Of all the fairy tales I remember reading as a child, it was Snow White and Rose Red by the brothers Grimm that touched my six year old heart the most. I had forgotten about this: that there was a favourite fairy story that made me feel wonderful.
It’s a little-known tale, not as popular as many others, not yet
wrecked made into a film by Disney. I chanced upon it in the library this afternoon and the memories came flooding back, so I took it home to read to my daughter.
It is interesting to revisit a childhood tale once you’re a RRRF (Recently Reawakened Radical Feminist) , and to wonder what it was about this or that particular storyline that moved or you, and what made it different from all the others, but also to criticize it from the radically altered perspective of your new worldview.
I still found myself in awe of the gorgeous pictures: the red and white roses, the dark and fair sisters, the mother’s beautiful cottage, (not the same as the modern picture above); but I found that the tale itself, though not without its merits, was dotted with (metaphorical) black flies. I had to make a new story up to go with the pictures because I wasn’t in the mood today for brainwashing my little girl with patriarchal propaganda.
Nevertheless, what was it about this tale that stood out? The two girls are married off in the end, just like all the others, but why didn’t Snow White and Rose Red blend in with all the rest of the passive princesses?
The first reason, I believe, is that there were two of them. It’s pretty hard to come by a fairy tale of two girls that like and love each other, and who are both active agents. You do get sisters, but often wicked step-sisters or bland 2D stooges. My young mind had thirsted for a tale of two girls sharing experiences together.
In the opening paragraph they make a promise never to part from one another until they die.
This is revolutionary stuff we’re talking about. Two sisters vowing to look out for each other in old age, two females whose love for one another is so powerful that they can’t ever imagine being seperated. Not many stories capture the passion of young girls for one another, and their desire to be together.
Their mother is a widow and lives in a beautiful country cottage in a wood. We are supposed to believe she is discontent and sad in her “lonely cottage”… But she looks like she’s having a blast. She is effectively a single mother, and perhaps my six year old self didn’t notice or care how she became single. All I saw was a woman living independant and alone in a paradise with no man to serve. Flowers dot the window boxes next to the rose trees, and chickens roam beneath fruit trees in the garden. In the evening, the mother puts on her glasses and reads the girls a story beside the hearth. Try as an artist might, the image of this trio can never come across as “lonely and sad”, only ever harmonious and peaceful.
Moving swiftly on, Snow White and Rose Red are polar opposites, both exist as patriarchal fantasies. Girls and women can never be fully-rounded human beings in men’s stories, they can only posess traits. Rose White is pale and fair, quiet and gentle. Rose Red is lively and loves running about in the forest.
One night, as their mother is reading to them, they hear a knock at the door. “Quick open it, ” says the mother. “It might be a traveller who has lost his way” . Hmm, an unlikely reaction, but possible.
At the door there is a bear asking to warm himself by the fire. He comes the next night and the next and the children enjoy pulling his fur and rolling on his back, to which he cries:
“Leave me alone children!
Snow White and Rose Red
Would you beat your lover dead?”
Eh? Why is he talking about lovers and shit to children?
Snow White and Rose Red manage to get some adventures in (without the bear) before the climax, when the bear reveals himself to be a MAN who has been put under a spell by a dwarf. But he’s not just any old garden-variety man, he’s a prince!
Snow white marries him. In the version I have here before me the (female) editor has added the line “when she grew up” but I’m not certain whether that line is in the original or whether the prince just went ahead and married her when she was still a child. Either way, we can safely say that the age gap was enormous.
But what about their pact to stay together for life? It’s not entirely destroyed by the interloper. Rose Red gets to marry his brother. (It did not pass me by that the prince chose Snow white, the gentle, good girl and not the lively spirited one, which is surely to brainwash girls into being docile and meek. Lively tomboys only get the second choice, the brother).
And their mother? According to the tale she “lives happily ever” after in the King’s castle.
But I very much doubt that she was happy there. Her status would have been low in the pecking order, and as an underling she would have had to tow the Royal party line. She wouldn’t have been able to work, grow her own food or have any independance. It’s likely that the prince’s mother was still alive which means she’d have been living in her son in law’s parent’s home. Not pleasant for any woman I should imagine. And I doubt she’d have a room of her own. I just hope she wasn’t duped into selling her cottage in case she or one of the girls needed an escape plan if it turned out that one of the husbands was abusive.
Not to worry, the entire ending was completely modified by me when I read it out today. In the cherryblossom version, the bear was endlessly grateful to the girls that the spell had been broken and that was The End.