Of pantos, dwarves, and “Snow White” (DeDisnification, Part 9A)
While in Bath, we attended the Theatre Royal’s production of Snow White. This show was what is known as a pantomime, or as the locals say, “panto”. It’s a brand of musical comedy particular to the UK that’s typically put on during the “festive season”. As a rule, panto contains songs, including sing-alongs, jokes, often with references to contemporary culture, slapstick, dancing, and cross-dressing actors, with the audience periodically encouraged to participate by shouting responses at various performers (with “Oh, yes it is!” and “Oh, no it isn’t!” being a common exchange) or booing and hissing at the villains, all wrapped up in a well-known story. The tradition derives from the Italian commedia dell’arte and the Victorian music hall, and carries on—minus the family-friendly part—through The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
This production of Snow White contained all these elements and more. Even though it seemed a fairly straightforward retelling, the pacing of the show felt a bit off until Muddles the court Jester was introduced. While some other characters occasionally broke the fourth plane, for him, there was nothing there to break. Dame Dolly, Muddles’ mum—played by a man—and the Evil Queen rounded out the main comedic players, with some additional gags from the various dwarves.
A quick aside: plural dwarves has been preferred for the sense regarding the mythical creatures since Tolkien began using it in that fashion, while the spelling dwarfs refers to people of short stature. I’ll be using the former except in direct quotes and titles.
After a while I was able to catch on to the rhythm of the thing, and could complete the performers’ jokes before they did; ones such as:
Dolly: The other day I told the Queen she’d drawn her eyebrows on too high.
Muddles: What did she say?
Dolly: Nothing; she just looked surprised.
Muddles: I’ve been having an irresistible urge (aside to audience: not that kind!) to climb to the castle’s highest tower and yell obscenities out the window. I think I’ve got turrets syndrome.
Others were cultural references that were so totally lost on me that even Googling in real time wouldn’t have helped (as well as being poor theater-going etiquette). There were many off-color gags, mostly going over the heads of the kids in the audience and there for the parents accompanying them, but the essential story remained unaltered: jealous queen, magic mirror, handsome prince, mining dwarves, beautiful princess.
It was clear that the Disney version was the main point of reference: the costumes were similar, and surprisingly they even used several songs from the film. And yet the dwarves, played by little people, had entirely different names:
It seems that Walt was able to copyright the names Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, and Dopey.¹ Sneezy, they apparently didn’t think worth bothering with. The Grimm brothers didn’t give individual names to the dwarves, but while Disney would like to say that was their idea, the Broadway play of 1912 had:
Winthrop Ames adapted the 1916 silent film script from the hit play he had also written under the pseudonym Jessie Braham White and both also starred Marguerite Clark. The film was clearly the model for Walt’s, bearing the title the Disney work used as well—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—while the Grimms made no titular mention of dwarves.
In “Naming Disney’s Dwarfs”, Robert T. Sidwell attempts to establish that Disney drew his dwarf names from the tradition of Germanic lore embodied in the Eddas.² There are indeed dwarf names scattered throughout the Eddas: the Vǫluspá, the Dverga heiti, and the Nafnaþulur each contain versified lists of dwarves, with the Gylfaginning essentially repeating that of the first. Sidwell presents the following list of correspondences between the names of dwarves found therein and the names of the filmic seven—I’ve restored the Old Norse spellings of the names here:
- Tóki “foolish one”: Dopey
- Skávaerr “goodnatured one” [sic]: Happy
- Varr “shy one”: Bashful
- Dúri “sleepy one”: Sleepy
- Orinn “quarrelsome one”: Grumpy
- Grerr “roaring one”: Sneezy
- Ráðsviðr “one who gives wise advice”: Doc
As attractive as this theory is, it is lacking a fairly important element: any sort of evidence at all. The Eddic traditions are at least easy to locate in these days of the internet, but would have been a pretty arcane territory for team Disney to have even managed to wander into, much less to have comprehended fully enough to understand, select, and cleverly translate a set of dwarvish names from. The work Sidwell cites as the source for the film’s names is “Dwarf-Names: A Study in Old Icelandic Religion” by Chester Nathan Gould.³ This is an obscure article in a highly academic journal that would likely have been hard to access—I’d imagine one could’ve done so only at the library of a university with a strong language department—let alone comprehend. The article is probably better known today among Old Norse enthusiasts than when it was published. In any case, literally the only things that work are the article’s timing (prior to the 1937 film) and the language it’s written in (English). Sidwell himself notes that the epics name some 60 dwarves, giving a pretty large pool to go fishing in for these seven generous “matches”.
