The Grim(m) Side of Snow White
The 2012 Spanish black-and-white Silent drama “Blancanieves” offered a dark but a beautiful and smart take on the classic fairy tale “Snow White”. The general audiences might have felt that the retelling and character portrayals are grotesque. But, if you dig through and get hold of the origin story, you might wonder if this was the same ‘Snow White’ you watched in numerous Disney and Hollywood versions. In fact many of our favorite bedtime fairy-tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Frog Prince hail from disturbing origins that had themes of sexual misconduct, misogyny, and brutal violence running amok.
German Nationalists, cultural researchers, and authors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – famously knows as ‘The Brothers Grimm’ – at the start of 19th century started collecting and publishing folklore. Their first collection of stories was published in the year 1812 and they popularized the tales of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and various popular ones. The Third Reich, in the 20th century, used Grimm tales for propaganda purposes (some of the tales were considered to be anti-Semitic). The Grimm’s is said to have eventually sanitized some of the ruthless and demoralizing acts of the original tales and brought up a sanitized version. With of arrival of Disney’s version, we had the perfect bedtime children story.
It is said that in the earliest Grimm version, the ‘Evil Queen’ is actually Snow White’s mother (not step-mother). The mother takes up the path of darkness when her mirror says that the daughter is more beautiful. For the later version, Brothers Grimm made the queen to die in child birth. The King marries a ‘swaggering’ woman. When Snow White celebrates her 7th birthday ‘the mirror’ comments that she is the ‘fairest of them all’ (never mind the mirror’s racist remark). The jealous and evil queen asks her huntsmen to take the seven year old into the woods and bring back her hearts and lungs so that the queen can gleefully eat them.
Snow White arrives at the dwarfs’ cottage as a little girl. In the origin story, the queen tries to kill the girl at least three times in the dwarf cottage. In the early version, the prince character is creepier than the step-mother. He is obsessive and often said to call Snow White as his ‘dearest possession’. The punishment for evil queen is also more gruesome in the origin tale. The queen, at Snow White’s wedding, is forced to step into hot iron shoes and start dancing till her death. Although she is an evil queen, I think we would all prefer her falling of the cliff (as in Disney’s version). The true love’s kiss, Snow White naively cleaning the dwarfs’ houses, and little other elements were all incorporated in different sanitized versions.
The phrase ‘and they live happily ever after’ would only seem cynical after getting to know all the darker origins of these popular tales.