I've started researching Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tales, so I decided to check out the Schools' Collection. The Schools' Collection is a compilation of folklore, all collected by Irish schoolchildren during the 1930's. This was part of a coordinated effort in the school system to preserve folklore, both stories and superstitions. Thousands of the stories, written in English and Gaelic, have currently been digitized and can be viewed online here.
So far, I've found one strikingly unusual Snow White story: "The Bright Star of Ireland." It was told by a travelling workman named Patrick Gillispie, age 60, a native of County Louth. The collector was 13-year-old James Fox.
There’s a princess so beautiful that she’s called the Bright Star of Ireland. Her vain stepmother frequently bathes in a pond. One day when she’s admiring her reflection, a brown trout tells her that her stepdaughter is more beautiful than she is. The queen sends two black servants to kill the girl in the forest and bring back her heart and liver. Instead, the servants take pity on the girl and give the queen the heart and liver of a lapdog. (The narrator, unfortunately, uses the N-word for the servants.)
The queen finds out, of course, and tries once again to have the girl killed. This time the servants argue. They end up fighting, and the one defending Bright Star wins. He takes the heart and liver of the other servant to give to the queen, and warns Bright Star to flee.
She finds her way to an island where she enters a beautiful palace. A cat welcomes her in and tells her that in the night, a pack of huge cats will come in and tear at her. On the first night, at eleven o'clock, she is attacked and scratched by six cats; on the second night, twelve cats; on the third night, twenty-four cats. After she has endured the third time, someone enters the room - but instead of her first feline friend, it's a handsome young king. The two get married and are deeply in love.
However, yet again the stepmother learns of her survival and goes to visit. While shaking hands with the girl, she drives a “sleeping needle” under her fingernail.
The girl’s husband returns to find her seemingly dead, but instead of burying her, keeps her in a locked room which he frequently visits. He unwillingly takes a second wife. His new mother-in-law tells his second wife to investigate the locked room, so she finds the Bright Star inside and, by washing her face and hands, pulls out the needle and awakens her. Bright Star and her husband are reunited, and the second wife stays on as Bright Star’s waiting maid.
Learning of Bright Star’s survival from the trout, the stepmother makes one more attempt at visiting in order to give her poisoned wine. However, the waiting maid knocks the wine out of her hands and the murder attempt is revealed. They execute the stepmother by throwing her into the sea in a barrel, and Bright Star’s father marries the waiting maid.
The plotline is almost completely identical to “Gold-tree and Silver-tree,” a Scottish Snow White story. In both tales, rather than a magic mirror, there's a talking trout - reminiscent of the salmon of knowledge in the story of Fionn.
"The Bright Star of Ireland" has two major differences from "Gold-tree." One is the incident with the giant cats, where Bright Star must endure pain before earning an advantageous marriage. It's an unusual interlude which is never fully explained. Why must the heroine go through this? It reminds me of stories like "The Wild Swans" or "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon" where the heroine has to go through various trials in order to save a man from a curse - like sewing with painful nettles that sting her hands, or sleeping alongside an enchanted prince at night.
The other major difference is that in "Gold-tree," the prince goes with the bigamy option and keeps both wives. I prefer this version, where the prince and second wife immediately separate (with an astonishing amount of good will on both sides) and she ends up as Bright Star’s new stepmother. It's always nice to read fairytales where women are close friends and allies.
The motif of the second wife who saves the first wife seems strange compared to other Snow Whites, but there's actually a long tradition related to this. It's not always the prince who awakens the sleeping girl, but his female relative! It grants the stories a kind of balance. One mother figure/sexual rival is predatory and jealous, and tries to kill Snow White. The second mother figure/sexual rival is loving and generous, and restores her to life.
In stories such as the Italian "The Crystal Casket" and "Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers," it's the prince's mother who opens up the room and orders servants to wash the heroine's face and dress her. This is what frees her from the curse.
However, sometimes it's the heroine's co-wife who saves her, as in the Breton poem 'The Lai of Eliduc," from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The married Eliduc falls in love with another woman, who sinks into a deathlike sleep. His wife, Guildeluec, soon discovers this state of affairs. Rather than getting angry, she revives her husband's mistress with a magic flower and steps aside so that they can marry each other. This is more like "The Bright Star of Ireland."
Polygamy was an established custom among the Celts and Gaels. Marie du France called the Lai of Eliduc "a very old Breton lay" when she wrote it down. There may have been ancient pre-Christian versions where Eliduc, like Gold-tree's prince, kept both wives.
