Little Snow White Lost in the Woods

Now the poor child was all alone in the great forest, and so terrified that she looked at all the leaves on the trees, and did not know what to do.

– Little Snow White from Grimm: Complete Fairy Tales

I chose this quote from the Routledge Classics’ Little Snow White (which can be read here for free) because it is a scene consistent throughout many of the tale’s retellings. While characters, motifs and magical items generally remain consistent throughout Snow White retellings, she must also always be ‘lost in the woods’. Forced to flee her home and sometimes beloved, deceased or disappeared father, she is usually set loose in the forest by the huntsman, who assumes that the forest will do the job that he cannot will himself to do – kill her. It is a frightening place, a dangerous and magical realm outside of the explicable and anything the little princess knows. There is some surreal and inherently evil force in the woods, which points towards the conflict between the privileged civilized world and what lies beyond…

Recall the Disney version quite literally depicts the terrors of the woods:

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SkrX5lgbsg

Little Snow White joined Grimm’s collection in 1812, exactly 200 years later I sat down at three different times and watched three different iterations of the tale and then it dawned on me, “Great Scott! I’ve just watched three Snow White movies!” I was a little stunned by the onslaught. Why this tale? What is the appeal?

Snow White had never been my favourite tale, but of course I mainly knew it from the Disney movie. Released in 1937 and featuring one of the most annoying falsetto voices of all time, it was just a downright frightening film for me (depicting real hearts, scary trees and that awful scene at the end) that never left me satisfied. The film starts with the song “Wishing for the One I Love” which is basically a re-enactment of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet which foreshadows the entire movie. Snow White is destined to marry this prince, the end. Snow White tells the story of a princess falling hopelessly in love with a prince, which again leads into an incredibly slow song (Someday my Prince Will Come). The antidote to the evil Queen’s poisoned apple is ‘spelled’ out in her spell book: ‘only by love’s first kiss’. The audience is set up and so is Snow White. She can have no story that does not involve the prince (who barely speaks throughout) and their inevitable union in ‘true love’. This is intense cultural fashioning of gender norms is no untrue to the Grimm’s tale and it should be noted that Disney’s version is a product of its time. Released in the middle of the great depression, everyone was living in the squander that Snow White finds herself in, deep in the woods in the seven dwarfs’ cottage. Living off the land Snow White and the Seven Dwarves make their home in nature, befriend nature and are indeed protected by it when at the end lightening strikes the evil Queen just as she is about to destroy the dwarves and she falls to her death, crushed by a large boulder.

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHCs4hfeNfg

The witch is at the mercy of those who have befriended the natural way of life, the ‘natural gender roles’ and the natural course of a narrative – the hero and true love must win (of course). This scene mirrors the earlier one where Snow White is running scared through the woods and brings the story to a close, the only action remaining is the marriage of Snow White and the Prince. Whether it is this scene that is more horrifying than the witch being struck by lightening is up to you ;)

But though this is a simple tale, for me, it doesn’t boil down to just that. The Grimm’s tale is as much about the evil Queen as it is about Snow White. Each of these characters is faced with a challenge, each has some deus ex machina/ magical assistance – the Queen has her mirror, Snow has the dwarves and her musical voice, which befriends nature – each has to pass three trials before success. The queen trying to kill Snow three times and Snow not dying three times. Snow seems to finally escapes the Queen, and the Queen seems to finally be rid of Snow. And then there is the end, which is satisfactory for neither of these characters. A silencing by prince. Snow is married to him and then he forces the evil Queen to dance to death in hot-iron shoes.

The two films released last year try to bring the Queen’s narrative to light and empower women just a little bit. However, I think one of the best renditions of the evil Queen’s side of the story is Catherine Heller’s picturebook Snow White: The Untold Story which tells the original tale and then invites the reader to flip the book around and read a version from the Queen’s perspective. It is quite funny, check out some reviews.

Mirror Mirror was the first. Whimsical, odd and fun. It featured dwarves bouncing around on power-risers, a swashbuckling Snow White and a bollywood-style dance number at the conclusion.  As the title alludes to, however, the most interesting element of the film is the evil Queen, played by Julia Roberts, and her mirror. The mirror land is really neat and creative and I always enjoy ‘the price of magic’ plot ploy. I haven’t much to say about this film except that it’s kind of a guilty pleasure to watch. The men are bumbling idiots, the dwarves, though mentors, are also comedic slap-stick and the King has been transformed by the evil Queen. The plot is a little jumpy, the side-stories don’t all make sense (do they have to?) and the forest is not nearly scary enough (this is a must for a convincing Snow White tale, but alas, not everyone understands this) though the urban spaces have become the dangerous playground. On the plus side, however, Julia Roberts laughs maniacally, Nathan Lane is a charmingly whiny crony, and the costumes are gorgeous!

The next film that I saw was Snow White and the Huntsman and on this I have much more to say.

From Trina Schart Hyman’s Illustrations of Snow White.

