My mother was born a few years before the Disney version came out in 1938—this is most definitely not my mother’s Snow White. Is it something by Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, or A. S. Byatt? No. This is a reworked transcription of a Swiss folktale from the canton of Aargau, collected by the schoolmaster and amateur folklorist Ernst Ludwig Rochholz and published in 1856. It is one of twenty-two Snow White stories that the German professor and professional folklorist Maria Tatar brings together in her new book, The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters. Like shards of translucent glass from Snow White’s coffin or glass broken from the queen’s magic mirror, some of the stories twinkle charmingly, others glint darkly. Tatar describes this version of the tale, called “The Death of the Seven Dwarfs,” as a “shocker”: “a tale that clearly belongs to adult storytelling traditions and that captures exactly how sex and violence are at the core of stories told to pass time on long evenings devoted to household chores and agricultural labors.” Other versions can be quite different: “touching” (“The Enchanted Stockings” from France), “quirky” (“Snow-White-Fire-Red” from Italy), “exotic” (“The World’s Most Beautiful Woman” from Hungary but set in Persia), “cautionary” (“The Girl and the Dog” from Southern Sudan). Another tale Tatar also calls a “shocker” (“The Witch’s Daughter” from China) is shocking in quite a different way.
Tatar begins her conspectus with a bold rhetorical question: “Who does not envy Snow White, the fairest of them all?” Well, my 12-year-old daughter doesn’t, for one. But Tatar’s own summary is interestingly ambiguous: “She is the heroine of a fairy tale that has become our cultural story about an innocent girl, her evil stepmother, the rivalry that divides them, and a romantic rescue from domestic drudgery and maternal persecution.” Snow White’s “happily ever after” only comes after “enduring panic, helplessness, . . . several brushes with death, . . . extreme emotions, . . . [and] a series of deeply traumatic events.” While details of different Snow White stories may vary considerably (and more on that in a minute), the tale most of us know is probably a mash-up of the Grimms’ “Schneewittchen” and Disney, which Marina Warner calls “probably the most influential fairy tale film in the world.” It goes something like this, in my retelling:
A queen was sewing by the window in midwinter and pricked her finger. A drop of her blood fell on the snow by the ebony window frame. “If only I had a child with skin as white as snow, with lips as red as blood, and hair as black as this wood.” She did and died. The king married again, a beautiful lady with a magic mirror: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who’s the fairest of them all?” She was—until one day the mirror named Snow White. The evil queen ordered a huntsman to take Snow White into the woods and kill her, bringing back her heart as proof. He couldn’t bear to kill the beautiful little girl, so he left her in the woods and brought back the heart of a wild beast, which the queen then ate. Snow White, terrified, ran through the woods until she found a little cottage with seven of everything. She fell asleep on one of the little beds and was discovered there by seven dwarfs. They were delighted with her and let her stay to take care of the house while they worked in the mines all day.
Meanwhile, the stepmother consulted the magic mirror again, and to her horror learned that Snow White was still alive and still more beautiful than she. She dressed herself up as an old peddler woman and went to the dwarfs’ cottage, tempting and trying to kill Snow White with staylaces, a poisoned comb, and finally—with apparent success—a white and red poisoned apple. The grieving dwarfs put Snow White’s body in a glass coffin on the top of a mountain so all could admire her still vibrant white, red, and black beauty.
One day a prince saw the beautiful girl in her coffin. He so admired her that he asked the dwarfs if he could have her. As they began to transport the coffin, it jolted and the piece of poisoned apple stuck in her throat came free. She sat up, married the prince, and at the wedding the queen had to dance in red-hot iron slippers until she died.
