From Spurned Daughter to Warrior Woman:
Archetypes in Snow White and Snow White and the Huntsman
Snow White and the Huntsman is a brand new movie, due out on 1st June 2012,
which gives the Snow White fairy tale of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Grimm's
Fairy Tales) an interesting new twist. In the original tale of course, Snow White
is rescued by the Prince while the huntsman is the character who is ordered by the
evil stepmother to take Snow White into the woods and kill her. However in the new
movie, the huntsman not only disobeys the wicked queen but actually blatantly betrays
her by becoming a guardian to Snow White and leading a revolt against the queen. According
to the official movie website, the huntsman trains Snow White in the art of becoming
a warrior, and so she joins him to take arms against the queen.
This movie is just one of several recent re-working's of traditional fairy tales,
another offering being Red Riding Hood which apparently didn't do all that
well. These films show that fairy tales are as popular as ever, and not just among
children, so it's interesting perhaps to ask why this is?
Part of the reason has to do with the fact that these tales are, according to Helen
Simondson from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), 'laden with symbolism'.
Essentially what she means is that there are deep messages conveyed to us within these
stories, messages that have implications for or are relevant to our interpretations
of morality, politics, romance and all the other seemingly complex aspects of human
behaviour. This is why fairy tales are magical, because they speak to us on so many
levels and grip our imagination.
Snow White itself is a story that is known in many countries in Europe, the
most popular version being that of Germany which was collected and published by Jacob
and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm) in 1812 in their first collection of Grimms
Fairy Tales. There are numerous mythological symbols embedded within the story,
for example the poison apple and the glass coffin. Besides these symbols, there are
the characters themselves who are symbols in their own right. We call these symbolic
characters 'archetypes' which means essentially that they are characters which embody
particular human or philosophical qualities and thereby serve as a form of symbolic
'prototype' upon which wider patterns of human behaviour may be moulded. Archetypes
are widespread throughout much of the world's mythology and folklore and it is thought
that many of them are thousands of years old, even dating back to images daubed on
the walls of caves in prehistoric artwork. The word 'archetype' itself derives from
the latin term archetypum which is a form of the Greek archetupon meaning
'first moulded'. The idea of the archetype was later developed, mostly by Carl Jung into
a particular term of psychological understanding which was subsequently used as a
means of interpreting human behaviour. There are many archetypes in fairy tales and
some of the most recognisable ones will be the King and Queen, the handsome prince,
the witch or monster, the good fairy, a fool or jester, a mother figure, an evil stepmother
and so on.
The purpose of this article then is to identify the archetypes in the Snow White story
and also to see how they might have changed in the forthcoming movie and how this
affects the story as a whole, but most importantly to help explain why this is a story
that will never cease to be a source of wonder and amazement to all those who encounter
it as it is passed on down the generations.
Starting from the beginning then, we first encounter a queen who sits sewing by a
window and pricks her finger so that three drops of blood fall upon the snow that
has fallen upon her ebony window frame (the colours by the way are important as I
shall explain later). The queen wishes for a daughter who has skin as white as snow,
lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony and sometime later she indeed gives
birth to such a child, although a short while later the queen dies, having given her
daughter the name 'Snow White'. The king takes a new wife and so next we meet the
stepmother who possesses a magic mirror which can speak and which constantly tells
her that she is the most beautiful woman in the land, until that is, Snow White reaches
the age of seven whereupon the mirror tells the queen that it is Snow White who is
the most beautiful woman in the land. The story should be familiar to most of us from
here onwards, and so we subsequently encounter the huntsman who takes Snow White out
into the wilderness to kill her, the seven dwarfs and then finally the prince who
finally rescues Snow White. This is the basis of the German story collected by the
Brothers Grimm. Other versions however portray the dwarfs as robbers and describe
the mirror as a means of communicating with the sun or moon. An Albanian version portrays
Snow White as living with forty dragons and describe her sleep as being induced by
a magical ring.
All these characters, being archetypes, have particular meanings, many of them deriving
from pre-Christian Pagan archetypes many of which were probably gods and goddesses
revered by local populations and tribal communities across Europe and perhaps beyond.
