The Sum of Its Versions

Getting comparatist with “Snow White” (DeDisnification, Part 9B)

Today folktales are everywhere and in particular are the basis for many of the Disney Animation Studio’s works. Given the name, one might think that they have always been with us but this is actually far from the case. The way in which such tales came to be part of pop culture is discussed by Italo Calvino in the introduction to his Italian Folktales (Fiabe italiane) beginning with how the folktale became a matter for aristocratic literature:

[E]ver since the seventeenth century in France, fairy tales had flourished in Versailles at the court of the Sun King, where Charles Perrault created a genre and set down in writing a refined version of simple popular tales which, up to then, had been transmitted by word of mouth. The genre became fashionable and lost its artlessness: noble ladies and précieuses took to transcribing and inventing fairy stories.

As Calvino also mentions, following on this movement, the Grimms saw their work as one both reflecting and promoting the Volksgeist, essentially a form of German nationalism, and as such, they altered the source material to reflect proper German morals. Netflix’ surprisingly good series, Myths & Monsters, takes up that thread:¹

[T]he brothers began a patriotic project to collect the folktales of their own land. They spoke to German peasants and aristocrats, farmers and city dwellers, and documented the stories they heard […].

They were adapting the tales, of course, for an educated, literate public, a middle-class aristocratic public and they were adapting the content of those tales, of course, to the expectations of that public.

The Grimms’ enterprise was not simply an act of scholarly record however; over the years the brothers rewrote many of the stories themselves. They minimalized sexual elements and softened other darker themes. In earlier versions, Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the Big Bad Wolf, Sleeping Beauty was raped, not kissed, and Hansel and Gretel were neglected, not by their evil stepmother, but by their own parents.

Nor was Snow White sent out with the Huntsman to be killed by a stepmother; in an earlier version, it is her natural mother who takes her out to the wilderness and abandons her there. According to Karl Ranke, a leading scholar of Germanic folktales, this switch was performed,²

[T]o make the villainess an outsider in the family circle.

So far I’ve only been nibbling around the edges as to what these versions are that the Grimms and others are drawing these tales from, so allow me to digress:

The word folklore, from which folktale also springs, rather than being the product of the general motion of language, is a relatively modern coinage: 1846 to be precise.³ It first appears in a letter pseudonymously signed “Ambrose Merton” to a journal called The Athenaeum. This London weekly’s cover announced its themes as “literature, science, and the fine arts”, and was still more dizzyingly eclectic within. Nonetheless, in those times of polymathy, The Athenaeum’s readership was both broad and loyal.

The letter’s writer, whose real name was William John Thoms, had detected one particular thread in the journal:

Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-by it is more a Lore than a literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore,—the Lore of the People)—that I am not without hopes of enlisting your aid in garnering the few ears which are remaining, scattered over that field from which our forefathers might have gathered a goodly crop. No one who has made the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time his study, but must have arrived at two conclusions:—the first how much that is curious and interesting in those matters is now entirely lost—the second, how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion.

Not only was The Athenaeum receptive to this letter, they created a folklore department and installed Thoms as its editor.

More importantly for our purposes, we have a definition, albeit quite broad, for what belongs in this category. Just as Calvino mentions the artlessness of these tales, Thoms says they are not literature, but lore. That they are originally an oral tradition is clear from Calvino and also hinted at by Thoms when he says they are being lost. In Telling Tales: “The Sultan’s Son and the Rich Man’s Daughter”, Zanzibari media scholar, Mariam Hamdani, tells us:⁴

When we were little, you know, it was the grandmothers who were telling stories. Most of the stories were about these genies, magicians—[in] all these stories somebody was turned into a stone, somebody was turned into a snake, somebody was turned into a cow, whatever. Within there, they were teaching us: be nice to the neighbor, be nice to each other. So they were teaching us, all these stories, the meaning of them. […] Which is different from nowadays: people don’t have time for that, you know.

And from the time of Louis XIV down to our own, various people have been trying to preserve them. However, it should be noted, this also changes them. As noted in another episode of Telling Tales, “The Tohono O’odham Nation”:

[E]ach telling is different, and each storyteller and each listener is different. It reflects the culture it emerges from and has to be understood in that context, and it is part of a continuous line of teller and listener caught in time and place.

Or, as folklorist Kay Stone notes in “Three Transformations of Snow White”:⁵

Stories created verbally are continually fluid and adaptable according to time and place, tellers and listeners, and other contextual factors. Some folklorists describe this vibrancy as “emergent quality,” meaning that the precise text of any story emerges at the actual event of it’s telling. […] No one story can be considered original in the sense of either primacy or individual innovation.

When Calvino sets down a version of a tale it is his telling and he changes it, seeming to fit with the same pattern. But the fact that he, a well known author, is the one who has set it down moves it from lore to literature. It also becomes concrete, a definitive version which is cited and alluded to forever after. As Stone continues:

Stories composed in writing tend to become fixed and unchanging, and authors and readers no longer share simultaneously in the creative event. When texts become attached to specific creators, the notion of originality in the dual senses of primacy and uniqueness come into play.

Then we come to the content of these tales. Discussing his people’s legend of the saguaro, Vice President the Tohono O’odham Nation, Verlon Jose, says:⁶

Like so many ancient tales […] this story can be understood on numerous levels and deals in an abstract and symbolic way with human behavior, emotions, aspirations, and deep psychological issues.