Actual accounts of the Disney dwarves’ creation relate a far different story; that they were always intended to be the comedic relief and that their names related to their personalities for that purpose rather than being cleverly rendered Nordic idionyms. The set that was eventually whittled down to the seven we know included others such as:
Jumpy, Deafy, Dizzey, Hickey, Wheezy, Baldy, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Swift, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Tubby, Shorty, and Burpy.⁴
We should perhaps be grateful that these did not make the cut. Still, even the ones that did drew criticism from C. S. Lewis, who disliked the,
[…] bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.⁵
Sidwell attempts to establish a parallel by presenting a list of J. R. R. Tolkien’s dwarves from The Hobbit, which are fairly well known to have been drawn from Eddic sources. The two works also came out in the same year. I’ve corrected and completed the list here:
- Bífurr “quivering one”: Bifur
- Bǫfurr ?: Bofur (a nonsense word simply pairing with Bífurr)
- Bǫmburr “swollen one”: Bombur
- Nóri “shrunken one”: Nori
- Óri “the raver”: Ori
- Óinn “shy one”: Oin
- Þorinn “bold one”: Thorin
- Fíli “the filer”: Fili
- Kíli “the wedge”: Kili
- Glóinn “glowing one”: Gloin
- Dóri “the borer”: Dori
- Dvalinn “the delayer”: Dwalin
- Bálin “fiery one”: Balin
Gandalf is also the name of an Eddic dwarf—the original being Gandálfr, meaning “magic staff elf”—making Bilbo, named for a sword of Spanish origin, even more of an outsider in the group.
Tolkien was an Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature and Professor of Anglo-Saxon and as a philologist as well as an author and poet. Disney never finished high school. Sidwell is a Professor of Education while I’m an autodidact, so it may seem like we’re both veering wildly out of our respective lanes—he to attempt to place these two on a par in this arena, and me to decry that as ridiculous—but I think mine is the only realistic conclusion.
Taking a step back to the symbolism of dwarves in myth, Joseph Campbell describes them thus:⁶
The titans, dwarfs, and giants are represented as the powers of an earlier mythological age—crude and loutish, egotistic and lawless […].
Adolf Roeder concurs, adding some color on the differences between dwarves and giants:⁷
Evidently these giants are representations of the gigantic forces of nature and of spirit, while the dwarfs are equivalent representations of the minute forces of nature and of spirit. […] Sometimes the gods require the help of the minute forces of nature, and Loge and Wotan descend into the cave of Niflheim to find the ring and the Tarnhelm. And sometimes man’s spiritual side—that is to say, the gods, must struggle with the dwarfish powers of nature, but he must do so always by ingenuity and cunning, and not by force, as witness the story of Siegfried and Mime.
As to the specific role of the dwarves in this particular tale, PhD in the History of Religions, N. J. Girardot sums it up so well, there’s very little I can add:
Being deep in the forest at the house of the dwarfs, Snow White has symbolically returned to the mythic beginnings of time, the liminal period of chaos when the mysterious gods and ancestral creatures of creation were active. In many tales the dwarfs, as chthonic creatures, are malevolent and destructive beings; but, as in this case, they can also be the creative agents of growth and rebirth. Indeed, in this story the dwarfs […] can be taken as the divine ancestors, teachers, refiners, guardians, or helpers necessary for a successful initiation. They help to mine gold from the black earth of Snow White’s soul as the smith and alchemist assist in the divine work of accelerating the processes of nature, or the shaman heals through the agency of various spirit-animals.⁸
These are some of the reasons folklorists and mythologists, if they even condescend to give opinions of Disney’s works, generally are less than favorably disposed: depictions such as that of the dwarves as two-dimensionally comedic characters are completely at odds with how central the theme of the ambivalence of cruelty and innocence is to folktales.
A closely related Italian version of the tale, La Bella Venezia,⁹ has banditti instead of dwarves, but their role is the same: initiatory figures who live outside the strictures of normal society. Their lair in the wilderness opens to a magic formula, “Open up, desert!” linking them to another set of robbers, those in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. And these act out the malevolent side of the trope, repeatedly trying to do Ali Baba in. The magic opening formula is “Apriti, deserto!” in Italian, and the closing one,“Chiuditi, deserto!” In Italian the Ali Baba versions simply use sesamo instead of deserto. That both of these groups of outlaws live essentially within the earth links them again to the chthonic dwarves.
