Origins of the Tale
Snow White as a German tale first appeared in the Grimm collection of tales in 1812. It is largely considered a made up tale, though there are different theories about potential inspirations. The most popular theories are that the story is somewhat based on the life of Margaretha von Waldeck or Maria Sophia von Erthal. These womens’ lives are connected to the story due to the themes of young death, extreme beauty, a mean stepmother (in Margaretha’s life) and an unusually perfect mirror (in Maria’s). Despite scholars attempting to link these stories to the fairy tale, there has been nothing concrete that can officially tie one of the women’s lives to the Grimms’ inspirations.
There are also different variations in the story. In some versions, Snow White’s threat is her mother not her stepmother. The dwarves are also robbers in other versions, and other fairy tales featuring magic mirrors have been tied to the story as well. Fairy tales with features such as magic mirrors, dwarves, evil stepmothers, and poison apples are grouped into a classification titled “Snow White.”
The most famous version of Snow White is, of course, the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which named the dwarves and brought the story into greater prominence. Before this, there were plays based on the tale as well as other printed versions of the Grimm fairy tale. But when people think of Snow White they often recall the beautiful, woodland creature befriending Snow of Disney’s adaptation. An interesting fact about Disney’s version is that it’s the only version in which Snow White encounters the prince before biting into the poison apple. In fact, before releasing the film Disney released a comic strip in which the prince and Snow meet on the grounds of the castle and have a flirtatious exchange, establishing a friendly relationship that justifies the true love’s kiss that awakens Snow.
Disney’s version is very much a romanticized version of the tale. Original versions have the Queen asking for Snow White’s lungs and liver from the Huntsman, whereas the Disney version has her wanting the heart in a box (and of course the gory animal’s heart the huntsman brings instead is never seen). The Queen in the original versions believed eating the organs of Snow White would help her, whereas cannibalism is largely left out of the story after Disney’s version did so. The death of the Queen is also different in Disney’s version, and in most subsequent tellings of the story. In many ways, Disney created a formula for telling the story of Snow White that is followed in a lot of versions from upping Snow White’s age to introducing her to her love interest before her poisoning and also including a better nature (cleaning and helping out the dwarves when she imposes on them).
Hallmarks of Retellings
The most important parts of a retelling of Snow White is as follows:
In a kingdom, the king has passed away leaving behind on his second wife and his daughter from his first marriage. His daughter is beautiful, with the distinct features of dark black hair, rose red lips, and skin as white as snow. Whatever her name may actually be, she is known as Snow White and is widely considered a beauty to rival her mother’s. Her stepmother, usually also beautiful, is cruel to her and desperately wants to rule the kingdom herself for one reason or another. She is usually in possession of a magic mirror that tells her the only person fairer than her in the kingdom is Snow White. In one way or another, Snow White is pushed from the kingdom and the stepmother attempts to have a royal huntsman kill her and bring back a valuable body part as proof of her death. Snow White is not killed, though, and instead encounters a group of seven people (usually dwarves or men) in the forest who take her in and allow her to cook and clean for them while they protect her. Somehow, Snow White is tricked into eating a poison apple from her stepmother, and the apple puts her into a cursed death-like sleep resulted in her being placed in a glass coffin. Her true love discovers her and for one reason or another gives her true love’s kiss, which releases her from her curse.
Different retellings focus on different aspects, but in one way or another almost all of these main plot points are included.
There are a few recent developments in the Snow White story that I’ve noticed, and some of them seem to stem from a few main injections into pop culture.
Snow White Loves the Huntsman
In the traditional fairy tale, a prince that Snow White has never met before administers True Love’s Kiss to her and wakes her from her slumber in the glass coffin. Naturally, most people are not inclined to believe in a true love that appears out of nowhere these days. Even Disney’s presentation of Snow White required that she met the prince before he awakened her. But a new trend that has appeared as of late is that Snow White’s true love isn’t even a prince, but is instead the huntsman whose sympathy for her prevents her untimely death. A common presentation in YA retellings is to have Snow White fall for the huntsman, a childhood friend of hers who rescues her when the Queen orders her death.
Snow White Steals Back Her Crown
As newer adaptations and retellings of the story begin to appeal to a new audience–namely modern girls and women–they have had to shift to focus more and more on who Snow White is and what she does. In 1937’s film, the ending is simply that she is with the prince and the evil stepmother is defeated. This was enough for audiences then but is certainly not now. Movies such as Snow White and the Huntsman and book adaptations published by various authors specializing in retelling fairy tales have begun to include a new, major portion of the story: Snow White leading a coup to steal back her crown. Generally, the plot goes that the evil stepmother is power hungry as well as beauty obsessed and resents Snow for being the rightful heir to the crown. Worried that her beaten down stepdaughter will still inspire loyalty in her subjects, the stepmother seeks to kill Snow in order to secure her own power.
