If not a review, then what? Well: I’m going to engage in some thinking aloud about Grimms’ fairy tales in general, and certain specific tales in particular. Today I want to think about Snow White (no relation to Breaking Bad's Walter I assume). But first, a message from our sponsor.
Our sponsor in this case is the broad theoretical frame for any larger study of Children’s Literature. Maybe I should write a book. Maybe I will. And if I do, it will start with Romanticism.
This may look shortsighted of me. People (of course) have had children ever since there have been people; and for all of human history people have loved their children, and cared for them, and told them stories. In one sense, clearly, Grimm represents a kind of pay-off to a millennial-old culture of oral storytelling for children. Nonetheless, something happens to ‘Children’s Literature’ in the 19th-, and to a much greater degree in the 20th-, centuries. Partly this has to do with the printed-text bias of University Literature courses—you’re much more likely to find university courses on medieval Arthurian Literature (which, because it was aimed at posh nobs, tended to be written down) than on Robin Hood (largely oral, largely working class), not because the former has had a greater cultural significance than the latter, but because we need texts to work from when we teach. So, literacy becomes a widespread matter in the later 19th-century, and then there’s this new market (kids) you can sell books to and, presto!, a whole flood of books appears.
But there’s another factor here, which is the way the Romantic period reconceptualised the child. I haven’t space here to expatiate on this important point with anything approaching nuance, so I’ll limit myself to sweeping generalisations. Before the later eighteenth-century such literature as was specifically aimed at children (and there wasn’t much) was almost all didactic in purpose. The point was to educate, not to entertain; to educate either practically --
Or perhaps behaviourally:
This in turn reflected a culture in which infants were defined via notions of ‘original sin’ as creatures who needed a firm hand to ensure they grew up correctly: spare the rod and spoil the child and so on. If we are liable to look down our sophisticated 21st-century noses at the crudity of this approach—and I readily admit it to be a caricature of what was, in practice, a much more varied complex of attitudes to childhood—then we should at least have the courtesy to bear in mind the social and therefore emotional context of this world. In 16th- and 17th century Europe, 60% of children died before their sixteenth birthday. I’m going to repeat that datum, because it is so gobsmacking. In the 16th- and 17th century, 60% of children died before their sixteenth birthday. There is nowhere on Earth today—not Somalia, not Afghanistan, not the most war-torn or AIDS-blighted portion of third world that even approaches that level of infant mortality. It quite literally defeats my imagination, trying to think myself back into it. How could parents do anything other than grieve, over and over again? And by the same token, how could parents invest emotionally in the future of their children in such a world without being driven mad? Infant mortality rates improved a little in the nineteenth-century, but really not by much. It is not until right at the end of the century when we realised the twin causes for this massacre of the innocents (nutrition and, above all, infection) and were able to do something about it. One of the most massive and yet unremarked revolutions of the 20th century has been the heroic reductions in infant mortality, down to levels where I, as a parent of two children (and however much I naturally fret and worry) have the reasonable (touch wood) expectation they will survive to adulthood. One thing this does is make you rethink the tendency of families to be so much larger back then. If 17th-century me had wanted to have what 21st-century takes for granted—namely, the reasonable hope that I shall see two children grown up—he would have had to father six kids.
Anyway, for whatever complex of reasons, attitudes to children began to change in the later eighteenth-century in ways that flowered in the Romantic period. The main motor here was Rousseau, who insisted that the doctrine of original sin mischaracterised children. Children were not born corrupt; they were born innocent, pure, even holy; it was life—and especially city life—that corrupted them. This trope of the child as holy innocent has Biblical provenance, and Rousseau’s ideas chimed with what was in the 18th-century cutting edge philosophy of mind (Locke’s tabula rasa and so on). Still, it went through Romantic art like wildfire. This is one of Blake’s core themes. This is the red, beating heart of all that is great and worthwhile about Wordsworth—read his Immortality Ode, surely the single most potent and influential restatement of this Rousseauian idea. This is what Coleridge kept coming back to. Children were more than just seeds that would one day grow into grownups. They came trailing their own clouds of glory.
