by Collin James
The Brothers Grimms’ publication of “Snow White” spawned a lasting legacy that spans across multiple generations of narrative re-invention. This may be surprising, as the tale’s titular character is dull; however, a strong cast of secondary characters has played a large role in the story’s continued dissemination. The Grimms’ version relies heavily on Snow White’s dysfunctional relationship with her villainous stepmother as a foundation of its intrigue. Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” reimagines the tale through a shift to the Queen’s point-of-view, including a series of fundamental reversals invoking a more compelling Princess who commands attention from her family and readers alike. Overall, Neil Gaiman’s rendition of “Snow White” is a more sexually oriented tale that breathes life into an otherwise one-dimensional character, allotting Snow an unprecedented form of agency through her status of “undead predator.”
Gaiman’s most drastic and immediate change in his overhaul of the Snow White tradition is a shift in narrative perspective. While the Grimms’ tale is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, Gaiman transmits his variant retrospectively through the “wise” Queen’s first-person viewpoint (106). Gaiman highlights the Queen’s role of storyteller early on, situating her in the domestic sphere of her private chamber, where she partakes in the practice of embroidering (107). This passage draws upon the metaphor of weaving as storytelling, whilst functioning as metafiction. Indeed, Gaiman is actively threading together his modern version of “Snow White” while the Queen is interlacing her subjective narrative, and mediating the dissemination of the account that readers encounter. Use of the first-person perspective facilitates introspective insight into the Queen’s interior life, allowing for intrigue and horror to be accrued in the incremental introduction of her stepdaughter. This level of depth and complexity is in direct contrast to the archetypal representation of characters in traditional tales. The Queen takes advantage of her narrative voice, framing the mutiny involved in her capture and usurpation as a witch-hunt in both senses of the term: the first alludes to the Salem witch trials, as Gaiman’s version ends with the Queen who is about to be burned alive (116). The second meaning of witch-hunt in this story is that there is no proper basis for the Queen’s punishment, and that her people have been indoctrinated against her: “they have told the people bad things about me; a little truth to add savor to the dish, but mixed with many lies” (Gaiman 115). The Queen employs language attesting to this witch-hunt, victimizing herself as she constantly mentions hearsay which she categorically denies: “(…) they say that, and they are wrong” (Gaiman 108).
However, this portrayal of events is complicated by the Queen’s self-serving motive to clear her name. Readers may be apprehensive of the Queen’s veracity, since she acknowledges that she is a witch who cast a “glamour” on herself to seduce her husband, the King (Gaiman 112). Thus, the Queen could be working her magic on readers as well. On the level of diction, the Queen asks many hypothetical questions and is purposely vague, further instilling doubts and hindering her credibility. This culminates when she responds to one of her many broodings with “I imagine; I do not know” (Gaiman 115), confirming her to be an unreliable narrator. The narrative ends as the wise Queen is about to be burned to death, leaving a burning question in the mind of readers who wonder how she is able to transmit her account at all (Gaiman 116). Overall, The Queen’s perspective allows for a newfound interiority, adding a layer of psychological depth and agency that is lacking from the Grimms’ superficial character.
Despite her superficiality, the Grimms’ Queen is a commanding presence who in conjunction with the seven Dwarfs, compensates for a passive and insipid Snow White. Consistent with fairy tales, the intrigue of these secondary characters is allotted by a singular descriptor that delineates their narrative arcs. Indeed, the Grimms’ depict the seven mythical Dwarfs as caricatural figures that work to color Snow’s lackluster narrative existence after her ejection from home (Grimm 97). Likewise, the Queen in “Snow White” functions as a Narcissus figure who remains in denial regarding the reality of her faltering beauty, which is reflected in the magic mirror (Grimm 96). The functionality of the magic mirror is significant: the fact that it cannot lie to the Queen renders it partially responsible for her downfall (Grimm 95). Without the mirror, the Queen’s ego would not have been threatened by her stepdaughter’s blooming. Thus, the Queen’s main characteristic is her vanity, and the conflict in “Snow White” arises from her jealousy of the Princess’s potent beauty and position as a sexual rival. This plotline follows the motif of the oppressive stepmother and the marginalized stepchild, allowing for a deferred restitution to conclude the tale. The story also encompasses an older generation’s desperate fight to exert control over an emergent younger generation.
“Snow, Glass, Apples” features a reversal of perspective, with a younger generation that is trying to wrest control from their relative elders. While Snow White’s father is absent from the Grimms’ tale, Gaiman introduces an ineffectual king who exercises his “king’s rights” over the narrator (the Queen), and substitutes her for his dead wife (106-107). In response, the Princess attempts to eradicate her father and this encroacher. In a manner, the Princess then becomes a phantasm of the King’s past marriage, haunting the new Queen. Therefore, Gaiman’s story eschews the traditional preoccupation with beauty and instead is centered around the Queen’s struggle for survival against her supernatural stepdaughter. This is reflected in the Queen’s less gratuitous and more practical use of the tool of the looking-glass, as her power struggle with the Princess leaves no room for vanity: “I covered the mirror in doe-skin, and told him that I would personally take it upon myself to make the forest safe [from the Princess] once more. I had to, although she terrified me. I was the Queen” (Gaiman 111). The conflict in “Snow, Glass, Apples” revolves around both the Princess and the Queen attempting to navigate their new family unit and find their places within it. In both the traditional tale and Gaiman’s retelling, it is the intergenerational conflict between the Princess and the Queen that allows for each version’s most intriguing events to unfold.
