Heroine’s Journey: Snow White

Earlier this week, I posted a blog post called The Heroine’s Journey. In it, I talked about the journey I had seen fairy tale heroines take in the stories I was teaching, and listed the steps of that journey. I think the journey is real: I think it’s an underlying structure of many fairy tale journeys taken by female characters. But the only way to test that intuition is against the stories themselves. So over the next few weeks, as I have time, I’ll be talking about how that journey looks in various fairy tales. Today’s tale is “Snow White.” As I do this, I’ll be refining the original steps; I already think there are a few more than I originally noticed.

Once again, the steps can happen out of order, although they have a general trajectory. “Snow White” has them in a slightly different order than I first described. What I’ll do is list the steps and then show how they appear in the story. When studying fairy tales, it’s always important to specify which version you’re quoting from. The quotations below come from Grimm’s Household Tales, a translation of the Grimms’ collection by Margaret Hunt (London: George Bell, 1884).

1. The heroine receives gifts and attributes.

This is one of the first things that happens in “Snow White”:

Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.”

Snow White’s beauty comes from her mother’s wishes; like Sleeping Beauty receiving the gifts of the fairies, she is formed by magic. Her beauty is one of her most important attributes, and will drive the plot of the tale.

2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.

After a year had passed the King took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that any one else should surpass her in beauty.

Either the heroine has to leave home, or her safe and comfortable home is destabilized, often by a parent’s remarriage. Both happen to Snow White: first she loses her family structure, and then she is actually sent away from her home. It’s important to note that in the first edition of 1812, Snow White’s mother does not die: instead, she herself turns against Snow White. But in either case we have a destabilization of the home.

She called a huntsman, and said, “Take the child away into the forest; I will no longer have her in my sight. Kill her, and bring me back her heart as a token.” The huntsman obeyed, and took her away; but when he had drawn his knife, and was about to pierce Snow-white’s innocent heart, she began to weep, and said, “Ah, dear huntsman, leave me my life! I will run away into the wild forest, and never come home again.”

And so, like many other fairy tale heroines, Snow White is thrust out into the world.

3. The heroine goes into the dark forest.

But now the poor child was all alone in the great forest, and so terrified that she looked at every leaf of every tree, and did not know what to do. Then she began to run, and ran over sharp stones and through thorns, and the wild beasts ran past her, but did her no harm.

This happens exactly the way I described, and in the same order: there goes Snow White, running through the trees . . .

4. The heroine finds a temporary home.

She ran as long as her feet would go until it was almost evening; then she saw a little cottage and went into it to rest herself. Everything in the cottage was small, but neater and cleaner than can be told. There was a table on which was a white cover, and seven little plates, and on each plate a little spoon; moreover, there were seven little knives and forks, and seven little mugs. Against the wall stood seven little beds side by side, and covered with snow-white counterpanes.

The dwarves’ cottage is Snow White’s temporary home, where she can rest for a while. She will eventually have to leave, of course. The temporary home is always a place that the heroine has to eventually leave.

5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.

These are of course the seven dwarves.

When it was quite dark the owners of the cottage came back; they were seven dwarfs who dug and delved in the mountains for ore. They lit their seven candles, and as it was now light within the cottage they saw that some one had been there, for everything was not in the same order in which they had left it.

They will help and protect her while she goes through the most difficult part of her journey.

6. The heroine learns to work.

I added this step to the list when I realized that often, the fairy tale heroine has to learn to work. That work is usually housework or servants’ work: she learns to clean or cook. I’m not sure why this step is important? Perhaps it has to do with a heroine needing to learn women’s work, because after all these tales come out of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But I think there’s more to it than that. Even helpless princesses have to learn how to take care of themselves and others — how to make a living and a life.

The dwarfs said, “If you will take care of our house, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, and knit, and if you will keep everything neat and clean, you can stay with us and you shall want for nothing.” “Yes,” said Snow-white, “with all my heart,” and she stayed with them. She kept the house in order for them; in the mornings they went to the mountains and looked for copper and gold, in the evenings they came back, and then their supper had to be ready.

7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.

