Fairy tales originated from oral stories told in peasant communities to both adults and children (Crago, 2003). Fairy tales reflect on the particular civilizing process of the country they were written in. These tales are concerned with gender roles, social class and power. They mirrored the way society worked at the time they were written in (Zipes, 2006).
It is important to consider that there are many different versions of fairy tales written across lots of countries. This essay will examine two versions of the classic fairy tale Snow White. The Little Slave Girl, an Italian fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in 1634, which was printed in “Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, Or, Entertainment for Little Ones” (2007)
and Snow White, a German fairy tale written by the Grimm Brothers in 1812. The Grimm Brothers version is taken from “The Classic Fairy Tales” edited by Maria Tatar (1999). Some elements of this fairy tale have remained the same and there are also some variations. The elements that will be examined are the structure of the fairy tale, the characters, female rivalry, male dominance, the innocence of the protagonist and violence.
The Structure of the Fairy Tales
The overall structure of both fairy tales varies apart from the very beginning of each tale. Both fairy tales start off with a woman becoming pregnant and later this mother dies, which leads to the hardship of Snow White’s life. At the beginning of The Little Slave Girl, a fairy put a curse on the protagonist which when she was seven years old, the comb her mother was using on her hair “stuck into her head” and she “perished” for a long time (Basile, 2007, p. 196)
Lisa was locked away in seven crystal caskets until one day her aunt found her and released her. This is slightly similar to Snow White as the step mother sells Snow White a poisonous comb in which when she used, she faints to the ground. However, Snow White wakes up after a short period of time and it is the poisonous apple that causes her to fall into a deep sleep (Opie & Opie, 1975).
In the tale The Little Slave Girl, the protagonist is asleep at the beginning of the fairy tale whereas, in Snow White the protagonist falls into a deep sleep towards the end of the tale.
A common reoccurring theme in fairy tales is the good versus evil between characters (Tatar, 2003) There are both some similarities and differences among the characters in the two chosen versions of Snow White. The main character remains the same but with different names, Snow White in the Grimm Brothers version and Lisa in Basile’s version.
However, the people around her are different in each of these versions. In The Little Slave Girl the main character lives with her uncle and aunt after her mother passes away. Whereas in Snow White, the main character lives with her father and step mother. There is an evil side in both stepmother figures.
Also, in Snow White there are the seven dwarfs which are significant characters in this fairy tale. They take Snow White in and try to keep her safe from her evil stepmother on the condition that Snow White “will keep house” for them, “cook and make the beds, wash and sew and knit” (Tatar, 1999, p. 85).
Bettelheim (1976) indicates that there are seven dwarves surrounding Snow White representing the seven planets that circled the sun according to ancients, therefore Snow White’s beauty is comparable to the sun.
Female rivalry is a reoccurring element in fairy tales (Hasse, 2008). It is usually between siblings or mother and daughter. There is a rivalry relationship between the main character and her stepmother in both versions of Snow White. The stepmother views Snow White’s beauty as competition and a threat, and the only way to resolve these issues is to kill her.
This female rivalry remains the same in The Little Slave Girl,. Lisa’s aunt’s intense jealous is the reason she is illtreated and used as a slave. In both tales the stepmother is threatened by their step daughter’s beauty and they believe they are viewed as less beautiful in their husband’s eyes. Gilbert and Gubar (1979) ague that a healthy relationship between these two characters is impossible as their lives are dominated by men.
Fairy tales maintain the patriarchal status quo by making female subordination seem romantically desirable (Rowe, 2010). The magic mirror is a significant difference that is present in Snow White and not in The Little Slave Girl. The voice of the magic mirror reflects the patriarchal voice of judgment that rules the Queen and it shows her determination to be accepted by the King (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979).
The Queen repeatedly asks “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who’s the fairest one of all?” (Tatar, 1999, p. 83) By comparing women in terms of beauty, the mirror encourages rivalry and destroys friendships “My queen, you are the fairest one here, But Snow White is a thousand times more fair than you!” (Tatar, 1999, p.83).
In both of these versions of Snow White chosen, the step mothers’ lives come to an end at the end of the tales showing Snow White’s triumph. When the queen’s crime was exposed at Snow White’s wedding, her fate came to an end (Lee, 2015). She was forced to wear “red hot iron slippers and dance in them until she dropped to the ground dead” (Tatar, 1999, p. 89).
