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.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.