Snow White’s temptations and trials are the three visits from her stepmother, during which her stepmother sells her corset laces, a comb, and the apple. She fails the tests, and each time she dies. But each time her friends and helpers rescue her. Granted, this makes Snow White seem a little weak, even a little stupid. But she’s a human heroine: she gives in to her vanity. The story reinforces that she’s not perfect, that she is subject to temptation. Sleeping Beauty gives in to temptation as well, when she touches the spindle. And the help Snow White gets is earned — she’s earned it by her work.

8. The heroine dies or visits the dead.

The last temptation proves so deadly that Snow White can’t be revived.

“Are you afraid of poison?” said the old woman; “look, I will cut the apple in two pieces; you eat the red cheek, and I will eat the white.” The apple was so cunningly made that only the red cheek was poisoned. Snow-white longed for the fine apple, and when she saw that the woman ate part of it she could resist no longer, and stretched out her hand and took the poisonous half. But hardly had she a bit of it in her mouth than she fell down dead. Then the Queen looked at her with a dreadful look, and laughed aloud and said, “White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony-wood! this time the dwarfs cannot wake you up again.”

And sure enough, they can’t. She’s not completely dead, of course. She still looks as though she were alive, so they put her in the glass coffin.

Then they were going to bury her, but she still looked as if she were living, and still had her pretty red cheeks. They said, “We could not bury her in the dark ground,” and they had a transparent coffin of glass made, so that she could be seen from all sides, and they laid her in it, and wrote her name upon it in golden letters, and that she was a king’s daughter.

Deep sleep counts as a metaphorical death, in fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty’s sleep also counts as being dead.

9. The heroine finds her true partner.

This is the prince.

It happened, however, that a king’s son came into the forest, and went to the dwarfs’ house to spend the night. He saw the coffin on the mountain, and the beautiful Snow-white within it, and read what was written upon it in golden letters. Then he said to the dwarfs, “Let me have the coffin, I will give you whatever you want for it.”

Yes, I know, it’s a little strange: what does he want with a dead girl? But fairy tales speak in metaphor: in that language, this is true love, and even death cannot separate you from your true love. Also, you recognize your true love at once. Even if she’s dead.

10. The heroine is revived or revives another.

Here Snow White is the one revived, as Sleeping Beauty is revived. In other tales, the heroine is the one who must revive her true partner, who is in a sort of death.

And now the King’s son had it carried away by his servants on their shoulders. And it happened that they stumbled over a tree-stump, and with the shock the poisonous piece of apple which Snow-white had bitten off came out of her throat. And before long she opened her eyes, lifted up the lid of the coffin, sat up, and was once more alive.

11. The heroine enters her true home.

This is the final home, from which she will no longer need to travel.

“Oh, heavens, where am I?” she cried. The King’s son, full of joy, said, “You are with me,” and told her what had happened, and said, “I love you more than everything in the world; come with me to my father’s palace, you shall be my wife.”

And Snow-white was willing, and went with him, and their wedding was held with great show and splendour.

Here the heroine has claimed her place in the world: she is with her true partner, in her true home. I originally thought the story ended here. But I think there’s another step, one I’m not sure I like!

12. The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

Notice that this final step is in passive voice: the heroine is rarely the one who does the punishing. The punishment comes from somewhere else, and seems almost like an act of fate, although in this case we can wonder if that’s really so.

But Snow-white’s wicked step-mother was also bidden to the feast.

Who bade her, I wonder? She’s the one who decides to go — she need not have gone. Her curiosity about this beautiful queen gets the better of her.

Then the wicked woman uttered a curse, and was so wretched, so utterly wretched, that she knew not what to do. At first she would not go to the wedding at all, but she had no peace, and must go to see the young Queen. And when she went in she knew Snow-white; and she stood still with rage and fear, and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.

Who heated the iron shoes? Who forced her to wear them? We don’t know. It’s a cruel ending, but fairy tales tell us that there are cruel endings out there.

I do think this final step is important: it completes the story, makes sure that the good and wicked get what are coming to them. But I have to think some more about how I feel about it!

