Who would’ve thought that the story of a wicked queen, a princess, seven dwarfs and an apple could have kick-started the legacy of one of the biggest animation studios of all time? Nobody apparently, as not only did Walt Disney have to mortgage both his house and studio to finance the film, but pretty much everyone else, including his wife, said that no one would pay to watch a feature length cartoon about seven little men with beards. How wrong they were.
The 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs received a standing ovation from a star-studded audience; Charlie Chaplin proclaimed Dopey the dwarf as “one of the greatest comedians of all time”, directors Federico Fellini and Orson Welles were said to have taken inspiration from it in their later works, and most importantly of all, it threw open the doors to an entire industry of animated films in the west. It was also Adolf Hitler’s favourite film, but this isn’t much of a surprise because Snow White is adapted from Grimms Fairy Tales, and we all know that they turned a generation of innocent children into vicious and blood-thirsty Nazis.
I gave an introduction to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Tangled vs. Rapunzel, but to recap, they are considered the fathers of modern German literature and spent their time collecting and preserving German folklore and fairytales in the 1800s. Sneewittchen, or “Little Snow White”, was one of these, and there are two versions from 1812 and 1857 respectively. Proving it’s not only Disney who clean up stories for family audiences, the 1857 version was tweaked by the brothers to appeal to children, but this was all for nothing because the collection that spawned it, Die Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), was banned in western schools after the Second World War. Why? Please see the preceding paragraph and point and laugh where necessary.
So did Disney transform the 1812 Sneewittchen as much as 1930s animation? Or is the tale as untouched as the apple should have been? Fortunately, we don’t need a magic mirror to find out.
Forget ruling the kingdom – when you marry into the monarchy, your primary concern is making sure you’re hotter than your stepchildren. At least according to the new queen, who is filling the large gap left by Snow White’s mother. Snow White’s father seems equally absent, so there is no one to point a finger and cough when the queen demotes her stepdaughter to scullery maid simply because she’s more attractive. How does she know this? She has a magic mirror, which despite its power has nothing better to do than rate the hot chicks, and tells her which of them is the fairest in the land.
Even as a lowly maid, the kind and modest Snow White manages to outshine the queen, and to her surprise she attracts the attention of a wandering prince. The two serenade one another and use doves to kiss each other by proxy while the visibly ruffled queen looks on.
This proves to be the last straw, and so the queen decides the sensible thing to do is to have her murdered.
Thank you, Your Highness, for setting a precedent and annoying decent stepmothers everywhere. But as we’ll see, she’s not the worst “Yummy Mummy” the Grimms have to offer.
When most people decide to have a baby it’s because they want to express their love for each other, pass on their knowledge and extend the family line. For the Grimms’ beautiful queen, one day she pricked her finger on the snow while sewing by a black window frame and decided “Yeah, I want a daughter that looks like that.” And, sure enough, she has a baby girl that’s somehow white as snow, red as blood and as black as ebony wood. We must assume the Grimms meant skin, lips and hair in that order, rather than some sort of candy-cane baby.
For a time the queen seems happy with her lot, especially as her magic mirror continues to affirm that she is the fairest in the land. However, once Snow White has reached the age of seven, the mirror changes its tune and rather uncharitably tells the queen that her daughter is, and I quote, “one thousand times” fairer than she.
Instead of smashing the mirror into one thousand pieces, the queen lets her jealousy and envy consume her and decides to order a hit on her own daughter.
If you’ve ever wondered why she is called Snow White, now you know. The Grimms’ version gives us more of an insight into her origin, and also suggests that the girl is born out of a flight of fancy rather than a genuine desire for children. Does this make the queen any less of a bitch for wanting to murder her own flesh and blood? No, even when faced with a mirror of equally magnified bitchiness, this is decidedly not okay. Disney agreed, and to blunt the trauma a little bit made the queen Snow White’s stepmother instead (as did the Grimms in their 1857 update), who at least waits to see if any teenage awkwardness will kick in before condemning her to death. What’s more, this Snow White has the added bonus of a handsome royal admirer, so there is the hint of an escape and of a happy ending on the horizon. What the girls do share, on the other hand, is either an apathetic or absent family, as neither the king nor any other relatives are around to protect them. Fortunately, being kind and beautiful can sometimes give you a reprieve.
Hunted or Housewife?