One consequence of this was that, slowly, culture stopped seeing children in instrumental terms and began seeing them as loci of value in their own right. By the former I mean: that tendency (still prevalent) to see kids as on their way somewhere important—adulthood—but not there yet. To treat them as not-yet people, and to gear their education and treatment to that end. It’s really not until Romanticism that an alternative mode of ‘reading’ childhood comes into play: the idea that ‘the child is father to the man’ in the sense of assuming a kind of spiritual and personal priority. The idea that we adults can and very much should learn something important from kids.
Now ‘innocence’, which becomes something like a cultic quality in relation to childhood around this time, and which still exerts a colossal cultural pull on the way we regard children today, is not a straightforward Good. In some respects of course we want to ‘protect’ our kids from ‘corruption’ by the world; we want to preserve their ‘innocence’. But in another way innocence is merely a synonym for ignorance; and ignorance is a Bad Thing. This, actually (to drag this blogpost back to its actual theme) is one of the things Philip Pullman has often talked about; and one of the main themes of his Dark Materials trilogy.
Much of this preamble is only glancingly relevant to a discussion of Die Gebrüder Grimm; except to say that the huge and lasting impact that their Kinder- und Hausmärchen undeniably had was a function of two main cultural forces. One was this collection, and its many translations, were received into societies and cultures for which there was a new interest in the child as such. A new kind of kinder, we could say: a new-modeled figure, ‘the child’. The other, also relevant, was a Europe-wide surge of interest in land, history and folk-art, which in turn was a function of nascent nationalism. The myriad German statelets were starting the long process of coalescence, and a fascination with the roots of specifically German folk was part of that. Something similar happened across the continent, but its particular social acuity in Germany is one reason why it is the German versions of these (often) universal stories that have been set as the default versions. Nor is this an ideological neutral matter. I don't want to get all Godwin's Lawless here, but the various fascisms of the 20th and, alas, the neo-fascisms of the 21st-, centuries draw from this reservoir of nativist, volkisch belief. There's not a straight line, but there is a line, from Herder to Hitler, from Romanticism to the Nazis.
One more point about the German-ness of these märchen (bearing in mind that my focus is English rather than Continental literature) is the way the Germanic played in a wider Romantic context. Here is a quotation from Marilyn Butler’s excellent Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford 1981). Butler explores what she sees as an ideological division in 1810s/1820s English writing between a ‘right-wing’ reactionary Germanic-influenced tradition and a ‘left-wing’ liberal classical emphasis on the Mediterranean. She discusses De Staël’s De l’Allemagne (1810)—which praises German culture ‘as a rallying-point for opposition to Napoleon’: ‘Europe had two dominant cultural traditions: the classical, Mediterranean inheritance, perfectly expressed in comedy, and culminating in a predominantly French modern classicism; and the Northern or Germanic alternative.’
The German races did not organise themselves into large states. Man was isolated in very small communities, effectively on his own and dwarfed among the vast, oppressive, unmastered phenomena of Nature. He was obliged to look inward for inspiration, or upward to the mountains or to God. The literature of the North accordingly became introspective, pessimistic and essentially religious. Its religion was not social but individual, an intense unfulfilled aspiration which was perfectly expressed in Gothic architecture, or in the passionate irregularity of Shakespearian tragedy. The Northern or Romantic tradition (which as Madame de Staël makes plain is the unified culture of the Germans and the English, Napoleon’s leading enemies) has become the most vital and imaginative intellectual force of the present day. My sense is that Butler slightly overstates her ideological perspective (‘no disinterested exegesis of contemporary German literature or philosophy –nothing that separated [it] out … from the now triumphant cause of the extreme Right’) by way of explaining why the younger, liberal or radical writers (Byron, Shelley and Keats) gravitated so enthusiastically towards classical Greek and Roman literature. But nonetheless there’s something important, here, I think in the way Grimm ‘worked’, certainly for the first few generations of readers through the 19th-century, and arguably further into the 20th- and 21st-centuries too. These are not ideologically neutral texts.
