The Queen in Brothers Grimm’s “Little Snow White” is deliciously evil. Well, did you know that she was originally written as Snow White’s biological mother?
It can be tempting to dismiss the biological mother version of the Queen as some misogynistic design. It’s also easy to think that this was to show that a bold, proactive female is to be punished and withheld from positions of power. A closer examination, however, reveals that the fairytale is an honest look at human depravity.
The Motherlode of Monsters
In literature prior to “Little Snow White,” the archetype of the mother has often been reserved for characters who were nurturers rather than threats. Classical mythology did feature fractured queen mothers. But even women like Clytemnestra, Jocasta, and Niobe still loved their children. In the Queen in Snow White, though, sociopathy is a dominant trait. In the hands of Protestant writers, the mother archetype becomes a vehicle for a warning against a primal desire: raw hatred for one’s kin.
[The magic mirror] finally answered: You, my queen, are fairest of all.
Then her envious heart was at rest, as well as an envious heart can be at rest.“Little Snow-White“, final edition (1857)
Upon reading that the Queen wants to eat Snow White’s heart, one may be inclined to simply view it as a villainness being extra. Interestingly enough, “Hansel and Gretel”—another fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm—stars a cannibalistic witch too. This recurring theme led some scholars to posit that Grimms were denouncing real-life folks who resorted to cannibalism during harsh seasons.
A Foil to Snow White
Far from misogynistic, Snow White’s terrifying comeback against the Queen is empowering. Near the end, she and her prince arrange for the Queen to dance in iron shoes that have been heated by burning coals. Victorious at last, Snow White (presumably still at the scene) is there to watch the Queen dance herself to death! The character journey comes full circle, as a naive, gullible girl becomes a savvy politician who entraps her assassin. It’s a fitting end for “Little” Snow White, who turns out to be not so little as we have estimated.
It’s no accident that Grimms had Snow’s eating of the apple mirror Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. Just as Eve’s seed is destined to destroy the tempter, Snow destroys her tempter. Star Wars fans will get an eerie déjà vu. Luke Skywalker defeats his biological parent, much like Snow slays hers—except that for Snow, it’s done with the last laugh.