Snow White: From Grimm Origins to Happily Ever After

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs | Courtesy of Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Winner of the Spring 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Storyteller

Best Overall Research

Best Explanatory Article

Snow White is one of the most iconic Disney princesses to date, but Disney’s version of Snow White is not where her tale began. Originally published by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812, Snow White’s written history began as these scholars’ attempt to preserve Germany’s fairy tale legacy as well as to establish critical editions of that legacy for further academic study. With each subsequent edition of their collection, the stories underwent subtle changes, so that by the 1850s edition, the fairy tales had been altered considerably, with the goal of having them be more appealing to the masses and more appropriate for children. Though, with that said, the two most significant changes occurred between the 1812 and the 1819 editions: the change of birth mother to step mother, and the way that Snow White was revived. By the 1930s, when Disney decided to undertake the tale of Snow White as his first feature-length animated film, it was again completely transformed and underwent a substantial alteration of its themes. These changes ultimately led to the removal of its moral point, replacing it with a love story. In short, the fairy tale of Snow White as originally recorded by the Grimm brothers in 1812 was immediately altered for the sensibilities of nineteenth-century German culture, and later altered again for a different sensibility in a twentieth-century American culture, both times in the name of increased and elevated readership and viewership. Both of these cultural shifts demonstrate the important role of storytelling, both written and visual, and its role in reflecting the social and political climates of the times.

Snow White and the Disguised Queen | Courtesy of Märchenbuch, 1919
Snow White’s written history began early in the 1800’s when the two brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm took up the task of collecting traditional folk tales from the peasantry in the lands of Central Europe. Their project was part of a larger one of preserving and documenting European cultural heritages before they became impossible to recover, with the hope to preserve an authentic German cultural past. In the process, they collected many stories, a number of which were common tales told throughout Europe, and some appear to have been somewhat modified by the Grimms so as to be seen as more uniquely German than they might actually have been. Scholars suggest that the princess of Snow White, for example, may actually have been based on medieval German women, either Margaretha von Waldeck or Maria Sophia von Erthal, both of Germanic royalty. It is possible that pieces of each woman’s lives were interwoven into the story that the Brothers ultimately published as Snow White. Some of the most important elements of their lives might have been the depictions of dwarfs who worked in mines just as in Snow White, or the talking “mirror on the wall,” thought to have been in Maria Sophia’s home, or the death of Margaretha von Waldeck by poison, thought to have been used to tell of the poisoning of Snow White herself.1 The combination of all of these created an intricate story that became a commentary and cautionary tale about vanity, not only in the role it played within society, but also in its lessons for the very young.

Grimm’s original 1812 tale of Little Snow White opens with the Queen of the land gazing out of her window, looking out at the snow, while spinning thread. While focusing on the snow, she pricks herself on the needle, and upon seeing her blood on the snow, thinks, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” Time passes, and the Queen has a daughter that is all of the things she wanted, and she is named Little Snow White. Now, the Queen was known for her beauty, and was very proud of it, each day asking, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?” to which the mirror always answered, “You, my queen, are fairest of all.” But, all the while, Snow White was becoming more beautiful with each passing day, and once she turned seven, when the Queen asked the mirror who the fairest was, the mirror then gave quite a different answer: “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Little Snow-White is still a thousand times fairer than you.” Hearing this enraged the Queen, and she became incredibly envious and let her heart fill with hatred for her daughter Snow White. This continued, until one day the Queen had been filled with so much rage that she demanded a Huntsman to “take Snow-White out into the woods to a remote spot, and stab her to death” and for “proof that she is dead” he was to “bring her lungs and her liver back to [the Queen],” so that she could “cook them with salt and eat them.”

