Syair Bidasari is a story with many parallels to the Brothers Grimm story of Snow White and the worldwide tale type of ATU 709. A syair is a traditional Malay poetry form, and Bidasari is the name of the heroine. Going through it piece by piece, we find many things which seem very different on the surface from Snow White.
We don’t know the date of origin or the author. The oldest extant manuscript dates to the 1810s, with the oldest surviving reference from the previous decade. A similar syair was dated to the 1650s, so this may very well be one of the earliest versions of Snow White that we have today. Julian Millie found that the story was known throughout Southeast Asia, ranging from Indonesia to the Philippines. It was adapted into music and theater, and translations were published in English, German and Russian.
Syair Bidasari is an epic poem with intricate language and structure, and it’s been impossible for translators to do it full justice in English. It also keeps going after Bidasari marries the king. See, she was a lost princess adopted as an infant by a kindly merchant. After her wedding, her biological family tracks her down, and there are endless reunions and celebrations and a long digression where her brother slays a monster and marries the princess it was holding captive. (This kind of elaborate runtime is not unfamiliar for old literary fairy tales; compare the original French novella that was Beauty and the Beast, which takes a deep dive into fairy politics and Beauty’s Surprise Secret Backstory as a lost princess. Adaptations immediately dropped that part, with good reason.)
Bidasari is not a folktale, but it does seem based on oral tradition. And we can see traces of that tradition continuing in folklore collected much later - in the Indian tales “Princess Aubergine” and “Sodewa Bai,” and the Jewish Egyptian story “The Wonder Child.” These stories vary in some details. “Sodewa Bai” even has a bit of a Cinderella motif, with the prince finding her because of her tiny slipper. But they generally stick to the same plot - this very specific strand of ATU 709.
One of the most intriguing differences from the European Snow White is how the death-sleep works. European heroines are usually invaded in some way, a foreign body intruding on hers - a bite of apple stuck in Snow White’s throat, a splinter in Talia’s finger. It must be removed in order to awaken her. But in these Asian and Middle-Eastern versions, something is stolen from the heroine and must be returned to her.
And here we have the motif of the removable soul. Bidasari’s soul is inside a golden fish, which is nested inside two precious boxes and kept in a pond in her family’s garden. Aubergine’s life is tied to a magical necklace, hidden inside a tiny box, inside a bumble bee, inside a red and green fish. In “Sodewa Bai” the heroine is born with a necklace, in “The Wonder Child” with a glowing jewel; if she doesn’t have her magical item with her, she’ll fall asleep. In all of these cases, the object is worn as a necklace.
This resembles ATU 302, "The Giant who had no heart in his body." In these stories, the owner of the removable soul is typically a villain who has nested his heart or life force inside several different things, sometimes animals or insects, sometimes and egg. The hero must seek out the life source to destroy it.
It seems like the hero being the one with the removable soul may be common in Indian tales. In "Chundun Rajah" (from the same collector who published "Sodewa Bai"), it's a man who suffers the daily death when his soul-necklace is stolen.
Is the soul-necklace in these stories a unique folk tradition variant? Or was the legend affected by the fame of the epic poem adaptation Syair Bidasari? I do find it intriguing that it made it all the way into Jewish storytelling in Egypt.
A major theme in these stories is the rivalry between two wives. Bidasari faces Queen Lila Sari, who is driven by her fear that the king will marry someone else and lose interest in her. You can feel for Lila Sari at first, when her devoted husband states that he would take another wife if he found someone more beautiful. However, then she turns to torture and murder. (Bidasari, in contrast, holds no deep resentment towards Lila Sari and is content to be one of several wives.)
The Punjabi tale of “Princess Aubergine” gets even more horrifying. When the queen tries to magically force Aubergine to confess where her life is kept, Aubergine claims that it is tied to the queen’s son - and the queen promptly murders her own offspring. This continues until the queen has killed all of her own children. Aubergine is attempting to shield herself by appealing to the queen’s maternal instincts and humanity, but the queen has none - weeping afterwards only because she’s enraged that Aubergine still lives.
There are particularly strong similarities between “Princess Aubergine,” “Sodewa Bai,” and the 17th-century Italian “Sun, Moon and Talia,” which is also close to Snow White - although the plot is reversed and fragmented, with the enchanted sleep plot wrapped up before the contest with the jealous queen. In all three stories, the villain is an older first wife, and the heroine gives birth to the king's child in her sleep. There's an unspoken focus on fertility. This is especially clear with Talia, who gives birth to twins, while the queen trying to kill her is childless. In “Princess Aubergine,” the queen has seven sons, but she murders them all, effectively becoming anti-fertile.
