‘Sleeping Beauty’ is not the only fairy tale heroine to experience an enchanted slumber. Snow White suffers the same fate, albeit under different circumstances. Looking at the themes of these two stories, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences surrounding sexuality and feminism, as well as the variations in their narratives.
Like with many fairy tales, the most well-known version of ‘Snow White’ is probably the one recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Theirs is entitled ‘Little Snow-White,’ a name similar to that of their version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ which is called ‘Little Briar-Rose.’ In ‘Little Snow-White,’ a queen pricks her finger on a sewing needle and longs for a child ‘as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this [window] frame.’ Shortly after, she gives birth to a daughter named ‘Snow White.’ The queen dies in childbirth, leaving Snow White to grow up with a stepmother.
The stepmother has a mirror, which she looks into and asks who is the fairest. It always replies with ‘you, my queen,’ until one day, when Snow White is seven years old, it answers that she is now ‘a thousand times fairer.’ Overcome with anger, the queen sends Snow White into the forest with a huntsman and orders him to kill her. However, the huntsman is overcome with pity and tells her to run away instead.
Alone in the forest, Snow White comes upon a cottage in which seven dwarfs live. They take her in, and she does domestic chores for them in return. But the mirror informs the queen that Snow White still lives and is still fairer than she. Outraged, she disguises herself and visits the cottage selling various enchanted objects to tempt Snow White. Eventually, she succeeds in killing her with a poisoned apple.
Upon finding her, the dwarfs encase her in a glass coffin and display her on a hilltop. One day, a prince rides by and begs them to give him the coffin, for he has fallen in love with Snow White’s beauty. They agree, and so the prince takes her. On the way to his palace the coffin is jolted, dislodging the poisoned apple from her throat. Snow White awakens, and the prince asks her to marry him and she consents.
The evil queen is invited to their wedding, and her mirror informs her that the young bride is much fairer than she. As punishment for her treatment of Snow White, she is forced to put on shoes made of hot iron and dance in them until she falls down dead.
Both ‘Little Briar-Rose’ and ‘Little Snow White’ feature an unconscious girl in the forest, but their symbolism varies. Blood is also referenced in both stories. In ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ the girl pricking her finger to draw blood can be interpreted as a metaphor for premature sexual awakening. Therefore, it induces the sleep until she is ready to deal with motherhood. In ‘Little Snow White,’ when the queen pricks her finger and draws blood she becomes pregnant, showing that (unlike Briar-Rose) she is ready to accept maturation. The two incidents also reference the two stages during life in which females bleed: at menstruation and during initial intercourse. I find it interesting how, as Kate Forsyth points out on her blog, that the colours used in ‘Little Snow White’ are very significant:
‘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.’
This reminds me of the Pagan symbol of the triple goddess: the maiden, the mother and the crone (I also referenced this in a previous post about spinning wheels and their connection to the cycle of life). White for the maiden, who is pure like Snow White herself, red for the mother who menstruates and is able to bear children, like the queen, and black for the crone. The crone is absent from both stories, but in ‘Little Snow White’ this colour reference to her seems to be a subtle hint at Snow White’s future. She is the maiden, moving towards motherhood by the end of the story and crone is what she will eventually become later. Moreover, the fact that she embodies all of these colours throughout her life implies that she is one and all at once (and women in general are, too). We all start off being the maiden, but motherhood and croning are part of our future and therefore part of who we are. Also, once the later stages have been reached, we can still remember being the maiden, so she too remains with us later in life.
Where Sleeping Beauty stories can be interpreted metaphorically as coming-of-age stories, Snow White tales instead show the power struggle between (step)mother and daughter (in some versions Snow White is persecuted by her biological mother. The Grimms changed this in order to preserve the positive image of motherhood). The queen is jealous of her (step)daughter’s youth and seeks to destroy her; a sharp contrast to parents in Sleeping Beauty stories who seek to protect their child from the curse.
In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar makes some interesting comments about this in her analysis of the story. She writes that ‘the voice in the mirror may be viewed as a judgmental voice, representing the absent father or patriarchy in general’ and that as the story progresses it ‘turns on the (sexual) rivalry between stepmother and daughter, with Snow White positioned as the classic “innocent persecuted heroine” of fairy tales.’ The mirror initiates this conflict by judging beauty. In society, people are constantly doing this to one another, resulting in pressure to conform with current trends or outdo everyone else to gain recognition. This is not exclusively a female trait, either. Whilst Snow White herself is oblivious to her beauty and the danger she is in because of it, to her stepmother it is a clear threat. Without even knowing it Snow White enters the battle for the mirror’s favour, and ultimately she wins because it is her beauty that secures her rescue by the prince. Her innocence is rewarded, and the queen’s vanity and wickedness are punishable. In the Grimms’ version I mentioned above she meets a very grisly end, but the fact that she pays for her crimes gives the story closure. This is different to ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ in which the bad fairy never suffers any consequences for cursing the baby girl and vanishes from the story.
Also, whilst I’m on the topic of endings, in both of these Grimm stories (and indeed in other, older variations I’ve come across) neither girl is awoken by a kiss. Sleeping Beauty wakes up naturally because the hundred years is up, and Snow White wakes up when her coffin is accidentally jolted and this dislodges the poisoned apple. Yet in both Disney versions, it’s true love’s kiss which awakens them. In fact, in the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), near the beginning Snow White sings about wishing for a lover. It just so happens that a prince is passing by during this song and, of course, he immediately falls for her. The evil stepmother is watching and shuts her curtains in irritation. I think this sets the scene nicely; Snow White as a pretty, naive girl and the stepmother is jealous of her beauty and youth.
There is also another song later in the film which she sings to the dwarfs called ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ Doesn’t take much imagination to work out what that’s about. Whereas the Grimms Snow White doesn’t have anything to do with the prince until the end, the Disney one explicitly asks for him from the very beginning. This move the emphasis from the mother-daughter conflict to romance, which is a big change from the older versions of the story.
The final point I want to make about ‘Little Snow White’ concerns the mirror again. At the beginning of the story, Snow White’s biological mother is looking out of a window. Compare this with the stepmother who constantly looks into a mirror, and there’s some interesting symbolism. Looking out of a window implies that the biological mother is aware of the world and thinking beyond her own existence. On the other hand, the stepmother only watches herself. Maria Tatar makes an observation about this in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ‘that Snow White is put on aesthetic display in a glass coffin seems to refer back to both the window and the looking glass.’
At the end of the story, Snow White becomes like her biological mother: trapped behind glass, dreaming of a different life. Glass is transparent, so you can see through it and watch the world. But mirrors aren’t, so you can only see yourself. The glass in ‘Snow White’ becomes a symbol of their approach to life, and shows that if all you see is reflections then it will lead to ruin.
Studying ‘Little Snow-White’ has been fascinating, and I’ve found much more information than what I’ve shared in this post so I will definitely be returning to it in the future. It’s amazing to see how stories which have similar elements can be so different, and to note how themes can alter depending on the symbolism used.
- Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)