Enough preambling. Back to Pullman, and thence to Snow White. It’s clear from his introduction and notes that Pullman has not only worked from the original German, but has inflected his translations via a number of big name figures in the history of Fairy Tale criticism: Bruno Bettelheim, with his Freudian readings of these stories as symbolic narratives; the prolific Jack Zipes, who amongst other things recontextualises these stories via their original modes of cultural production, stressing things like rural poverty and suspicion of the ruling classes (that makes Zipes sound rather more Marxist than he actually is; and I suppose his main focus is on—to quote the title of his 2006 book—‘What Makes Fairy Tales Stick’); Marina Warner, with her very popular accounts of fairy tales as feminised discourses to do with culture power.
Pullman’s introduction makes a number of claims about the form. Here’s one:
There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good they are good, and if they are bad they’re bad. Even when the princess in ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious. [xiii]We see what he means, but surely this is wrong. It is one thing to say that these characters are not interiorised—clearly they are not, any more than are the characters in Dickens or Star Wars. It is quite another to say that this mode is incapable of apprehending psychological complexity, for manifestly it is very much so capable. Fairy tales characters don’t have psychological depth; they are psychological depth. ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ is a fascinating case in point: because there seems to me something psychologically very acute in the princess’s emotional volte face. The nameless hero of that story is poor man’s son whose bravery wins the approval of the king. He marries the king’s daughter despite her rather extreme insistence that any husband of hers must promise to be buried in the ground with her corpse in the event she predeceases him. When she does die, off the hero goes, into the tomb with her, ready to die. But thanks to the titular snake-leaves (I won’t go into details) he is able to revive his wife. After her joyful reunion with her father, she agrees to travel overseas to meet her husband’s father.
But once at sea she forgot the great devotion the young man had shown her, because she felt a lust growing in her for the captain of the ship. Nothing would satisfy her but to sleep with him, and soon they were lovers. One night in his arms she whispered, “Oh, if only my husband were dead! What a marriage we two would make!” I shan’t spoil the ending. My point is twofold. One is that this is, psychologically speaking, very acute. You (yes, I’m talking to you) are a woman not unusually wicked of heart or perverse, and you are loved by a man who adores you, is stupidly devoted to you, would gladly lay down his life for you. Maybe this flatters you, and maybe you respond to his love. But there’s something, shall we say, sappy about that level of devotion. Isn’t there? Maybe we think Rory’s undying love for Amy Pond is sweet and touching, but we can also see that Rory is a bit of a dweeb, really. That doesn't mean that we don't love him, in a way. But it also doesn’t mean there’s anything illogical about falling for a more forceful individual should we happen upon him. Sexual desire, famously, doesn’t run along the neatly scooped out channels of Social Propriety or even of Individual Moral Obligation. That, in part, is what ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ is about; and the fact that the princess is eventually punished (uh-oh, I did spoil the ending) doesn’t deflect that. Somebody performing ‘undying love’ may be flattering, but it is also weirdly emotionally constricting. It is a type of over-performance that, in its way, is as offputting as active hostility. The shine goes off it surprisingly quickly, and -- oh, look! Here's this handsome ship captain!
Two is, I think, even more interesting. Years ago, when she was still little, I read this story to my daughter, and afterwards we had a really interesting discussion about it, focusing on the princess’s change of heart. Was it (my daughter wondered) that it was coming back from the dead that changed the princess’s heart? Did the revival via the magic snake leaves entail a kind of zombification of the heart? Because if so, the hero—who is killed by his wife and the ship captain, and then revived using the same leaves by his faithful servant—would be in the same situation, wouldn't he? But how could he be, and still be the hero? The point here, of course, is the one famously developed in the opening chapter of Auerbach’s still-essential, magisterial Mimesis book. Auerbach contrasts the detail-rich, digressive, immersive mode of storytelling mimesis in Homer’s Odyssey with the more pared-down, elliptical mode of the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible; and part of his point is that, perhaps counterintuitively, the latter mode is more engaging and evocative. But, look: I don’t want to insult you by implying that you haven’t read Mimesis.
So, yes, I’m not disagreeing with Pullman when he says that the characters in fairy tales are ‘flat, not round’; only with his imputation that—as with Dickens—this is in any way to the detriment of the stories’ abilities to excavate profound truths of human psychology.
They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain; Bearskin; Little Red Riding Hood. When they do have a name it’s usually Hans, just as Jack is the hero of every British fairy tale. [xiv]Fair enough. Pullman dilates interestingly upon this point, actually.
