Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of the most famous fairytales today. It's also one of the most mysterious. Alan C. Elms wrote that Goldilocks "does not resemble any of the standard tale-types, and includes no indexed folktale motifs." For years, Goldilocks was believed to be a literary creation by a single author... until an older version surfaced in a library collection.
1831: Eleanor Mure wrote down "The Story of the Three Bears", (available here from the Toronto Public Library) in rhyme, with watercolor illustrations, as a birthday gift for her young nephew. She called it "the celebrated nursery tale," indicating that it was already famous, and she was just rendering it in verse.
The story is different from the version familiar today. There is no Goldilocks. Rather, the story begins with three bears (all apparently male, referred to as the first, second and little bears) who move into a house in town. A snooping old woman, with no name, breaks into their house while they're out. Rather than porridge, she drinks their milk, but she breaks chairs and sleeps in beds just like the modern Goldilocks. Hearing the bears coming home, she hides in a closet. The bears return and discover the damage one by one. They find her, have difficulty burning or drowning her, and finally throw her on top of St. Paul's Church steeple.
Mure's homemade manuscript remained unknown for years, until 1951, when it was finally rediscovered in the Toronto Public Library.
Before that, the oldest known version had been Robert Southey's.
1837: Robert Southey anonymously published The Doctor, a collection of his essays. Among those was "The Story of the Three Bears." This is, in some ways, more like modern Goldilocks. The bears' meal is porridge. Again the antagonist is a nosy old lady. In a stroke of genius, Southey had the Great, Huge Bear, the Middle Bear, and the Little, Small, Wee Bear speak in appropriately sized type. The story ends with the old woman jumping out the window, never to be seen again. Southey described the story as one he had heard as a child from his uncle. Also, in letters from 1813, Southey mentioned telling the story to his relative's young children.
1849: Joseph Cundall made a significant change when he retold the tale in Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Namely, instead of an elderly crone, he made the antagonist a little girl named Silver-Hair.
The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.
However, Cundall might not have been the first person to do this; he implies that the tale is already "better known" as Silver-Hair. Both the name and the child character caught on very quickly, another possible indicator that he didn't make it up.
The bachelor bears got a makeover, too. In 1852, illustrations were showing them as a nuclear family. And in 1859's The Three Bears. A Moral Tale, in Verse, the bears are identified as "a father, a mother, and child."
1865: An interesting aside here. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens titles a chapter "The Feast of the Three Hobgoblins." The characters eat bread and milk, and Dickens includes this line:
It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’
As pointed out by Katharine Briggs, this could indicate another version of the story floating around. I think it should be noted that a synonym for hobgoblin is "bug-bear."
Back to the evolving story of The Three Bears! The heroine’s name varied from Silver Hair, to Silver-locks, to Golden Hair, to Golden Locks - or, occasionally, she was nameless. "Golden Hair" appeared around 1868, in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. The variant "Goldilocks" soon gained popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a nickname for blonds as early as 1550. Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904) is sometimes credited with the first use of the name Goldilocks for this story. However, Goldilocks was used for the Three Bears' antagonist as early as 1875 (Little Folks' Letters: Young Hearts and Old Heads, pg. 25, where the name is not capitalized).
At this point, most people believed that the tale was created by Southey. In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs stated that the story was "the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale."
However, Jacobs changed his opinion not long afterwards, when he received a story titled "Scrapefoot." This was collected by John Batten from a Mrs. H., who had heard it from her mother forty years previously. It appeared in Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales in 1894. This is close to the tale of Goldilocks that we know today, except that the main character who visits the castle of the three bears is neither a girl nor an old woman; it's a male fox named Scrapefoot. (There are quite a few parallels with Mure's version - the stolen food being milk, and the dilemma of how to kill the intruder.)
Jacobs believed that Scrapefoot must be the older, more authentic version of the tale. He publicized the theory that Southey had heard a hypothetical third version with a female fox, or vixen, and had misinterpreted the word "vixen" to mean an unpleasant woman.
However, Jacobs was building his theory based on the information he had at the time. He did not know of Mure's "Three Bears," which would not be discovered until 1951. We have two early, literary versions about an old lady, both of which state they heard the story from tradition - and one oral version, recorded later, about a male fox.
Cundall's version, with Silver-Hair, is the oldest known to feature a child intruder. But Cundall possibly implies that other people were already telling versions with a young girl. And actually, there's more evidence for this - starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Goldilocks as a Motif
In the Grimms' story of Snow White, first published in 1812, there is a long scene where the heroine - a young child in this version, seven years old - first finds the seven dwarfs' house. Inside the empty cottage she discovers a table set with seven places, and seven beds. Snow White eats a few bites from each plate and drinks a drop of wine from each cup. Then
"She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep."
When the dwarfs return, this happens:
The first one said, "Who has been sitting in my chair?"
The second one, "Who has been eating from my plate?"
The third one, "Who has been eating my bread?"
The fourth one, "Who has been eating my vegetables?"
The fifth one, "Who has been sticking with my fork?"
The sixth one, "Who has been cutting with my knife?"
The seventh one, "Who has been drinking from my mug?"
Then the first one said, "Who stepped on my bed?"
The second one, "And someone has been lying in my bed."
Eventually, they find Snow White lying there. Unlike the story of the Three Bears, however, the dwarves are so stricken with her beauty that they are happy to let her stay.
Another fun fact: in the Grimms' original draft from 1810, Snow White is golden-haired. Her mother wishes for a child with black eyes, and in a later scene there's a reference to Snow White's "yellow hairs" being combed.
