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 . . .
(The illustration is by Arthur Rackham.)