Snow White in the Forest | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Once out in the woods, Snow White began to cry and beg for her life, until the Huntsman took pity on her and allowed her to run off. He then killed a boar that had happened to run past him for the liver and lungs for the Queen. Snow White ran all day through the forest until she came to a little cottage just before sunset. Inside, everything was “neat and orderly,” with seven of everything. Being hungry after a long day, she tried food and wine from every place setting and after finishing eating, tried all the beds until she settled on the seventh. When the dwarfs came home to their cottage, they realized that someone had disturbed and made a mess of their home, finally coming upon Snow White fast asleep on the seventh bed. Noticing how beautiful she was, they decided that they liked her and didn’t want to wake her. Once she woke up, and she explained to them what had happened, the dwarfs decided that she could stay “if [she] will keep house for [them], and cook, sew, make beds, wash, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then [she could] stay here, and … have everything that [she could] want. [They would] come home in the evening, and supper must be ready by then, but [they had to] spend the days digging for gold in the mine. [She would] be alone then. Watch out for the queen, and do not let anyone in.”

The next day, the Queen asked the mirror who was the fairest of all, and she was shocked, again, when it replied: “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Little Snow White beyond the seven mountains is a thousand times fairer than you.” She began to plot how to kill Snow White once and for all, and decided upon painting her face and dressing up as a peddler selling corsets. When she arrived at the cottage, Snow White let her in, and the Queen tightened the corset so tight that Snow White couldn’t breathe, but the dwarfs arrived just in time to save her, and again warned her not to let anyone in. The following day, the Queen discovered again that Snow White still lived and once again plotted against her, deciding this time to make a poison comb and disguise herself differently. Again, when she arrived, Snow White let her in and once the comb touched her hair, she fell down, almost dead, with the dwarfs once again saving her just in time. Once the Queen realized that Snow White still lived, she concocted a beautifully red poisoned apple and disguised herself as a peasant woman. When Snow White saw the woman peddling apples, she at first wanted to turn her away, but the woman cut the poisoned apple in half, keeping the side without the poison, and bit into it. This convinced Snow White that she was safe, and she followed suit, biting into the poisoned half, falling to the ground, dead, almost immediately. Shortly after, the dwarfs came home and found her, but unfortunately there wasn’t anything that could be done this time. After crying for three days, they discovered that she was still as beautiful as she always had been, and they fastened a glass coffin to lay her in.

One day, a prince stumbled upon the cottage and happened to see Snow White and her beauty. He then decided that he could not live another day if he wasn’t able to always gaze upon her every day. At first the dwarfs wouldn’t take any amount of gold, but after some time, they took pity on the prince and let him take her. Once at his castle, the prince wouldn’t let Snow White leave his sight and had servants follow him all day carrying the coffin, until one day, one of the men became so angry that they were toting around a dead girl, he opened the coffin and slapped Snow White, which dislodged the piece of apple in her mouth, and she came back to life. The prince was so happy that Snow White was alive that he set the next day to be their wedding day, and even invited the Queen. Once she realized that it was Snow White’s wedding, she decided to attend. There she was given hot iron shoes to dance in until her own death.2

Prince and the Dwarfs looking into Snow White’s Glass Coffin | Courtesy of Alexander Zick, 1866
Published in 1819, the second version of the story is substantially the same, except for the two key changes that were made and minor embellishments of dialogue and language. The first is the change demonstrated soon after Snow White’s birth, when the story has the insertion: “And as soon as the child was born, the queen died. A year later the king took himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty. She had a magic mirror. Every morning she stood before it, looked at herself, and said: ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?'” This, the change from mother to step mother, was the first change in an effort to make Snow White more appropriate for children. Though it may not seem like such a monumental change, it was done for a few reasons. First, it was done to soften the idea of the Queen, to make her less of a horrible evil, and, according to scholar John Ellis, to take away the “added dimension of rivalry between mother and daughter.”3 Second, Terri Windling, an author and editor of both children and adult books, argues that “for them, the bad mother had to disappear in order for the ideal to survive and allow Mother to flourish as symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum.”4 Moreover, it helped maintain the reverence of the maternal figure, without sacrificing the nuclear family dynamic.

