Snow White

Snow White

A beautiful princess with perfect snow-white skin, the seven dwarfs, an evil stepmother, a poison apple, a handsome prince on a white horse… Those are the images that come to mind whenever anyone mentions Snow White. Did you know, though, that just like Cinderella, the story of Snow White has numerous regional variations? Researchers have counted as many as 50 of them! Perhaps this is not surprising, given how popular the story is in Europe, America, Africa and Asia. 

One of the best-known versions of the tale is the German one, by the Brothers Grimm. Very few people realise that the Italian version is older still. Giambattista Basile wrote the story before Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers – who were inspired by the Italian version. 

In one of the two ancient French versions, Snow White is poisoned by a pair of stockings, while in the other, an evil servant-girl throws Snow White into a well, where she is expected to die but instead lives together with three dragons at the bottom of the well. That situation fails to satisfy her stepmother, who drops poison-sugared-almonds and a red dress into the well… 

In the Flemish and Dutch versions, the evil queen summons the witch who sold her the magic mirror, and sends her to visit Snow White. The witch makes two attempts to poison her, first with a comb and then with an apple. It’s worth noting that there’s no prince on a white horse here: Snow White is rescued by her own father, the King. In another version that’s popular in Belgium and the Netherlands, Snow White is known as Mauricia. Her own mother wants her dead, having been persuaded to kill her by a demon with a spider’s head. The servant who is instructed to murder Snow White is told to return with a lock of her hair, a vial of her blood, a piece of her tongue, and a scrap of her clothing. Meanwhile, Snow White is taken-in by a group of 17 bandits. But her mother soon finds her, and promptly turns her into a bird. When that eventually fails and Snow White returns to human form, her mother puts a magical ring on her finger. Luckily, a prince turns-up and removes the ring, bringing her back to life. But when he then asks Snow White to marry him, she refuses and continues living with the bandits. 

In Scotland, the Queen (Silver-Tree) does not ask a mirror about her beauty, but rather, a trout. When the trout tells her that her daughter, the Princess (Snow White, a.k.a. Gold-Tree), is more beautiful, the Queen declares that the fish is unfit and that she must obtain the heart and liver of the Princess. In order for the King to save Snow White, he marries her off to a prince and serves the Queen a goat’s heart and liver instead. But the Queen finds her daughter and pricks her finger with a poison thorn, which appears to kill her. The Prince remarries, but his second wife pulls the poison thorn out of Snow White’s finger, reviving her, and then arranges for the evil queen to be poisoned with the very same poison she had used on Snow White. 

In a Scandinavian version of the tale, the Queen consults a pair of crystal bowls instead of a magic mirror, to find out who is more beautiful. She sends her stepdaughter Snow White to a sorceress. The sorceress makes Snow White eat some porridge, after which she becomes pregnant. The Queen then banishes the disgraced Snow White, but a shepherd takes the girl in. Yet, the Scandinavian Snow White cannot relax. A raven brings her a ring; when she puts it on her finger she falls into a deep sleep and appears to be dead. The heartbroken shepherd then takes his own life, while Snow White goes on to give birth to twins. One of the twins pulls the nefarious ring off her finger, reviving her. She then marries a kindly prince and they live happily ever after. 

The Russian version of the tale is also very old. Its heroine is not a princess but a merchant’s daughter.

In Louisiana, USA, the story goes that Snow White’s mother wanted to kill her so that she could remain the most beautiful woman in the land, but she was rescued by a peacock-king. In Puerto Rico, there are three versions of the tale; in two of them the girl is called Snow White, but in the third she is known as White Flower.

In West Africa there’s a well-known fairy tale called The Beautiful Daughter, in which a girl’s own mother tries to kill her. The dwarfs are replaced by bandits and Snow White adopts a young girl who breaks the curse and reawakens her.

The Swahili version of the Snow White story is called The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Snow White is the Sultan’s daughter, Amina. Her mother does not talk to a mirror but to the sun and the moon, and Amina lives with genies after running away from home. 

Numerous researchers have suggested that the tale of Snow White is based on a true story. One possibility is that it was inspired by a Chinese woman, Jang Kuej-fej, who was apparently poisoned by sweet lychee fruits, which she loved. But in composing the fairy tale, Christians inserted the resurrection motif and the exotic lychee was replaced by an apple. The purple shroud, in which the Emperor had his beloved Jang Kuej-fej wrapped, was exchanged for a glass coffin in the story. The Chinese Snow White had coal-black hair, and the Chinese infatuation with pure white skin could well have inspired the authors of later versions of the fairy tale. 

We will probably never know exactly how the story came into existence, but what is certain is that Snow White has become popular all over the world. This tale has been made into numerous films, animations, and theatre plays, as well as appearing in countless compilations and comic books. There are not many people who aren’t familiar with the Disney song “Heigh-Ho”.

Which is your favourite version of the Snow White story?

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