So, “Snow White” seems to work with the structure I’m developing. The next thing to do is test another tale. Only when I have enough examples will I feel confident that I’m on to something . . .

Rackham Snow White

(The illustration is by Arthur Rackham.)

The Heroine’s Journey

This post is prompted by two things:

First, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert say, in an interview, that according to Joseph Campbell there was no such thing as a heroine’s journey, because the heroine did not need to go on a journey: she was the home to which the hero returned. I can imagine Campbell making such a statement, but the evidence in his own book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, contradicts it: he repeatedly describes heroines on journeys, including Ishtar descending into the underworld. Some heroines have gone on journeys; therefore, the heroine’s journey must exist.

Second, I tried to do some research on the heroine’s journey, and what I found seemed too complicated: it didn’t match up with the journeys I was seeing in the fairy tales I teach.

So I decided to write out a heroine’s journey based on the fairy tales I’m most familiar with. Here’s what I came up with. I describe each step, but sometimes the steps occur in a different order, so the chronology may differ from tale to tale. And not every tale has every step. And not every tale is a journey tale! But when the heroine is on a journey of some sort, this is basically what it looks like:

1. The heroine lives in the initial home. This can be Snow White’s Castle, Cinderella’s house, or the poor cottage where we first encounter the lassie in “East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon.” It’s a place of stability, where the heroine is happy and safe. Usually, it’s the place she spends her childhood.

2. The heroine receives gifts. Sleeping Beauty receives gifts from the fairies, Cinderella from her fairy godmother or alternatively the spirit of her dead mother in a hazel tree. Donkeyskin receives dresses from her father. Sometimes receiving gifts comes before she leaves the initial home, and sometimes after.  The lassie receives the golden apple, comb, and spinning wheel after she has lost the temporary home and been left in the dark forest, so rather late in the tale.  These gifts will later help the heroine.

3. The heroine leaves her initial home. Sometimes she has to leave because she is fleeing her father, as in Donkeyskin. Sometimes she is given away, like Rapunzel. Sometimes she chooses to leave, like Beauty, to save her father and family. If the heroine stays in her home, the home itself is somehow destroyed: Cinderella’s sense of home disappears when her stepmother arrives and she is made to work as a servant.

4. The heroine enters the dark forest. Snow White and Donkeyskin go directly from their initial homes into the dark forest. The lassie enters the dark forest after losing her temporary home: when her bear husband disappears, she is left alone among the trees. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the dark forest actually grows up around the sleeping princess. Rapunzel enters the dark forest after being expelled from her tower.

5. The heroine finds a temporary home. This can be Snow White’s home with the dwarves, or Psyche’s home with Eros in the old, mythic precursor to “Beauty and the Beast.” It can even be the Beast’s castle. In Donkeyskin, it’s the castle where the heroine serves as kitchenmaid, and in Rapunzel it’s the tower. The important thing is that it’s temporary: the heroine may think she can stay there, but she will eventually have to leave again. Sometimes, in the temporary home, she finds her true partner, but not in the right form or at the right time. Rapunzel meets her prince in the temporary home, but loses him again.

6. The heroine finds friends and helpers. These are dwarves, birds, snakes . . . The heroine finds them and enlists their aid by being kind to them, giving them what they need. And they will help her later on, when she is forced to leave the temporary home and set out on her journey once again.

7. The heroine is tested. Snow White is tempted with the ribbons, comb, and apple. Sleeping Beauty’s test is brief: can she resist touching the spindle? But some heroines go through long, agonizing periods of testing. The princess in “Six Swans” can’t speak for years, and must sew shirts for her swan-brothers. Tests can involve climbing glass mountains, wearing iron shoes, and dealing with ogres.  Even Cinderella must get home by midnight.

8. The heroine dies. The tests and trials that the heroine endures include a journey into death. This is perhaps clearest in Psyche’s descent into Hades, but Snow White in her glass coffin, Sleeping Beauty in her hundred years’ sleep, are all versions of the dead heroine.