The second change is about Snow White’s return to life. Instead of a servant slapping her, he merely accidentally stumbles over a shrub and the jolt dislodged the apple. This change was implemented with the story continuing on with slightly more dialogue than the first version, until the moment when Snow White is woken up and then the dialogue is changed to include: “But then it happened that one of them stumbled on some brush, and this dislodged from Snow White’s throat the piece of poisoned apple that she had bitten off. Not long afterward she opened her eyes, lifted the lid from her coffin, sat up, and was alive again.” Finally, the story again finishes with the Queen arriving to the wedding, to be forced into hot iron shoes to dance to her death.5 Scholar John Hanson Saunders argues that the original scene was one depicting male dominance, as a man felt justified in slapping Snow White.6 While this claim may have some basis, it is more likely that the story here was altered for two other reasons. The first is that Snow White’s revival is merely a means to an end, making the violence completely unnecessary, and too harsh. Furthermore, this show of unwarranted violence seems to clash with the movement of the time that had been making strides of “carefully regulating [folktales] in the nineteenth century so that improper thoughts and ideas would not be stimulated in the minds of the young,” as scholar Jack Zipes claims.7 This concern for the minds of the young built on rising literacy rates in German lands, with increased access to education for many children. In fact, children throughout German speaking lands were able to take up written stories and read them on their own. As an oral tale, storytellers often adjusted the stories to their audiences. But once the story was written down, and more frequently tailored for children, the movement to have the stories altered became stronger, and they became sanitized from violent, and frequently dark, themes.8

The second reason for the alteration of the servant slapping Snow White was the servant’s blatant disrespect for one of royalty, which, most likely, would have sent messages that challenged the social hierarchy and social structure of nineteenth-century Germany by showcasing a servant transcending those social divisions to assault someone of the highest social class with impunity. As folktales were generally of the peasant class, and of “vulgar” origins, the originals use of the assertion of peasants assertiveness most likely was not something that was questioned. Furthermore, before the time of written fairy tales, when those of higher classes heard the stories, they were told by servants, or those that worked for them, allowing for the story to be altered as it was told.9 Once the stories were written down, and the Brothers began to make moves to increase readership, it further explains why these two changes were made and why they began to move from the preservation of oral history to making it something all their own: to keep the Brothers from losing readership from those wanting to adhere to the movement of preserving children’s innocence and those above the peasant class.

While both of these changed the narrative, as well as some of the implications and dynamics of the story, the moral stayed the same: do not let vanity be your downfall, as it was for the Queen, and for Snow White, twice: once with the corset, and again with the comb.

When Walt Disney chose to have Snow White be the star of his first animated feature-length film, the times were much different in America than when Snow White came to life in the Grimm’s publication. Several major changes were made to help ensure the success of the film based on the desire for romantic themes and relevant political ideas of the time. First, Disney developed the love story from more than a passing happening at the end, to being completely central to the plot, introducing the prince in the first scene, as opposed to bringing him in at the end, and using songs such as “I’m Wishin’,” in the opening scene, and “Someday My Prince will Come,” sung more than once, to drive the idea of their love, even without the prince being near. Furthermore, while it could be argued that the shift from the Queen’s request for lungs and liver in the story to her request for Snow White’s heart in the movie for proof of Snow White’s death had to do with toning down the darker parts of the story for mass appeal. This change seems likely due to the heart, in American popular culture, being a symbol of love. Furthermore, the removal of the heart constitutes the removal of love from Snow White’s life, which is central to the plot. This change is the most important because it moves the story from a tale based around a moral on vanity to a love story, with the moral being little more than a literary device to move the action forward. This idea is further illustrated in the fact that the only antidote to the poisoned apple in the movie is true love, something that is said to be a Disney original idea, when no antidote was offered up in the original story.

