By Alena Gašparovičová
Fairy tales are an important part of our cultural heritage. Although these stories were originally primarily aimed at the adult audience, in time they came to be considered children’s literature. Since the genre of folk tales is popular across all kinds of audiences, it has been subject to rewritings by numbers of authors. The idea of adapting fairy tales to make them more appealing to a modern audience is not a new one. Already well-known fairy tale collectors like Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm or the French collector Charles Perrault adapted fairy tales in their collections to make them more appealing to the intended audience. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that contemporary authors would do the same and rewrite fairy tales to make them more appealing for modern audiences.
Female characters are a frequent target of these rewritings. The issue of portraying female protagonists in traditional fairy tales as extremely passive, while most active women are considered villainesses is still very much debated among academics as well as the general readers. Especially feminist scholars often criticise the portrayal of good female characters as passive and dependent on men in every aspect of their lives. Consequently, many modern authors have taken it upon themselves to rewrite these stories in a way that would challenge or criticise this stereotypical female behaviour. Authors, who are frequently discussed in this context are Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, or Anne Sexton, however, these writers, albeit well-known, are far from being the only ones to have rewritten fairy tales. Many other authors have rewritten fairy tales in a manner that challenges the stereotypical portrayal of female characters as well. One of these authors is the acclaimed British novelist Neil Gaiman, who has rewritten the fairy tale “Snow-White” in his short story “Snow, Glass and Apples” and in the book The Sleeper and the Spindle. Even though both stories come from the same traditional fairy-tale source material, each rewriting features a radically different version of the main heroine. Both heroines challenge and criticise the female stereotypes, each in her own way, however, they both still struggle to escape the limits of their roles as fairy tale female protagonists.
“Snow, Glass, Apples”
The short story “Snow, Glass, Apples” is retold from the point of view of the princess’ stepmother who reminisces about the time she has known the princess as she is slowly dying in a kiln. It could be said that the traditional roles of the heroine and the villainess are reversed in this version. The traditional versions of the story present a simple dichotomy in the form of the two main female characters: “the one sweet, ignorant, passive, the other both artful and active; the one a sort of angel, the other an undeniable witch” (Gilbert and Gubar 36). This dichotomy no longer applies in Gaiman’s rewriting. Instead of a villain who tries to murder the princess out of jealousy, the queen is actually presented as a “wise” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) ruler, who is merely trying to protect the kingdom from the mercilessness of her stepdaughter. The princess, on the other hand, is a murderous vampire who drinks blood and ultimately takes the lives of people to satisfy her needs. The princess thus challenges the limits of the role that has been allotted to her in the traditional tale. She is no longer a helpless child that is persecuted by a cruel stepmother for being more beautiful than her. Instead, the princess herself is the threat, she is the one who poses a danger to the people in the kingdom, because of her need for blood. This challenges the widespread fairy tale notion that any woman who does not behave passively is automatically evil. The queen is actually shown to be a caring and wise woman whose unwillingness to take the life of a dangerous and homicidal child when she has the chance, causes her eventual downfall.
Since this rewriting shows the whole story only from the stepmother’s point of view, there are occasional blank spaces in the princess’ story, where the stepmother “can only imagine” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) what actually transpired, and the princess’ side of the story remains a mystery. However, the picture of the princess conveyed by the queen shows the princess to be a monster. The first hints appear early on, when the reader is informed that the princess “killed her mother in the birthing” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) and that the narrator, the queen, does not know what “manner of thing” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) the princess is. Things only get worse from this point. It is strongly suggested that the princess is directly responsible for the death of her father who has become “a shadow of the man” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) he used to be, and his body came to be covered in “a multitude of ancient scars” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) coincidentally around the same time-frame as the princess is growing up. These scars even appear around the king’s genitals, indicating that she drank blood from these areas of his body as well and possibly also suggesting an incest, making the implications about the princess’ behaviour even more disturbing.
