Who Was Snow White? When Old Stories and Real Women Combine
One of the most famous fables of all, variations of Snow White appear in more than 400 versions of fairy tales around the world. The most well-known version is actually called “ Snowdrop” and comes from Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales . It was later tweaked into a more familiar format by the folklorist Andrew Lang and eventually adapted by Walt Disney.
The Fairest Woman
In this version, the queen wished for a child and a baby girl was born; her hair was as dark as ebony and her skin was so fair and pure that her mother named her Snow White. After the queen died, her father married a woman who was vain and wicked, who would stand in front of a magic mirror asking who was the fairest woman in the land. The mirror always replied “My Queen, you are the fairest one of all”, until one day an answer came that threw her into a rage – Snow White was now the fairest woman in all the land.
A 1910 illustration of Schneewittchen (Snow White) by Franz Jüttner. Source: Public Domain
Snow White’s step-mother, furious at what the mirror had told her, ordered a huntsman to take her into the forest and kill her, taking the girl’s heart as a proof. But the huntsman felt sympathy for Snow White and let her free, bringing the Evil Queen a deer’s heart instead. Snow White came upon a small cottage and, feeling exhausted, collapsed into one of the beds and fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke, seven dwarfs were looking down upon her. They told Snow White she could stay with them as long as she cleaned and cooked.
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Late 19th century illustration of Snow White with the dwarfs, by Carl Offterdinger . ( Public Domain )
Snow White and the dwarfs lived in contentment, until one day when the magic mirror told the Queen that Snow White was alive and was still the fairest of them all. The Queen disguised herself as an old woman and presented Snow White with a poisoned apple. After taking a bite of the apple, Snow White fell unconscious. The dwarfs, assuming she was dead, built a glass coffin and placed her inside.
One day, a handsome prince passed by and saw Snow White in the coffin. He fell instantly in love with her and convinced the dwarfs to let him take the coffin so he could give her a proper funeral. As he and some other men were carrying the coffin, they tripped over some tree roots causing the poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat. In the animated movie, the prince convinced the dwarfs to let him give her one last kiss - that became the most popular version. She awakened and the prince declared his love for her. They were married, and as all fairy tales go, they lived happily ever after.
‘They lived happily ever after.’ ( Public Domain )
A Myriad of Other Tales
This tale is actually a myriad of other stories mixed together, the oldest of which being the story of “ The Young Slave ” by Giambattista Basile, which also spawned Sleeping Beauty, but the biggest influences were “ Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree ” and “ Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers ”.
In “ Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree ” there was a king who had a wife, whose name was Silver-tree, and a daughter, whose name was Gold-tree. On a certain day, Gold-tree and Silver-tree went to a glen, where there was a well containing a magical trout. The queen asked the fish if she was the most beautiful queen in the world, to which the trout responded that she wasn’t, that it would be her daughter — Gold-Tree, instead. Silver-tree went home, blind with rage. She lay down in bed, and vowed she would never be well until she could eat the heart and the liver of Gold-tree. The king came back home upon hearing news of his wife being bed-ridden, and when she demanded their daughter’s liver and heart he married Gold-Tree to a prince who had just arrived to ask for the princess’ hand and sent her far away, giving his wife the organs of a goat instead.