9. The heroine finds her true partner. This time, he is in his right form: the bear has been transformed into a prince, the Beast is now a man. He recognizes her, just as she recognizes him. It may not seem like much of a love story (the prince dances with her three times, and that’s it), but that’s because fairy tales are told in a kind of shorthand. It’s a convention of the fairy tale that recognition of the true partner is immediate, if he is in his true form. If he is in his false or temporary form, the heroine must learn to see him correctly first.  And sometimes he must learn to see her correctly, because she may be in disguise as well.

10. The heroine finds her true home. She had to leave her initial home and find her true partner before she could enter her true home. Now Cinderella can live in the castle, Beauty can live with her Beast, and it’s time for happily ever after.

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of the heroine finding her true partner (does she really need a man to be her partner?), you can think of it as a metaphor. The true partner is also the other side of herself, so the story shows us the integration of the feminine and masculine, human and animal, sides of the personality. I don’t know, really: I just know that the partner is usually there, that the heroine is eventually united to a prince. Perhaps it means that a union with the right other is one of the highest things we can achieve in this life, perhaps it’s about unity within the self. Either way, it seems to be part of the story.

I do think, looking over this list, that it’s an interesting model for looking at a woman’s life. I know that I’ve been into the dark forest, and through times of trial. I’ve found friends and helpers, as well as temporary homes. But I’ll have to think some more about whether and how this model is useful . . .

Snow White

This image from the 1920s shows Snow White entering her temporary home (the dwarves’ cottage).

Tried and True

Life is uncertain, we know that. We know that we’re on a small blue globe spinning through the darkness of space. We’ve seen maps of galaxies with the little arrow pointing: “You are here.” We know that in a moment, life can change, or end. Our planet can be hit by an asteroid. We can be hit by a bus. We know all that: the uncertainty, instability, unreliability of it all.

Which is why I like finding things that are tried and true. Things I know I can rely on. They’re always small things, because the larger things you can’t rely on: home, love, peace. Those things change and slip away. Come back and slip away again. So I hold on to small things, even silly things, the way a child clutches a favorite blanket or toy. But the small things matter in life: raindrops, fireflies, minutes all matter. If you experience it in the right way, a minute can last an eternity. In the same way, small things can keep you grounded, safely on this spinning globe. They can fill you with happiness.

So I’m going to list some of the things I rely on, and I think you should make a list of your own. What is your tried and true, no matter how small or silly? What do you know will not let you down?

1. Revlon lipstick. The cosmetics company Revlon has been around since 1932, and they’ve figured out how to make lipstick by now. The colors are rich and varied, the lipsticks are moisturizing. And they are cheap. When I wear my favorite color (Fig Jam), I feel adventurous and as though I could conquer the world. Happiness in a tube of lipstick: that’s like a small miracle, really.

2. My rice cooker. I put in dry rice and water, and an hour later I have cooked rice. How perfectly brilliant! Would that other things in life were so reliable.

3. Cotton cardigans. Is there anything better for fall in New England than a cotton cardigan? (I can’t wear wool because it’s too itchy.) You can put it on, button it or not, take it off, depending on the temperature — which, in fall in New England, is unpredictable. The cotton cardigan: an ingenious device that allows you to regular and respond to unpredictability. And it comes in pretty colors . . .

4. Alstroemeria lilies. I know, they’re not the most beautiful flowers. But the most beautiful flowers are delicate — if I bring them home and put them in a vase, they last a day or two. Alstroemeria lilies last, reliably, for a week. And over that week, I can see them open up, pink or yellow or crimson, with green veins. They bring something living and beautiful into my apartment.

5. Cetaphil face wash. If you have sensitive skin, your skin itself, the thing you live in, can be unpredictable. Will we break out into a red rash today? We never know . . . This is the gentlest and most reliable way to clean my face, the face I present the the world and that tells people what I’m thinking or feeling. Considering how much work my face does, I think it deserves to be well taken care of!

6. Agatha Christie mysteries. When I can’t read anything else, when I’m exhausted or despairing, I can always read her mysteries: the gruesome death, the labyrinthine case, the logical deductions. I think it’s because they tell me that in an uncertain world, there’s always an underlying logic, if we can just see it.