I have found a new favorite fairytale. It begins with a wish for a child, a maiden as white as snow and red as blood, and a stepmother.
It's not 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,' but it's clearly a response to such tales. After a very Snow White-like beginning, it runs wild in its own direction. The version I read was collected by Jon Arnason in 1852.
Once there lived a childless King and Queen, as well as an untrustworthy counselor named Rauður. One day the Queen is out for a sleigh ride, with Rauður attending her. The Queen has a nosebleed and lets her blood land on the snow, at which point she wishes for a daughter as red as blood and white as snow.
Rauður says that her wish will be granted, but the moment she sets eyes on her daughter, she will lay an evil spell on the child to burn down her father's palace, get pregnant before she's married, and murder a man. The Queen doesn't care because she so badly wants a baby, and soon enough it comes to pass. Remembering the curse, she sends the child away and never looks at her. The little girl, Ingibjorg, grows up with remarkable beauty, but by the time she's ten, the Queen is dying. The Queen has held out thus far without ever looking at her, but now that she's dying, gives in and calls Ingibjorg into her room. No sooner has she seen Ingibjorg than she pronounces the curse upon her and dies.
More time passes, and the King takes a new fiancee, Hild. They are to be married at the end of three years. Somehow, Hild is already aware of Ingibjorg's curse and she promises to help.
Hild waits until a day when everyone is out, removes everything valuable from the building, and tells Ingibjorg to burn down the palace. And then she has a nicer one built in its place. The first part of the curse is done, and no one was hurt.
The next part of the curse is that Ingibjorg will fall pregnant. Hild is ready for this too. She arranges for Ingibjorg to spend a few nights at a house in the woods with a mysterious man. Now Rauður the advisor comes back into the story. He begins telling the King that Ingibjorg is pregnant - note that the King doesn't know about the curse. However, every time Rauður tries to reveal Ingibjorg's pregnancy, Hild is ready with a trick that will protect her stepdaughter's reputation. After the baby is born, Hild whisks it away into hiding.
And then there's the final part of the curse - Ingibjorg will be compelled to kill a man. No problem, says Hild. Let's kill Rauður. She arranges it so that she and Ingibjorg allow him to fall to his death. He is not greatly missed.
The day arrives for Hild and the King's wedding. Inbigjorg's lover returns with their baby. It turns out, he's Hild's brother! Hild explains the curse to the King, who was unaware of it all this time. She also explains that her brother was under a spell that made him a monster during the day, and could only be saved if a princess slept with him for three nights. With that, they celebrate a double wedding and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story is clearly a response to stories of evil stepmothers. Hild is a clever and proactive heroine. In most tales, the characters try to subvert gloomy prophecies and avoid their fate, but inevitably fail. The original Queen attempts this by completely cutting off her daughter, but ultimately gives in. Hild, however, allows the curse to work under her conditions. In the process, she rids the kingdom of Rauður and saves both her stepdaughter and her brother.
Maria Tatar points out that even though Hild is a hero, the title "The Good Stepmother" is a bit misleading. She doesn't become a literal stepmother until the very end of the story, since her wedding is postponed for three years. In addition, she's saving Ingibjorg from a curse created by her biological mother. So this story does not totally escape the trope of the evil maternal figure.
At first I was startled by Hild's cavalier attitude towards murder, but then I thought more about it.
Rauður is the one who lays out the description of Ingibjorg's curse. It seems like he's just predicting it, but it might actually be a deal-with-the-devil situation. The text says, "The Queen was willing to do anything to get a daughter." Later, it's Rauður who becomes dead-set on revealing Ingibjorg's pregnancy and ruining her. Only after he's dead is Ingibjorg free, and only after he's dead can the truth come to light. (The King is unaware of the curse until the very end. The knowledge is available only to his wives and daughter.)
Another version of the story, in the collection All the World's Reward, makes it even clearer that Rauður is the true source of Ingibjorg's curse.
In many of these snow-white maiden stories, the girl's name emphasizes her color. Her name is typically some variation on "White as Snow." Here, however, the only character with a color name is the villain: Rauður, or Red. Historically, red is associated with blood and violence. In many cultures redheads have been considered untrustworthy or even associated with witchcraft.
Another Icelandic tale, "Surtla in Bluelands Isles," also features a girl named Ingibjorg, a woman named Hildr who eventually becomes her stepmother, and an evil troll named Raudr.
"The Good Stepmother" has its own tale type: AT 934E. Although rare, it appears in a few countries other than Iceland. If you've come across any versions of this story, let me know!
Researching folktales and fairies.