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The Twisted History of Snow White

by Adam Gidwitz
 | Oct 24, 2013

ThinkstockPhotos-78403805_x600In 2006, a survey found that while only 24% of Americans could name two Supreme Court Justices, 77% could name two of Snow White’s dwarves.

I find that disturbing.

Not because the Supreme Court is more important than Snow White. I will, in fact, argue just the opposite.

No, I find that survey’s results disturbing because the dwarves in the original Snow White stories don’t have any names.

In this essay I will tell you the real story of Snow White; or rather, the real stories—for the Brothers Grimm published more than one version of the tale. Those versions are, as you might guess, rather bloody and rather grim. And so, once I’ve recounted the tale’s twisted history, I will explain why those bloody, grim incarnations of Snow White are exactly the ones that you should be sharing with your children and your students.

In 1806, the most famous folklorist in Germany was not named Grimm. His name was Clemens Brentano. He had recently published a collection of German folksongs, but was looking to start working with folk tales as well.

He was introduced to two young brothers who had recently graduated from law school, but found their passions flowing rather towards folklore than the law. Brentano asked for their scholarly assistance. Would they help him collect stories from the people of Germany, so that he might publish them?

These two young scholars, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, took up the challenge zealously. They invited acquaintances and amateur story-tellers from all walks of life—petty aristocrats and French Huguenot exiles and bankrupt soldiers—to their home and wrote down the stories they heard.

In 1810, the Brothers Grimm sent forty-nine tales to Clemens Brentano. Among them were the stories of Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, The Frog Prince, and Snow White.

Those stories were not seen again for more than a hundred years. Brentano, it seems, took them to a monastery in Alsace and left them there. Luckily, the Brothers Grimm, like the diligent scholars that they were, had backed up their work. They’d made copies.

So in 1812, once it became clear that Brentano was not following through on his project, the Brothers Grimm published their own editions of the fairy tales. They didn’t call them “fairy tales,” though, since there is not a single fairy in their book. In German, the Grimm tales are called Kinder- und Hausmärchen, which means “Children’s and Household Tales,” and is pronounced “KIN-der oont house-MYARE-cccccccchen.” That last syllable relies on you hocking a loogie while speaking. Good luck with that.

Over the next forty-five years the Brothers Grimm published a total of seven editions of the fairy tales, and their reputation steadily grew. In 1870, not long after the Brothers’ deaths, the Grimm’s fairy tales were incorporated into the teaching curriculum of Prussia. By the turn of the century, the Tales of the Brothers Grimm had become the second best-selling book in Germany, behind only the Bible—a distinction it holds to this day. In the English-speaking world, it had become wildly successful as well. In 1900, The Daily Mail of London named it one of the ten books all children must own. And in 1937 Walt Disney began his full-length motion picture empire with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, breaking box-office records and winning a special Academy Award. It is no exaggeration to say that those two young German scholars changed the world.

But how? What did they do that was so special? There were folklorists before them (like Brentano) and after them. Why do their stories still take pride of place, two hundred years later?

The Brothers Grimm had a peculiar combination of scholarly brilliance and artistic flair. Jacob, the older brother, was the task-master and the father-figure. Wilhelm was the artist—though also a scholar in his own right. Together, they cast a wide net, bringing in hundreds of stories, and then choosing those they deemed the most typical of the German folk and the most satisfying for children and adults. Wilhelm in particular revised the stories that they heard, adding delicious and dark details and elevating the prose.

An excellent example of this process is the tale entitled “Schneewittchen” (SCHNAY-vitt-chen), or “Little Snow White.”

The final, 1857 edition of the tale has a great deal in common with the most famous retelling, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I’ll merely point out the major differences, assuming you remember the film.

In the 1857 version of Snow White, the step-mother does not ask the Huntsman to bring back the little girl’s heart, as she does in the film. She asks, rather, for Snow White’s lungs and liver. When the hunter fools her by bringing the lungs and liver of a young boar instead, she “boils them in salt” and she eats them. Which is awesome.

Little Snow White runs off to the dwarves, who, as I mentioned before, have no names. They also have no individuated personalities. The queen comes to the dwarves’ house not once, but three times, and each time she leaves with Snow White apparently dead. The third time, the queen returns with what the Brothers Grimm describe as “a poisonous, poisonous apple”—it’s so poisonous you have to say it twice. One face of the apple is deadly, the other is not, and she convinces her step-daughter to taste the apple by biting the wholesome side herself. Schneewittchen takes a bite and falls down dead.

The dwarves are unable to revive her, so they put her in a glass coffin, embossed with her name and birth. Many years later, a prince comes to the house and sees the dead girl. And he falls in love with her. Which, you have to admit, is kind of weird.

He asks to buy the girl from the dwarves, but they refuse. He tells them that he will die if he can’t see her every day for the rest of his life. As his servants are carrying her home, they drop her, and the jolt effectively performs the Heimlich maneuver on Snow White. A chunk of poison apple comes flying out of her mouth and she returns to life.

