In 1810, the Grimm Brothers first wrote down the story of Snow White, as told to them by some anonymous German folks. I’ve read this story countless times since discovering it in my adolescence. Even so, it’s the Disney version, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, that is the definitive Snow White story for me, though I hadn’t seen it since I was a child. The look of Snow White — her blue-and-red capped sleeves, her cherry-colored Clara Bow lips — and the seven dwarfs with their funny names, are all from Disney’s telling. This Snow White is so palpable for me, and for most Americans, that one might believe Snow White an American invention.
How is it that fairy tales can be so far removed in content from our daily experience, and yet have so much power over it? We sing fairy tale songs and our sleep is dappled with fairy tale leitmotifs. We tell fairy tales to our children. Why? To improve them? To delight them? To terrorize them? To learn the consequences of good and evil? As those who have read them can confirm, the stories recorded by the Brothers Grimm (Snow White included) are horrifying and grisly. They are not at all what we mean today by “child-friendly.” Do you remember how, in the original Cinderella, the stepsisters tried to force the glass slipper to fit them by slicing off parts of their feet?
Experts will tell you that fairy tales — folk tales — were never meant for children at all. In the not-so-long-ago days of yore, the people of the world were illiterate, intransient, and in need of entertainment. It might be that folktales, they say, had no moral or even practical purpose. Fairy tales were outrageous because they were soap opera, full of the melodramatic fantasies of average people: dirty beautiful maids rescued by princes; animals punished for greed; children punished for greed; blood; revenge; true love. If your child happened to be listening to this pulp and became terrified into obedience, well that was merely a bonus.
Maybe fairy tales became the stuff of childhood because children are often the stars of fairy tales. (In the Grimms’ Snow White, she was just seven years old.) Or, if not children, they feature animals or magical figures or magical animals, which all appeal to children. I think this became the case because children and animals and fairies all carry the burden of being the agents of hope. Hope is what most fairy tales share, wherever they are told, and for whatever audience. The word “fairy tale” is synonymous with “hope”. Fairy tales are aspirational even when they are sad. The crueler a fairy tale is, the more hope it inspires, in children and adults. Maybe the point of fairy tales is just to tell us hope’s story, to remind us of its existence.
Walt Disney glommed on to this single aspect of fairy tales — hope — and owned it. The base level of hope in your average fairy tale is increased fiftyfold in a Disney version. Of all the ubiquitous elements in the Snow White story — the poison apple; Mirror, Mirror, on the wall — those we most associate with hope come from the Disney version. Love’s First Kiss. Whistle While You Work. Hi-Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go. Some Day My Prince Will Come. The very innovation of animating the story makes the hope more real. Maybe Americans can’t make our own fairy tales, but we can sell hope like nobody else.
Disney’s emphasis on optimism make the differences between the Grimm and Disney versions of Snow White all the more apparent. In Grimm, Snow White doesn’t earn her place in the dwarfs’ home by happily cleaning it with the help of all the forest animals (as in the movie), but rather walks into their home uninvited, eats their dinner, and passes out (remember, she is seven). Walt Disney gave the dwarfs a much larger and more personal role; they are noble proles, honorable and true. (In traditional fairy tales, little men are sinister and weird, likened to trolls. They are creatures of the underground, known to steal babies and take sexual advantage of women in their sleep.) In both the Disney and Grimm versions, Snow White falls into a state of suspended animation and is put on display in a glass coffin. In the Grimm version, though, she is not awakened by love’s first kiss. Instead, the prince becomes enchanted with the comatose Snow White and begs the dwarfs to let him take her. As the prince’s servants carry the coffin away on their shoulders, one trips and sends Snow White tumbling out of her coffin, dislodging a bit of poison apple from her throat and saving her life.
The most profound contrast between the Grimms’ Snow White and Disney’s is the ending. In both versions, the stepmother dies. Her death is necessary for the “happy ending” to take place — namely, the marriage of Snow White and the prince. It is necessary for our hope not to be disappointed, and we cheer it however it comes. In the Disney version, the stepmother is chased to a mountain precipice by the dwarfs and the animals of the forest. While trying to roll a boulder onto the dwarfs, lightening strikes the precipice, she falls, and dies. In the Grimm tale, the stepmother attends the wedding of Snow White, where she is made to put on a pair of red-hot iron shoes and dance to her death.
In fairy tales, “good” triumphs over “evil,” but how this happens isn’t simple. It’s quite common for traditional fairy tales to have complicated, even troubling, conclusions — Conclusions where innocent princesses get the prince only if they torment and kill their adversaries. What Disney did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and all the Disney fairy tale films, was give us what we really want from “happily ever after”: an ending with no guilt, no loose ends. An ending where hope is resolved. Maybe that’s why all other Snow Whites and Cinderellas disappear in the face of Disney’s. Orson Welles said that a happy ending depends on where you stop your story. Walt Disney’s genius was that he knew just when, and how, we like our endings. Not with hope but satisfaction.
• 1 October 2010