snowwhite1905
(Snow White in the Forest by Franz Juttner, 1905)


Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood.
As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle.
Three drops of blood fell into the snow.
The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.”

Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White.
And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.

A year later the king took himself another wife.
She was a beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty.
She had a magic mirror.
Every morning she stood before it, looked at herself, and said:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?


The story begins as every fairy tale should with an “Once upon a time.” Although it may seem pointless to dwell on these four words, it points to the very important question of who the intended audience of this fairy tale is. Without any prior knowledge of the story, one can already tell that the story is for children just by hearing the introductory sentence. And being a fairy tale, readers can reasonably expect a story that departs from reality. This is seen through the use of magic and the like throughout the story.

Snow White begins in winter, which is also of considerable importance as well. Traditionally, springtime is seen as the season of fertility, but yet in this tale winter is used as the time of new beginnings. Using the specific time of midwinter, or the winter solstice, the tale points to the fact that the worst part of winter has already passed, and the days will gradually become warmer until finally spring arrives. Although promising at first, it also implies that the audience must persevere through a certain period of cold before reaching spring. This cold period could very well point to the new queen and her moral flaws.

But what makes the new queen so bad? It is her obsession with her own image. While the old queen saw beauty in the outside world (blood on the snow, her unborn child, and the ebony frame), the new queen only looked to confirm her beauty from within. And yes, the new queen was indeed beautiful, but the tale still deems her morally flawed because she is “proud and arrogant.” On the other hand, the previous queen’s appearance is never referenced, probably because readers already knew that she was beautiful, because her mind was already beautiful. The tale privileges emotional beauty over the superficial.

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This could also be the reason why the new queen never gives birth to another child for the king. In those days, it was the queen’s duty to provide the kingdom with heirs. And although the previous queen fulfilled hers even at the price of her own life, the new queen doesn’t. Snow White remains an only child, and thus the new queen is further painted in negative light because she abandons her duty as the new queen.

The number three turns up several times during the opening lines of the fairy tale as well. The three drops of blood on the snow are equivalent to the number of traits that Snow White’s mother wishes for. “As white as snow,” refers to the skin tone, and “as black as ebony wood,” refers to the hair color, but what could “as red as blood” mean? Red could be the very thing that the new queen lacks: humanity. Just as the tale privileges emotional beauty, another trait that the fairy tale is prioritizing over beauty is the compassion and kindness that the new queen does not have. In fact, humanity may very well be the true form of beauty, as Snow White is portrayed as very beautiful in the fairy tale.

The magic mirror which the new queen possesses further distances her from the rest of humanity simply because it is a magic mirror: it is something that normal people shouldn’t possess. Mirrors were exceptionally rare before the time of Brothers Grimm, and a magic mirror at that would have been exponentially rarer. The magic mirror alienates the new queen so far from the rest of society that it makes her inhuman, or better yet a monster. And in every fairy tale, there is no better villain to be had than a monster.


Works Cited

Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, and D.L. Ashliman, ed. “Grimm 053: Little Snow-White.” Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. University of Pittsburgh, 15 Nov 2005. Web. 8 Mar 2013. <http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html>.


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5 Responses to “Close Reading of Brothers Grimm Story No.53”

  1.   Kevin L. Ferguson Says:

    This is a really intriguing passage, and you identify some really interesting word choices that a reader might not consider when just thinking of the fairy tale’s narrative. I think that focus on details will be important for your project, since the text itself will be “familiar” to most people. I think it’s also a challenge for you that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to go back in time and guess how readers then would have related to this fairy tale. But you do a good job speculating about the meaning of these images in your essay.

    I like that you note the transition from “reality” to “magic,” which might be a question to ask of the film versions too.

    I wonder about why “feathers” are falling from Heaven–seems like a strange mix of pagan and Christian images. That also makes me wonder about the strange mix of a child that’s white, red, and black. It’s almost like a riddle.

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