This was a very dramatic end to the tale; however, it fits in with the typical theme of the Grimm Brothers stories. The end to the stepmother in The Little Slave Girl differs to Snow White as the uncle was responsible for “kicking” her out of the house back to her parents (Basile, 2007, p. 198).
The Element of Male Dominance
The male character in each fairy tale holds a significant amount of power, however they have very little presence in the tale (Haase, 2004)Their lack of their presence in the tale may suggest that they are out hunting and carrying out tasks of kings and lords. Therefore, the role of the women at this time was to stay at home and carry out domestic work. In both versions of Snow White examined, both stepmothers are at home running the castle. This is evident in The Little Slave Girl, as the lord “recommended the care of the house to his wife” (Basile, 2007, p. 196).
At the end of the two versions of Snow White, the main character is rescued by a dominant male figure and prepared for marriage. In The Little Slave Girl, Lisa’s uncle saved her from the evil stepmother and “gave” her a “handsome husband” (Basile, 2007, p. 198). The word “gave” shows the power of the uncle and suggests that Lisa did not have a choice in who she married.
This reflects the society at the time in Italy in the 17th century as father figures held the power over who married their daughters. Snow White differs only in the detail that the man she married found her, there was no influence from her father. This shows that the power of the father figure was lessening in the 19th century.
Innocence of the Main Character
Snow white is depicted as a very innocent young girl. Snow White puts herself in a vulnerable position when she enters the seven dwarves’ house and slept in their beds. This act could have been potentially dangerous as these beds belonged to men (Bettelheim, 1976). This act attributes to Snow White’s innocence. Her innocence is repeatedly displayed when she is fooled by her step mother in disguise three times.
The number of times the witch visited Snow White is significant. The number three is often used in tales as psychologists believe that three plays a role in persuasion (Alm & Sproat, 2005). This is probably the reason why Snow White’s step mother visits her three times to try to kill her and on the Queen’s third visit she is successful “the dear child was dead and nothing could bring her back” (Tatar, 1999, p. 88). Liabenow (2014) argues that Snow White is not stupid or gullible but rather it is her innocence that is displayed when she trusts a stranger repeatedly.
However, Lisa does not show the same innocence and is portrayed as a clever character. This is shown when her uncle goes to the fair and she tells him ‘I want nothing but a doll, a knife and a pumice-stone; and if you forget them, may you never be able to cross the first river that you come to on your journey!’ (Basile, 2007, p. 197). Her spell ensures that her uncle will not return home without her requested items.
The innocence of the girl is portrayed differently in each of the versions. This may be due to the authors of each version. The Young Slave is written by a woman and the main character is portrayed as clever whereas Snow White is written by men and the protagonist is defined by her innocence. Zipes (2006) argues that the Grimms’ tales reinforce an authoritarian socialisation process.
The Element of Violence
The Grimm brothers held a reputation for their grotesque style of writing (Bengtsson, 2009; Zipes, 2006). The earliest versions of fairy tales written by the Grimm brothers contained gruesome scenes in order to make the tale more exciting (Tatar, 2003). They included sex and violence into their original fairy tales as they were initially written for adults and later these were edited out in order to make them more suitable for the children (Bengtsson, 2009).
A strong sense of violence is evident in the first version of Snow White. The stepmother orders the death of Snow White and for the huntsman to bring her the “lungs and liver” back, in order to confirm the death (Tatar, 1999, p. 84) The stepmother then ate the lungs and liver, thinking they were Snow Whites. This disturbing image was edited out in the later versions of the tale.
Similarly, in Basile’s version, there are strong images of violence. When Lisa’s aunt found her, she “cut off the girl’s hair and thrashed her with the tresses, dressed her in rags, and every day heaped blows on her head and bruises on her face, blackening her eyes and making her mouth look as if she had eaten raw pigeons” (Basile, 2007, p. 197). This is a very violent image for the readers. Violence was a reoccurring element in fairy tales and it can be seen in the earliest versions of them.
There are many different versions of fairy tales that have been written over the last hundreds of years (Crago, 2003) This essay studied Basile’s version as well as the Grimm Brother’s version of Snow White. There are almost two centuries between each version and yet there are some elements that have remained the same as well as some variations. The structure of the fairy tale and the main characters of a young girl and an evil stepmother have remained the same in each tale.
The main theme of female rivalry and violence can both be viewed in each of these versions. Male dominance and the innocence of the main character are two significant differences in each of the versions. The changes in these elements are a result of changing society and possibly the gender of the author.