There is a problem with sorting folktales. As Christine Goldberg put it: "Folktales present a paradox. Theoretically, tale types should stay separate; in fact, sometimes they do not.”
The Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Tale Type Index, created to sort fairytales by types, is very useful but is still a numbering system for something that was never meant to be numbered. Oral tales often overlap and blend, and some stories seem to pair together more easily and often. Linda Dégh believed that there might be a common origin for some tales that frequently interwove - she was talking specifically about tale types 403 (The Black and the White Bride), 408 (The Three Oranges), 425 (The Search for the Lost Husband), 706 (The Maiden Without Hands) and 707 (The Three Golden Sons). As she put it, "their variants cross each other constantly and... their blendings are more common than their keeping to their separate type outlines." (emphasis added)
I think ATU 709, Snow White, may be a neighboring member of this story family. The origins of Snow White are actually a bit of a stumbling block. There are so many overlaps with other tales. Christine Goldberg again:
"Variants of AT 709 incorporate motifs that also appear in other tales: the child taken into the forest, as in “Hansel and Gretel”; the heroine put to sleep by a pin prick, as in “Sleeping Beauty”; the treacherous teacher or the jealous sisters, as in AT 510-511 (“Cinderella”); the house in the woods, as in “The Seven Ravens.” Such admixtures have troubled folklorists since Ernst Boklen’s Sneewittchenstudien (1910, 1915).” (Goldberg 105)
Some folklorists seem dismissive towards the Snow White tale, characterizing it as a recent and shoddy patchwork. The collector Joseph Jacobs, also citing Boklen, described it as "obviously a late product combining many motifs from different, more primitive, or at least earlier formulæ." Sigrid Schmidt also leaned towards this amalgam theory and suggested that Snow White is classed under Other Tales of the Supernatural in the ATU index “because it does not fit properly into the Tales of Magic.” (I.e., number 709 is much farther down the ATU list than the fairy tales that seem most similar.)
This is a chicken-or-the-egg question for me. Is Snow White a late hodgepodge? Or is it simply closely related to these other tales?
One question is a little easier - Sigrid Schmidt's passing mention that Snow White is in a weird spot in the ATU numbering system. In fact, it is located smack in the middle of several similar tales about persecuted maidens. I think this is obscured by the fact that most people judge it by the Brothers Grimm version.
I've previously discussed Snow White's similarities and frequent overlaps with ATU 451, "The Brothers Turned into Birds/The Maiden in Search of Her Brothers." The scene of Snow White finding the dwarves’ house is exactly like the girl finding her bird-brothers' house in "The Seven Ravens." “The Twelve Wild Ducks” begins with the same opening as the Grimms’ Snow White. The Snow White-esque story of “Udea and Her Seven Brothers,” which has sometimes been subdivided as ATU 709A, begins with the brothers driven out when their sister is born, as happens in many bird-brother tales.
Now I'm going to look at Snow White's similarities to the stories of persecuted maidens, located in the early 700s of the ATU system. These stories are often characterized by the heroine going through two periods of persecution: first in her family home, and later in her husband's home.
The Maiden without Hands (ATU 706)
Persecution of heroine: A man promises his daughter to the Devil. Or tries to force his daughter to marry him. Essentially, there’s some kind of drama or jealousy.
Banishment and disabling: This culminates in the girl being mutilated (in the most famous versions, her hands are cut off) and fleeing into the wilderness.
Marriage: A king finds her in the wilderness and marries her.
Persecution of heroine and her children: While he is away, she gives birth to a child. However, an enemy (often someone involved in the hand-chopping incident) frames her for murdering her child or giving birth to a monster, and fakes an order of execution from the king. The girl flees into the wilderness with her child, where her mutilation is healed.
Reunion: The king finds her and their family is reunited.
The Three Golden Children (ATU 707)
Marriage: A king marries a girl who has said she will bear beautiful children.
Banishment/Persecution of heroine and her children: She gives birth to the promised children - often two or three of them - but her jealous sisters (or rival co-wives?) replace the babies with animals and accuse her of infidelity. The queen is imprisoned or banished. Her children are cast into a river or killed, but either escape death or are resurrected.
Reunion: The children return and reveal the truth. Rivals punished, family reunited.
Our Lady's Child (ATU 710)
Persecution: A girl is adopted by the Virgin Mary (probably a stand-in for a pre-Christian goddess), but disobeys one of her commands.
Banishment and disabling: The girl is cast out into the woods and left unable to speak.
Marriage: A king finds her in the wilderness and marries her.
Persecution of heroine and her children: She gives birth to children, but her godmother takes them away and makes it look like she murdered them.
Reunion: When the girl is about to be executed for the murders, the godmother relents and returns her children and power of speech. The family is reunited.