The queen’s attempts to murder her stepdaughter are presented as an effort to protect the people from the danger the princess poses to them rather than mere vanity or a power struggle. Indeed, the idea of a “beauty-contest” (Lieberman 385), which is “a constant and primary device in many of the stories” (Lieberman 385), including that of Snow-White is not present in this version at all. Moreover, beauty is also no longer the trait that allows the princess to prevail. As a vampire, the princess is also less dependent on others for protection. The queen attempts to get rid of the girl several times, with little success. The murderers the queen tasks to kill her stepdaughter do not spare her on purpose like in the traditional version. Instead, “they cut out her heart, and they [leave] her dead” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”), however, it turns out that this is not enough. The heart they bring to the queen keeps beating, and the princess lives on even without her heart. There are no implications that the princess needs the help of anyone else to save her life when they leave her in the woods.
Despite her dangerous nature, the vampiric princess does not escape the traits that are criticised in the traditional story entirely. Since she still is a danger to the folk of the land, the queen tries to kill her again. With the help of enchanted apples, the queen manages to ensure that the princess seemingly dies and her heart “[ceases] to beat” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”). At this point, the vampire resembles the traditional fairy-tale heroine in many respects. She ends up in a death-like passive state which she is unable to escape from on her own which leaves her at the mercy of the male characters. However, even at this point, beauty is not what saves her. A prince does pass by and saves her, but it is the passivity of the seemingly dead but still well-preserved body that first catches his attention. This part of the story is retold from the queen’s point of view as well, and thus there is no confirmation whether her account of the events is correct. However, the prince’s behaviour towards the queen earlier in the story seems to suggest that he is a necrophiliac who prefers women who “neither move, nor speak” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”) and are completely passive.
In this retelling, Gaiman abandons the well-known version of the narrative which has the princess wake up after a true love’s kiss and returns to the version in which the apple gets dislodged from the princess’ throat by accident. Just like the traditional version, the prince in “Snow, Glass, Apples” decides to buy the seemingly dead body of the princess from her keepers. A major difference is that while in the traditional version this is presented as an act of love because the prince “cannot live without seeing little Snow-White” (Grimm and Grimm 169), Gaiman is more critical about the prince’s motives. The prince is attracted to the vampiric princess because she is “cold” and “fair” (Gaiman “Snow, Glass, Apples”), which makes her the ideal choice for the prince. Because she looks like a corpse, but one that is still beautiful and has not started to decay, the princess becomes the ideal passive and mute partner the prince longs for.
The Sleeper and the Spindle
The protagonist in Gaiman’s second version of “Little Snow-White” in the book The Sleeper and the Spindle is dramatically different. It contains two intertwined storylines, the main storyline is that of “Briar Rose”, while the story of “Little Snow-White” is told in the form of flashbacks and fragments of memories of the main character. Although the main protagonist is never explicitly named, there are heavy intertextual references that make it clear that it is supposed to be Snow-White: she is said to have slept in a “glass coffin” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 56) and to be beautiful like “crimson rose in the fallen snow” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 41). However, the similarities between the queen and the traditional princess, or indeed Gaiman’s other version of this character, are scarce.
The story takes place after the main protagonist has become the queen and is preparing for her wedding. Her reluctance to get married is made explicit throughout the story. She is aware that it will change her life a lot and she does not seem to be too excited about those changes. As she explains: “It seemed both unlikely and extremely final. She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices.” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 14). Whereas the traditional princess follows the rules, the brothers Grimm describe her as “willing” (169) to marry a stranger whom she has just met, and the vampiric princess decides to marry the prince who woke her up as well, the queen is much more reluctant to conform to traditional ideas of how a female should behave and enter the “‘enchanted’ state” (Rowe 250) of marriage. In fact, she seems to believe that marriage will be the end of her life, one way or another. She contemplates all the possible ways she could die, whether as a monarch in a battle or during childbirth. Either way, marriage is seen by her as the first step leading to her inevitable death. The queen struggles with these thoughts which come into sharp contrast with unexpected liberty that circumstances temporarily give her.
Luckily for the queen, a mysterious sleeping curse has appeared in the neighbouring kingdom and is becomes a threat to the queen’s kingdom as well. This curse becomes the main driving force for the whole storyline. When the queen hears about the curse that is plaguing the neighbouring kingdom, she seizes the opportunity and decides to go find out what is happening. She calls for “her mail shirt” and “her sword” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 21), items that are generally considered male and she leaves for the neighbouring kingdom herself. She decides to go stop the sleeping curse on her own, instead of sending some of her people to deal with the problem. She also has the advantage that she has already spent “a year” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 20) sleeping in an enchanted sleep caused by her stepmother. She “woke up none worse for it” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 20) and even has the advantage of being more resilient to sleep than most people. In this context, the sleeping curse becomes a blessing for her since it cannot harm her as it does other people. Additionally, it gives her the option to postpone the wedding she has been dreading so much.