Here the basic elements of the story are firmly in place: wicked stepmother, magic mirror, huntsman and organs, dwarfs, apple, death, glass coffin on a hill, resurrection, prince, justice, and those defining colors of white, red, and black. As we felt with that pared-down Swiss version, however, the story is still identifiable even without all of these elements being present. Indeed there can be a lot of variation, substitutions and additions as well as subtractions. The stepmother can be even more wicked, drinking Snow White’s blood from a bottle corked with her severed toe or ordering the nipples cut off her breasts. Snow White’s companions can be robbers, monkeys, or even giants. The means of her “death” vary from culture to culture: peaches and pomegranates, but also “corsets, rings, belts, wine . . . gold coins, bread (tainted), raisins (poisoned), shirt, pins, and hats.” Similarly the means of her “resurrection” can vary—perhaps a long pin or nail is removed from her head, or “magic milk is poured over her.” The mirror and the coffin obviously depend on the invention of glass, so the magic truth-telling voice might come from the sun or the moon, and Snow White put in a box to float down a river, or hidden in an attic, or placed under a tree. The anxious love of the prince can kill Snow White for real. She can even rescue a sleeping prince. Since the land of Snow White abuts Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice—even, in an African tale, the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers—elements of those stories can migrate over the borders. As the details change, the moral of the story can change too, or, as in the Swiss story, disappear altogether. All these variations are curlicues on a type of tale taxonomically identified in the folklore compendium Types of International Folktales as ATU 709 (“Snow White”).
But it turns out none of these elements is necessary to the tale at all. Some Snow Whites are blonde. And Snow Whites are not necessarily associated with either snow or whiteness. Does “Snow White” even exist?
Some have traced historical originals to Snow White—the sixteenth-century Margaretha von Waldeck (the dwarfs really children deformed from working in local copper mines) or the eighteenth-century Maria Sophia von Erthal (who had a mechanically talking mirror). But Tatar points out that “a Greek ‘Snow White’ . . . was written down in the early first century CE,” and one suspects its roots go deeper even than that. Might there be a way of constructing an ur-Snow White? After all, linguists over the past 200 years or so have reconstructed an ancestral Proto-Indo-European language by methodically comparing examples from different language families to discern regulated patterns of change. In 1822 the older of the two Brothers Grimm, Jacob, began the quest for how a word like the Greek pous becomes the English foot: our lips, once gently pressed together to release a puff of air, begin to come apart to let more breath out around our teeth (p turns to f). As patterns of these changes in our mouths were revealed to be predictable, linguists were able to hypothesize backward to propose the Proto-Indo-European word *póds. Beginning with Grimm’s Law, once-invisible transformations magically appear: plinth links with flint, plebes with folk, pax with fang.
Could folklorists do something similar for fairy tales? The Grimms thought so. According to Jack Zipes, another eminent expert on German and fairy tales, the brothers had a “profound belief that their tales were like gems, thousands of years old and part of a vast Indo-European oral tradition. . . . Their mission was to excavate them, study them, sort them carefully, and to keep shaping them so that they remained artistically and philologically resilient and retained their primal essence.” Still working within that belief, some now apply “comparative phylogenetic methods,” “worldwide genomic sequences,” “autologistic modeling,” and “Bayesian ancestral state reconstructions” and claim to trace some tales, such as “The Smith and the Devil” (ATU 330), back to the Bronze Age. It would be nice to think so. But there are no laws governing the passage of tales through our lips. Stories slip and squeeze through chinks and cracks; unstable compounds, they merge, split, and morph. As tales travel to and fro, they bleed into each other; their DNA is daily recombined in the laboratories of their tellers. They dissemble, so that the more specific the corroborative detail the more likely it is to be deliberately designed to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald, even if convincing, narrative. That Swiss Snow White I began with has to me the air of a teller deliberately frustrating her audience’s expectations. For instance, it begins very specifically, with accurate circumstantial geographical detail: Brugg is in Switzerland—in the very area of Aargau, in fact, where the story was collected—and Waldshut is over the border, on the southern edge of the Black Forest, right on the Rhine, where one might realistically pick up some shady characters. But all that build-up of verisimilitude ends vaguely: No one knows what happened to the girl. (Now go to sleep.)
Since the details of the drama that propel the tale are mere accidents, the idea of recovering a single genuine starting point seems as forlornly misguided as Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies. As Tatar writes, “When it comes to fairy tales, there are no originals, only endless multiforms, or variations on a theme,” surely one as enigmatic as Elgar’s unknown original. Yet Tatar does hear a wolf tone distinctive—unique?—to Snow White’s “tightly choreographed drama of sexual rivalry, ostensibly fatal attack, and return to life.” She dropped a clue in her opening ingenuous-sounding question: Who doesn’t envy Snow White?