The wicked queen orders her loyal huntsman to take Snow White into the woods before murdering her and bringing back her heart in a jewellery box. Snow White thinks nothing of suddenly being allowed to leave the castle and dress in prettier clothes, and doesn’t see the huntsman sneak up behind her with a knife – she’s too distracted by a baby bird that’s fallen out of its nest. At the very last moment, the huntsman weakens and confesses to the princess that he can’t bring himself to kill her. Instead he tells her to run away into the forest forever, away from the castle and her crazy stepmother. And so a terrified Snow White dashes away, the hunter returns with the heart of a pig, and the baby bird never gets his cut.
After a horrifying chase scene where nothing actually comes after her, Snow White collapses in a heap in the woods. Fortunately, the local animals are on hand to befriend her, and the princess quickly cheers up, particularly when the animals show her to a quaint cottage where she can stay.
In amongst the cobwebs and dust the cottage seems to house seven little children, and Snow White reasons that if she cleans the house for them they will let her stay. She sets about singing and sweeping while the birds and deer do all the dirty work, and finally decides to go to sleep on three of the children’s beds to await their return. You’ve got to give Snow White some credit – after losing her home, dicing with death and getting lost in the woods, the first thing she thinks about is making sure the housework’s done.
All fair and good for a teenager, but how will our prepubescent Snow White fare?
The jealous queen also calls upon her loyal huntsman to do the deed, and tells him to take Snow White into the woods, stab her to death, and then bring back her liver and lungs so she can cook them with salt and eat them. Ignoring this unnecessary embellishment, the hunter takes Snow White away into the forest, and when he reaches up with his knife, the girl cries and begs for mercy. Due to her beauty, and because the forest animals will probably eat her anyway, the hunter lets her go and substitutes her lungs and liver for those of a boar. On his return to the castle, the queen cooks and eats the organs with salt, thinking she has devoured her own daughter.
Meanwhile, Snow White is left floundering in the woods until nightfall, at which point she comes across a cottage. It’s clear from the outset that it belongs to seven dwarfs who aren’t at home, and everything in the house is neat and orderly, with seven versions of everything. Snow White eats some of the food from their plates, drinks some of their wine, and then tries all seven freshly made beds until she finds one that’s just right – the seventh one, obviously – before collapsing and going to sleep.
Apparently having proof of your daughter’s death isn’t enough – you also need to eat her organs to make sure. Why this is the first thought of Grimms’ queen is anyone’s guess, but it means this Snow White is worse off by far – aside from her own mother wanting to cannibalise her with no warning whatsoever, she has to beg for her life and fend for herself in the forest, so you can’t blame her for breaking and entering, stealing food and needing a stiff drink before passing out. At the age of seven. At least Disney’s Snow White had an inkling her stepmother wasn’t too fond of her, is shown mercy, and has a whole menagerie of cute animals to help her find and clean the cottage. Then again, she needs to tidy up after seven single men, so I leave you to decide which is the worse punishment. The stepmother is presumably above eating the princess’ heart too, although I doubt Snow White would agree it makes much difference.
Luckily, things are looking up for the princess, or more specifically, looking up at her.
The seven dwarfs – Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey – are a perfect match for Snow White as they also love singing while doing menial tasks. In this case, it’s mining diamonds, but exactly what they do with said diamonds is one of Disney’s greatest mysteries, so for now we’ll assume it’s to fund a crippling narcotic habit. On returning home they find their cottage suspiciously spick and span, and believe it must be the work of the cleanest monster in history, who also happens to be sleeping in their beds. Their reaction? To batter it to death, of course.
Fortunately, they have the foresight to lift up the covers before clobbering it over the head, and find the beautiful Snow White sleeping there peacefully.
After exchanging screams and then pleasantries, Snow White offers to clean the house and cook for them if they will let her stay with them. Everyone except Grumpy is happy with this idea, as he feels the queen will come looking for her, but eventually they agree that home-cooked food and a clean house is more than worth the risk, even if they also have to wash themselves more regularly. To celebrate, they throw a mini party and play instruments while Snow White dances, but when she eventually tires, they let her go back to sleep on their beds while they fight over the one and only cushion in the house. What gentlemen.
Having a princess cook and clean for you must be a bit of an ego boost, but Grimms’ Snow White seems somewhat less inclined to tidy up after herself, so how will these dwarfs react?