7. The sea. All right, this isn’t a small one. But the sea . . . it moves, it has moods, it gets angry sometimes. Sometimes it breaks things. You could say that it’s the principle of uncertainty itself. And that’s why it’s so reassuring. The sea is always different, yet always there. Whatever changes on the surface, underneath the sea is the same. Until our planet itself dries up, it will be with us, in constant motion. By the time the sea goes away, we will be long gone.

8. Ballet flats. You can squash them flat and pack them into a suitcase, and when you arrive in London, they’ll be ready for you. They’ll carry you through cities and down country roads. Sure, there are places where ballet flats are impractical, but I wouldn’t travel without them. With a pair of ballet flats and a pair of Keds, I can go almost anywhere . . .

9. The English language. All right, this is another big one. But it’s like the sea: it’s so uncertain, such a mishmash of other languages, always changing, and yet always the same underneath. It’s reliably unreliable. Cough? Dough? Plough? I mean, really, it’s crazy . . . And yet I love it. (Hungarian, which I also love, is also crazy, in a completely different way.)

10. Timex watches. Time slips away, but a Timex watch will at least tell you what time it is, reliably. Mine don’t even need to be wound. I have two, in case I lose one or the battery stops working and I need another watch to wear while I get it replaced. They are comparatively cheap, and they do what they’re supposed to — tell the time — perfectly. How many things in life can do that?

All things fall, all things change. Which is why we hold on to what we can, whether it’s a favorite shade of lipstick, or a dogeared book, or a walk by the seashore . . .


(This is a photo I took recently, in the park by the Boston Common. That’s the swan lake . . .)

Making Mistakes

I’ve been decorating, so I’ve been making lots of mistakes.

The latest is the Mistake of the Bedroom Curtains. Yes, they have names, like Sherlock Holmes cases. The mistake was that I bought the wrong curtains, but it actually all started with the bed.

When I first started decorating the bedroom, I put the bed in a perfectly logical place, close to the window. I added the bedside tables and hung pictures above them. I thought, that’s it: one corner of the bedroom done. And then I realized that late at night, through the wall, I could hear the low buzz of conversation from the building next door. Not words, but the buzz that lets you know a conversation is taking place, like bees in the walls. I don’t know how, since the buildings are a hundred years old and the walls are a foot thick. But then, I have very good hearing. So I had to turn the bed around, which actually ended up being a much better place for it. And the bedside tables had to move. And the bookshelves. So now I had a window with a bookshelf beneath it, which meant rehanging the paintings. I will have to find spackle and paint to cover the initial holes — to hide my mistakes.

But what about the curtains? The first set of curtains I put on the window were dark red cotton, to match the curtains in the living room. But the window in the bedroom is tall and narrow: those curtains blocked out too much light. The second set of curtains were cream, with flowers on them (one of my favorite patterns, Waverly’s Norfolk Rose). They were perfect, but always meant to be temporary because they will eventually be the bed curtains (by which I mean the ones that go over the bed — a bed doesn’t feel finished to me, without curtains). So I bought a third set of curtains, with dark red and cream stripes. I thought, that will match everything else in the room, right? And they did. They matched perfectly, and would have worked, except . . . the room was too dark again. And then I thought, why not get plain cream cotton curtains, just like the dark red curtains I started with — except, you know, not dark or red. By now you’re thinking, I never ever want to decorate with this woman . . . Because yes, I had gone through three different sets of curtains for the bedroom, although the only one I couldn’t reuse elsewhere was the striped set. But I had actually learned something from the experience. Not that I’m incredibly picky when decorating my living space — that I knew. But that the most important thing, for me, was light.

You see, the bedroom is where I have my writing desk, and sometimes I write during the day, although right now I do most of my writing at night. It’s important to me that the room get as much light as possible during the day, although at night I need to close the curtains. The mistake — buying the wrong curtains — led to the realization. So now I have plain cream cotton curtains. If I could, I would have a pattern, because I like patterns. But the most important thing is the light. Without buying the wrong curtains, I would not have realized what I actually valued the most.