The Grimms also published another story with a similar scene, "The Three Ravens." A girl sets out to rescue her three brothers, who were transformed into ravens. She travels through the harsh wilderness to the castle where they now live. There are three plates and three cups. The girl samples from each and drops her ring into the final cup. Just then, the ravens arrive; the girl might be hiding at this point, because the ravens don't seem to notice her. They each ask, "Who ate from my little plate? Who ate from my little cup?" But when the third raven looks into his cup, he finds the sister's ring, and the curse is broken.
The Grimms edited the story significantly and changed it to "The Seven Ravens." However, I find it significant that the earlier published version had three talking animals.
The stolen-meal scene also takes place briefly in "The Bewitched Brothers," a similar tale from Romania with two eagle-brothers. In other tales, the girl does not eat, but cleans the house and sets the table, then hides herself before her brothers come in. In a Norwegian variant called The Twelve Wild Ducks, the details are a little different, but the sister hides under the bed when her brothers arrive, and is discovered because she left her spoon on the table. In that version, at least one brother blames her for the curse, which explains why she might need to hide.
In Journal of American Folklore, Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann argued that Southey pulled inspiration from Snow White and also from Norwegian lore. They say,
"According to the Norwegian tale, the king's daughter comes to a cave inhabited by three bears (really Russian princes who cast off their bearskins at night). The king's daughter finds the interior of the cave very comfortable. Food and drink, especially porridge, are waiting on the table; she sees beds nearby, and after a good meal, she chooses the bed she prefers and lies not on, but underneath it!"
They're describing "Riddaren i Bjødnahame" (The Knights in Bear-shapes). I would need someone more well-versed in Norwegian dialect to weigh in, but the details seem a bit different from the previous description. The bear-knights' home is not what I'd picture as a cave; it's a Barhytte, which is apparently a hut made of pine branches. I couldn't verify whether porridge is mentioned (if you know Norwegian landsmål, I would love to hear from you). The princess doesn't just move in and get comfy - she cooks the food and tidies up. The beds are a triple bunkbed (yes). And she doesn't take a nap - she is scared that the inhabitants may turn out to be dangerous, so she hides beneath the lowest bed. In fact, the Russian princes are charmed by her, and she ends up marrying one of them.
Shamburger and Lachmann cited one other Norwegian tale in a footnote: "Jomfru Gyltrom." This is a parallel story, which does not feature the meal scene but does have three bear-princes. Incidentally, Jomfru Gyltrom's most notable characteristic is that she has a golden dove on her head. I don't think this is really connected to Goldilocks' name, but it's still an interesting parallel.
The Three Bears today features a nuclear family with Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. However, in some of the earliest versions, all the bears are male. This is closer to the Snow White-eque tales, where the home is an all-male space. Sometimes it’s a cottage, sometimes a castle (as in Scrapefoot). The intruder is the only female. The male inhabitants may be animals, humans in animal form, or otherworldly creatures (such as dwarves, or… hmmm… Dickens’ hobgoblins?).
The biggest difference is in the intruder's behavior. "Snow White" heroines are domestic goddesses who cook and clean wherever they go, but girls in "Three Bears" stories are forces of destruction.
I talk about tale types, but honestly, a lot of tales don’t stick to identified types. They’re more a collection of motifs. The Norwegian stories mentioned are Snow White tales, but not exactly. Both contain the essential elements of Snow White, but also other stories – “The Knights in Bear-shapes” turns into an East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon-type tale after the heroine wakes up, and “Jomfru Gyltrom” has an extended ending where the heroine’s stepsister impersonates her. “The Three Ravens” ends with the heroine locating her brothers, but other stories of that tale type typically continue after that point, with the heroine sewing shirts to break the curse. In a different case: one obscure English folktale, Dathera Dad, is parallel to a single scene from Tom Thumb.
The essential elements of Goldilocks are contained as a single scene in the stories of "Snow White" and "The Three Ravens," published in Germany in 1812, 19 years before Mure wrote down her version. In the 1810 version especially, Snow White was a seven-year-old blonde girl. Both Mure and Southey make reference to the story of the Three Bears being well-known. I wonder which came first. Was there a short story of a woman entering the animals' house and eating their food, which got absorbed into longer stories of a woman seeking shelter? Or did the Goldilocks scene break off from longer stories and take on a life of its own?
I believe that Goldilocks is an older story than it's been given credit for; it seems as if people are constantly finding that certain details - like the name Goldilocks - are older than previously realized. And I think the similarities to Snow White are too notable to be ignored. It's just that Southey's literary version gained notoriety and became the most influential version very quickly, while stories such as Dickens' "Three Hobgoblins" may not have been recorded.
And who knows - if Mure's version showed up more than a century after it was written, we might unearth other old versions. Mure's "Three Bears" up-ended all previous theories about Goldilocks. Joseph Jacobs thought Southey had misheard a story about a fox. Shamburger and Lachmann suggested that Southey had pulled his ideas from Norwegian folklore. But the discovery of this earlier version proved that Southey wasn't just making things up when he talked about hearing the story from his uncle; other people were already telling the story to their children.
Sometimes, if a tale doesn't contain any indexed motifs, it's time to update the index.
The good and wicked fairies in Sleeping Beauty have an interesting heritage. In medieval legend, fairies and fays often attended the birth of heroes to prophesy their fates. These stories go back even further, to mythology and ancient religions, where goddesses looked upon newborn children and laid out their fates.
