Snow-White and Rose-Red

January 29, 2010 at 12:10 am 2 comments

Snow-White and Rose-Red, illustrated by Arthur Rackham

The more fairy tales I read, the more convinced I become that a lot of alcohol went into their evolution. “Snow-White and Rose-Red” is one of those stories that could not have come into fruition without a good deal of German beer, probably consumed in front of countless roaring fires on countless winter nights for countless years before it was written down in its currently convoluted form.

The story is as follows: Snow-White and Rose-Red are perfect, virtuous sisters living with their widowed mother in a lovely little cottage with one red and one white rose bush blooming in the front yard. One stormy winter night, a bear knocks on their door. The bear is enormous and terrifying, but he begs the girls and their mother to let him in so he can warm himself by their fire.

Letting a huge beast into your house is not a good idea if you live in a fairy tale, but in this case it works out just fine. The bear sits in front of the fire and lets the girls tease him and brush the snow out of his thick fur coat. They become such good friends that the bear returns every night after for the rest of the winter.

Eventually spring comes, and the bear leaves the little family. However, before he leaves for the last time, a bit of his fur gets caught on the bolt of the door, and Snow-White catches what she thinks is a bit of gold glinting underneath his coat.

Later in the season, the girls are on a search for firewood when they come across a dwarf,  who has his beard caught in the crook of a tree. He begs them to help him, and they cutting off part of his beard to set him free. Instead of being grateful for their help, the dwarf is very angry that they have ruined his beautiful white beard, and storms away angrily, dragging a sack of jewels behind him.

The girls encounter the dwarf in similar situations twice more, once when he is dragged away by an eagle and once when he is caught in a fishing line. Snow-White and Rose-Red must cut away his beard to set him free, and again the little man (whom I suspect was Grumpy despite lack of substantial evidence)  is furious and runs off, taking his bag of gems with him.

After the last time, the girls finish gathering firewood and begin to hurry home across the heath. However, they stumble on — who else? — the dwarf! He is counting his jewels, and when he sees the girls peeping at all of his treasure, he turns beet-red in fury and begins to chase after them.

Suddenly, a large, growling bear leaps out of the forest towards the dwarf. The dwarf is very frightened and offers the bear all of his jewels if the bear will only eat Snow-White and Rose-Red instead of him. The bear growls and swats the dwarf with a paw, rendering him lifeless. Seeing this, Snow-White and Rose-Red are terrified and run away toward the forest.

But the bear calls out to them. “Snow-white and Rose-red, do not be afraid; wait, I will come with you!” The girls recognize the voice of their old friend, and turn back just in time to see the bear skin fall off, revealing a handsome young prince. The prince tells them that he has been enchanted by the dwarf, who had stolen his treasure and cursed him until the dwarf’s death released the prince from the curse.

And, as these things go, they all lived happily ever after. Snow-White married the prince, Rose-Red married his brother, and the mother came to live in the palace, taking her two rosebushes with her.

Do you see what I mean about all the German beer? It’s two different stories mashed together, one rather boring one about a dwarf and the other a delightful variation of Beauty and the Beast.

This tale appears to directly contradict the lessons of Little Red Riding-Hood (i.e., stay away from things with teeth), but follows closely the common idea that even an animal may be transformed into a prince through compassion. Furthermore, the symbol of the rosebushes seems to evoke the parable of the seeds that fell on good soil, suggesting that as the girls base their lives on being virtuous and good, their actions always turn out for the best. Sensible enough for a fairy tale, right?

The bit with the dwarf is muddling, though — why a dwarf? Should we be reading something into the fact that it’s an eagle carrying him away? Why is the dwarf so thwarted by nature when he is a woodland creature himself? And why must this part comprise two-thirds of the story?

Even if we ignore the dwarf as simply a device for testing the girls, it’s much harder to ignore the extraneous sister who must be married off to a heretofore unknown brother. What is Rose-Red’s symbolism? Are the girls meant to be read as avatars of innocence and experience? Or love and virtue?

We’ll never know, obviously. But it’s fun to read odd fairy tales like this one and speculate how they might have come to be that way– who knows, maybe some guy in some German bar 200 years ago decided to throw twins into the story to spice things up, without ever considering he’d be confusing literary critics for centuries to come. ;)


Entry filed under: Fairy Tale Friday. Tags: , , .

LT Classics Challenge Liiiiives! Weekly Geeks: Winter Reading

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Fairy Tale Friday: Tender Morsels « Literary Transgressions  |  February 26, 2010 at 12:21 am

    […] A few weeks ago, I discovered “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” a fairy tale about two little girls, a dwarf, and a bear (and a lot of German beer, behind the scenes). This tale was new to me, but apparently it is well-known enough for Margo Lanagan to have turned it into the award-winning novel Tender Morsels, a hard-hitting and rather dark retelling. […]

  • 2. thecunningwoman  |  September 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    This is very interesting to me because I had always been told the story as Snow White and Rose Red BOTH marrying the bear prince. Which makes the beginning fit (where it states the mother tells them to always share everything). Though I have no idea where that idea came from?


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