The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, by Maria Tatar

June 3, 2020 at 2:05 pm (Book review, books)

This is an odd, and oddly appealing, little book. It is comprised of a lengthy introduction – 62 pages including notes – followed by 21 short tales, all variations on the Snow White story.

As I wrote in a previous post, Maria Tatar’s introduction consists of the following:

An analysis – at times, a psychoanalysis – of the Snow White story and its different meanings and iterations in a variety of cultures.

It must first be stipulated that the Disney film, released in 1937, created the template for this fairy tale as it has come down to us at present. That film in turn relied as its source on the story as told by  the Grimm Bothers in the 1812 edition of their fairy tale collection.

Here is a scene from the Disney movie:

This was the first full length cel animated feature length film in the history of motion pictures.

Maria Tatar discusses how the reader is affected when, as she picturesquely terms it, “we trip across a trope:”

There are narrative tropes (“woman in peril…” ), but there are also the tropes that folklorists refer to as motifs, instantly recognizable that connect to other tales and produce a pleasing resonance, for example “haunted castle,” “impossible tasks,” or “hedge of thorns.” These tropes not only arrest our attention but also draw us into a force field that demands intellectual engagement by challenging us to make connections, draw contrasts, and consider how the trope is deployed.

So, as you can  readily perceive from the above, this book may ostensibly be about a fairy tale, but it demands an adult engagement with the material being presented. In fact, as she later observes, “That brilliant allegory of aging, bewitching in its artistic virtuosity, reminds us that just as much is slipped into  fairy tales for grown-ups as for the  young, even more in many cases.” Continuing in the same vein:

It is easy enough to put t he story of Snow White in dialog with other myths – Demeter and Persephone, to cite just one example – with its daughter abducted and taken to the underworld, only to return, seasonally, in a move that signals resurrection and renewal. What is important in these narratives – all bits and pieces of what anthropologists tell us is a larger myth about life and death as much as about beauty – is how they draw from the same storytelling arsenal to take on the great existential mysteries as they try to create counternarratives to the reality that all living beings must die.

Well, this is deep stuff. Psychology, philosophy, religion, teleology – all are evoked in this quest. I found Tatar’s ruminations on these questions, profound and thought provoking. And it helps greatly that her writing is quite simply beautiful.

The introduction takes up nearly half of the book. The remainder consists of 21 stories which are variations on the Snow White tale. As absorbed and delighted as I was by the introduction, I’ve found the stories tough going. They vary from fanciful to grotesque, and after a while, I was surprised to find them somewhat irritating. So far, I’ve read seven of them, widely spaced, of necessity.

Even so, I recommend this unique and fascinating volume. And I am especially grateful for the picture inserts. They serve as a reminder of the transcendent art of the great illustrators. There is the enchanting Schneewittchen (Snow White), at the top of this post, by Alexander Zick, a German artist of the 19th and early 20th century. And these:

by Victor Paul Mohn

 

by Thekla Brauer

by Katharine Cameron

by Lothar Meggendorfer

by Jesse Willcox Smith

by Hans Makart

 

by Maxfield Parrish

There are many more.

In her review of The Fairest of Them All in one of my favorite magazines, Literary Review, Lucy Lethbridge concludes:

Shocking yet familiar, these stories of regeneration and transformation even when written down retain the secret whisper of storytelling. This is a properly magical, erudite book that follows Snow White’s trail into the darker forests of  the human psyche in which she originated.

 

 

 

 

 

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