Calvino, as I’ve previously noted, shows restraint in altering the source materials, but as we’ve already seen, the Grimms much less so. It is for this reason that comparing versions is not only interesting, it’s necessary. Dr. Steven Swann Jones, in advocating for a comparative method of study in the field, notes that there is a⁷

[…] folkloristic axiom that a folktale is the sum of its versions. It is in the different versions that we can observe the changing shapes that the tale assumes and the consistent patterns of forms that it maintains.

To return to Snow White, she is clearly a wunderkind: her mother wishes her into being in the Grimm version. La schiavottella (The Little Slave), a slightly wry version found in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, meanwhile, makes the supernatural birth of the heroine the result of her mother swallowing a rose leaf during a jumping competition. Others sources say she is an orphan, another common mysterious birth trope.

The Grimms introduced the three-color combination characterizing the heroine. Though white and red are often used as colors characterizing beauty, as in Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow-White and Rose-Red), or Pomo e Scorzo (Pome and Peel), in other versions, if they describe her hair, it is golden. The color language the Grimms adopt instead draws on Celtic sources relating to the triple goddess, the Morrígna. The colors are an ill omen, representing blood, snow, and ravens. They even describe the heroine as an Unglückskind—child of bad luck. In later versions, they took it down a notch by having an ebony window frame suggest the black color rather than the death-portending bird of Badb.

As for the relationship of the heroine and her persecutor, La Bella Venezia preserves the information that it is her own mother. This makes it clear that she is jealous of her daughter’s growing beauty, and in this version the kitchen boy is put up to her murder. Additionally, rather than a queen, Bella Venezia is an innkeeper, a widespread Romance motif. Yet another version Calvino presents is Giricoccola, who is persecuted by her two jealous sisters similarly to a Greek version, Myrsina—both of which therefore confound the tale with Cinderella.

And this is something that occurs frequently: just as we suddenly found ourselves in Ali Baba or Goldilocks in the wilderness of the previous Part, you can feel that you are wandering into other tales through these versions. In an Armenian variant, Nourie Hadig, you end up in The Dead Man’s Palace, and in La Bella Venezia we find a daughter sent into Rapunzel-like seclusion. Still other versions lead you to Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast.

Bella Venezia’s “mirror” is her guests, whom she charges less if they tell her she is beautiful, and more if they prefer her daughter, while in Myrsina the sun is consulted and Giricoccola and Nourie Hadig seemingly evidence a version stretching to the southeast as they ask the moon. In the Celtic Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree a liminal trout is the bearer of the bad news.

The Grimms must’ve known of more Bella Venezia-esque versions as they share the fairly grisly element of the mother requiring body parts to be brought back as proof of the heroine’s death. In the Italian version, it’s eyes and blood, the Grimms have lungs and liver, and Disney has the heart. Indeed, this is a strong folktale motif that appears again and again, with different tales seemingly trying to outdo one another in gruesomeness. In the Grimm version and others the evil mother eats these organs making her a cannibal by intent if not fact.

Uncharacteristically for these tales, Bella Venezia manages to go unpunished—she is simply not mentioned again after she sends a witch to kill her daughter at the bandits’ lair. When Myrsina’s sisters find out they have failed to destroy her, they simply die of rage. In the Disney version, the dwarves chase the queen, cornering her on a precipice which is struck by lighting, causing her to fall to her certain but offscreen death in a fairly unsatisfying deus ex machina.

But at Sneewittchen’s wedding her “stepmother” is shod in red-hot iron and dances until she is dead (cf. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes”). The punishment is quite abrupt in the tale, but brings together the idea that a mother should be happy at her daughter’s wedding and so dance, and that because the queen did not naturally have these feelings she needs to be prompted, but it is also a prefiguration of the torments she is expected to suffer in Hell for her misdeeds. Together with rewarding the good, the punishment of the wicked is nearly a requirement for these tales—often in Dantean contrappassi.

Again, I have only compared a few versions and looked at a few motifs here. Ernst Böklen’s Schneewittchenstudien: Fünfundsiebzig Varianten im engern Sinn (Snow White Studies: Seventy-Five Variants in the Narrow Sense) boasts so many versions in the title that it has just made my reading list. However, as I have only been able to find it in German, it may take me a while to get through it.

Returning to Stone, she describes the final transformation of folktales into movies:

Films create an even greater separation of makers and viewers, giving the latter even less possibility for interaction. Both story-listening and story-reading give us the opportunity to provide our own visual, oral, emotional, and other elaborations, but film provides these all ready-made for our consumption.

Strangely, she seems to have an even harsher take than me on the shortcomings of movies. I only went so far as to say that there are elements inherent in each medium that uniquely suit it to specific ways of conveying meaning. Her statement seems to simply condemn the lack of richness and interactivity of the form generally, but that would be taking her remarks out of context; she’s only arguing that film is probably the worst suited to the telling of folktales.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making Over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred


  1. In “The Wild Unknown”.
  2. In Folktales of Germany, 1966.
  3. I learned of this from The Oxford Etymologist, “William John Thoms, The Man Who Invented The Word Folklore”, Anatoly Liberman, 2008.
  4. BBC World Service, 2018.
  5. In The Brothers Grimm and Folktale, James M. McGlathery, ed., 1991.
  6. Also from “The Tohono O’odham Nation”, Telling Tales, 2018.
  7. In “The Pitfalls of Snow White Scholarship”, The Journal of American Folklore, 1979.

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