Some time ago, a book of collected fairy tale retellings was published. Anyone who picked up this book would have found a nontraditional version of Snow White. The author had written it from the wicked stepmother’s point of view, telling the story of her life. It was also historical fiction, the magical elements replaced with scientific explanations. This is nothing too out of the ordinary for modern readers. This description suits books such as Gregory Maguire’s Mirror, Mirror (2003) or Donna Jo Napoli’s Dark Shimmer (2015).
But the retelling I’m talking about was published in 1782.
“Richilde,” by Johann Karl August Musäus, appeared in the first volume of his collection Volksmärchen der Deutschen (Folktales of the Germans). Musäus wrote that he collected these stories from the German folk, but this is not the style of the Brothers Grimm and later folklorists; instead it’s more of the highly literary style of Charles Perrault and Giambattista Basile. It is also the first existing example that we have of the German fairy tale of Snow White, published a generation before the Brothers Grimm got to it. It’s definitely a hefty tale, almost more like a novelette, and the English translation I found was written in older language that takes some getting used to for modern readers. But its ideas and themes fit in strikingly well with modern renditions of the story.
Snow White researcher Christine Shojaei Kawan at one point considered this the earliest literary version of the tale, but later apparently had second thoughts as she claims that it doesn't fit with the folktale all that well and can't be considered authentic. There is, for instance, no scene where the Snow White figure has to flee into the wilderness. I would have to agree with Kawan that this is a retelling more than it is a straightforward fairytale. But what a retelling!
Honestly, Richilde does not work as a standalone piece. It makes much more sense when understood as a reimagining from the villain’s point of view. From studying "Richilde," it’s clear that Snow White was already very well-known - proving the Brothers Grimm were right when they considered it one of the most popular German fairy tales. As is common for fairy tales, we got elaborate literary adaptations before anyone set to the task of transcribing the original folktales. The fairy tales of Perrault and Basile and the French conteuses are very similar cases, and one of the Grimms' tasks was actually to preserve the folk tales before they could be forgotten and lost in adaptation.
But back to the story of Richilde. The tale begins with her birth as the much-wanted child of the Count and Countess of Brabant. She grows up beautiful and, due to realizing from the magic mirror that she’s the fairest girl in the land, extremely vain. It explains how she meets her husband: needing to marry, she asks the mirror to show her the most handsome man in the land. Problem is, he's already married - but not for long, as he is quite flattered by this glamorous younger woman's attentions, and divorces his wife to be with her.
The plotline stays mostly with Richilde, leading to some hilarity. When Richilde realizes that her husband’s abandoned daughter Blanca has grown into the fairest maiden in Brabant, she arranges to have her poisoned. But then Blanca keeps popping up alive again, with no explanation, and it’s driving Richilde nuts as she scrambles to fix the situation and figure out what went wrong. I love this scenario so much.
There is a mysteriously powerful mirror, created through the mysterious and wise arts of Albertus Magnus (a real historical figure and the subject of many legends), and given to the young Richilde as a gift. The mirror doesn’t talk, but does show images when a rhyming chant is said. In a particularly nice touch, the more evil Richilde’s actions become, the more it rusts until it’s ruined. It’s clearly a magic mirror, complete with moral judgment, but there is at least some handwaving about how it could be Magnus’s practical scientific arts.
There are three murder attempts via poison, and the first is an apple or pomegranate with one half poisoned. So it does seem that the poisoned fruit was particularly deep-rooted in German folklore. Although Kawan complained that Richilde fails to hit the correct beats of the full folktale, this is where we have the sympathetic executioner, the equivalent of the fairy tale’s huntsman: Richilde’s Jewish court physician, Sambul, who is tasked with creating these poisoned gifts.
Here, the story is surprisingly tolerant for an 18th-century German book, or at least subverts antisemitic expectations. Sambul ultimately turns out to be the real hero of the story. I should be clear that there are still antisemitic elements. It feels especially uncomfortable that Sambul is the victim of the most violence in the story. But as the story nears its ending, it is revealed that Sambul has a strong conscience and has been working against Richilde all along even at the risk of his own life. He substituted harmless sedatives for the poisons, so that Blanca appeared to die but actually woke up a while later. And at the very end, the focus is not on Blanca and her husband’s wedded bliss, but on Sambul being rewarded and going on to live in happiness and prosperity.
There is an equivalent to the Grimms’ dwarfs: Blanca, who has been consigned to one of her father’s castles, is attended by court dwarfs. This is another historical twist. These are not mystical woodland or subterranean creatures, but ordinary people, and many historical nobles employed court dwarfs. However, there is still a blurring of lines here. The court dwarfs are apparently skilled smiths and craftsmen, whipping up a coffin with a window - the equivalent of the fairy tale’s glass coffin - and the red-hot iron shoes for Richilde. This hints that these characters were inspired by mythical dwarfs, who were metalworkers in Nordic myth.
There is a handsome prince figure: Gottfried of Ardenne, a young nobleman who comes across Blanca’s castle, hears her story, and is at the right time to bring forth a holy relic in an attempt to ward off sorcery just as she wakes up.
Richilde attends their wedding having been tricked into thinking that she is the bride, which is a neat little explanation for why she’d be there, and shows her all-encompassing vanity. Before the ceremony, Gottfried tells her of a woman who murdered her daughter out of jealousy, and asks her what punishment is suitable. Richilde, bored and annoyed by what she sees as a delay to her wedding, says that the mother should be forced to dance in burning iron shoes - and then Blanca appears and Richilde realizes to her terror that she has just named her own fate.
This scenario of the villain being tricked into choosing their own fate is a classic one, also seen in the fairy tale of “The Goose Girl.” A Danish oral variant of Snow White, "Snehvide," also ends with the stepmother choosing her own execution. In Richilde’s case, her punishment is surprisingly merciful. Instead of dancing until she dies, as in the Grimms’ Snow White, she is only left with burns and blisters on her feet, and people actually put a salve on her feet before throwing her into the dungeon.
The Brothers Grimm’s first draft of the Snow White tale was pretty different from the one we currently have - biological mother as villain, biological father as rescuer and breaker of the curse. In many ways, the modern version more closely resembles Richilde.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.