And that’s why I’m writing a blog post about curtains: because they led to a revelation. I blame myself for mistakes, beat myself up mentally for them.  But the mistakes are actually part of the learning process. They aren’t wrong turns, but how I get to the right place. We’re told to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, but what I’m saying goes deeper than that: our mistakes are necessary. We could not succeed without them. Often, it’s just after doing something wrong that I suddenly realize how to do it right. If you’re not making mistakes, it’s probably because you’re not trying to do anything particularly complicated. Anything at all complicated (in which I include hanging curtains) takes time, and finding the right way to do it — and that usually involves starting with wrong ways.

So what I’m saying is, don’t blame yourself for mistakes. Don’t forgive yourself for them. Thank yourself for them . . . maybe even, if you can, celebrate them. Because without them, you can’t get wherever you’re going.


This is the window, and the shelf, and the pictures rehung. And the curtains . . .

Pacing Yourself

You can’t do everything.

You can do a lot of things, but you have to pace yourself.

These are the lessons I’ve been learning this month. I’m the sort of person who wants to do everything: Teach. Write novels and stories and essays and poems. Spend time with my daughter, of course. But also learn Hungarian, and go to the ballet, and read books. Travel when I can. Decorate my apartment. There’s time for all of that, but I have to figure out when and how to do each thing so I’m doing it well, and not exhausting myself. That takes pacing.

So for example, I’m decorating my apartment. My impulse is to do everything at once: to buy the bookshelves, put them together, stain and finish them. Buy the pillows, the fabric to cover the pillows. Sew the pillow covers. But I don’t have time to do everything at once, because I’m also teaching and writing. So instead I do a little each day, and I find that as long as I’m doing something each day, eventually it gets done. The shelves go up, the pillows are covered and put on the daybed.

It takes having patience, and being able to divide work into discreet tasks so you can do it a bit at a time. So for example, today I’m going to stain the shelves, then let them dry overnight, turn them over, and stain the other sides tomorrow. They should be completely stained by this weekend, when I can put the whole bookshelf together and finish it with oil. Soon, and by soon I mean at the end of the week, I’ll have a bookshelf, and the books that have been sitting on the floor will have a home. I do hate books sitting on the floor, so not having a place to put them has been an exercise in patience. But I know that as long as I work on the shelves every day, a little at a time, I will eventually have a floor without books on it.

The same goes for writing, and of course you know I’m more concerned about writing than shelves, although my home is important to me. In writing, I have to pace myself too. Right now, I’m working on revising the entire novel. This will be my second full revision, and this week I’ve been doing the hardest part: rewriting the first chapter. I work during the day, so I write at night, from around nine p.m. to midnight. I find that I can only write for about three hours before I lose focus, before the words won’t come as easily or fit together as well. It’s like the shelves: as long as I do a little each day, I know it will eventually be done.

There is another sense in which I try to pace myself: not just breaking up tasks over time, but making sure that in any given day, I’m doing different sorts of things. I know that if I teach and then meet with students, I need to do something that doesn’t involve people. If I sit and write for a long time, I need to go something physical. If my mind has been taken up all day with work, I need to go read a book. Whatever I’ve done, I need to do the opposite for a while. Otherwise, I’ll exhaust myself with one task, or type of task.

Pacing yourself is about getting to do all the things you want to do, not necessarily when you want to do them, but so you can do them most efficiently, and with the most energy. It takes three things:

1. Prioritizing. Know what you actually want to do, and get rid of the things you don’t want to, to the extent you can.

2. Dividing tasks over time. Figure out how to divide what you need or want to do, and do part of it each day until it’s done. But almost anything you do, even the things you love to do, you will tire of, if you keep doing them long enough.

3. Dividing your time into tasks. What do you want to do when? What are the things you most need or want to get done today, and how are you going to arrange them? Can you fit in the things you need to do, the things you want to do, and the things that will give you a break from everything else? Remember to take a walk, read a book . . .

I’m not always very good at pacing myself, but I have so many things I want to do . . . and I think that’s the only way to do them.


Last weekend, I saw this little tree in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. Can you see that it’s trying to be all the colors at once? I admire this little tree, and yet I thought: pace yourself! You have plenty of growing to do, and there’s plenty of autumn to come. You will be all the colors, little tree, in time . . .