The three women in the story represent the three ages of women, represented in Pagan
myth by the 'mother', the 'maiden' and the 'crone' or old woman. The three colours
white, red and black are symbolic of the Pagan 'Otherworld' and so their presence
immediately tell us that this story is populated by spiritual, otherworldly beings,
who were probably gods and goddesses in their own right at one time. The same colour
symbolism can be seen in the mythology surrounding vampires for example, vampires
being creatures I discussed in my previous article concerning the Twilight movies
and also primarily belonging to the corpus of pre-Christian European myth. The colours
white and red can also be seen in stories of spectral hounds and other 'otherworldly'
animals in Celtic myth, for example in the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed which
is the first tale in the Welsh collection of stories known as The Mabinogion,
the main character, Pwyll, is hunting in a wild wood where he suddenly encounters
a pack of white hounds with red ears which belong to Arawn, the lord of the otherworld.
Various writers throughout the ages have interpreted the true meaning of these colours
as representing purity (white), life and passion (red) and death (black).
The character of the stepmother in Grimm's story is particularly controversial since
the brother's identification of this character as an 'evil' stepmother ran counter
to the many good stepmother's in Europe at the time of publication as well
as those existing before and since. This was one of the reasons why the Grimm version
was criticised after publication on grounds of its educational deficiencies. Therefore
it is more accurate to interpret this character in terms of its Pagan manifestation
as merely a representation of the third and final stage of female development along
with associated qualities of wisdom and knowledge. However, as with other such Pagan
manifestations in other areas of Europe, it was primarily this archetype that became
associated with the concept of the 'witch', particularly during the medieval 'witch
craze' of the 14th to 18th centuries and this is primarily why 'stepmother's'
and other representations of elderly women are often portrayed as being 'evil' in
folklore and myth.
The huntsman is the embodiment of 'wildness'. He is rather like the 'Green Man' or
'horned god' in western mythology and thus he is a steward of the forest, existing
in a symbiotic relationship with forest animals, watching over them but also reliant
on them for sustenance and probably also for his clothes. There are echoes of this
wilderness figure in the Biblical John the Baptist who was said to have clothes made
out of goatskin. Other manifestations of the huntsman include Herne the Hunter of
Anglo Saxon folklore, Robin Hood and Merlin, the wizard or magician in the legends
of Arthur. It is the reworking of the huntsman character in the forthcoming movie,
in essence promoting and exaggerating his wild qualities, that changes the entire
feeling of the story, and one I can't wait to see.
The seven dwarfs are important primarily because of the numerical symbolism involved.
Seven was an important number in many civilisations because of the seven known planets.
In other words it was an astrological number which gave rise to various calendrical
calculations particularly the seven days of the week. In Christian mythology these
days became the seven days of God's creation. There are occurrences of the number
seven throughout Christian and Judaic myth and thus commonly observable throughout
the pages of the Bible, for example, seven angels, seven churches, seven trumpets,
seven crowns, seven mountains, seven stars, seven kings and so on. However, this is
not the only interpretation, the dwarves are also manifestations of a European mythological
character called a 'gnome', popularly considered to be another name for 'the little
people' as are leprechauns and pixies. However the word 'gnome' derives from the latin
'gnomus' which may be related to another latin term 'genomus' itself deriving from
a Greek word meaning 'earth dweller'. As such 'gnomes' and thus also 'dwarves' almost
certainly symbolise earth-dwelling spirits that guard secret underground places such
as mines and caves in which there is often found buried treasure.
Finally there is the figure of the prince in the story. This character is the 'hero'
of the tale. It is he who rescues Snow White and ultimately marries her, bringing
the tale to a close and sealing the fate of the evil queen.
Returning to the film version, Snow White and the Huntsman, this is not a children's
movie by any means. Fundamentally, it is a reworking of the fairy tale in the style
of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, in essence a full blooded, battle crazy
war film set in wild countryside with harsh weather, including lots of snow and blizzards.
It is entirely appropriate for the reworking of the hero element within the tale with
the huntsman essentially taking over from the prince as Snow White's saviour. Although
the exact plotline is not fully known at this stage (the film isn't going to be released
until June 2012), this reworking essentially changes the nature of the film from a
magical and romantic tale to one that is supremely wild and Pagan in which the magic
derives not so much from the folklore but from the wild landscape itself and the brusque
masculinity of the huntsman as he declares war on his former mistress. The landscape
nevertheless is still full of mystical creatures, but they are much fiercer than anything
you would see in a Walt Disney cartoon. As for Snow White herself, expect to see a
truly transformed character, no longer a disempowered and weak willed girl, but a
dark and gritty warrior woman bent on revenge.
Personally, that is the Snow White I want to see emerging from the dark and
snow bound woods on a winter night, and I can't wait to witness the experience.
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