Gaiman’s inventive use of Snow White’s color palette allots his Princess the requisite agency to exert her supremacy over both the Queen and reader’s imaginations in “Snow, Glass, Apples.” The colors red, white, and ebony function as signifiers of Snow’s beauty in the Grimms’ traditional tale (Grimm 96). The importance of these colors is highlighted by both the Grimms’ decision to invoke them at the beginning of their narrative, and their inclusion in numerous re-inventions of the original text. Gaiman slowly introduces the Princess in mysterious fashion, inviting readers to play the role of detective in piecing together the changed significance of these canonical colors. In Gaiman’s rendition, red symbolizes the blood that is on her lips following feeding, the white fairness of her skin is the pallor of the undead, and black may be linked to either death, her sexuality (through the black hair between her legs), or her propensity to operate under the darkness of the night (110, 112). Thus, in an ironic twist, Gaiman animates the Grimms’ lifeless Snow, utilizing their color scheme to imbue her with the requisite vitality to terrorize the Queen by painting her as an undead figure.
Gaiman’s modern rendition reverses Snow White’s familial conflict by featuring an oppressive vampiric Princess who dominates her stepmother on numerous levels. These acts of domination drive the narrative forward and are largely sexual in nature, which is in direct contrast to the Grimms’ prudish story. Yet, the battle amongst these warring factions is not as one-sided as it is in “Snow White.” The Princess draws first blood when she appears in the Queen’s private chamber at night, claiming to be hungry. The Queen responds by offering the Princess an apple in an attempt to satiate her, showcasing an initial affection for the girl that is absent from the Grimms’ version (Gaiman 107). This moment is pivotal, as it occurs before their relationship begins to deteriorate. It also foreshadows the Queen’s later attempts to quell the Princess’s threat with poison apples. The Princess then bites the Queen’s thumb, which is described as her “mound of Venus,” alluding to her mons pubis, and signaling the Princess’s sexual supremacy (Gaiman 107). This functions as a reversal of the traditional tale wherein the wicked Queen intends to eat the Princess’s lungs and liver (Grimm 96); in Gaiman’s story, the Queen is consumed by her stepdaughter. Likewise, the Princess slowly steals the King from her stepmother, draining his lifeforce from his penis – emasculating the King and depriving the Queen of her marital rites – before killing him (Gaiman 108). This action adds an incestual undertone to the story, further highlighting the Princess’s horrific and unnatural subversion of her family. The Queen responds to her husband’s gruesome murder by having the Princess taken to the forest where her heart is torn out in an attempt to save the kingdom (Gaiman 108).
Although the motive behind the Queen’s first attempted murder of the Princess differs greatly from the wicked stepmother’s vanity of the older tale, neither murder attempt works. Instead, Gaiman’s Princess thrives and grows more feral while in the forest, succumbing to primal urges without inhibition. The Queen witnesses the Princess’s savagery through her looking-glass, as she watches the naked Princess desecrate a monk as his “thin black liquid” dribbles between her legs, perhaps symbolizing menstruation and maturation (Gaiman 110-111). The Queen makes a last attempt to destroy this supernatural force, utilizing her witchcraft to poison apples, and then to cast a glamour on both the apples and herself. While Gaiman’s Queen’s previous attempts to murder the Princess differ from the Grimms’, both succeed with poison apples (Grimm 98-100, Gaiman 112). However, the Princess embarrasses the Queen from beyond the grave, as the Queen is deemed too lively for the “noble” prince, who instead falls in love with the dead Princess (Gaiman 114). Consequently, the prince purchases her corpse in the “silver mound” – another sexual allusion – before he reanimates the undead Princess through intercourse (Gaiman 115). This acts as a perverse mirroring of Snow White’s traditional revival: she is placed in a suspended state of death, and once she revives, she has matured and is ready to marry. The story then concludes with the Queen being overthrown by the necrophiliac prince and undead Princess, who later become a family unit of husband and wife, King and Queen (Gaiman 115).
Neil Gaiman’s modern “Snow, Glass, Apples” revolutionizes the Snow White tradition. First, Gaiman offers a shift in perspective, fleshing out the Queen’s character in a move that provides insight into the original tale’s most enchanting character. However, rather than making the Queen the focus of the narrative, Gaiman utilizes the Queen as an intermediary through which readers experience the feral Princess’s terror firsthand. Gaiman employs the Grimms’ color palette as a means of transforming the young Princess from victim to predator. Gaiman moves away from the Grimms’ puritanical approach to the representation of sexuality, and instead uses sexual dominance as a means of highlighting the Princess’s complete control over those around her. Moreover, the Princess’s search for a cohesive family unit culminates in the re-animated vampire’s match with a necrophiliac, signaling a perfect perverse match. Finally, Gaiman’s resolution rebels against fairy tale justice: the evil pair is rewarded, allowing for a subversive but appropriate ending wherein, once again, the younger overtakes the older generation.
Grimm, Brothers. “Snow White.” The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, 2nd ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 95–102.
Gaiman, Neil. “Snow, Glass, Apples.” The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, 2nd ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 106–116.
Photo: Schneewittchen by Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White#/media/File:Schneewittchen2.jpg