Monday, October 19, 2009

The Initiation Theme in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

GUEST BLOG by Jean Lorrah

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + BD Live w/ Blu-ray packaging) [Blu-ray]

I recently had the opportunity to see the remastered release of Disney's 1937 masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At the same time, I have been teaching the all-time most important plot archetype in literature over at my Twitter page, Tips on Writing. I'm not going to explain here why initiation appears far more often than the hero's journey--you can look that up at Tips on Writing.

Snow white is a perfect example of an initiation story: the heroine undergoes tests and rituals that turn her from a child into a woman capable of taking her place as an adult in her society. What that place is, of course, derives from the culture of seventy years ago--we must always remember never to criticize a work of art for being a product of its time.

Disney's animated musical features have one sine qua non: the main character's first song establishes that character's fondest desire, and the rest of the film shows him or her earning the right to that desire. Snow White and Simba (from The Lion King) have in common that they are both children wishing for something they don't understand, within minutes they get what they asked for, and both run away from it because they are unprepared, uninitiated. Simba's story (based loosely on Hamlet) is far more modern and easy to understand, but it's not quite so easy to see the initiation theme in Snow White.

First of all, we know that on the very day that the story opens, Snow White has reached physical womanhood. The Magic Mirror for the first time informs the Wicked Queen that Snow White is now the most beautiful woman in the land. We then see Snow White herself, wishing at the well. Most people misremember this scene, and think it is where she sings "Some Day My Prince Will Come." Not so--her first song is "I'm Wishing."

Snow White has only one wish, "for the one I love to find me today." It is a child's passive desire, and extremely vague. All she can imagine about her Prince Charming at this point is "the nice things he'll say."

Her wish instantly comes true: Prince Charming rides by, hears her, and appears at her side. Her response is to run and hide. She peeks at him through the window, and listens to him sing "One Song," pledging his love to her and her alone. It's a fairy tale; in the land of "once upon a time" love at first sight is a reality. Show White's adult fate awaits her, but she is not at this point an adult woman who can accept it.

Her initiatory tests, though, are about to begin. The Wicked Queen orders her murder, the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill her, and Snow White flees into the forest in panic. It is very clear that all the horror in her flight scene, even the darkness, comes straight from her imagination. When she finally collapses, we see that it is broad daylight, and the sounds and eyes that so frightened her belong to typical sweet Disney bunnies, chipmunks, and deer.

Snow White passes her trial by terror when she looks up, and discovers where she is and what the creatures are. She laughingly informs them that she was the source of her own fear. Never again do we see her exhibit a child's fear of the bogeyman. From now on, if she is frightened it is of a genuine threat.

Next, she encounters the test of her skills. She is a princess who has been forced by her wicked stepmother into the role of scullery maid. But a princess should be trained to run a large household. The animals take her to the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs, where she assumes from the seven small beds that orphaned children live there. So she takes on the role of mother as well as chatelaine, with the forest animals as her servants.

Even when the dwarfs return and she discovers that they are "little men," she still treats them as children, making them wash before dinner and teaching them manners. In other words, she passes the test of skills appropriate for the wife of a prince and the mother of his children. She is prepared for her role in life. Again, don't judge a work from 1937 as if it were created in 2009! Furthermore, it isn't set in our world, but in the eternal pseudo-medieval world of fairy tales. In that world the role of a woman as wife and mother is crucial to the survival of the family. Otherwise why should the absent mother precipitate the conflict in so many fairy tales, Snow White included?

Now that Snow White has passed the skill testing part of her initiation, she gets a second song, her signature, "Some Day My Prince Will Come." "Some day I'll find my love," she sings, and alternates throughout the song between the active prince and her active self. No longer is she passively waiting--she is ready now to sing of kissing, and of saying "I do." She is ready for marriage. If we missed it in her song, the dwarfs let us know that they now see her as a grown woman by addressing her as "ma'am."

Now Snow White has nothing left to do but sin against her own initiation. She has moved from child to adult, passed her tests--and is just too perfect for any man. She is tempted with that iconic apple, but the meaning of the fruit is far different from the meaning of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Wicked Queen, disguised as the old hag, gets Snow White to make a wish--the same wish expressed in "Some Day My Prince Will Come"--and then, instead of trusting her prince and herself to find one another, bite the apple to make it come true.

Snow White's sin is to revert to childish wishing after she has become a woman. Her punishment is to be turned totally passive, even more passive than she was as a child. But of course her sin is a very mild one (and Disney certainly didn't want to make wishing in itself appear to be wrong, as they were already developing their theme of wishes coming true).

When Prince Charming finds Snow White this time, and kisses her awake, she is ready for him. No more childish running and hiding. She kisses him back, and accepts without question her role as his wife: now that she has passed her initiation, she is prepared to become a queen.

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