“Reflections of Evil”: the Queen and her Disguise | Courtesy of Disney’s Hollywood Studios

The second major idea that was instituted in the Disney version was the role of the dwarfs: the child likeness of each of them, and the comic relief that they provided, which was prevalent in other movies of the time. First and foremost, Disney spent a lot of time on the naming and characterization of each of the dwarfs, as they had been nameless in the original and were seen more as a collective than as individuals. Almost fifty names were scrapped in lieu of the seven that ended up being chosen. Some scholars suggest that the idea to give the dwarfs such an important role in the movie, and end up in the title, was a marketing idea that Disney wanted to test out.10 Finally, in regards to the dwarfs, their role is much more passive in the Disney version, due to the fact that Snow White lays down the rules for her staying, as opposed to the more assertive dwarfs of the original, who were the ones who decided the conditions under which she would stay. This, in part, may have to do with the dwarfs’ childlike demeanor, described by Phillip Pullman as “toddlers with beards,” in the Disney version. The mostly likely explanation is that an audience, then or now, blindly accepting the idea of a girl of fourteen or so living in a house with seven grown men, to none of whom she is related, is quite slim.11

The third major change is the insertion and prevalence of Disney’s, and in part America’s, idea of the role of the woman versus the role of the working man, and the “spirit of cooperation and community.”12 These two ideas are placed together as scenes used for reference overlap. Throughout the film, Snow White is depicted as quite content cleaning and doing the chores. This is not to say that if she was living her life as the princess she is, she would choose to do chores, but she always seems happy. Furthermore, she may just be making the best of the situation, but, at first blush, while the viewer is watching the film, the idea of Snow White being anything but happy is unlikely to be the viewers first thought. “Whistle While You Work” is a prime example of this idea, as well as the role happiness within work in general, with Disney slipping another nod to love in, while she is cleaning the dwarfs’ cottage as the song goes:

“Just whistle while you work
And cheerfully together we can tidy up the place
So hum a merry tune
It won’t take long when there’s a song to help you set the pace
And as you sweep the room
Imagine that the broom is someone that you love
And soon you’ll find you’re dancing to the tune
When hearts are high the time will fly so whistle while you work.”13

Maria Tarter, a professor of literature, further supports this idea when she states that “The Disney version itself transforms household drudgery into frolicking good fun, less work than play, since it requires no real effort, is carried out with the help of wonderfully dexterous woodland creatures, and achieves such a dazzling result. Disney made a point of placing the housekeeping sequence before the encounter with the dwarfs and of presenting the dwarfs as ‘naturally messy,’ just as Snow White is ‘by nature’ tidy.”14 The latter part of that quote propels the discussion into the idea of the working man that spends all day out earning a living and hasn’t the time to come home and help with the housework. This is demonstrated in the state of the cottage when Snow White originally arrived, which can be described as nothing short of filthy and in complete disarray. Finally, the idea previously mentioned of “cooperation and community” is really demonstrated in two main scenes. The first scene takes place when the woodland animals band together to help Snow White clean the cottage, hitting on both of the ideas. The second scene that really encompasses this idea, as well as the value of hard work, opposed to material goods, is when the audience meets the dwarfs and they sing “We dig up the diamonds / By the score / But we don’t know / What we dig them for,” which brings together the idea of community before self.

Snow White’s Arm after Dropping the Apple | Courtesy of Disney Hollywood Studios

Finally, the largest change that occurred was the overarching removal of darker themes for the story to be able to appeal to the masses and be suitable for children. The most obvious of these is how death is dealt with in the Disney version. Unlike in the Grimm’s version, Disney decided to have only one attempt be made on Snow White’s life and for it to be successful. Moreover, the decreased focus on death is shown in two distinct ways. First, when Snow White bites the apple and consequently dies, the animation is focused on the Queen, with Snow White only being seen after she has fallen, as the apple rolls out of her hand. She is seen after this, in her dead-like state, but it looks more as though she is merely sleeping. The second scene that employs the idea of a veil over a death is how and when the Queen dies. In the Disney version, the dwarfs chase her to a cliff, where she attempts to push a boulder down onto the dwarfs. Instead of succeeding, she accidentally causes the cliff that she is standing on to fall. This not only takes away the idea of the Queen being murdered, with someone responsible, and turns it into an accident, but it leaves her death ambiguous, because the audience is not sure if she has died or not, due to just seeing her falling, as opposed to a body.15 Furthermore, her death, or lack of one, becomes more of an afterthought rather than a resolution as Disney’s version carries on with the story afterward.