Perceforest is a French prose romance first printed in 1528, but may have been composed as early as 1330. It's very very long, but there's one section in particular that is clearly a version of Sleeping Beauty. This interlude tells of Troylus and Zellandine, ancestors of Sir Lancelot (yes, that one). When Zellandine was born, her aunt was given the task of setting a table with food for the goddesses who witnessed the childbirth, so that they would be pleased and lay out a blessed life for the child. These three goddesses were Venus, Lucina, and Themis. In myth, Venus is the goddess of love, Lucina of childbirth, and Themis of order. Themis is also the mother of the three Fates, and in this tale she is identified as the goddess of destiny. When the goddesses sat down to eat, Themis' knife was missing. It had just fallen under the table, but Themis felt insulted; thus, she cursed Zellandine to prick her finger with flax while spinning and fall into an unending sleep. The goddess Venus, more kindly disposed to the child, found a way around the curse.
When Zellandine falls into a sleep from which she cannot be wakened, the goddess Venus arranges for her paramour, Troylus, to be carried into her tower. Influenced by Venus, Troylus has sex with Zellandine and she becomes pregnant and gives birth while still unconscious. Her newborn son Benuic, trying to suckle, sucks on her finger and draws out the splinter of flax, awakening her.
In "Sun, Moon and Talia" - included in the Italian Pentamerone (1634) - the story is much the same, except that there are no goddesses in attendance. Instead, wise men and astrologers cast the newborn Talia's horoscope and foretell that a splinter of flax will endanger her. The story proceeds in much the same way, with a few exceptions. Instead of one baby, the sleeping Talia gives birth to twins named Sun and Moon. And the story does not end with her awakening. The king who found her already has a wife! In her jealousy, she attempts to have Talia and the kids cooked and eaten. Sympathetic servants save them, the queen is put to death, and Talia lives a long and happy life with her family.
Unlike Zellandine, Talia displays no trauma after what is, honestly, a rape. Zellandine loves her betrothed but still feels violated, and the narrative at least hints that Troylus' actions are wrong. Talia and the king, though, are hunky-dory.
In 1697, Charles Perrault retold this tale as "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood." The three goddesses of Perceforest are echoed by seven fairies who show up to give gifts at the christening, and an eighth, elderly fairy who shows up unexpectedly. Everyone thought she was dead, so unfortunately they did not provide her a place setting with jewel-encrusted golden utensils like the other seven fairies. When the other fairies give gifts of beauty and good temper, she adds an early death. Like Venus, another fairy softens the curse to a sleep (this time around, it is specifically for one hundred years) and lays the path to an eventual happy ending and romance.
The unsavory elements of "Talia" are softened. Perrault's prince doesn't even kiss Beauty. He just happens upon her at the very moment when she naturally awakens. Their children Dawn and Day are born legitimately after a proper wedding and consensual sex. Even the jealous first wife from "Talia" is replaced by a monstrous mother-in-law.
These three stories are all different, but all point to legends about Fate and Destiny. In fact, the word "fairy" may ultimately derive from the Latin Fata, or fate. You have the the Greek Fates or Mourai, the Norse Norns, and others worldwide. In the Greek myth of Meleager, the Fates appear a week after his birth to foretell his fate that he will die as soon as a certain piece of wood on the fire is consumed. His mother seizes the wood and puts it in a safe place, but of course eventually the wood is burnt and Meleager perishes with it. These Fates were portrayed as three old women spinning thread; each thread was a human life. Klotho spun the thread, Lakhesis measured it out, and Atropos cut it.
There is another medieval work, from before Perceforest, which features a scene similar to Sleeping Beauty. There is no enchanted sleep, but there is the encounter with otherworldly women who have strong feelings on table settings. Le Jeu de la Feuillée by Adam de la Halle is a French play which has been dated from around 1262 to 1278. In one scene, the characters set a table for the fairies: three beautiful ladies named Morgue, Arsile and Maglore, attended by Fortune.
Morgue and Arsile crow over the lovely table and the beautiful knives they've been given to eat with, but Maglore doesn't get a knife and is not happy. Morgue and Arsile go on to bestow gifts of good fortune on the men who set the table; for instance, giving one of them fame as a poet. The angry Maglore, however, gives bad fortune (such as baldness).
Morgue is Morgan le Fay. She was often portrayed as part of a group with attendants, sisters or companion queens. In her oldest known appearance, she was the leader of nine sisters. She played the "fay attending on the birth" role in stories of Ogier the Dane and Garin de Montglane. In many tales, her group is a multiple of three; the Norse and Greek Fates are three in number. Three is significant. Birth, life and death. Childhood, adulthood, and old age.
Europe has widespread traditions of leaving out meals for a goddess-fairy and her retinue on certain nights (often around midwinter). If the house is in order and the food has been left out properly, the goddess will be pleased and bless the house - but when angered, some versions turn violent. In many cases, this goddess oversees tasks of spinning. She may have names like Spillaholle (Spindle Holle), Spillagritte, Spellalutsche,or Spinnsteubenfrau. Again we have a goddess tied to spinning, just like the Fates.
One other similar medieval tale: in the 13th-century French work Huon of Bordeaux, the hero meets Oberon, a diminutive sorcerer. Oberon 's birth was attended by noble and royal fairies, but one grew angry because she "was not sent for as well as the others." As a result, she cursed him never to grow taller than a three-year-old. Intriguingly, the 14th-century Turin manuscript identifies Oberon's mother as none other than Morgan le Fay.