Sexual envy is the DNA spiraling through the generations of storytellers and regenerations of the story. And the sexual envy of mothers to daughters is its icy stabbing heart. Mothers, not stepmothers. In many versions—including the first version the Grimms printed in 1812—Snow White’s envious nemesis is not her father’s second wife but her own mother. Beauty is not neutral but linked to sexual rivalry and power. Beauty being fleeting, the perceived threat begins early. Tatar notes, “When Snow White reaches age seven in the Grimms’ story, she displaces the queen as ‘the fairest of them all,’ signaling that her mother’s beauty is destined to fade and die, that nothing is permanent. And with the loss of beauty comes, especially for women living in an earlier era, the erosion of any power at all.” (I’m not so sure—I can think of many crones and fairy godmothers whose age and ugliness have made them wicked powerful.)
Just as a telling of “Little Red Riding Hood” to a young child can teach the lesson of stranger danger, so too “Snow White” can be read as offering some practical advice. The novelist and professor of children’s literature Alison Lurie, for instance, suggests a real-life application: It “tell[s] girls to beware of a mother or stepmother who is secretly competitive and envious of their youth and good looks. The gifts and advice of such a mother are poisonous and designed not to make you more attractive but to immobilize you in a kind of death in life. In extreme cases it might be best to run away and live with friends.” Tatar mentions, but is less interested in, the beautiful child with “hostile feelings harbored toward a real-life mother who engages at times in withholding love or denying pleasure.” Instead, Tatar gravitates toward the other side of envy: the beautiful mother. She writes, “Snow White’s story . . . feeds on anxieties about aging and generational succession, showing how time wears beauty away.” If magic and transformation are what the best fairy tales “unfailingly deliver,” as Tatar believes, she herself tries to transform the wicked mother with the magic of imaginative sympathy in a way that appeals to our cultural moment where mother-love fills the lifestyle blogs and our mirrors whisperingly encourage us to buy Dr. Klein’s Rejuvenating Serum for $1,800 an ounce. Therapeutically, Snow White allows “expressive outlets” for “maternal rage” when a mother’s “physical capacities and mental reserves are stretched by care for a child.” As she hints, Snow White can address timeliness as well as time: “Our ancestors used these narratives to keep themselves woke as well as awake.” But the story reflects timeless concerns about time, too: “The happy ending may be a salve, but it is also a reminder that our efforts to defy death through the cultural work of creating ‘everlasting’ beauty, ‘immortal’ works of art, and labors of ‘undying love’ are all in vain.”
Based on her subtitle and passages like the ones I’ve just cited, it would be easy to conclude that Tatar focuses exclusively on mothers and daughters. But in fact her introductory essay ranges widely, from Disney and Eisenstein to Snorri Sturluson and Anne Sexton to real-life shockers like Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard, Hitler and Goebbels, and Alan Turing. The passages I find most brilliant are about the shiny surfaces, one transparent, one reflective, of the coffin and the mirror. Other of her glosses I find overly glossy with up-to-the-minute fashion: A tale “fetishizes feminine beauty,” presents a “toxic alliance [of] an unusual example of same-sex sibling solidarity,” provides “a counter-narrative . . . that elevates a utopian social community over heterosexual love and marriage” with “storytelling as a path to liberation and social justice.” One of the lessons I’ve learned from comparing fairy tales is coming face to face with the fact that inevitably at least some of the lessons we take from them are ones we ourselves have put there. But Tatar offers up much food for thought to tempt different appetites; if some offerings leave a bitter taste, well, as Nietzsche says, a little poison now and again makes for sweet dreams.
In the subsequent two-thirds of the book, Tatar promises us a “wild-spirited ride” through her selected versions of Snow White with short introductory notices. (Color illustrations, a bibliography of scholarly works, and notable retellings in print and on film fill out the volume.) Since Tatar has imposed no particular order to the tales, there’s an exhilarating “Choose Your Own Adventure” feeling—you can read them at whim, apply your own system, or float some hypotheses as you glimpse Jack and the Beanstalk and Ali Baba or possibly raise an eyebrow at bigamy in Scotland and polygamy in Mongolia. Perhaps you prefer stories that have been curated with deliberate art like “Princess Aubergine” from India, or perhaps shaggier tales like “The Girl and the Dog” from Southern Sudan. I find myself charmed by the local details. In a tale from Inner Mongolia, the coffin is red, lined with marten and lynx. In “King Peacock,” apparently from Louisiana, we are in a civil world of levees with a retinue where Snow White is brought back from the dead with the genteel application of cologne; in a rougher Magyar version, even shaking the coffin doesn’t work.