All of these changes played into Disney’s desire to create a masterpiece at a time that life outside the theater was dismal. America was in the midst of the Great Depression and during a time when most people were struggling to make ends meet, almost two thirds of the population nevertheless went to the movies weekly. They used the experiences at the movies as an escape, which is demonstrated further when Eric Rhode, an author and playwright, argues that “Hollywood became utopian–more interested in how things should be than in how they are.”16 This idea of the need for cinema is further illustrated by Thomas Cripps in his book titled Hollywood’s High Noon: Moviemaking and Society Before Television. There he argues that “During the Great Depression, some Americans admitted to being willing to give up any other amenity in their lives, rather than allow poverty to take away their weekly movie, as much a nourishment as bread.”17 With the demands for a stellar movie-going experience, the idea of a full-length animated feature film could have been considered a long shot as it would become the first of its kind, with the other animated films of the time being shorts. With most of Disney’s previous animations being around seven minutes long, it can be seen why Disney worked so hard to craft the cinematic masterpiece that became Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.18

The combination of all the changes that Disney implemented created an incredibly distinct version and one that is very different from the one originally publish by the Grimm brothers in 1812. Each of the changes made by the Grimm Brothers and by Disney moved the story away from the original oral tradition to unique stories that become something that is all their own, especially in the case of Disney, with the goal of increased readership and viewership driving the changes. From the opening scene to happily ever after, the role of storytelling and its portrayal of the times continues to be paramount, even today, as we laugh and cry and relate to the stories that we encounter.

  1. Eckhard Sander, Schneewittchen Märchen Oder Wahrheit?: Ein Lokaler Bezug Zum Kellerwald, (Gudensberg-Gleichen: Wartberg-Verl. 1994). 31-33, 40.
  2. Grimm Brothers, Translated by D.L Ashliman Ph.D, “Snow White: Original 1812 Translation,” Snow-White and other tales of type 709, (Accessed March 07, 2018), https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0709.html#snowwhite.
  3. John M. Ellis, One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 76.
  4. Terri Windling, White as Snow: Introduction (New York: Tom Doherty, 2001), 10.
  5. Phillip Pullman, Jacob Grimm, and Wilhelm Grimm, Fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm: a new English version (New York, N.Y.: Viking, 2012), 206, 217.
  6. John Hanson Saunders, “The Evolution Of Snow White: A Close Textual Analysis Of Three Versions Of The Snow White Fairy Tale,” PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 2008, Abstract in Electronic Theses and Dissertations for Graduate School, September 11, 2008, (Accessed March 10, 2018), https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/catalog/9207, 71.
  7. Jack Zipes, Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 14.
  8.  Donna E. Norton, Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentince-Hall, 1999), 62-64.
  9. Jack Zipes, Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 23.
  10. Michael J. Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 229.
  11. Philip Pullman, Fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm : a new English version (New York, N.Y. : Viking, 2012), 219.
  12. Harry Wellington Laidler, Socialism in the United States: A Brief History, New York: League for Industrial Democracy, 1952), 4.
  13. Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Directed by David Hand, Produced by Walt Disney, By Ted Spears, Performed by Adriana Caselotti and Lucille La Verne, United States: Walt Disney, 1937, DVD.
  14. Maria Tatar, The Classic Fairy Tales, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999), 79.
  15. Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Directed by David Hand, Produced by Walt Disney, By Ted Spears, Performed by Adriana Caselotti and Lucille La Verne, United States: Walt Disney, 1937, DVD.
  16. John Hanson Saunders, “The Evolution Of Snow White: A Close Textual Analysis Of Three Versions Of The Snow White Fairy Tale,” PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 2008, 44; Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema: From its Origins to 1970 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 335.
  17. Thomas Cripps, Hollywood’s High Noon: Moviemaking and Society Before Television (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 1.
  18. Terri Martin Wright, 1997, “Romancing the tale: Walt Disney’s adaptation of the Grimm’s ‘Snow White’,” Journal Of Popular Film And Television no. 3: 98, Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost (accessed March 7, 2018).
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109 Comments