After hiding nearby and hearing the password, the nameless daughter of Bella Venezia enters the home of the bandits and seeing food and being hungry, she eats a wing from each of their 12 chickens, a bite from each loaf of bread, and a sip of wine from every bottle. This too puts us in mind of another folktale, that of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Grimm Brothers’ version of Snow White (Schneewittchen) has an even closer version of the sampling performed by the yellow-haired waif. The title is partially standardized Low German: snee = “snow”, witt = “white”, + diminutive ending -ken, so “little Snow-white” (standard German Schneeweißchen).︎ The bears are yet another version of these semi-human guardian figures, and it’s also worth noting that three, seven, and 12 are common folkloric magic numbers. Tolkien (via Gandalf) had Bilbo join the 13 dwarves out of triskaidekaphobic concerns, in a related trope of avoiding an unlucky number.
I hope I’ve been able to show some of the intricacy, depth, and resonance of these supposed children’s stories, even though I’ve only discussed one element of this one so far. In the introduction to his Italian Folktales, Italo Calvino discusses how daunting approaching the field of study was:
For the Brothers Grimm, the salvaging meant bringing to light the fragments of an ancient religion that had been preserved by the common people and had lain dormant until the glorious day of Napoleon’s defeat had finally awakened the German national consciousness. […] To the anthropologists it signified the somber and bloody initiation rites of tribal youths, rites that have been identical from time immemorial, from paleolithic hunters to today’s primitive peoples. The followers of the Finnish school, in setting up a method for tracing migrations among Buddhist countries, Ireland, and the Sahara, applied a system similar to that used for the classification of coleoptera, which, in their cataloging process, reduced findings to algebraic sigla of the Type-index and Motif-index. What the Freudians salvaged was a repertory of ambiguous dreams common to all men, plucked from the oblivion of awakenings and set down in canonical form to represent the most basic anxieties. And for the students of local traditions everywhere, it was a humble faith in an unknown god, rustic and familiar, who found a mouthpiece in the peasantry.
Calvino’s is a relatively pure work; he has scoured the countryside in search of variants of each tale, with straightforward criteria for selection among these versions:
Because of the various texts at my disposal, this particular one struck me as not only the most beautiful or the richest or the most skillfully narrated, but also as the one most rooted in its native heath, had drawn from it the most pith […].
This is not to say that there is nothing of the author in this compilation; he freely admits to adding his own innovations, but the effort is to create rhythm, symmetry—to make better folkloric sense of the material.
Tolkien, though he was creating a largely original work (based in large part on Celtic and Germanic sources), created an entire world—peoples, religions, languages, conflicts—with his tales set against that backdrop: a folktale world reimagined. It wasn’t Tolkien’s plan to even publish his works, just something he was doing for its own sake.
On the other hand, Disney’s work was a reductive one: taking the characters and setting of a folktale and forcing that round peg into the square hole of the then-popular screwball romcom. Even the menace presented in the film is there because of how well known the woman-in-peril motif was for manipulating audience emotions. And the ultimate purpose of the work was to sell a lot of popcorn in order to save the financially troubled company. Overall, he made it safe and outwardly attractive; features that led Tolkien to liken Disney’s works to “vulgar plastic toys”.¹⁰ The comparison was ironically prescient, since these films have become, more or less, vehicles for the sale of such stuff. Disney strongly considers the “toyation” angle of any works they produce.
It is unsurprising then that the pantos would gravitate toward this version: not just because it is the most safe and familiar one—ostensibly for children, but with gags for the parents that perforce must watch with them, a feature that has long since become a hallmark of Disney’s works—but because it offers a nearly blank canvas upon which to splash their own over-the-top buffoonery.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
Read Previous Articles in this Series
- “Pantomime renames dwarfs to avoid breaching Disney copyright”, Matthew Moore, The Telegraph, 2008. Note that the article is not about the Bath panto but the topic seems to come up quite regularly.
- From Children’s Literature in Education, 1980.
- In Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 1929.
- From Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast, Bob Thomas, 1991.
- In The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Reader’s Guide, Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, 2006. The comment is from a letter to Tolkien.
- In The Masks Of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology, 1959.
- In Symbol Psychology: A New Interpretation of Race Traditions, 1903. Clearly what is acceptable among personal names as well as names of works have changed since. Note also that he is using the Wagnerian Germanizations of names from Norse myth.
- In “Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, The Journal of American Folklore, 1977.
- Italo Calvino collected this and many others in his Italian Folktales (Fiabe italiane) of 1956.
- The Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis: Volume II, Books, Broadcasts and the War, 1931- 1949, Walter Hooper, Ed., 2004.