The fairy tales I like best tend to be a bit obscure. I don’t know why ‘Tatterhood’ isn’t a picture book classic, or why ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ isn’t a movie with a wicked soundtrack, but for whatever reason they’re just not on the visible end of your average person’s spectrum of pop culture awareness. That’s both a bad thing and a good one. It means a lot of people miss out on some wonderful stories, but at the same time they can read those stories without preconceptions. The famous fairy tales don’t even need to be read; they seem to exist as essence in the air, breathed in as literary oxygen. And there are few fairy tales as famous as ‘Snow White’.
Only it isn’t always ‘Snow White’ – the version in Dean & Son Ltd.’s collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales is called ‘Snow-drop’. In the middle of winter a queen sits sewing at her window and pricks her finger, drawing three drops of blood. She looks at their brilliant red against the white snow and the black of the ebony window frame, and wishes that her unborn child might be as white as the snow, as red as the blood, and as black as the ebony. She is not specific in how those colours are to be applied. It would be…interesting if her hair had ended up white, her eyes red and her lips black. Has anyone thought of this? Are there retellings with a black, white-eyed, redhead Snow? For the love of literature send them to me.
Ahem. Things do not work out that way. The princess is born with white skin, red cheeks and black hair. Her mother names her Snow-drop, but is not given long to rejoice in her wish’s fulfilment. While Snow-drop is still very young, the queen dies. The king soon marries again and, being of spectacularly poor judgement, goes straight for a drop dead gorgeous psychopath with a talking mirror. Whenever her self-esteem takes a hit, she demands consolation from it. “Tell me, glass, tell me true! Of all the ladies in the land, who is the fairest? Tell me who?” And every time the mirror answers, “Thou, Queen, art fairest in the land” until one day when poor little Snow-drop is seven years old, it swaps sides. Irresponsibly, it tells the queen so. “Thou, Queen, may’st fair and beautous be, but Snow-drop is lovelier far than thee!”
As you can probably guess, the queen does not take this well. She orders one of her servants to take Snow-drop into the woods, ‘that I may never see her more’, but when the terrified little girl begs for her life the servant chooses to interpret his orders as just leaving her out there at the hands of Fate…and wild beasts and starvation and so on. He doesn’t mean for her to live, he simply doesn’t want to take her life himself. The wild beasts, however, turn out to have better manners than the queen; they leave Snow-drop alone. Wandering alone in the wood, she comes at last to a small cottage where supper for seven is laid out and a row of seven little beds are arranged along the wall. Seven is an important number in this story. Being very hungry but a responsible sort of child, she only takes a little from every plate, then climbs into one of the beds to sleep, because however responsible she might be she’s also an exhausted, heartsick seven-year-old.
Soon afterwards the owners of the cottage return. Let’s guess who they might be! Lighting their lamps, the seven dwarves channel three bear style indignation at the disarray of the table (who’s been rearranging my cutlery?) but then they actually see their intruder and decide she’s too adorable to turf out, so they let her sleep. They are also sympathetic to her plight when she finally wakes up and explains herself. It’s agreed that she can stay if she does all their cooking and cleaning and sewing and…yeah, the benefits weigh pretty heavily on their side. Still, it’s better than being murdered by an egomaniac. While the dwarves are at work mining gold in the mountains each day, Snow-drop obediently performs her new duties.
But she isn’t safe for long. The queen, her rival apparently removed, soon returns to the mirror for confirmation and is appalled to learn of her mistake. Not content with the trouble it has already caused, the mirror then provides detailed directions to where Snow-drop can be found. The queen sets out straight away, disguised as a pedlar, to rectify her servant’s error of compassion. Snow-drop innocently allows her inside, and the queen wastes no time. “How badly your bodice is laced!” she exclaims. “Let me lace it up with one of my nice new laces.” She pulls the bodice so tight that Snow-drop collapses, and the queen calmly leaves her to die.
She does not count on the interference of the dwarves, however. They soon return, work out what’s happened and cut Snow-drop free. She quickly revives, which comes as a tremendous surprise to the queen when she checks in with her mirror. Vicious with thwarted rage, she disguises herself again and returns to the cottage. This time Snow-drop is a little more alert and refuses to let her in, but the queen knows how to get around that; she passes the girl a pretty comb and when Snow-drop places it in her hair, the poison knocks her to the floor in an instant. “There you may lie,” the queen tells her contemptuously. But the dwarves are on the alert too. They return early that evening and remove the comb in time to save Snow-drop’s life.
The queen cannot believe her bad luck when the mirror tells her yet again that Snow-drop is alive. Why the king has not noticed his daughter’s disappearance or the fact his wife is off playing twisted dress ups all the time is not explained. Adaptations of this fairy tale for books and films tend to kill him off, but the story itself doesn’t. Wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, it is clearly no hindrance to the queen. She locks herself away in a hidden room and makes herself some comfort food – well, a poisoned apple, actually. Then she disguises herself again and goes back to the cottage.
Snow-drop is well and truly suspicious by now. She won’t let the queen in or eat the apple she is offered. The queen, though, is a cunning sort. She cuts the apple in two and eats the safe half, offering the other to her stepdaughter. Snow-drop accepts it. No sooner has she taken her first bite than she falls down dead. When the queen returns to the palace, the mirror confirms the fact, and at last she is satisfied.
The dwarves return home that night to find their ward lying cold on the floor. They do everything they can to rouse her, but this time it seems there’s nothing to be done for her. Still, she looks so close to life that they can’t bear the thought of burying her and instead lay her out in a coffin of glass. Her name is written on it in golden letters. And for a long time she lies there, mourned as dead.
Then a prince comes riding past. Being a morbid type, he takes a fancy to the dead girl and offers to buy. Yep, folks, you read that right. He wants to BUY A TOTAL STRANGER’S CORPSE. The dwarves refuse at first, but when they see he really means it, they basically shrug their shoulders and agree. As the prince lifts the coffin, he jolts Snow-drop and the poisoned apple falls from her mouth. Miraculously, she wakes.
“Where am I?” she asks, reasonably. “Thou art safe with me,” the prince tells her, followed by a summary of events and a declaration of love, all wrapped up with a proposal. Snow-drop, you may remember, was a preteen child when she was murdered. Maybe she grew up while dead, weirder things have happened – er, probably – but mentally she is still a child! I feel the dwarves should really have intervened at this point. They don’t; the prince carries Snow-drop home to his palace and sets about arranging the wedding. An invitation is sent to the queen. Before she leaves to attend, unaware of her own connection to the bride, she asks her usual question of the mirror. Its reply terrified and enrages her. “Thou, lady, art loveliest here, I ween; but lovelier far is the new-made Queen.”
Of course she has to see who this mysterious beauty may be. As soon as she arrives she recognises the princess as none other than her long-dead stepdaughter, and so great is her shock that it kills her.
There are other versions in which the young princess forces her enemy to dance to her death in red-hot iron shoes. It’s slightly less disturbing this way. What is really weird, to me, is how standard this fairy tale remains. Seriously, how is the work of a tyrranical murderess and her glass accomplice so universally classified as a cute kid’s story? Why is it such a cultural touchstone while other, less gruesome fairy tales are forgotten? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be – I just don’t understand why it is. Perhaps because it is so simple it can’t be forgotten. Perhaps because, for all its bitterness and cruelty, something at its core feels true.
And in part at least, I think it’s because we want to believe the little girl can get away.