Here, we're starting to see a particular theme becoming prominent - and I want to compare this to what we know about Snow White's villain.
A STEPMOTHER OR A RIVAL WIFE?
Maria Tatar examined the Snow White tale in The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, from the premise that the story is inherently about a rivalry between a beautiful maiden and her cruel mother: a story not only about beauty and aging, but about family dynamics at their most dysfunctional. However, quite a few of the stories Tatar collects are not about mothers and daughters at all. At one point, she notes of Chinese tales that "it is something of a challenge to find stories directly representing mother-daughter conflict" (p. 165).
Searching for ancient versions of "Snow White," Graham Anderson wrote that "[c]lose family tensions tend to be toned down in the romances, and their role supplied by external rivals instead" (p. 53). Dropping the "requirement" that Snow White stories must include a wicked mother allowed Anderson to open up the playing field to more stories. But this is begging the question. Who says that close family tension is an inherent part of the folktale? What if the wicked mother is the newer version?
We can actually track the development of some Snow White-like tales where it does seem like this is the case: by changing the character relationships, a story of bigamy is transformed into a story of more general jealousy. Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" is an adaptation of "Sun, Moon, and Talia" where, instead of a rival wife, the evil queen is the king's mother. The villain is also the prince's mother in "The Wonder Child," published in the 1990s, and the prince's stepmother in a 1965 film adaptation of Bidasari.
In "Snow White," of course, the villain is a mother (or stepmother) who feels threatened by her daughter's superior beauty. But even in the German versions, this isn't so straightforward as it seems at first glance. In the Grimms' earliest draft, titled "Snow White, or the Unfortunate Child" (the one where Snow White is blonde), not only is the villain Snow White's biological mother, but her father is the one who rescues her. He discovers the glass coffin, grieves over his daughter's "death," and causes her to be woken (he has doctors in his entourage, fortunately). At the end Snow White marries a previously unmentioned prince, and the queen is executed at their wedding.
In another variant from the Grimms' notes, the story begins with a count and countess riding through the woods when they encounter the lovely heroine; the count takes her into the carriage with him and the countess becomes instantly jealous. In the earliest versions, the king is an important character, but in the most famous version he has been almost completely erased from the story. Still, commentators have suggested that the magic mirror is a stand-in for the now-absent king, judging between the beauty of his wife and daughter.
In stories like these, we start to see a different side to the Snow White tale type: it's not about jealousy over beauty in general, but a contest for the affection of one specific man. In the German "Richilde" (1782), the villain first seduces Blanca's father away from his wife, and then attempts to seduce the Prince Charming figure who's in love with Blanca. Further afield, in "The Hunter and His Sister," a Dagur tale from Mongolia, two women grow jealous of their husband lavishing attention on his sister.
And I'm not even getting into the apparent doubling of the jealous mother figure in other tales. In the Italian "The Young Slave" and "Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers" and the Scottish "Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree," the heroine's mother puts her into a death-sleep, and the heroine's lover (or uncle) takes her home only for his mother or wife to awaken her via jealousy or curiosity.
Going further afield again: in a search for "Snow White" tales in Africa, Sigrid Schmidt found many tales which showed marks of colonizing European influence, and even some late tales which were directly derived from the Brothers Grimm. Schmidt suggested that a purer African parallel to "Snow White" can be found in the tale type "The Beautiful Girl." It is not the same tale, but its similarities bear noticing.
These stories follow a young, innocent girl who is remarkably beautiful. The other local girls become jealous - perhaps especially when a man proposes marriage to her even though she's still too young, or when a group of herdboys point her out as the loveliest. The other girls take her out into the wilderness, where they trap her and leave her for dead. She is later rescued. There is no prince in this story, nor is there a death-sleep, but Schmidt argues that the Beautiful Girl goes through a metaphorical death before being rescued. Also, Schmidt did find versions in which the Beautiful Girl is murdered and later resurrected.
Notably, there is no familial relationship between the heroine and the villains. Also, the Beautiful Girl is rescued because people hear her singing (sometimes even in versions where she's dead). Compare this to Syair Bidasari, where Bidasari is able to awaken during the night and tell the king her story.
Syair Bidasari and these other Indian or Middle Eastern tales have their own elements which are quite different from European tales of type 709. Most notable is the consistent motif of the magical necklace containing the heroine's life. However, by comparing and contrasting these with European variants, I suspect we can get a hint of what an ancient version of Snow White may have looked like.
What if the most ancient versions of Snow White were something closer to Syair Bidasari - a story where an older woman and a younger woman vie for their husband's attention? From there, it could have split into various versions. In some, the older woman might be the heroine's mother. In others, the older woman might be the love interest's mother. Or there might be a totally different relationship between characters.
What do you think?
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.