Just like the soldiers in Mulan and the entire cast of The Little Mermaid, Disney saw fit to give the dwarfs actual names. In the Grimms’ original they are simply referred to as “the dwarfs”, or at best “the first” or “the fourth” etc. After asking aloud, one by one, who has been messing about with their respective food, crockery and beds, they find Snow White asleep on the seventh bed. Struck by her beauty, they demonstrate British levels of politeness by refusing to wake her up, instead taking it in turns to sleep for an hour while the bed-less seventh dwarf does a swapsie with each of them. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
In the morning Snow White wakes up and regales them with tales of her mother’s attempted infanticide. The dwarfs say she is very welcome to stay with them as long as she cleans the house, washes clothes, knits and sews, and has supper ready for when they get back from the gold mine each day. They also tell her not to open the door to anyone, especially the queen. Evidently child labour laws didn’t exist back then, and gratitude was something you milked as much as possible.
The agreement between Disney Snow White and the dwarfs is instigated by the princess herself, and there’s clearly more of a bond between them thanks to their respective partying. Meanwhile, Grimms’ nameless dwarfs see nothing wrong with asking a traumatised seven year-old princess to be their domestic servant, even if they are already fairly adept at housework. On the other hand, both sets of dwarfs are happy to leave Snow White all alone in the cottage all day when they know the evil queen is after her, and both demonstrate extreme politeness when it comes to her sleeping comforts. What’s more, although the Grimm versions mine gold instead of diamonds, there is an equally large question mark over what they do with their loot.
By this point in time, the queen would have either finished displaying Snow White’s heart or suffered a bout of indigestion, so let’s see if they are equally content in their surroundings.
Victorious, the queen approaches her magic mirror and asks who is the fairest one of all. The mirror insists it’s still Snow White, and when shown the jewellery box, helpfully points out that it contains the heart of a pig and that the real Snow White is living happily in the forest. Outraged, the queen storms down into a secret cellar, where she keeps all manner of spooky things, and realises she must take care of the job herself. She whips up a potion that transforms her into an old beggar woman, and then concocts a poisonous apple that will send anyone who bites it into a deathly sleep.
Her disguise complete, the queen sets off for the cottage and catches Snow White unawares while making a cake to win Grumpy’s affection. The princess is either entirely non-judgemental or an idiot, as despite the old woman’s obviously evil body language, and the animals’ uncharacteristic attempts to dive bomb or drag her away, Snow White accepts the terrible apple and takes a bite. After all, it’s a Wishing Apple, and who can resist the temptation if it means her handsome prince will be able to find her?
Luckily, Snow White’s animal friends come to the rescue yet again – this time by charging off to find the dwarfs.
The magic mirror in the original is just as big a blabbermouth and tells the queen that not only did she eat the liver and lungs of a wild boar, but that Snow White still lives and is staying near the seven mountains. Oh, and that she’s still one thousand times more beautiful than her.
Horrified that she ate the organs of a pig rather than her daughter’s, and that she’s still not the fairest in the land, the queen deliberates over what to do. She finds out that the dwarfs live near the seven mountains, and eventually decides to colour her face (nice) and disguise herself as a peddlar woman in order to find, trick and kill Snow White. Her first attempt goes swimmingly; while the dwarfs are out, she talks Snow White into trying on a blue, red and yellow bodice (notice the colour of the Disney version’s dress) before pulling the laces tight so that she suffocates. Leaving her dead on the floor, the queen returns to her castle, most likely with an evil spring in her step.
When the dwarfs return home they cut Snow white out of the bodice so that she can breathe, because that’s how resuscitation works. They deduce that it was the queen who tried to kill her, and so they tell her not to let anyone into the house again. The girl follows their advice for about two days, by which time the mirror has again told the queen that Snow White is alive, and the monarch returns, not with a knife, but with a poisoned comb, which Snow White allows her to pull through her hair and therefore kill her.
The dwarfs return home to find Snow White lying dead on the floor, again, and pull the comb out of her hair, probably while rolling all seven pairs of eyes, so she is revived. They can’t be as fed up as the queen, however, as after consulting with her mirror she discovers her daughter continues to draw breath, and storms down to a secret room in the castle where she creates a beautiful but poisoned apple, swearing that she’ll get rid of Snow White if it kills her. She makes sure only one half of it is poisoned, so when she again approaches the princess, she offers to eat half of the apple for her to convince her she means no harm.
By this point the dwarfs’ warnings must sound like a stuck record. Nevertheless, Snow White allows herself to be convinced by this new and entirely unrelated peddlar woman who also appeared out of nowhere. Of course, she eats the poisoned red half of the apple and then collapses on the ground, possibly into the Snow-White-shaped indentation in the floor.