In almost every adaptation of the fairy tale that I’ve read–all published in the past two decades–the most significant portion of the book is not focused on Snow White’s flight from the castle or her time with the dwarves; it’s spent on the political uprising that Snow creates. Generally the formula goes as follows: Snow White flees her murderous stepmother with the help of an ally (either a political ally or the loyal childhood friend/love interest huntsman), she takes refuge with the hermits/dwarves in the forest that are not politically connected but will nonetheless encourage Snow to pursue her birthright, during her refuge she either works with a previous ally or amasses new allies to assess the loyalty to her crown amongst the people (generally this is aided by a strong dislike of the power hungry stepmother and her policies), Snow then strategizes with her allies demonstrating her strength and military acumen to garner even more loyalty, ultimately the coup appears to fail whenever the stepmother manages to put forth her Evil Poison Apple Plan but due to True Love all is wrapped up in a neat little bow with Snow White on the thrown.
Various Adaptations Today
There’s no lack of fairy tale adaptations in the modern world of books and television. Several authors base their entire careers on series in which they reimagine the fairy tales we all grew up with. Popular culture and media have presented a lot of successful retellings, though Snow White is often not one of the most popular. Here are some of the retellings and adaptations that I’ve encountered during my seeking of fairy tales:
Snow White and the Huntsman – movie adaptation
This movie, starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, and Charlize Theron, has inspired some conflicting reviews regarding its story telling quality. Nevertheless, as I enjoyed it, I’m including it here in this post. Snow White and the Huntsman is a reimagining of the classic story that gives Snow White herself more agency. Snow White is imprisoned by her stepmother, a significantly evil and ambitious witch in possession of an incredibly powerful magic mirror that allows her to effectively control her entire kingdom. Snow White is hunted by but also assisted by the huntsman, and together they form an army to take back the kingdom through combat.
A Dream of Ebony and White (Beyond the Four Kingdoms #4) by Melanie Cellier
Cellier’s Beyond the Four Kingdoms series is a tied together set of fairy tale retellings that begins by introducing all of the potential future protagonists in one fell swoop, then establishing separate stories in the subsequent installments. For her Snow White retelling, Cellier focuses on Blanche–a quiet and seemingly meek, but intelligent young princess. The story picks up in a traditional place for Snow White immediately after her father’s death and her stepmother’s ascent to the throne. Blanche’s story follows many of the hallmarks of a retelling, including the love interest as the huntsman and the coup to regain her crown.
Snow White (Timeless Fairy Tales #11) by KM Shea
This is another example of a fairy tale retelling saga, this time presented by author KM Shea. Yes, I know, I bring KM Shea up a lot. In Shea’s version of fairy tale retellings, all of the tales are connected (similarly to Cellier’s series) and take place on a single continent full of a variety of unique fantasy kingdoms. Connected by the common thread of repeated royal-targeting curses and the presence of Enchantress in Training Angellique (often called in to sort things out), Shea’s series has most recently been updated with her retelling of Snow White.
Once Upon a Time – television series
Produced and shown on ABC, Once Upon A Time (abbreviated to OUAT) was a television show about how fairy tale characters from the Enchanted Forest were transported to modern day USA and cursed to remain frozen there, unaware of their true identities. Snow White played a major role in the show as one of the main characters. After all, it was her rivalry with Regina–the Evil Queen and her stepmother–that led to the dark curse that brought them all to Maine. As Mary Margaret Blanchard in Storybrooke, Snow was a reimagined Disney princess. She had the features of being kind, connecting well with animals, and falling for a prince but she was also briefly an outlaw and robber armed with bow and arrow. In a convoluted series of family relationships (seriously, that show was weird) Snow White’s grandson was also the Evil Queen’s adopted son, forcing the two to reconcile eventually. The show definitely presented some unique imaginings of Snow White’s fairy tale and how it tied into Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and many other tales.
Sneaky Snow White (Dark Fairy Tale Queen #2) by Anita Valle
In this fairy tale retelling series, Valle casts her protagonists in a poor light. Each princess is selfish, greedy, and vengeful towards others. Snow White’s stepmother–Cinderella from the previous novel–is depressed and miserable being married to the king, but absolutely mad once he’s gone. Snow White must flee for her life and take refuge with a dangerous group of bandits who threaten her should she endanger one of their brothers. Snow White herself is angry and bitter about being forced out of her own castle, and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. If you’re looking for a less morally upright version of the tale this one is certainly for you.
Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
I think it’s safe to say that most young women of a certain age are familiar with Levine’s Ella Enchanted, or even The Two Princesses of Bamarre. But Fairest was released when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old and had largely grown out of Levine’s target audience. Still, I was excited to read the book when it was released and for good reason! Fairest, like Ella Enchanted, is a fairy tale retelling that you don’t necessarily recognize as one. In the expanded world of Kyrria, Levine gives you backstory on Areida, Ella’s best friend, by showing you her family of innkeepers. From a land where a singing voice and a beautiful face are the most important things, Areida’s adopted younger sister, Aza, is considered incredibly ugly and repulsive. But she has a beautiful voice, which leads her to eventually reside in the castle to serve the new queen… This retelling is immersive, creative, and unique amongst Snow White tales and I couldn’t recommend it more!
Book Bees, I think that’s all I’ve got on the topic of Snow White. Do you have a favorite retelling or adaptation that I didn’t mention? Or is there a trope or hallmark of the retellings that you’ve noticed and I didn’t catch? Let me know in the comments!