Rollo May made a case in his The Cry for Myth that myths should be respected for the truth they express. Fairy Tales should be given an equal respect. J.R.R Tolkien noted that the “”the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history.” A few weeks ago I had difficulty sleeping, I looked thought my book shelf and found my copy of the Golden Book edition of Walt Disney’s Snow White. As I read, I was surprised by the insight reflected by the narrative.
Snow White is a German fairy tale which was first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. But the tale is likely is much older, for example, “Iron John” was first set down by the Brothers Grimm around 1820 but Robert Bly estimated that the story could be “ten or twenty thousand years old.” Considering their respect for folklore, it should not be surprising that C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien went together to see Walt Disney’s adaptation of Snow White. They both hated the vulgar depiction of the dwarfs in the film. In a 1939 letter to a friend, Lewis wrote, “Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music.” But despite the faults of the film, the essence of the story is in Disney’s production.
I suppose everyone is familiar with the scene of the wicked Queen asking her magic mirror “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” and the Queen’s hatred for Snow White when she is named the fairest. But I did not know how the story began. Snow White’s mother was a loving Queen who thought,”If only I had a little daughter, how happy I would be.” One day the good Queen was sewing, as she was daydreaming she accidentally pricked her finger with her needle.Three drops of blood fell on the snow white linen.The Queen thought “How lovely my little girl would be if she had lips as red as blood, skin as white as snow and hair as black as ebony.” Some time later, a daughter was born to the Queen and she was as beautiful as the Queen had hoped she might be. The happy mother named her baby Snow White. But the Queen was very ill, while Snow White was still a little girl, her mother died. Snow White’s father, the King, was broken-hearted from the loss but a year later he took a new wife. His new Queen was very beautiful to look upon but her heart was cold and wicked.
The fairy tales that have come to us through the generations contain a great understanding of human nature. The narrative of the loving Queen gives a standard of how to regard the beauty of others. Beauty is to be enjoyed without vanity. In contrast the narrative of the wicked Queen is given as an example of a twisted interest in beauty. I’ve read much about the theory of beauty in art criticism but I believe none of what I have read has really gotten at the core of the issue. For most of human history beauty was regarded by the values of the good Queen but in the early 20th century the perception of beauty began to be twisted by the values of the wicked Queen.The thought that the charming images of Snow White are sentimental kitsch reflects the contempt of the Queen.
When the vain Queen would ask her magic mirror who was the fairest, she was happy if she was named. But sometimes an other was named and the Queen would fly into a terrible rage and order the poor girl to be killed. As Snow White was growing up to be more and more beautiful. The Queen could not stand the sight of the lovely Princess no longer. She banished Snow White to servants’ quarters. Snow White’s fine clothes were taken away from her, and she wore the rags of a servant. And like the other servants, Snow White had to work very hard. She slaved from early morning until late at night. What can occur as relationship between two can exist on the larger scale of a whole society. I believe to a great extent our culture reflects this narrative.
Notice that the Queen does not have Snow White executed as the others named fairest by the magic mirror. After all, Snow White is the daughter of the King, she will need to careful of how she can act against the young princess. When the mirror does name Snow White to be fairest, the Queen proceeds with caution to have Snow White executed. Of course the Queens of our age can’t simply have beautiful daughters executed, they need to be much more cunning than the Queen of old. The Queens pretend they act for the benefit of the daughters. They teach that the concept of beauty is a form of sexual oppression. Daughters are taught that their self-worth is to be found by toiling at a job; they have been made to be servants to the economy. At least Snow White could have daydreams of a handsome Prince who would carry her off to his castle in the clouds. Today love is dismissed as reflecting base biology. All this deception is fruit of an embittered heart. Men are rather pathetic in their acceptance of these lies of the age.
The symptoms of this twisted perception of beauty are so apparent to me. I often notice what teenage girls wear when I am out in public places. The poor girls seem to be preoccupied with being the foulest of us all. Often I see Goth girls wearing T-shirts with messages like Teenage Dirt Bag. My initial response is one of bewilderment, I think, “Why on earth would anyone wear something so horrible?” But then I apply the insights from my reading and can make sense of it. The young girls have accepted the terms of the Wicked Queen, the ancient values of the Good Queen are likely alien to them. Under the debasing marks of tattoos, many of these young ladies are beautiful but there is really no place for their beauty in the postmodern organization of the world.