Who doesn’t love Snow White? It was Disney’s chosen for the maiden voyage into a feature length animation. Critics scoffed – who would sit through an animated feature that long? Oops. The story, first published by the Brothers Grimm as far as I can tell (1812), has been a perennial favorite, and Disney’s foray led to a unique Academy Award (Honorary).
But there is still more to learn in this twice-told tale…
Every story has a lesson. Don’t trust your stepmother. Talking to your mirror makes you crazy. If you want to find a Prince, run away, then later fall asleep with nothing to point out where you are.
Okay, okay, so maybe some lessons don’t make sense. Perhaps it’s because assuming that this is merely a reasonable story and no myth is quite wrong.
Be careful when foraying into Faerie. Individuals more astute and powerful than you have fallen under its spell. The worst curse, of course, is to see nothing and not know that one has been in Faerie, so keep reading.
What is this Snow White? To recap the Disney version, a stepmother with vanity and jealousy issues is infuriated with her daughter, attempts to kill her, and then by strange chance this girl Snow (what were her parents thinking when they named her?) stumbles into stranger companions: seven singing shorties. All chance happenings seem for naught when in the end, the plotting stepmother (a witch, by the way) gets her poison to kill… then (queue the sappy music) a kiss fixes it all on this previously-unheard-of Prince who interrupts her nap and gallops into the credits.
Looked at as myth, though, it does not seem so strange. Let’s look at a few possibilities. This is by no means exhaustive: it is meant to whet the appetite.
Stepmother. Hmm. Not mother. Perhaps childless herself? And so, never having procreated, she is stuck in a pre-maternal love affair with her own image? But I don’t delve too deep in what is merely the psychological: I’m after the mythological. Related, but different emphases. The main myth point I see has nothing to do with the stepmother: it has everything to do with the absent parents.
Heroes require a disconnect from their parents. A sense of self – without which there is no character development; an independence – without which, there is no plot, merely the stream that a actionless observer floats down.
See also orphans in story (Cinderella, Frodo Baggins, the Boxcar Children, Eragon, Harry Potter, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker… need I go on?) and other kids separated from their parents (the Pevensies, Hansel & Gretel, and virtually every eye-rolling teenager in sitcom).
This disconnect creates tension. Snow has something (“whiteness”) that the stepmother envies. White has the implications of innocence (“fair”). And while innocence is a decent starting point, I will argue that Snow White fails if she remains Snow White. But more on this later.
As an aside, the point of the colors here is to show progression. Perhaps the color scheme is overtly racist, perhaps not. But I think there is some meaning to be plucked before turning away entirely.
So, plotting commences and under the mercy of the huntsman Snow reaches the forest. The Old Forest. The Wild Forest. The Wild. Mirkwood. Faerie is often portrayed as an overgrown forest (e.g. a Midsummer Night’s Dream) where society precipitates in a clearing here or a clearing there, disappearing as fast as it congregates.
Mythically, I would contend that this is Snow, forced away from her “whiteness.” Her ivory palace, or palace at least, is no longer home. And her disconnect to her dead parents is now increased by distance. What is this forest? It is the wildness of her adolescense, the tempestuous half-child half-woman phase.
Not making sense? Well, when she gets to the heart of it, she is found by (or finds) seven dwarves. Seven is the number of fullness but a dwarf, though stout, is quite stunted in growth. And here she is stuck, until she manages to manage… what are they exactly?
They are pieces of her. Dreams, yearnings, selfishness, moods, personalities, immaturities. Not for nothing did Disney choose a broad array of names, matching moods, and all as petulant as children. And Snow may not leave until she has tamed them.
Back to the whiteness. What happens next? A red apple. Apples. Golden apples, red… they abound in the literature. If white is innocence, reasonable enough in a child but not sufficient when one has grown, red is much more. Red is passion, vitality, and venereal in the old sense of relating-to-Venus.
Red apples. In case we don’t get it, red and apple go together. Fecundity and life. Once the point is initially grasped, the superlative weight of the double-breasted imagery is inescapable.
The stepmother re-enters. She is not so white as Snow; she is quite red, but (as shown from her earlier actions) her red is of a poisoned sort. Nonetheless, it is the best Snow has to go on, and she must become Snow Red in order to grow. She eats the apple and falls asleep.
Here, among many other places, interpretations can diverge. I prefer to leave JOY as the guiding north star in all myth, save where the tragedy is so beautiful as the pangs of sorrow that the story must die without death (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), so I will take it the happy way. Which, by the way, Disney often does with its stories – preferring happily ever after to dead and well done.
The happiness here is that Snow White’s time in the Forest, taming the dwarves, those stunted projections of her immature self, has paid off. The poison does not kill, but only prepare her for the next step. She is now fully woman. And, in the stories at least and (coincidentally or not, often in real life – “when the student is ready the teacher appears”) once the woman is full woman the gravity of her person calls into the story the Prince.
Full woman? After a cloistered childhood and a short housekeeping stint? Well, the point of myth is to compress massive loads of reality into amounts able to dose to listening children. If nothing else, let her womanliness, her queenship be evidenced by this: “and they lived happily ever after.”
Which you must acknowledge, if you know anything about real life, is the hardest challenge, most demanding task, and highest achievement of them all.