Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Snow White

The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is among the most popular of all Fairytales, particularly since it was chosen by Walt Disney for his first feature-length Animated Movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The tale derives from "Sneewitchen" ["Snowdrop"], in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (coll 1812) by the Grimm Brothers. It tells of a king who has a young daughter, Snowdrop. His wife dies and he marries a beautiful new queen, who becomes jealous of the beauty of her step-daughter, now seven. The queen asks her magic Mirror who is the most beautiful in the land, and the mirror replies that it is Snowdrop. In her rage she orders that Snowdrop be taken Into the Woods and killed, and only her heart – which the queen will eat – brought back. (Victorian translators soon bowdlerized this to have Snowdrop abandoned in the woods.) The soldier so charged, unable to kill Snowdrop, dupes the queen with a lamb's heart. Snowdrop chances upon the cottage of the seven Dwarfs, who come home to find her asleep. The queen learns from her mirror that Snowdrop is still alive. She disguises herself as a pedlar and sells Snowdrop some lace which she ties so tight that Snowdrop collapses. The dwarfs revive her. The queen tries again, this time with a poisoned comb, but again the dwarfs revive Snowdrop. The third time, however, a poisoned apple succeeds. The dwarfs encase Snowdrop in a glass coffin where she remains for some years until a prince lifts her from the coffin and in so doing dislodges the poisoned apple. The queen dies of rage (in the original version she is forced to dance to her death in red-hot slippers) and Snowdrop marries the prince.

Like all fairytales the story has several forebears. In Lo Cunto de li Cunti ["The Story of Stories"] (1634; vt The Pentameron 1674) by Giambattista Basile (1575-1632) the story sometimes known as "The Young Slave" tells of a beautiful young girl, Lisa, who is poisoned by a comb, and is kept alive in a glass coffin, which grows with her. In "Richilde" (1782-1787) by Johann Karl Musäus, Richilde is a vain woman who has a magic mirror which tells her of her beauty. The mirror also informs her the handsomest man is Gombold, who is already married, but under Richilde's influence (> Femme Fatale) Gombold divorces and marries Richilde. He already has a young daughter, Blanca, who grows up and becomes more beautiful than Richilde. The stepmother does all she can to be rid of the girl who, with the help of the court dwarfs, escapes.

SW was also used as a character by the Grimms in "Sneewitchen and Rosenrot" ["Snowdrop and Rose Red"] (1837), a story mostly by Wilhelm Grimm, who seems to have utilized elements from Der Undankbare Zwerg (1818) by Friedrich Kind (1768-1843) about an ungrateful dwarf. In the Grimm version, two sisters living with their mother are visited by a bear, whom they care for during the winter. In the spring the bear goes to protect his treasure from the Dwarfs. The girls meet a dwarf and help him out of several predicaments, although he is never grateful. At length the bear returns, kills the dwarf and is revealed as a young prince who had been placed under a Spell by the dwarf.

SW is a different girl in these stories, but always the name symbolizes purity and Virginity. It is significant in "Snowdrop" that the girl is aged seven before her stepmother seeks to have her killed. Seven signifies completeness, and represents the first complete stage of childhood – it is relevant, too, that the girl is saved by seven dwarfs. The whole story of "Snowdrop" is replete with Numerology references, implying that it may have some deeper alchemical (> Alchemy) or Gnostic meaning. "Snowdrop and Rose Red", conversely, is probably drawn from a nature myth, with the bear signifying winter, and the two sisters representing two roses who need to be cared for during the winter. In the summer the girls come forth and do battle with the dwarf, who has power over the Seasons.

"Snowdrop" has formed the basis for Revisionist Fantasies, including Snow White (1967) by Donald Barthelme and Suisan (1992) by Phyllis Agins. Tanith Lee has utilized the tale twice, once for a darker version, "Red as Blood" (1979 F&SF), and once translated into the modern day in "Snow-Drop" (in Snow White, Blood Red anth 1993 ed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling). Patricia C Wrede reworked the other Snow White into Elizabethan England in Snow White and Rose Red (1989). Snow White is also retold for feminists by Róisín Sheerin in "Snow White" (in Cinderella on the Ball anth 1991 ed anon). [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.