The Sleeping Beauty we know today has strong similarities to both "Talia" and Perceforest. The incident of the missing knife travels from "Le Jeu de la Feuillee" (13th century) to Perceforest (16th century) to Perrault (late 17th century) where each fairy receives "a solid gold casket containing a spoon, fork, and knife of fine gold, set with diamonds and rubies."
"Sun, Moon and Talia" does not fit into the pattern as neatly. Despite the supernatural qualities of Talia's sleep, it's apparently random. Zellandine and Sleeping Beauty are victims of Fate personified, a being which can be angered or appeased by human actions. But for Talia, it's just something that is going to happen, not for any observable reason. Her future is not bestowed by a fairy, but detected by learned men who study her horoscope. Similarly, there are two ninth-century Chinese Sleeping Beauty stories, "Shen Yuanzhi" and "Zhang Yunrong," where it is also simply the heroine's destiny to die young/fall into a coma.
However, even in the story of Talia, where there is no angry goddess of fate, her doom is still tied to the act of spinning. She enters her deathlike sleep when she encounters an old woman spinning thread. As Perrault's Beauty pricks her hand on a spindle, Talia gets a splinter of flax under her fingernail.
Also, when she gives birth, she is attended by two fairies (fate in Italian) who care for the newborns and arrange food and drink for her. Just like other fays and goddesses, they show up for a birth.
"Talia" and the Chinese tales, some of the oldest surviving Sleeping Beauty stories, leave the listener with questions. I'm not sure whether a culture believing in gods of fate filled in those questions, or whether those questions are remnants from a culture that believed in gods of fate. But put all these stories together and it makes sense: Sleeping Beauty's terrible fate was the work of an angry goddess, later reinterpreted as a fairy. Why was this goddess angry? Because the ritual welcoming her to the child's birth, the ritual meant to ensure the child's good health and future, had not been properly performed. So the thread spun by the Greek Fates became a weapon against the child whose life it represented. Another goddess of fate, who had been properly appeased, intervened to help. The moral: honor the gods to ensure your child's good future.
1/4/2020: Editing to add that Burchard of Worms, who died in 1024, reprimanded those who at certain times of year would lay out meat, drink, and table settings with knives for "three sisters" whom he compared directly to the Parcae - the Roman Fates. Women doing this ritual apparently hoped to gain the sisters' favor and aid in the future. Burchard also frowned on people believing that the Parcae meted out newborn babies' fates and gave some men the ability to turn into werewolves.
In a motif popular across many cultures, a man or woman of exceptional beauty is described as "white as snow and red as blood." Black is often thrown into the mix as well. The stark, exaggerated colors illustrate just how striking is the person's loveliness. (See my previous blog post: Three White Qualities, Three Black, Three Red.)
Of course, snow isn't as common in every place where this motif appears. The colors are often compared to various objects, each of which can have different connotations.
Snow denotes purity and untouched perfection.
Cheese, milk, or cream. This is very common in Italian variants of "The Three Citrons." As a dairy product, it may be a feminine symbol. Milk symbolizes life. It can signify prosperity and plenty as in the phrase "the land of milk and honey."
The moon suggests celestial beauty. The moon can be a feminine symbol. In some stories, the evil stepmother consults with the sun or moon instead of a magic mirror. The stepdaughter's beauty outdoes both the stepmother and the moon.
Other variants use marble, a lily, a swan, an egg, sugar cane, or the inside of an orange peel. Most of these, like the lily, are associated with purity.
Blood symbolizes life, passion and desire, or a coming of age for women. Combining it with something white (usually snow) creates a dichotomy of purity and desire. The typical motif of a woman pricking her finger, bleeding, and giving birth to a child suggests a sexual interpretation.
This dichotomy shows up in the Brothers Grimm's Snow White. Although her name indicates clean, sterile innocence, she repeatedly disobeys the dwarves' warnings and gives into temptation, such as accepting the poisoned apple. The apple, too, is half white and half red, and she "dies" when she bites into the red poisoned half.
According to Christine Goldberg, there are two types of the blood motif. In one category, the hero is a hunter, and the blood on the snow belongs to the prey animal he has killed. This indicates “qualities of aloofness, cruelty and dominance." It implies that he wants a wife to “subjugate.”
In the other, the blood is an accident after the hero cuts themselves. It implies that they desire a lover or child like themselves, someone who's the color of their blood. Does this make them sympathetic, as people in pain? Or does it mean they're arrogant and in love with themselves? (Goldberg 122)
Rose: Many characters have Rose as a part of their name, such as Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red, or Blanca Rosa. Maybe because it just sounds more appealing than Snow-White-Blood-Red. The rose has long been a symbol of beauty and love.
Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Wild Swans" was based on stories like "The Twelve Wild Ducks" with its heroine Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red. In Andersen's version, the heroine is named Eliza, but roses and other flowers (both white and red) symbolize her innate goodness.
Fire: Snow-White-Fire-Red is from an Italian tale reminiscent of Rapunzel. Like blood, fire can symbolize passion.
Pomegranate: In stories from Africa and the Middle East, rather than snow and blood, the colors are compared to the red and white of a pomegranate. In Ancient Greece, the pomegranate had connections to death as in the story of Persephone. However, in other countries, it's a symbol of abundance and fertility. The pomegranate features heavily in the Song of Solomon, used to describe the lover's beauty.
Ravit Raufman and others suggest that a heroine named Pomegranate creates more sensual, fertile images than Snow White. In this school of thought, Snow White's conception comes from icy, sterile snow and the brutality and passion of blood. Pomegranates are much more inviting.