We should remember at this point that the Grimms’ Snow White is only seven years old and has probably never been left alone before, so we should go easy on the face-palms. In fact, the target of ridicule should be the queen, who picks the strangest ways of murdering her daughter and continues to do so rather than simply get to the point with a knife or sword. Disney’s queen, conversely, goes straight for the magic spell both in terms of disguise and using a poisoned apple, and only needs one attempt to succeed. Interestingly, as much as the queens value their beauty, both are prepared to hide it in order to achieve their goal, and the Grimms’ queen will even sacrifice herself for this, which sort of defeats the point of being the fairest in the land.
Regardless of how many tries it took, both Snow Whites now appeared doomed. Will the dwarfs be able to save her?
Too Little Too Late
The dwarfs charge back to the cottage with their animal army in time to see the queen, still in her old beggar disguise, ambling suspiciously away. They chase her up the mountainside just as an artistically violent storm breaks out, and while they are perfectly prepared to bash her head in, they are saved a job by a lightning strike, which crumbles the cliff she is standing on and sends her tumbling to her death.
Showing that all the woodland animals are useful, a couple of vultures descend to make sure the job’s a good’un.
Unfortunately, Snow White hasn’t fared much better. She’s not quite dead but not quite alive after the apple has done its work, but at least the dwarfs decide not to bury her. Instead, they lie her in a glass and gold coffin surrounded by flowers while they keep a tearful vigil.
This time, there isn’t anything the dwarfs can do. There are no errant combs or bodices they can remove, and there is no way to revive Snow White, so they simply sit and cry for three days. Then they notice that the princess still looks “fresh”, as if she’s still alive, and decide to place her in a glass coffin rather than bury her. One of them also stays at home each day to watch over her, which is incredibly useful since she’s already dead.
One person seems happy though, and that’s the queen, who has safely returned home and once again received approval from a piece of glass. This continues for a long while, as Snow White lies in the coffin for a long, long time, never decaying, and also demonstrating an impressive lung capacity while trapped in a glass box.
The Disney version sees the dwarfs dashing heroically back to the cottage and at the very least getting rid of the evil queen, whereas in the Grimm version the queen has most definitely won and is free to continue checking herself out in the mirror each morning. Apart from this, the two stories are very similar here, with both Snow Whites in a “living death” state that sees them placed in a glass coffin, suddenly surrounded by vigilant dwarfs. The words “stable door” and “horse bolted” come to mind.
Nonetheless, the dwarfs aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on things.
A Right Royal Revival
It seems the wandering prince from the beginning of the film has continued his wandering, this time in search of Snow White, and has heard about this strange young maiden who sleeps in a glass coffin. His hopes are both met and dashed when he recognises the girl, and for some reason his first impulse is to kiss her when he sees her living corpse. Naturally, this breaks the evil spell and Snow White wakes up, seeing that her handsome prince has found her and probably thinking that the nice old woman was right about that Wishing Apple.
The dwarfs and forest animals explode with happiness, and the princess bids them a fond farewell as she and her true love ride off together into the sunset.
For a long time (let’s hope until she’s a suitable age), Snow White has been sleeping in the coffin in the dwarf’s cottage, and one night a prince stumbles across their home looking for shelter. When he sees Snow White his breath is taken away, and since the dwarfs were kind enough to inscribe her name and lineage on the side, he knows she is the daughter of a king. He then asks if he can buy her off them.
Of course, being respectable men, the dwarfs refuse to sell the body of their beloved Snow White to anyone, not even a prince. No, instead they give her away for free.
This is after the prince begs them repeatedly, saying he can’t stand to leave her and must have her by his side at all times. And lo, the dwarfs relent, and lo, the prince’s servants end up carrying the coffin for him at all times lest he become sad when she’s out of his sight. As you can imagine, this goes down about as well as a poisoned apple, and one day when the prince isn’t looking, one of the servants opens the coffin, sits Snow White up, and smacks her on the back of the head. Incredibly, this dislodges the apple and revives her.
Snow White seems about as non-plussed as Talia was, and simply walks up to the prince, alive and well, before happily sharing a meal with him. It must have been good, because their wedding is planned for the next day. And in a bolder and even more hilarious move, they invite Snow White’s mother.
The wicked queen has just that morning stepped in front of her mirror to be told that “the young queen” is one thousand times more beautiful than she, and so surprise and envy ensure she goes along to the celebration. It’s only at this point that she recognises Snow White, but before she can do anything drastic, her daughter continues the family tradition of bizarre murder weapons, and the evil queen is placed in glowing iron shoes and forced to dance until her feet are burned and she drops down dead. Having your in-laws breakdance at your wedding can certainly be embarrassing, but that’s taking it a bit far.
