Some heroes fight for victory, others get by on their good looks. Into the latter category belongs the protagonist of 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a largely faithful adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale from the early 19th century, which was in turn inspired by oral tradition or possibly, according to some sources, one or two real young ladies. Beautifully animated by Walt Disney, it’s an instructive film for children both in ways general and specific, from the importance of submitting to the universal natural order to the necessity of washing your hands before supper.
One of Adolf Hitler’s favourite movies, I was reminded in my recent viewing of another of Hitler’s favourite films, Fritz Lang’s great adaptations of the Nibelungenlied from the ‘20s (neither Disney nor Lang were fans of Hitler, it should be noted). Like the eleventh or twelve century epic poem on which it’s based, Nibelungenlied focuses on the Germanic/Norse hero Siegfried or Sigurd. Siegfried is the son of a king, exiled to the woods from a young age, and raised by a smith (a dwarf in some versions). The rapport he has with the natural world helps him to survive and thrive, especially after he learns how to talk to birds. This power he acquires after slaying and drinking the blood of a dragon. Eventually, his death comes due partly to the jealousy of women in his life.
The differences between Siegfried’s and Snow White’s stories break down neatly on lines of conventional expectations for their respective genders. Snow White’s story is similar except she hits the same points by remaining passive or running away that Siegfried hits by exploring or conquering. She runs from the huntsman, she allows herself to be directed by the woodland creatures to the cottage of the dwarfs. She accepts the apple from the Queen without much hesitation—she’s even more submissive in the original tale, accepting multiple hazardous gifts from the Queen before the final apple.
The Queen, obsessed with being the most beautiful woman in the world, takes the strikingly odd step of making herself hideous in the Disney film, something she doesn’t do in the original Grimm story where she’s described as merely disguising herself. In the film, she relishes the sight of her hands withering while a crow, here a representative of the natural world unlike the similar one in Sleeping Beauty, looks on in terror. While the Queen compulsively checks to see if there’s an antidote to the poison she applies to the apple, she never checks to see if the spell she’s used to change her form is reversible. Not that it matters when she plunges to her death and is devoured by vultures—more birds representing the natural world.
The Queen is motivated to acquire things she has no right to by natural law—a mother or step mother shouldn’t be more beautiful, and therefore more attractive to suitors, than her daughter. By remaining submissive to the flow of life, Snow White prevails even when the Queen effectively kills her. Death is natural so real death is obviously something the Queen can’t manage to inflict. So Snow White wins a Prince Charming, their relationship never as complex as the one between Snow White and the dwarf Grumpy.
Grumpy, whose nose looks like a potato, is a bit of a tsundere. He says he doesn’t like or trust women but he still slyly wants a kiss on the forehead from Snow White, just like the other dwarfs. When Snow White is praying, she singles out Grumpy, asking that God make him like her. Here’s fertile ground for slash fiction.
By enforcing domestic normalcy in the home, by cleaning the furniture and forcing the dwarfs to wash their hands, Snow White shows herself to be integrated with the natural order, as do the dwarfs who dutifully march off to work every day. Of course, a relationship between Snow White and Grumpy would face many obstacles not to be found between the Prince and the Princess. Problems related to age and social class would have to be considered. The film’s moral lesson of conformity would, to be fair, probably be conducive to health and familial harmony. On the other hand, why shouldn’t the Queen have the beauty that doesn’t even seem to be that important to her step-daughter? I suppose Snow White shouldn’t have to worry about whether she can attract a viable mate. If she couldn’t convey the impression of creating a healthy and happy home, she may well make her husband miserable and sick.
When talking about archetypes, they can be applied pretty flexibly to various real life social and cultural circumstances to which a weirder, more complex tale can’t. Still, it’s fun to fantasise about Snow White running off with Grumpy.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is available on Disney+.