I was also drawn to the stories that counterbalance the inheritance of sexual foeship with friendship, though friendship too can cut both ways. In an Afro-European version, the wicked mother Maria has an old servant who is “devoted to her” and who has faithfully “done [her] friend a big favor” by braiding the beautiful daughter’s hair—and plunging a nail deep into her head. The 12-year-old sleeping girl is woken by a warmhearted girl—she found the nail in the beautiful girl’s head because she thought, “May I play with you? . . . Maybe you have lice, and I can pick them out of your hair?” The two girls “quickly became very fond of each other,” secretly “playing together, . . . absorbed by their games and conversation.” The final marriage joins the two good friends closer together; the two wicked friends run away to a distant land together.
Some of Snow White’s journeys come to rest in places I found particularly lovely. A Moroccan story called “The Jealous Mother” has a wonderfully weird twist on the dwarfs: ghouls—and that’s not the only twist. Lalla, our heroine, finds herself “in the midst of strange creatures that looked like the ghouls in tales she had heard from the old midwife.” At first she is scared of being eaten alive by the seven ghoul brothers, but she is befriended by their slave. The ghouls end up loving her cooking, so they protect her against various threats, including their Uncle Yazit who had been sucking blood from her finger each day. They transform her, and she transforms them: “Little by little Lalla recovered her health and serenity. Her complexion was rosy, and that brightened up the brothers’ life like a magic candle. . . . They all loved and worshiped her like a goddess who made them human.” Thanks to a Jewish merchant, she is reunited with her loving foster mother, “old but beautiful,” who cleverly saves Lalla from the ghouls by putting her in a magical sleep. Things so fall out that a sultan, “struck by her extraordinary beauty,” marries her. But Lalla is not happy with this happy ending. She slips away on one of the ghouls’ talking camels and returns to her ghoul husband (the youngest brother, of course), and they all live happily ever after.
A short Japanese version includes a father, mother, daughter, and stepmother, but the mirror is the real star. In versions refracted through the eyes of the Grimms and Disney, says Tatar, the “master-trope” of the mirror captures “vanity, beauty, and fear of aging but [is] also a reflective surface that invites contemplation and thought.” It shows and tells the queen both what she is and is not. The Japanese mirror reflects faces but reveals the heart. The father brings home presents, a doll and cakes for their “good and dutiful” daughter, and, for his wife, a rarity, “a metal mirror.” To a woman who had never seen one before, it seemed like magic: “she was under the impression that another woman was looking out at her as she gazed with growing wonder. Her husband explained the mystery.” Does she fail to understand, or does she understand the mystery better than he? When she is dying, she gives the mirror to her daughter and tells her, “When you feel most lonely, look into it and you will always see me.” The girl’s new stepmother is unkind, so the girl would “eagerly look into the mirror, where it seemed to her that she saw her dear mother’s face, not drawn in pain as she had seen it on her deathbed but young and beautiful.” The stepmother, detesting the girl, reflexively believes the girl detests her; she misinterprets her stepdaughter’s actions with the mirror and thinks she is “performing some strange magical art” to kill her and tells her husband. Confronted by her father, the girl confesses her aching heart has been soothed by seeing her “mother’s face, with its sweet, kind smile” which “brings [her] peace and helps [her] to bear harsh words and cross looks.” The daughter’s “filial piety” makes her father love her more. Her stepmother is ashamed and asks for forgiveness. The girl grants it. We have the happiest ending of all: “trouble forever departed from the home.” The story tells us clearly that the mirror wasn’t magic at all—the naive child misunderstood how mirrors work and erroneously “believed” she had seen her mother’s face instead of her own—but obscurely it shows us that it certainly was. Sometimes believing a thing can conjure it up. What could be more mysterious and magical than the intangibles of love, repentance, and forgiveness?
Only one other story ends with anything approaching the unresolved finish of “The Death of the Seven Dwarfs,” the Swiss story I began with. The Afro-European “The Beautiful Daughter” has the usual Band-Aid happy ending of a wedding and the more poignant happy ending for the two girls, framed in the moment of friends forever, but for the tale’s dwarf-equivalents—robbers—there is no happy ending. They “heard nothing about the meeting, and they continued to grieve for their lost sister. They had no idea what had become of her. And so the story ends.”