That’s right—there is no kiss. Just Snow White getting dropped.

Snow White and the prince get married, and the evil step-mother is invited to the wedding. Here’s my favorite part. When she sees Snow White, alive and marrying a prince, she is “so petrified with fright that she could not budge. Iron slippers had already been heated over a fire, and they were brought over to her with tongs. Finally, she had to put on the red-hot slippers and dance until she fell down dead.”

The End.

(I LOVE IT.)

So that’s the real, Grimm version of Snow White.

At least, the real, 1857 version. But already, Jacob and Wilhelm had made many revisions to the tale. Perhaps the most interesting is this: in the first published edition of the story, in 1812, there is no step-mother. In the 1812 version, the evil queen is HER MOM. How much scarier and more vivid is her jealous rage at the little girl’s beauty when that little girl is her daughter? Instead of merely telling the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her organs, this wonderful mother says, “Take her out into the woods to a remote spot, and stab her to death.” And then she eats her organs. (Or thinks she does.)

The ending is different, too. Not the iron-hot shoes—that happens in every edition (if it ain’t broke…!). In the 1812 edition of the story, the prince manages to get the coffin home without dropping it. He makes his servants carry it with him from room to room, so that he might gaze on his beloved. One of the servants eventually gets fed up having to lug this enormous glass box around, so he opens it and smacks the comatose girl. At which point, the chunk of apple flies from her throat, and she wakes up. Which is even more hilarious than dropping her.

Of all the editions, I’d have to say that 1812 is my favorite; that’s the one I’d share with kids. But better than sharing just one edition, I think, is sharing them all. For when we know the many layers of a story, our reading becomes as rich as its history.

So should you be sharing these gruesome stories with your kids at all?

Yes, I believe you should.

Fairy tales speak to children and adults on two levels simultaneously. The primary level is narrative—fairy tales are, in most cases, good stories that are well told. The other level, though, is deeper; it is the level of our most basic, oldest emotions.

Cinderella is not just about a girl who gets to go to a ball and marry a prince. It is about a hero who is unappreciated, who is more beautiful and more valuable than anyone recognizes. We have all felt unappreciated—by parents or siblings, classmates or coworkers. Most of us believe we are capable of great things, if only people would see us clearly. Children, more than adults, feel this way; and rightly so, for they have yet to achieve their enormous potential.

Snow White tells a different emotional tale. This is a story of competition. The (step-)mother loves her daughter—until the little girl threatens her position as the most beautiful in the land. Then the queen wants not only to kill her, but to eat her organs, as if ingesting her will allow the woman to take on the little girl’s beauty.

As children grow, parents sometimes feel competitive with them: the dad who resents that his son is growing stronger, faster, physically more talented than he; the mom who can’t bear to see her daughter’s sexuality eclipsing her own. But while this competition is sometimes harbored by the parent, it is always harbored by the child. Every boy wishes his mother would love him more than she loves his father. Every girl wants her father’s attention to stay glued upon her, even when her mother is around. Freud called this the Oedipus Complex, but I don’t see it as sexual; it’s about primacy of love.

Some of you are with me right now, and some of you are rolling your eyes. “My son doesn’t want me to love him more than I love my husband,” you’re thinking. You’re right. He doesn’t. But also, he does. At the same time. Minds are complex like that.

Children love their parents, and yet feel these competitive emotions intensely. The best fairy tales—and Snow White is among the very best—give children a way to fantasize about their difficult, darkest feelings, and to project them onto evil fathers and step-mothers, rather than their own parents, thereby working them out. Fairy tales give children the faith that those feelings do not make them evil and will not swallow them up. They will ultimately be integrated, and become a small part of the triumphant story of that child’s life.

Which this is the most important thing. Children are optimists. Fairy tales teach them that their optimism is well-founded.

This is why I write the books that I do, weaving Grimm narratives of my own. And this is why we should share Grimm stories with our kids, and with our students. To prove to them that though they pass through the darkest zones, they shall emerge stronger and wiser in the end.

Adam Gidwitz is the author of two ALA Notable, New York Times best-selling books A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly. His third book, The Grimm Conclusion, is out now. For more on the subject of real, scary fairy tales and why they’re good for children, read Adam Gidwitz’s In Defense of Real Fairy Tales, on the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy Blog or visit his website.

© 2013 Adam Gidwitz. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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  1. Tony Newman | Jul 26, 2018
    What I find interesting about traditional tales like this, folk tales, children's tales, is how in widely separated countries having alien cultures and languages, some of the same basic folk stories pop up. The common scenarios may conceivably be inevitable given the basic commonality of human proclivities, and they inevitably weave themselves in local folklore. But much of it is too eerily familiar a parallel to ignore as no more than coincidence. A similar historically distant mystery is the way certain stars and star-clusters are singled out for incorporating into similar heroic tales - the widespread myth of the Pleiades - the seven sisters hunted by Orion, is a good instance.      

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