In original versions of Snow White the villain was her jealous mother, who had longed for a daughter with lips as red as blood, hair as dark as ebony and skin as white as snow. But she became envious when the girls adolescent beauty outranked her own and so took the young Snow White to collect flowers and abandoned her in the forest. The Brothers Grimm and other folklorists made alterations in various editions in order to tone the fairy tale down for children: a mother becomes a step mother, and a servant takes Snow White into the woods and is ordered to cut out her heart or her lungs. Apparently cutting out vital organs is less scary that being abandoned, perhaps because the latter is a potentially real situation.
When the Queen finds Snow White again she tempts her with objects to make her beautiful – laces for her corset and a comb for her hair. Both leave her nearly dead, through suffocation or poison, but she is saved by her co-habiting dwarfs (or, or in some versions, thieves) who arrive home in time to save her. The triple death-and-resurrection not only warned of the consequences of vanity but also warned children about taking gifts and food from strangers, particularly with the third attempt on her life is made. I wonder about the symbolism of the apple used to send Snow White to her deathly sleep. Like Eve, the adolescent girl takes a bite from the apple of knowledge. She suffers the consequences, but also discovers adulthood and relationships once the young prince finds her, and later, vengeance.
The part of the story of Snow White that disturbs me the most is what happens to the step mother, a part of the fairy tale that is frequently left out of modern retellings. The Queen arrives at the castle for the wedding, and realises that the princess bride is Snow White. Snow White and her new husband set about punishing her by making her wear a pair of heated iron shoes and dance until she drops dead, or, in some versions, dies from a heart attack.
I’ve always felt there was much more to the story of Snow White than first met the eye. As much as I take pleasure in the old non-Disney variations of the story and the symbolism within them, I also really enjoy reading modern retellings of the tale, such as Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples, which transforms Snow White into an unnatural vampire-like creature who seductively influences all those who come into to contact with her, whilst the step-mother queen desperately struggles to stop her before she controls the realm, failing miserably and meeting an iron-shoed end.