The queen is a noteworthy character for several reasons, her relationship with her fiancé is one of them. In the traditional version, the princess’ life improves with her marriage to the prince, as she gains someone, who can protect her from the vileness of the world. The queen, on the other hand, is the stronger one of the pair as her fiancé is “but a prince” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 21), while she is already a queen, who rules her own country. In other words, the power dynamics are turned around in their relationship. In the traditional fairy tale, the princess is a young child who is absolutely incapable of defending herself against the actions of the evil queen. The queen in The Sleeper and the Spindle, however, does not need a man to protect her as she is capable of taking care of herself. She is also capable of ruling a country without a man. Furthermore, she becomes the saviour of her people because of her unique ability to resist the sleeping curse. In this manner, the queen defies the traditional fairy-tale notion that a woman is good only as long as she is passive, and as soon as one shows assertiveness, she needs to be annihilated.
The queen does not seem to require a lot of saving. There are suggestions that the “usual method” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 16) of awakening a princess is with a kiss, however, it remains unclear how the queen herself has been woken up from her year-long sleep. It remains a mystery whether her fiancé woke her up with a kiss or if she woke up for another reason. She even becomes a saviour when she wakes up the sleeping girl with a kiss. However, this is no “loving kiss” (Fernández Rodríguez 52) of a man who is in love with the sleeper’s beauty. It is a “long and hard” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 49) kiss that is meant to save many people. The queen does not seem to be interested in the sleeper – the motivation for her decision to wake the girl up lies elsewhere. She feels sorry for the “poor thing” who is sleeping “her life away” (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 52). Having slept in a glass coffin herself, the queen does not want the girl to lose part of her life in magical sleep as well. In addition, waking the girl up is the culmination of the queen’s desire to take charge of her life, something she has been struggling to do since the beginning of the story. She takes control of what is happening around her, which leads her to the eventual realisation that marriage is not her only option and that she has other choices (Gaiman The Sleeper and the Spindle 66), even if these choices are difficult to make. Through the queen, two typical fairy tale features are challenged – the need for a male hero to rescue the helpless sleeping woman is questioned as the queen deals with the issues alone. The need for a woman to marry to find her happily ever after with a beloved prince at the end of the story is also questioned. The queen constantly challenges the idea that marriage is the only option for a woman from the very start. Her reluctance to get married is evident throughout the story and comes to a climax at the end, when she decides not to return to her kingdom and her fiancé. This challenges the notion that a good woman in a fairy tale should marry at the end of the story to get a happy ending, a notion that echoes through many well-known European fairy tales. Furthermore, the idea that two people who have just met love each other so much that they decide to get married even though they never had the chance to get to know each other is questioned as well.
Neil Gaiman presents the readers with two very different versions of the traditional princess Snow-White in these two works. The princess in “Snow, Glass, Apples” is depicted as a dangerous monster, while her stepmother is the unfortunate good queen who tries to protect her subjects from the danger the princess poses for them. In The Sleeper and the Spindle, Snow-White is already a queen herself, one who struggles to meet the expectations of her subjects without losing her agency.
Despite their differences, these two characters share some traits. They show more strength and independence than the princess in the traditional version, the vampiric princess manages to overthrow her stepmother, while the queen in The Sleeper and the Spindle successfully manages to defeat a threat to her kingdom and decide what she wants to do with her future. Both of Gaiman’s renditions of the character of Snow-White provide characters, who challenge the female fairy tale stereotypes. However, neither of them seems to be fully capable of escaping the limits of a traditional fairy tale narrative. Even though the princess in “Snow, Glass, Apples” is a vampire, and by all accounts a very dangerous one, she is still unable to escape the notion of being owned by the prince, especially when he buys her seemingly dead body to satisfy his necrophiliac needs. The queen, who challenges the stereotypes even more, at the same time struggles to escape her fate and the expectations of her own people. Despite the danger one of them poses, and the strength the other one exhibits, neither of them manages to completely escape what they are – a fairy tale princess.
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