Happy 200th, Snow White!

ID_PI_GOLBE_SNOW_AP_001Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

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.