Snow White is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe, the most popular version of which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Following the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated feature in 1937, the tale took on a whole new level of popularity and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. While the majority of people today regard it as nothing more than a story for children, with magic, romance and cute dwarfs, the older versions of the story, including that of the Grimms’, with its themes of sexual jealousy, revenge and murder, was incredibly dark and certainly not written with children in mind – except as a warning. These deeper themes in the story have given rise to a significant body of ‘Snow White scholarship’, which seeks to explore the hidden meanings in the fairy tale and place them in some sort of context. Michelle Abate has explored the fact and fantasy of filicide in Snow White, Shuli Barzilai has considered the fairy tale in terms of its being a mother’s story, Vanessa Joosen has highlighted the retellings of Snow White between magic and realism and Steven Jones has given broad consideration to the inherent pitfalls in Snow White scholarship. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is Neil Gaiman’s famous revisionist re-telling of the story, Snow, Glass, Apples, which completely reconceives the fairy tale in a manner more disturbing even than the Grimm version that is best known today.
The story Snow, Glass, Apples shows Gaiman re-working the tale of Snow White into a recognisable but perverse version of itself. In his foreword to the story, Gaiman likens its desired effect to that of a virus: “once you’ve read it, you may never be able to read the original story in the same way again”. The famous fairy tale is re-told from the point of view of Snow White’s stepmother, the ‘Evil Queen’, who is traditionally the villain of the piece but is here depicted as struggling desperately — and ultimately, unsuccessfully, as the ‘happy ending’ takes place on schedule — to save the kingdom from her unnatural and monstrous stepdaughter. Every bit as dark – or even darker – than the Grimm original, Gaiman’s story incorporates themes of incest, paedophilia, necrophilia and even vampirism. Most of the familiar story elements are present – the princess follows her generic description, the Queen orders the girl’s heart cut out, the girl survives in the forest amongst dwarfs, the poisoning by apple occurs, the prince finds the seemingly dead princess, she is revived, and the Queen is executed – but the way the reader perceives these events is altered dramatically. This effect is achieved in two ways: through a decisive twist in the perspective of the story, by using the Queen as narrator, and, through this new narrative voice, reworking key motifs from the traditional tale.
The shift in narrative voice is particularly crucial. Without altering most of the key portions of the plot, Gaiman presents an unsettling new version by showing the Queen’s motivations and justifications of her actions in the face of the vampiric evil that is the young princess. The way that Gaiman has shifted some of the central signifiers in the plot is crucially linked to his choice of narrator: this is the Queen’s story. The Queen makes several mentions of the lies that the prince and princess have told of her, implicating the traditional tale and making the original a competing narrative to the Queen’s own version. Even in this version, however, the Queen is not presented as an entirely reliable narrator. The Queen’s presentation of her story is complicated by her capability for violence, power struggles and sexual manipulation. In addition to this, the Queen’s belated acknowledgement of the glamour she has used on the King in their courtship adds to the sense of distrust by the reader. The Queen plays upon key icons from the traditional tale to subvert its meaning, making it a fascinating exercise to contrast their original functions in competition with the new meanings assigned to them in her narrative.
As the title indicates with ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’, the story picks up on several iconic elements from the tale in order to establish some of the altered meanings of these key touchstones. The title of the traditional tale is derived from the eponymous heroine’s colouring and its associations with particular items. The princess’s skin is white as snow and, as the Queen echoes the original, “Her eyes were as black as coal, black as her hair; her lips were redder than blood, her skin, snow-white”. But while originally Snow White’s name and descriptors function as a guiding principle in the story, indicating her exceptional beauty, and thus goodness, the princess is now an evil creature, whose ‘snow white’ skin is indicative of her unnatural life and cold flesh and her lips “red as blood” exhibit her vampiric nature. In such a way, Gaiman keeps the story fully recognisable structurally and iconically but twists its meaning through the new perspective of the Queen’s version. In particular, Gaiman makes extensive use of snow and apple imagery throughout the story in order to present the Queen’s narrative as one that posits the princess as a deadly force of wintry deprivation and the Queen as a conscientious ruler who utilises a counteracting force for preparation and provision.
The final line, quoted above, is the one and only time that the iconic name of the princess is used in the story. By finishing the tale with a familiar refrain and completing the flourish with the acknowledgement of Snow White’s name, the ending has the effect of realigning the story the reader has become absorbed in with the traditional version of the fairy tale in a jarring manner. Re-emphasising the icons that have been modified in the Queen’s narrative in this final line serves to remind the reader of how much their viewpoint has been altered in the course of this story. The pivotal pressure that Gaiman applies to this familiar fairy tale is one that yields a disturbing yet enjoyable result. The tale is still strangely familiar yet wholly refreshing. Gaiman says of this desire in the retelling that, “there are definitely stories where I just wanted to try to essentially do a magic trick – it’s ‘Snow White’, but I’m going to show it to you in a mirror so you’ve never seen it like this before. And you’ll never be able to think of it in the same way ever again”. By unsettling what the reader believed they knew and tainting a previously singular narrative, Gaiman has accomplished his stated goal admirably.