(This plotline is extremely similar to ATU 451, “The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds.” It's just missing the brothers.)
Snow White (ATU 709)
Persecution: A queen becomes jealous of her stepdaughter and attempts to have her killed.
Banishment and disabling: The girl flees into the wilderness. She finds shelter with some friendly men, but her stepmother attacks multiple times and is eventually successful in putting her into an enchanted sleep.
Marriage: A prince finds her, awakens her and marries her.
These stories frequently feature the motif of “The Calumniated Wife,” where a woman is falsely accused and punished. (This also shows up in "The Brothers Turned into Birds," already mentioned as a close neighbor to Snow White.) The villain is often a woman motivated by jealousy: sisters, mothers, stepmothers, mothers-in-law. There are hints here of older stories about polygamy and rival wives. I think polygamy, rather than mother-daughter rivalry, may be the true root of the Snow White tale. Verrier Elwin - who collected numerous Indian examples of ATU 707 with rival wives as the villains - suggested that this story was intended as a moral tale about the dangers of polygamy, and thus didn’t appear in Europe. This ignores that there very much are European stories about polygamy - like the early Snow White tale "Sun, Moon, and Talia," and even some positive portrayals of polygamy in Celtic Snow Whites.
Often, the heroine is disabled in some way by the time the king first meets her. The heroine of “The Maiden without Hands” is physically mutilated, but made whole by the conclusion of the story. The heroine of “Our Lady’s Child” - as in “The Brothers Turned into Birds” - becomes unable to verbally communicate, and regains the ability to speak at the climax. Snow White falls into a deathlike sleep and is later awakened.
The Grimms’ Snow White story does feature the heroine exiled to the wilderness, but lacks the “Persecution of heroine and her children” segment. However, other versions frequently include it. In "Sun, Moon, and Talia," after the king awakens Talia and brings her and her twin children home, his first wife tries to murder and eat them. The Greek "Maroula and the Mother of Eros" runs through the Snow White plot of jealousy and a sleeping curse, and then the heroine Maroula is framed for the murder of her twins and cast out. However, she meets a monk who restores her children to life, and her husband finds her again. Grimmer versions follow the Calumniated Wife pattern, but lack the resurrection for the heroine's children - such as in "The Magic Mirror," from Romania, and "The Magician's Mirror," from Lesbos.
Scottish Gaelic tales frequently show overlap between "Snow White" and "The Girl without Hands," as seen in "Lasair Gheug, the King of Ireland's Daughter." Here, the heroine's mother frames her for murder and forces her to swear an oath of silence, followed by the heroine being cast out and having three fingers chopped off. She gets married and endures a sleeping curse. In the end, she works out a way to tell her story without breaking her oath.
The "Calumniated Wife" motif also shows up in Shakespeare's play Cymbeline, which has elements of both "Snow White" and the tale type “The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity.” Princess Imogen is falsely accused of adultery, and her husband tries to have her assassinated. But the killer takes pity on her and helps her flee, after which Imogen takes refuge in the woods and accidentally takes a sleeping potion sent by her wicked stepmother. Charlotte Artese suggests that Shakespeare noticed similarities between “Snow White” and “The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity,” which both include the exile of the persecuted woman, and intentionally combined the two stories in Cymbeline. This is the most likely option, based on what we know about Shakespeare. However, there are some ATU 709 tales where the plot kicks off when the Snow White figures is accused of infidelity - namely Alexander Afanasyev's "The Magic Mirror" from Russia, and "Rumanah," an Egyptian Hebrew tale. And remember the Scottish Gaelic "Lasair Gheug." It’s entirely possible that Shakespeare knew a British version of ATU 709 where the heroine is falsely accused of some crime. That would have been even closer to the Wager stories.
I leave this post with a few final thoughts. The ATU numbering for Snow White actually makes perfect sense because it is grouped with other tales of persecuted, exiled maidens. This is even clearer when you look at similar tales outside the Brothers Grimm. Studying these tales, it’s impossible not to notice how often Snow White stories intersect with tales of false accusations, forced silences, and lost children - and, eventually, the chance for the heroine to tell her tale and receive justice. There is something interesting in the way that Afanasyev's "The Magic Mirror," "Lasair Gheug," the Italian "The Young Slave," and the Malay "Syair Bidasari" - among others - all reach a resolution when the Snow White-like heroine is able to find a way to tell her story despite the villain’s power over her. Afanasyev's is particularly fun here, with the heroine smacking people with a ladle.
Overlapping and merging is what folktales do, and some in particular seem to naturally pair together. Although there are still many questions about its history, I don't see how this indicates that Snow White should be considered a later story.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.