Cristina Mazzoni analyzes the uses of different fruits in "The Three Citrons," a story type which often features the snow-white maiden. In his version, Giambattista Basile uses the sour, yellow, grammatically male citron. The girl trapped inside is red, white and sweet, more like the grammatically feminine pomegranate. When a later folktale scholar, Italo Calvino, published a version of the story, he named it "The Love of the Three Pomegranates" - perhaps to solve that problem.
Strawberries and apples are also possible metaphors. Italo Calvino found variants of "The Three Citrons" where the girls emerged from nuts, watermelons, lemons, and almost every fruit you can think of. Comparing the girl's whiteness to the inside of an orange peel is a way to connect the metaphor more completely to fruit.
Raven: Very frequently, the black color comes from the feathers of a raven, a magpie, or another bird. Not only can the color black symbolize death and mortality, but the raven lives on carrion and in many cultures is associated with bad luck, death, or the battleground. The raven in Snow White stories is often seen dying or dead, with its blood providing the red color.
Ebony: This occurs in the Grimms' Snow White and a few other tales, but the raven is far more common. Ebony is a valuable ornamental wood which can be carved into intricate and refined shapes because of how hard it is. In versions like the Grimms', the presence of ebony displays the wealth of Snow White's family.
Gold is a less frequent addition to the color theme. It denotes royalty and wealth. In a Celtic story, the Snow White character is named Gold-Tree (and is more beautiful than her mother Silver-Tree).
Tangerine: In the Catalan "La Tarongeta," a queen wishes for a child as white as snow and as gold as a tangerine. As in variants of The Three Citrons, citrus fruits indicate social status and tropical paradises.
Stars, the sun: In the Spanish "The Sleeping Prince," the prince is as white as snow and red as blood, but also as golden as sunlight.
In an Irish tale collected in the 1930s, the main character is called "the Bright Star of Ireland."
In a Snow White-type story from Mozambique, the girl bears a star on her forehead, harkening to widespread stories where a gold star on someone's forehead is a sign of royalty.
Yes, really. Stanislao Prato, in Quattro novelline popolari Livornesi (1880) mentions an unpublished story from Sinigaglia of a girl as white as ricotta and red as blood, with green hair. (pg. 59)
If you're interested in the stories mentioned here, check out my database of stories on the Snow White Project.
There was once a king and queen that lived very happily together, and they had twelve sons and not a single daughter. We are always wishing for what we haven't, and don't care for what we have, and so it was with the queen. One day in winter, when the bawn was covered with snow, she was looking out of the parlor window, and saw there a calf that was just killed by the butcher, and a raven standing near it.
"Oh," says she, "if I had only a daughter with her skin as white as that snow, her cheeks as red as that blood, and her hair as black as that raven, I'd give away every one of my twelve sons for her."
The moment she said the word, she got a great fright, and a shiver went through her, and in an instant after, a severe-looking old woman stood before her.
"That was a wicked wish you made," said she, "and to punish you it will be granted. You will have such a daughter as you desire, but the very day of her birth you will lose your other children."
This is from the Irish story of "The Twelve Wild Geese," a variant of Aarne-Thompson type 451, the Brothers Turned into Birds. Interestingly, it begins with nearly the same incident as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."
In many stories of Type 451, the birth of a daughter somehow coincides with the loss of her older brothers. When she grows older, she takes on the responsibility of seeking them out and saving them. She travels into the wilderness until she finds her brothers' new home. Sometimes she hides or secretly does housework for them until they discover her. For various reasons, the brothers are cursed (usually turned into birds). She can only free them by remaining silent for years while she makes shirts for them. At this point, a king finds her alone in the forest. He marries her, but his mother takes a dislike to her and tries to convince him that the girl is a witch. The mother goes so far as to kidnap the heroine's newborn children, cast them out to die, and then accuse the heroine of killing and eating them. The heroine, still sworn to silence, can do nothing to defend herself even when she's about to be burnt at the stake. However, she manages to finish her task in the nick of time, restores her brothers to human form, and everything turns out fine. She gets her kids back, the king learns the truth, and the mother-in-law is punished.
It's possible that some Type 451 stories were influenced by elements of Snow White. In "The Twelve Wild Ducks" (from Norway) and "The Twelve Wild Geese" (from Ireland), a queen wishes for a child who is white, red and black, and this child is subsequently named Snow-White-and-Rose-Red. In "The Six Swans," it is a hateful stepmother who curses the brothers.
On the other hand, quite a few versions of Snow White begin exactly like Type 451, with the brothers going missing. Instead of moving in with dwarfs, the Snow White character winds up with her long-lost brothers. Some examples of this are "Udea and her Seven Brothers" from Libya, "The Girl of the Woodlands, Her Brothers and the Rakshasa" from India, a tale from Asia Minor collected by R. M. Dawkins, and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."
If you bring "Sleeping Beauty" into the mix, there are even more similarities. The Italian "Sun, Moon and Talia" and Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" don't end when the heroine awakens from her sleep. In "Sun, Moon and Talia," a king rapes the sleeping Talia and begets twins upon her, which eventually wakes her. However, he already has a wife, who in a jealous rage tries to have Talia and her children cooked and eaten. Fortunately, she fails. In Perrault, the first wife is adapted into the king's mother instead.
This episode seems unfamiliar until you realize it's really a version of "Snow White," with the sequence of events switched around. Similarly, in the Indian "Princess Aubergine" (yes, Aubergine), when a king takes an interest in the heroine, his first wife becomes jealous. There are no seven dwarfs, but the first wife has seven sons whose deaths stall her and thus protect Aubergine. Eventually, the wife's plots succeed and Aubergine is left in a deathlike coma. Here, again, the king impregnates the heroine while she's unconscious.
