Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge (Snow white)

On the weekend, I saw (probably first time in my life) Disney's Snow White. What a wonderful movie! The animation, the expression and movements of the people, animals and plants were just exquisit!

Since I am currently re-reading (after decades) Grimm's fairy tales, I jumped ahead to number 53, to compare the Disney version of Snow White with the Grimm's version. True to their name, the Grimm brothers have a much more "grim" story than Disney.

Here is a short summary of Grimm's Schneewittchen:

First the name: Schneewittchen's mother was spinning some wool, when she stang herself with the needle. A drop of blood fell on the ebony window sill, which was also covered partially by snow. So the queen wished to have a daughter that is "Weiss wie Schnee, rot wie Blut und schwarz wie Ebenholz" (white like snow, red like blood, black like ebony), hence the subsequent birth of Snow White with white skin, red lips and black hair. This description gets repeated frequently throughout the fairy tale, one of the numerous sentences from the Grimm's that I can recite.

The queen dies in childbirth, and a stepmother steps in her shoes, a vain mean person, who checks on the superiority of her beauty frequently through a magic mirror (Spieglein Spieglein an der Wand, wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?). When the mirror declares her the fairest, the queen orders the hunter to kill her. She of course gets away, and finds the house of the seven dwarfs. Schneewittchen then stays on as the house keeper, the queen finds her through the mirror, and eventually quasi-kills her with a poisoned apple. The dwarfs put her into a glas casket, a prince sees her, and she comes back to life.

This short summary leaves out a number of details, because they are different in the two version:

First AssassinationHunter can't do itSW pleads for life
Proof of deathBring heart to queenBring liver and lung to queen (who eats them)
Dwarfs' houseDirty, SW cleans allClean, SW messes things up
QueenOnce with poisened appleSuccessful third time with poisoned apple
AwakeningThrough kiss from PrinceThrough clumsiness from Prince's servants (SW falls out of coffin, poisened apple falls out of mouth, SW wakes up)
Punishment of QueenFalls off a cliffHas to dance until death in red-glowing hot iron shoes

I was especially surprised by the difference in the first scene in the dwarfs' house. It is very dirty in the Disney version, SW spends a lot of time and effort in the cleaning process, quite the opposite of her behavior in the Grimm version, where everything is very tidy, and she goes from chair, to table, from plate to glass, from bed to bed, and tries everything, makes it all a little messy. As my GF points out, this part is very similar to "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", a children's story first recorded by Robert Southey in 1837.

According to wikipedia, Goldilocks also evolved quite a bit. It the Southey version, and in an earlier version from Eleanor Mure, an old woman finds the house of a "Little, Small, Wee Bear, a Middle-sized Bear, and a Great, Huge Bear", eats their food, breaks their chair, and sleeps in their bed. Already in 1853, the old woman got replaced by a girl, to make the tale more attractive to children, and the best known version was published in 1904 in "Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes" with Goldilocks as the girl (or maybe, the name was created by Flora Annie Steel in her "English Fairy Tales" from 1918). Additionally, there are various other permutations of the "Three Bears" story, and a connection of Snow-white with this one has been suggested before.

Apparently, even the Grimm's version evolved. Initially, it was the mother and not the step-mother, and she took her to the forest herself. This has been toned down to me more suitable for children, just as it has been done for Hansel and Gretel (which also had the evil mother first, then the step-mother that sent them into the forest).

The fairy tale has been known since the middle ages in many European countries, in different variations. It seems to change to reflect contemporary taste and preferences. I found a recent major work that tells Snow White's tale: Schneewittchen (the opera) by Heinz Holliger, premiered 1998 in Zurich, based on a dramolett from Robert Walser (~1900). The dramolett (and subsequently the opera) try a psychological evaluation of the circumstances around SW, apparently difficult to stomach both musically and content-wise. This is certainly not a beginners opera, and not a children's opera either.

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