Some of the characters in fairy tales come in sets of multiples. The twelve brothers of the story of that name, the twelve princesses in ‘The Shoes That Danced Themselves To Pieces’, the seven dwarfs in the story of Snow White … Realism cannot cope with the notion of multiples; the twelve princesses who go out every night and dance their shoes to pieces, the seven dwarfs all asleep in their beds side by side, exist in another realm altogether, between the uncanny and the absurd. [xiv]This is a good point, I think. It’s symptomatic that one of the ways Disney adapts Snow White into his (peerless) film version is, precisely, to individuate the seven. It works, in a way—though, that said, how many of you can recite all seven names straight off? I'm sure some of you could do it; but more, I'd wager would go: ‘er, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, er, Gum-, er, Grumpy, he’s one, er, er, Blinky? Is it? Jockey. Is that seven? [counts on fingers] four, five six … and Kylie. That’s it.’ Be honest.
So. Right: Snow White. It’s a story so desperately familiar that precis is unnecessary. Pullman tells it well, with a brisk opening straight out of the original:
One winter’s day, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of the blackest ebony. She opened the window to look at the sky, and as she did so she pricked her finger, and three drops of blood fell into the snow on the windowsill. The red and the white looked so beautiful together that she said to herself ‘I wish I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as the wood in the window frame.’ And soon afterwards she had a little daughter; and she was as white as snow and as red as blood and as black as ebony, so they called her Little Snow White. 'As soon as the baby was born’ the story continues, ‘the queen died.’ Pullman notes: ‘In the Grimms’ first edition of 1812 the wicked queen was Snow White’s mother. She didn’t become a stepmother until the second edition of 1819.’ There is an evasion here in the Grimm retelling, a sort of symbolic splitting that is at root (of course) psychological. Marina Warner is good on this semantic strategy, as a way by which the interpolated female reader can simultaneously work through her feelings of frustration and anger with her mother without having to sacrifice her self-constructing sense that she loves her mother. Pullman adds: ‘what happened to her father? Dim, faint and sketchy, like many of the males in Grimm he was simply obliterated by the power of the monstrous queen.’ Modern versions often make this explicit: the king is already dead (in the recent motion picture Snow White and the Huntsman she is murdered by the wicked queen on their wedding night as part of an explicit military putsch), or away—in Sarah Pinborough’s retelling, Poison (2013) he is away on a conveniently prolonged military campaign in a distant country, giving his second wife free rein. But then again, Pinborough’s retelling opens with the wicked queen giving the compliant King a blow-job, which in turn highlights an important focus of the original tale. Why does it matter so much to the Wicked Queen that she is so beautiful? Or more specifically, that she is the most beautiful, that she can brook no competition, even to the point of attempting to murder her own (adopted) child rather than be outshone? The implication in Pinborough’s retelling is that we have to read ‘beauty’ more specifically as ‘sexual allure’, and that in the patriarchal world of the tale it is only by exploiting such allure that a women can get on in the world. This is to instrumentalise the fairy tale’s focus on ‘beauty’.
Now I’m not saying Pinborough’s interpretation doesn’t make sense; because it does. And, speaking personally, I’m with Woody Allen on the relative degrees of attractiveness of Snow White herself and the Wicked Queen.
But I wonder if there’s something else here. I don’t say so to knock Pinborough’s retelling, which I enjoyed reading. It is not so plain as Pullman’s (of course), and it adds in three things in particular: one, a kind of intertetuxality, where various other fairy tales intrude, Shrek-like, into the fabric of Snow White; two a sort of plain humour (Snow White, needing a partner for the ball, gets the seven dwarfs to stand on top of one another and puts a big coat over them); and three, well, sex. The sex is not especially explicit in Poision, and it manifests something very clearly latent in the original story, as in most fairy tales. Pinborough’s ancestor here is Angela Carter, and if Carter’s retellings have rather more eerie force to them than Poison that in part is a function of audience. Pinborough combines fairy tale and sex not for straightforward pornographic reasons, but to bridge precisely that readerly gap between the sexual ignorant reading of fairy tales of the very young, and the sexually knowing reading of grown-ups like Angela Carter. Still, the Wicked Queen is surely the most interesting figure in this story. Here she is, in Pullman’s version, with her mirror.
‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall,She recruits the huntsman to kill Snow White; when he can’t bring himself to do it he kills a boar and brings back its lungs and liver. ‘The cook was ordered to season them well, dredge them in flour and fry them, and the wicked queen ate them all up. And that she thought was the end of Snow White.’ It’s not, of course; wandering in the forest our heroine is taken in by the dwarfs, who love her, and for whom she keeps house. The Wicked Queen learns of the failure of her attempt to kill of her rival via the magic mirror.
Who in this land is the fairest of all?’
‘Your majesty, you are still lovely, it’s true,
But Snow White is a thousand times fairer than you.’
‘Your majesty, you are still lovely, it’s true,‘The queen recoiled in horror!’ So she tries three times to kill Snow White herself, failing twice and each time being informed of her failure by the mirror. The third attempt (the poisoned apple) succeeds; the grieving dwarfs put Snow White in a glass coffin and then the prince comes along, dislodges the apple from Snow White’s throat and marries her. The story ends with the Wicked Queen learning from her mirror that this new ‘young queen’ is the fairest in the kingdom. ‘The wicked queen gasped with horror. She was so frightened, so terrified, that she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to go to the wedding and she didn’t want to stay away.’ She goes, and this is what happens to her:
But far far away in the forest so deep
Where she lives with the dwarfs since they found her asleep
Snow White is a thousand times fairer than you.’
A pair of iron shoes had already been placed in the fire. When they were red-hot they were brought out with tongs and placed on the floor. And the wicked queen was made to step into them, and dance until she fell down dead. Ow. That's exactly how the original ends, too.
I’m going to say something rather obvious about the Wicked Queen now. She is a narcissist. Her magic mirror is the story’s way of focusing this aspect of her (the mirror is the narcissist’s prime tool); as is the weirdly unexplained absence of her husband, the king—it is not that he is away, or dead, it is only that the Queen has no need of him, psychologically speaking. Her self-love is all the love she needs. This is also what is so upsetting for her about Snow White: merely the fact of her, and that her beauty interferes with the perfect expression of her own narcissism.
Now the one thing that especially interests me about the Wicked Queen’s narcissism is that the story explicitly connects it with notions of omniscience. The Queen’s mirror both reinforces her own sense of her own perfect beauty, and grants her a magically panoptic knowledge of everything in the world. That she only ever uses this magical ability to reinforce her own narcissistic self-obsession is entirely in keeping with her personality.
The default position in our culture about narcissism is that it’s a bad thing. As Adam Phillips puts it, ‘scrutiny of the self, but not celebration or adoration of the self’ has been ‘integral’ to our Judeo-Christian culture. As he goes on to note, the actual status of narcissism is more complex.
Great claims, either positive or negative, are always made on narcissism’s behalf … Do “creative artists” need to be narcissistic, or is that what they suffer from, or both? Is masturbation bad for people because it doesn’t involve other people? Are we primarily interested in other people, so that self-preoccupation is a symptom of thwarted involvements, or are we essentially self-involved creatures interrupted, every so often, by our unavoidable dependence on others? [Philips, Promises, Promises (Faber 2000), 201]These are, as Philips notes, ‘the old questions’ and carry ‘oppressive historical baggage’. One need not follow Philips down into his complicated post-Laplanchean, post-Symingtonian meditations on the matter to say (a) that Snow White is also about the positivity and negativity of narcissism, about artistry—the Queen is an artist of wicked ingenuity (disguising, acting, planning and plotting) to Snow White’s blankly passive housewifeliness—and about, in a way, masturbation; and (b) that these are questions that have peculiar bite for children as they mature through adolescence and into the world. But then this oughtn’t to surprise us.
The story says: narcissism is selfish, and cruel, and will be punished. But the story also says: narcissism is sexier than selflessness (Woody Allen surely had it right, here). This is because narcissism is more focused than the alternative: Snow White’s encounter with those, as Pullman notes, clone-line unindividuated seven dwarfs says something like this. As if the tale is a symbolic narrative that moves from childhood to married adulthood only via a sort of emotionally disintegrated dissipation of attachment seven ways.