In these three tale types - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and "The Brothers Turned into Birds" - the sequence of events are a little different, but they are generally the same events.
First, there's the main character's birth. Snow White stories often begin with a childless woman's wish for a child. "The Brothers Turned into Birds" has a woman with many sons wishing for a daughter instead. In the Grimms' "Briar Rose," the heroine is born after her parents long for a child.
The colors white, red and black are a long-standing theme across literature, but tend to recur in Snow White tales. In all three of the tale types discussed here, it's common to find mentions of roses. The heroines have names like Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red, Briar Rose, Blanca Rosa or Rose-Neige. Red and white flowers, particularly roses, are associated with the heroine of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans." When turned into ravens or swans, the enchanted brothers tie into a black or white color scheme.
In both "Snow White" and "The Brothers Turned into Birds," the heroine goes out into the wilderness and discovers a house inhabited by a group of men, whether they be dwarves, robbers, or her long-lost brothers. She does domestic work for them, and they protect her from outside threats, at least for a while.
Then there's the jealous rival who attempts to send her to her death. All three tales focus on a maternal figure devouring her children. Snow White's stepmother wants to eat her lungs and liver. Sleeping Beauty's mother-in-law tries to cook her and her children as a meal. In both cases, the executioner (a huntsman in Snow White, a chef in Sleeping Beauty) takes pity on the heroine and substitutes an animal to be eaten in her place. Meanwhile, in "The Twelve Wild Ducks," the mother-in-law accuses the heroine of cannibalizing her own children. To enforce the lie, she throws the heroine's children to wild animals, but the animals spare them. The same basic ideas are there, just a little scrambled.
While Sleeping Beauty and Snow White narrowly escape being cooked, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" faces burning at the stake. Similarly, Snow White's stepmother gets the punishment of dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
In all three cases, there's a curse involved. Sometimes there's also textile work. Talia and other Sleeping Beauties fall into a coma when they pierce their fingers spinning thread. The heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" often has to break her brothers' curse by making shirts for them - a process which involves picking, carding, spinning and knitting.
The biggest difference is that unlike Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" never undergoes an enchanted sleep. Instead she spends a period of self-imposed silence while she labors to break her brothers' curse.
However, the long isolation in the wilderness until her discovery by a king is still the same. The king finds her deep in the forest - whether in a castle surrounded by thorns, in a glass casket, or sitting in a tree. Stricken by her beauty, he immediately claims her. Uncomfortably for modern readers, the heroine is unable to communicate, since at this point she is either unconscious or sworn to silence. She gives birth while still in this state.
As said before, many stories share motifs. However, these three stories dovetail in fascinating ways.
One children's singing game, collected in St. Louis in 1944, has an interesting plotline.
LaDora was a pretty girl;
She lived up in a castle high.
One day there came a wicked witch;
She point her stick right in her eye.
She fell asleep a hundred years;
The princess clucked the hinges down;
The princess picked LaDora up,
Tra, la, lala, la, la, lala!
It's Sleeping Beauty in song form!
The collector, Leah Yoffie, seemed baffled by the song. She heard it from a little girl who knew it as a "ring game," but found no one else who recognized it. However, other scholars quickly recognized the song as a variant of "Fair Rosa" or "Thorn Rosa." Here's one version of the lyrics to this song:
Thorn Rosa was a pretty child,
Pretty child, pretty child,
Thorn Rosa was a pretty child,
She lived up in a castle high...
One day there came an ugly witch...
Thorn Rosa slept a hundred years...
A thorny hedge grew giant high...
One day there came a handsome prince...
He broke right through the thorny hedge...
Thorn Rosa wakened at his touch...
They all lived for a hundred years,
A hundred years, a hundred years,
They all lived for a hundred years,
A hundred years.
The song is accompanied by a game, in which a girl playing Thorn Rosa sits at the center of the group. Around her is a small circle of children holding hands, representing the castle. An outer circle of children represents the hedge. A child playing the ugly witch enters the circle to touch Thorn Rosa and put her to sleep. The prince then breaks through the circles and wakes Thorn Rosa.
The LaDora version seems pretty garbled but is clearly the same song. Yoffie didn't include the tune, so it can't be compared, but she might have shortened the song. Originally, each line was probably a repeating verse of its own.
So where did this song come from?
In 1897, Franz Magnus Bohme collected a German version which was somewhat more elaborate. It was titled Dornröschen (literally "Little Briar Rose"), being an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale.
Most scholars believe that the song was of artistic origin. It's a play-by-play adaptation of the fairytale. It never appeared until the 1890s, when it was printed in several books, and Bohme said that it was created for use in playschools. Translations simplified the lyrics almost immediately, and modern versions focus on repetition.
An English translation was published in 1908 in in Folk Dances and Games by Caroline Crawford. It entered tradition as a popular game, probably usually taught to children by adults. The song appears in the Roud Folksong Index as "Fair Rosa," number 7889. There are multiple variants listed, including "Fair Rosie," "Sweet Rosebud," or even "Forosa."
