Well, as a matter of fact, it doesn’t start with ‘Once upon a time’, at least the version I have at hand – that being a rather battered 1974 Children’s Press Grimm’s Fairy Tales. What it does have is a story that will confound those who insist all fairy tales are sexist propaganda. Not to be confused with a certain unfortunate royal orphan of the same name, Snow White and Rose Red are sisters living with their widowed mother on the edges of a large forest. Given their inevitable fairy tale cliché popularity with the local fauna, and even an odd little allusion to angels, they are allowed to play in the forest unhindered, but are nevertheless astounded and very scared when they open their door one winter’s night and find an enormous bear outside, asking for shelter.
Their mother shows some excellent presence of mind. She takes the bear’s human elocution in her stride and agrees for him to stay the night. He returns every evening for the remainder of the winter and the girls quickly adopt him like a favoured pet, while he is quietly tolerant of their teasing. Come spring, however, he disappears, insisting he must defend his ‘treasures’ from the dwarves of the forest.
It doesn’t take long to see why. The girls are gathering wood for their mother when they come across a singularly sullen dwarf whose long beard is entangled in a split tree. Snow White produces a pair of scissors and cuts him free. Is he grateful? No. He grabs a sack full of treasure (great guard, that bear) and runs off yelling abuse about the uninvited haircut. Do the girls care? No, not particularly. This dwarf, however, turns out to be kind of disaster prone. The girls encounter him again knotted up in a fishing line, then attacked by a hungry bird. Each time they rescue him very capably, receive the usual round of insults, and calmly get on with their day while he scurries off with a new load of stolen treasure. Then one day the sisters find him gloating over his assembled hoard in a forest clearing. He is furious at being seen and starts screaming at them all over again, but his unwise volume only attracts more attention. An enormous bear comes storming into the clearing and the dwarf actually tries to convince it to eat the girls instead. Cold-hearted bastard.
This is no ordinary bear, however, it’s the bear who has finally located his stolen treasure and quickly dispatches the thief with one blow of his huge paw. The fur then falls away and reveals a tall young man dressed in gold. He is of course a prince, enchanted by the dwarf to wear a bear’s skin, and freed now that the dwarf is dead. The girls take him home, presumably to share his story with their mother. Snow White soon marries the prince, Rose Red falls for his brother and they move into the palace together with their mother and their rose trees – which, we are told, not only survived the transplant, but flourished. I think we can safely consider that as a metaphor for their owners too.
Snow White and Rose Red are sensible young women. They are very capable and kind-hearted without being remotely martyrish. When they marry their princes, they bring the best bits of home with them, and you know, I’m sure that even as queen Snow White will always have a pocket for her scissors. She’s just that sort of person.