Perhaps the answer to my initial questions can be found within the main cast. Chris Hemsworth, famous for such movies as Thor (and for being a hunky cutie-petootie) and of course the Twilight star Kristen Stewart bring together superhero stories, the myths and legends of werewolves and vampires, and pop culture. Perhaps fairy tales are seeing such a revival because other kinds of retellings are undergoing revivals. There is nothing new out there, and fairy tales open pathways through which anything can unfold – thus Red Riding Hood (2011) and werewolves, Hansel and Gretel (2012) kicking ass and the more recent Jack The Giant Slayer with hilarious mix-ins of other tales. Let’s not forget the infamy of Shrek and it’s brilliant mixed up fairy tales.

But, unfortunately for Snow White and the Huntsman they steered clear of the fantasy that is germane to fairy tales and tried to rationalize it, place it in history and breath reason into the story. Charlize Theron, as the evil Queen, really sold this angle well. She is crazy and her magic or power stems from that, she is totally absorbing and steals the show. The movie is worth watching for her portrayal of the Queen driven to insanity, or perhaps with schizophrenia. The image above by Hyman is taken from a 1995 picturebook interpretation of the tale. It is a frightening picturebook wherein the presence and very idea of Snow White drives the Queen crazy. In the film it is clear that the queen really is the fairest of them all, but she can’t get her head around Snow White and what is already crazy falls further into the pits of madness. It’s wonderful!

Hemsworth is a rugged, hunky, drunken widower who is obviously the best in his trade and who also happens to fall for and save Snow a couple of times before he wakes her from the spell and becomes the obstacle in the way true love. This issue remains unresolved at the end… and I don’t know how I feel about that. I would have loved an exploration of this angle, but instead we get a Joan of Arc-y Snow and a battle that ends with the queen melting into a pile of feathers (Wicked Witch of the West anyone?).

Which brings me to Snow White and her terrible stoic presence. I think she looks so angry throughout the film because her hair has been tarred to her head. Come on girl! You are starring opposite Hemsworth, give me at least a little emotion! He saves you and swoops you and kisses you and all you do is kind of stare at him like a guppy. For me the film had an arthurian legend feel throughout, with Theron/Evil Queen playing a kind of Queen Mab figure and Snow a kind of Arthur (only less whiny and more sullen).

Well… that is until Snow gets lost in the woods and falls into some sort of trippy fairy land. It was what I imagine unicorn barf looking like. Nasty little sparkle dots poking and prodding and spilling all over, and of course then there is the unicorn. This is the part where she gets lost in the woods, this is the moment where her situation is at the exact opposite of the Queen’s, it is where she is supposed to gain a voice and power, to become one with the landscape. But instead there is a barf of sparkles a confusion of the plot and then a quick whisking off to a doomed town. I can’t figure out why this part is the way it is in the film (and I welcome any other interpretations!).

When snow is awoken and she is able to use her voice (notice that after the Huntsman wakes her up she gains a voice as opposed to in the previous retellings where it is the Prince’s kiss that wakens but silences her), her voice falls kind of flat – on the viewer anyway. The army goes mad for her speech which is laden with a lot of: “I’d rather die than live in this death” and “I’ll be your weapon” and “iron will melt” and “who will be my brother?” and blah blah blah. I wasn’t sold. But I think the problem stemmed from the very beginning with the setting up of the queen and Snow. I think that having the Queen really ‘lost in the woods’ in her own thicket in her mind sets her up to be just that much more impactful. I really enjoyed this portrayal of the Queen,I bought her story and I understood her power and why she despised Snow, and even knowing that she was doomed I found myself kind of rooting for her.

What did you guys think? This is a timeless piece of literature, and not necessarily always for children or even intended for children, at that. But it remains a piece of culture, children’s culture and western culture – what do you make of its lasting appeal?

5 responses to “Little Snow White Lost in the Woods

  1. Pingback: The Reading Forecast | Bibliophilic Monologues·

  2. After reading your blog entry, I am going to have to search for a copy of the Grimm version. I have based my thoughts of this fairy tale on the Disney film.

  3. I’ll give Snow White and The Huntsman a try because I’m interested in retellings that dip into the psychology of the other characters. The Snow White retelling that left the biggest impression upon me would be the short story – Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman. This version is told from the perspective of the wicked stepmother and it’s a role-reversal of sorts where Snow White becomes the villain. I listened to the fantastic audio theatre version which was on Youtube.

    • Neil Gaiman is magical (and so wonderful at being creepy!). This is an interesting interpretation of Snow White, which can be read here:

      And I think Snow White and the Huntsman is interesting for that reason, the psychology of the witch is fascinating, and as I mentioned my favourite part – enjoy!

  4. Hey Paula, there is a link to the Grimm version right at the beginning of the post.
    It’s interesting to compare the Grimm with the retellings and to find different meanings within. I have read articles which have likened Snow White to the female maturation process (birth, separation, liminality and reincorporation). Not sure if that holds up though…

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