  • I had never read any of the texts by the Grimm Brothers on Snow White, but I had seen the movie by Disney. It was interesting to learn about the texts and how they changed depending on the time they were written. This article I have to admit was a bit difficult for me to read only because it is so unique. Overall, this was a really great article and I believe did deserve the award-winning titles it received.

  • The fact that Snow White, like many of Disney’s gallery, is adapted and changed substantially from an existing story, in this case one written by the Brothers Grimm, is fairly common knowledge nowadays. What many, including myself, probably didn’t know was that the story published by the Grimms was itself altered, or that the original moral of vanity was more pronounced by having it apply to Snow White herself. Personally I’d have liked to see that in the film. Regardless the comparison and analysis of the themes in both the original story, the Grimm’s version and the Disney version, and how and why they were altered to be distinct from each other, are not only well done and informative, but very interesting, and now that I’ve read this article, I may just have to find the original story.

  • I love Disney, but the Grimm Brother’s tales have always fascinated me. This article was easy and fun to read, as well as provided a lot of information that I was not aware of. Snow White is a classic tale but not many people know of how it was originally written. This article highlights both the Grimm Brothers version as well as the Disney version. It is interesting to read how many changes were actually made to the original version.

  • I love the movie Snow White so I had to read this article and it was extremely interesting and well written. I was able to easily connect the separate parts of that article with much of what was said in Jack Harts, Story Craft. The different cultures that influence the different fairytales, I think really speaks a lot about what was going on even deeper during that time period. They used the experiences at the movies as an escape, which I think was amazing to do. I also think it is interesting how death is dealt with in the Disney version compared to other versions.

  • Such a fascinating story and well-constructed explanatory narrative. As I am not familiar with this type of writing, it took me longer than expected to warm up to this style of writing. This narrative helped tremendously with that. In reading it I was able to easily connect the separate parts of that article with much of what was said in Jack Harts, Story Craft. Another area in which I found pleasing was the ease in which this article was easy to relate to while also being informative. Being as unfamiliar as I am with this style of writing, I found myself doing my best to follow Hart’s example of an explanatory narrative. Around half way through this piece I did find myself getting a little distracted, though the concluding parts of this piece did a good job of recollecting me as a reader.

  • This is a really great article! When I was younger and i found out about the Grimm brothers I honestly became even more intrigued by fairy tales. The different cultures that influence the different fairytales, i think really speaks a lot about what was going on even deeper during that time period. The differences to me are very dramatic and Disney does portray them but downplays the more “grim” parts. I am a huge sucker for folklore and fairytales so this piece was exciting to read. Thank you

  • Very well written article. I like how you describe how the different versions of the fairy tale fit the culture and times it was written in. Disney has had so much impact on how American children are raised and see the world. The Disney version of Snow White is indeed representative of the time it was released. I would love to see a comparison between this, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, and see how Disney’s adaptation fits with each other, and of the different times they were released in.

  • The explanatory article really was well written in the fact that I had no lingering questions. The breakdown of really two texts and a movie was very well introduced. This topic is very interesting to me because I have read both the texts and seen the Disney movie. I knew there were some drastic changes between all three, but I did not know why they were done. It never even occurred to me why the Grimm Brothers would or had a reason to edit their original work.

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