Somewhere along the line the Grimms’ version turned into a black comedy. “Revived by bitch-slap” is hardly the spell-breaking remedy you would expect for a sleeping princess, and ironically inviting the queen and making her dance herself to death also conjures up an amusing but grisly image, especially if it was the Mashed Potato. Where the original does show some restraint, however, is the prince’s reaction to Snow White. Although obsessed with her, he keeps his paws off her until she’s awake, which is more than can be said for the Disney version, who goes straight in for the kiss. Otherwise, the Disney version is the more respectable one, with Snow White able to choose whether or not to be carted off by the prince, and to say goodbye to the dwarfs and animals who now know she’s alive again. It also lacks any unpleasant undertones of revenge – although it’s not stated who orders the evil queen to wear the shoes, Grimms’ Snow White does see her murdered through bizarre means, so maybe she’s her mother’s daughter after all…?
Sneewittchen by the Brothers Grimm is a cautionary tale about vanity and to a point how beauty can make people into slaves and victims. It’s the queen’s obsession with beauty that brings Snow White into the world in the first place, and this snowballs until she would destroy her own offspring and even sacrifice her life for the title of fairest in the land. As for Snow White, she is entirely a victim of her own looks, created only as a pretty doll for her mother and exchanged between the dwarfs and the prince almost as a commodity. She is then foiled by her own attraction to beautiful things – the objects used to murder her all relate to beauty and vanity. Each time, she has to be rescued by a man, either the dwarfs or the servant who administers the blow that breaks the spell. As for the prince, he is also a victim of attraction, as he cannot bear for Snow White to be out of his sight and resorts to diva-like tendencies in order to keep things that way. The result? Snow White ends up with a happy ending by simply being beautiful and passive and going along with the wishes of her male acquaintances, such as tidying the house for the dwarfs or deciding to marry the prince at the drop of a hat. Another uncomfortable trend is women in a position of power – the queen is literally able to get away with murder, and once Snow White becomes a queen herself, she is at the very least present and non-resistant, and at the most instrumental, in taking revenge on her mother in a way that also relates to female vanity – she is forced to dance herself to death.
Disney’s Snow White has taken plenty of flack over the years for being passive, but after reading the above this might put this into perspective. Despite the fact that she only sings when doing the housework and also needs the dwarfs and prince to rescue her, she is tougher than she looks and is able to put a brave face on any situation. She is also the one who instigates the deal between herself and the dwarfs, and as for waiting for a fairytale prince to come and whisk her away, it’s not just any old prince – it’s one that she’s already met and clearly has an attraction for, so why wouldn’t she want him to come and whisk her away from a life of housework? What’s more, the prince has spent the entire film looking for her as well, so their love is more of a two-way street. Another aspect that’s not even touched upon in the original is the girl’s personality. Snow White is kind and non-judgemental – you’d have to be to let such a terrifying beggar woman into your house – and doesn’t have a bad thought about anyone, even the woman who has humiliated her and wants her dead. The queen, conversely, is as evil as Snow White is cheerful, and this spells her doom as the people (and animals) touched by Snow White’s good nature will fight to protect her.
Although both stories are centred around the dangers of vanity and how beauty can both help and hinder you, the Grimms version explores the darker side of attraction and to a certain extent female rivalry. In this tale, the only way to deal with the consequences of such rivalry is with a dash of testosterone. The Disney film lends the tale a more positive sheen, choosing instead to focus on the power of love and friendship in foiling your enemies as well as having a heavier emphasis on inner beauty. That is, if you are kind-hearted and try to see the good in everyone and everything, people from all walks of life will want to help and protect you. Similarly, if you allow yourself to be clouded and consumed by jealousy and hatred, this will come back to bite you in the bum.
Possibly with a sharp beak.
1) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937. Film. Directed by William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larrey Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Ashliman, D.L., Little Snow White, 2002, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm012a.html
3) Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Grimm’s Household Tales. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-7123-5858-3
4) Grade, Ananda, 2012, The Brothers Grimm: Freaks or visionaries? http://www.dw.de/the-brothers-grimm-freaks-or-visionaries/a-16465915
5) Connolly, Kate, 2012, Grimm’s Fairy Tales: 200th anniversary triggers a year of celebration, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/19/grimm-brothers-anniversary-german-culture
6) Hart, Brad, 2010, The True Origins and History of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – The Origin of Snow White: http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/60644-the-true-origins-and-history-of-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs
7) Wolford, Kate, 2012, Snow White, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812 version: http://www.fairytalemagazine.com/2012/05/snow-white-by-jacob-and-wilhelm-grimm.html