In 1915, Dagny Pederson and Neva L. Boyd translated a Danish variant. The song still exists in Danish today as "Tornerose var et vakkert barn." Herbert Halpert recorded two New Jersey versions in 1935 - "Thorn Rosa" and "The Princess Slept for a Hundred Years." The same year, over in Ireland, Sam Henry collected "Fair Rosa" in Coleraine, County Londonderry. From Ecuador, "Rosa era linda" appeared in Rique Ran: Games and Songs of South American Children by Mary L. Goodwin and Edith L. Powell (1951). A Belgian version recorded around 1958 runs "La bell' au bois, la bell' enfant." In the 1985 book The Singing Game, Iona Opie listed many versions of the song.
The song has definitely entered oral tradition since the time it was written. Most recently, it has been covered by the children's band The Wiggles under the title "There Was a Princess."
As a sidenote, in 1883, William Wells Newell printed a couple of songs from Massachusetts and Texas. The basic game is the same - a girl pretends to sleep in the middle of a ring, until a boy breaks through to kiss her.
Here we go round the strawberry bush,
This cold and frosty morning.
Here's a young lady sat down to sleep,
This cold and frosty morning.
She wants a young gentleman to wake her up,
This cold and frosty morning.
Write his name and send it by me,
This cold and frosty morning.
Mr. ____ his name is called,
This cold and frosty morning.
Arise, arise, upon your feet,
This cold and frosty morning.
Newell asserts that this song is descended from an old English May-game and suggests it developed from the story of Sleeping Beauty. However, although there are similarities to the Thorn Rosa circle dance, there's a pretty big leap from these lyrics to the Sleeping Beauty plot.
You can listen to a modern version of Dornroschen at Mama Lisa's World, or watch some versions like Thorn Rosa, Fair Rosa, or "There was a lovely princess" (from 1957!) on YouTube.
A king asks his seven daughters which of them loves him most. Each has a flattering compliment, except for the youngest, who says only that she loves him as much as she loves salt. Feeling insulted, the king casts her into exile.
After much wandering, she finds a palace deep in the jungle, where a handsome prince lies dead. His body is completely covered in needles. She begins pulling out the needles and doesn't stop for three weeks, even to eat or sleep. When she is almost done, she asks her servant girl to watch the prince while she goes to bathe for the first time in almost a month. As soon as she's gone, the servant girl yanks out the last few needles and the prince is magically restored to life. The servant claims to be the one who saved him, and tells him that the real princess is only a servant. So the servant becomes a prince's wife, and the princess is left as a lowly slave.
One day the prince goes on a journey. His wife asks him to bring back fine clothes and jewelry, while the heroine asks for a sun-jewel box. The prince is baffled by this request, but finally tracks one down for her. She takes it outside, at which point seven dolls come out of the box, set up a tent for her, and wait on her while she tells them her life story. This goes on from night to night. A woodcutter notices this and alerts the prince. When the prince learns the truth, he takes her as his wife and dethrones the false bride.
This is "The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt," an Indian tale that falls under Aarne Thompson Type 437. This tale type is known as The Supplanted Bride or the Needle Prince. It was removed from later versions of the Aarne Thompson index, and appeared only as a part of AT 894, The Ghoulish Schoolmaster and the Stone of Pity. It seems like this was a mistake. The Supplanted Bride is often very different from the Ghoulish Schoolmaster. They seem to have been merged into the same tale type based on a couple of versions which combined both, and the final scene, where the persecuted heroine tells her story to an unusual object such as a stone or a doll.
Type 437 has been collected throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It makes up the frame story of the Pentamerone. The heroine's task varies from story to story. Some examples are filling buckets with her tears, pulling needles out of the cursed prince's skin, fanning him, or watching over him for a period of weeks, months, or years.
It overlaps with many Sleeping Beauty stories, where a maiden falls into a cursed sleep when stabbed by a magic needle. This is what happens in "The Young Slave," a Snow White-esque story from the Pentamerone. She, too, is treated like a servant until her uncle overhears her telling her story to a doll, a stone, and a knife.
There are also strong connections to false bride stories such as "The White Bride and the Black One" or "The Three Oranges." In some versions, the false bride gets rid of the true bride by stabbing a magic pin into her head and turning her into a bird. The bird may then sing her life story.
The ugly false bride, usually a slave, is particularly likely to be a black woman, "Moorish," or a "gypsy." These are tales born of classism and racism, betraying fear of a lower class who might decide to rebel. At the end, the servant is often brutally punished for her insurrection.
On another note, variants of "The Three Oranges" usually begin with a prince who is either cursed or inspired to seek a mythical bride, who may be as white as snow and red as blood. In the Pentamerone, Zoza is cursed in exactly this way when she laughs at an old woman. In the Angolese story of Ngana Fenda Maria, the heroine cuts her finger and is struck by the image of her blood on a piece of sugarcane. In these cases, the inciting event and the quest for a wonderful spouse are exactly like "The Three Oranges."
However, the male hero of "The Three Oranges" never has to deal with the trials and travails of "The Supplanted Bride." Closer to the Supplanted Bride is the tale of The Skilful Huntsman, AT type 304, collected by the Brothers Grimm. A young man goes out to seek his fortune as a huntsman. While fighting giants, he enters a castle and finds a princess sleeping. He steals a sword, a slipper and a scrap from her dress without awakening her, and then returns to slaying the monsters. He cuts out the giants' tongues and goes on his way. When the inhabitants of the castle awake, they find the giants dead. One of the king's soldiers, an ugly one-eyed man, claims to be the giant-slayer. The princess is supposed to marry him and when she refuses, her father condemns her to live in a hut giving away food. One day the hero drops by. She asks him to tell his story and he shows her the tokens he took from the castle, along with the giants' tongues. With that, the soldier is revealed as a fraud and executed, and the hero marries the princess and becomes the next king.
