Monday, March 12, 2012

A Little Bit of Snow White History

Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World

Since the publishing of the article 'Once Upon a Time's' Ginnifer Goodwin talks fairy tales, plus first look at Sunday's episode in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago, fairy tale enthusiasts have been discussing the article online. After all, while we get a lot of material about the inspiration behind NBC's Grimm, the fairy tale research for ABC's Once Upon a Time has been rather sketchy with the implication that the creators haven't looked much beyond the Disney versions and dimestore versions of the tales. And the article doesn't do much to allay that fear since Godwin comes across as more knowledgable than the creators with her personal research although I will allow for media spin on that one. (Kudos to Godwin, I'm a bigger fan after reading the article.)

Here's the most talked about element of the article to date:

You surely did a lot of research prior to jumping into the role. What did you consider the best interpretation of Snow White?

I watched every Snow White movie ever made because I thought I could steal from people. The one I love the best is Elizabeth McGovern starring in Shelley Duvall''s "Faerie Tale Theatre." I think it's by far the best telling of the story. I read all kinds of versions because this is not a story written by the Grimms. This is a story older than anyone could possibly trace. It’s possible that it was based on a real-life story of a princess named Maria Sophia Maragrita. What is bananas to me about this is I called the creators before we began the show and was like, “I love that you named her Mary Margaret after the woman who could have possibly been the inspiration for Snow White,” and they were like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, you can find online — but most of the pages you have to get translated because they’re in Russian or something — but I had said that Mary Margaret was clearly named after Maria Sophia Margarita. And they were like, “No, seriously, what are you talking about?”

Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre

My first thought upon reading this? That I needed to rewatch Shelley Duvall's Snow White. Then I thought, uh oh, the questions are going to come about Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal. And the nets have lit up with it somewhat in the past few days. I don't have links. To be honest, I barely have had time to sleep the past few weeks, but I'm giving myself a break and taking a few minutes to write about this.

And since I did compile, edit and do some translating for a collection with about 40 Snow White stories in it, the aptly named Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World, I will chime in.

First of all, there are actually two different historical figures who have been chosen as inspiration for Snow White, the first is Margarete von Waldeck and the second is Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal. There is a nice short Mental Floss article about both:

Margarete von Waldeck

Back in the mid 1500s, there was a beautiful girl named Margarete von Waldeck who lived in a mining town called (…wait for it…) Waldeck, a small community in northwestern Germany. Children worked in the mines there, so you can see where retelling of the tale eventually morphed the children into small men over the years. Possibly due to problems with her father’s new wife, Margarete moved out of Waldeck when she was about 17 years old, headed for Brussels. When she got there, her beauty attracted the attention of Philip II of Spain. Apparently someone didn’t care for the idea of Philip marrying Margarete, and she fell gravely ill. Most people thought she was poisoned, and her handwriting in her last will and testament was shaky enough to make most people think she had developed tremors, a sign of poisoning. This Snow White never got her prince – she died from the mysterious illness when she was just 21. To this day, no one knows who poisoned Margarete, but we can rule out one suspect: her stepmother was already dead.

Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal

Behind door number two, we have Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal, to be known as Maria from here on out. Born in 1729, Maria grew up in a castle in Lohr, Germany. The castle is a museum today, and if you visit, you’ll be able to look into a certain famous mirror. It’s believed that Maria’s father, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal, gave the looking glass to his second wife as a gift. Sounding a little familiar? Maria’s outlook under her stepmother wasn’t quite so bleak – there was no huntsman seeking internal organs for proof of Maria’s death – but scholars think it wasn’t an easy existence. “Presumably the hard reality of life for Maria Sophia under this woman was recast as a fairy story by the Brothers Grimm,” Dr. Karlheinz Bartels, a Snow White scholar, has said. Oh, and Maria’s story boasts “dwarves” in a fashion similar to Margarethe’s: it’s said that only smaller-statured men were able to fit in the nearby mine tunnels of Bieber.

And here's another more in depth article about Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal at Once upon a time, Snow White lived in Bavaria.

Nice that they both have forms of Margaret for their names, right? So OUAT is safe either way although the name appears to be happy coincidence on the tv show's part.

But in the end, the chances of either of these women actually being the source story are very slim, especially due to dates and then the working of elements to fit the story. Not that there might not have been some influence either way--the tale could have influenced the historical accounts, too, after all--but in the end we have no concrete proof beyond coincidence of some elements--mostly the girls being of noble birth and having difficult family lives--combined with the hope for tourism dollars. That's the problem with history. It's really so nebulous.

But it is always dangerous to assign fairy tales to actual historical personages. Bluebeard is notorious for this and the proponents act as if only the nobility killed their wives in times past when they seek source stories and personages from Gilles de Rais to Henry VIII are offered up as the inspiration. Unfortunately, there have been wife killers throughout history. And there have been (step)mothers seeking to kill their (step)daughters throughout history, too. (Remember that the Grimms were notorious for making deadly mothers over into stepmothers out of devotion to their own mother, to oversimplify things.)

But if you want some interesting early twists on the Snow White tale, I'll share this from my introduction to Sleeping Beauties:

While the Grimms story is now the most commonly disseminated version in print, several variations come from Italy, including The Young Slave and The Crystal Casket. The former appears in Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, first published in 1634. Neither tale is a direct antecedent, but both contain many of the motifs and plot devices found in the German Snow White and its variants collected by the brothers. There are no dwarfs in the Italian versions. Gangs of robbers, fairies or religious figures usually provide temporary safe haven to the young girl instead. There are several tales from Italy and Greece of this variety, many of which are included in this collection.

Another interesting variant, Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree, comes from Scotland. In this tale, the mother seeks to kill her beautiful daughter. The father deceives his wife and sends his daughter to another king to be married. Despite these precautions, the mother murders her but her devoted husband refuses to bury her. Eventually he marries again and his second wife revives the first wife. She offers to leave but the king chooses to keep both wives who become friends. The second wife later kills the wicked mother during another murder attempt. Then the king and his two wives live happily ever after together. Since polygamy wasn’t common in Scottish history, scholars speculate that the tale traveled there from a country in which the practice was more accepted.

This Scottish tale bears a strong resemblance to The Lay of Eliduc by Marie de France first recorded in the late 12th century. The lay is a Christianized version of the story with Eliduc as the king. In this version he doesn’t keep both wives. His first wife enters a nunnery instead of living in a plural marriage. Eventually Eliduc and his beloved wife enter into holy orders, too. At first reading, the lay appears unrelated to the version of the tale that is so well-loved today, but its relationship to the less popular variants is obvious upon closer inspection.
And you can read about more variants as well as the full text of the tales mentioned above on SurLaLune's site, of course.


  1. This is amazingly informative! Love it!

  2. Did Marian von Erthal run away from her stepmother's house?