Here you have the sleeper, the impostor, and the conclusion where the hero recounts his story. Some other variants are Niels and the Giants (Denmark), The King of Erin and the Queen of the Lonesome Island (Ireland), and The Sleeping Queen (Italy). There's more room here for social advancement, with the hero sometimes going from peasant to king. The sleeping maiden can either be under a curse or sleeping normally. The hero doesn't awaken her, but leaves something to show he's been there - by cutting a piece from her garment, leaving a token of his own, or impregnating her. This causes her to seek him out once she does wake.
In "The Supplanted Bride," the heroine must earn her husband by serving him for years upon years, completing ridiculously arduous tasks, and being the perfect servile wife whose whole life centers around him. It's her wifely devotion that restores the man to life. When she falters from her duty, even for a second, she loses everything and has to endure even more trials while being treated like a slave.
By contrast, the hero of Type 304 shows little attachment to the sleeping princess. He comes and goes in a brief space of time, and certainly doesn't wait to see if she wakes up. Afterwards, he might be bothered by having his fame stolen, but doesn't have much trouble setting out to make his own way in the world. The task of seeking the truth falls to his bride.
Several folklorists have commented that stories of The Supplanted Bride encourage women to obediently endure suffering and misery. In the Greek tale "The Sleeping Prince," the maiden tells her story to a hangman's rope, a butcher's knife, and a millstone of patience. The rope and knife advise her to commit suicide, while the stone encourages her to be patient and endure. In her despair, she sees these as her only two options.
However, Christine Goldberg points out that the heroine gets what she wants after she loses her patience. She complains, loudly, sometimes repeatedly, whether in public or in private. She earns her happy ending not by enduring silently, but by speaking up.
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!
Snow White must be a popular name in Fairytale Land. There's:
Of course, the most well-known Snow White is the one with the dwarves, and she gets her name in an unusual scene. While sewing, a queen pricks her finger and drops of her blood fall onto the snow. She remarks, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.” The resulting child is Snow White.
This scene appears often in other fairytales. The Grimms also collected a Cinderella variant, beginning “A beautiful Countess had a rose in one hand and a snowball in the other, and wished for a child as red as the rose, and as white as the snow. God grants her wish.”
In a Snow White variant, a count and countess are driving in the countryside. They pass three heaps of white snow, three pits full of blood, and three black ravens. What the pits of blood were doing there I have no idea. In this tale it is the husband who wishes for a girl “white as snow, red as blood, and with hair as black as the ravens,” and she instantly appears. The jealous countess tries to get rid of her, which segues into the more well-known Snow White story.
In A Hundred and One Nights from North Africa (not to be confused with A Thousand and One Nights), King Sulayman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik sees two ravens fighting in his courtyard. This causes him to wonder, “Did God ever create a girl with skin as white as this marble, with hair as black as those ravens and with cheeks as red as their blood on the marble floor?” (The answer is yes. He finds her.)
Similar incidents with a dying black-feathered bird against white marble or snow appear in “The Crow" (from Italy), "La princesse aux trois couleurs" (from Brittany) and "The Snow, the Crow and the Blood" (from Ireland).
In "The King of Spain and the English Milord" from Italy, there's a maiden "as white as ricotta and rosy as a rose."
In the Italian tale of “The Three Citrons,” a prince cuts his hand slicing ricotta cheese and decides he wants a wife “exactly as white and red as that cheese tinged with blood.” When trying to capture a fairy, he finds a girl as white as milk and red as a strawberry, and then a girl "as tender and white as curds and whey, with a streak of red on her face that made her look like an Abruzzo ham or a Nola salami." Not making that up.
It’s strange that these violent scenes move the character’s mind to human beauty. The emphasis is on the colors being so so vivid, beautiful and significant that they cause this kind of reaction.
Red represents life and passion, and white represents purity. Black is mentioned less often and is left out of some stories, but can represent death. These are the most significant colors in folklore and in some languages, and also in the early history of clothing dye. Some writers connect them to a Maiden/Mother/Crone Triple Goddess. The focus of the red blood with the pure white color can have sexual connotations and makes most analyses lean towards a girl going through her menstrual period or losing her virginity.
But the colors aren’t just feminine. Although it's much rarer, they can be gender-neutral.
In The Juniper Tree, a mother wishes, “ah, if I had but a child as red as blood and as white as snow.” She then gives birth to a son.
In the Irish legend “Deirdre and the Fate of the Sons of Usnach,” Deirdre declares, "I can love only a man with those three colors: cheeks red as blood, hair black as a raven, and body white as snow."
In the Italian tale "Pome and Peel," a young nobleman is as white as an apple's flesh, and his foster-brother is red and white like an apple peel. (Red, white and black are thematic colors throughout the tale.)
These three colors were the marks of idealized beauty in many European countries, seen in descriptions throughout plays and Renaissance poetry.
In Arabian poetry, the colors were for men or women. In one poem, the ideal man has “cheeks beautiful as a red rose on lily-white.” And according to another piece: “That woman is beautiful who possesses three white qualities, three black, three red; white body, teeth and the white of the eyes; black hair, eyebrows, and pupils; red lips, cheeks and gums.”
The red and white coloration marks the person as beautiful and healthy. They are fair-skinned and unblemished, meaning they are upper class and don't work outside much, but not sickly pale. That poetry example lays out exactly what is supposed to be red and what is supposed to be white. The standard of beauty is someone with nice skin, clear eyes and healthy teeth.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.