Opal and Her Strange Ancestors
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Kristina Wojtaszek, author of Opal a novella that retwists the classic Snow White tale, writes:
Snow White is one of the most stunning fairy tales. It is at once highly visual and suspiciously cryptic. One can easily describe the drops of blood on snow in the ebony window frame; the poisoned apple that is half red, half white; the disguised stepmother with her dyed face and stooped walk as she feigns old age… but so much is left out as well. It's a beautiful mystery. The original queen tells us in her own words what she wishes for in a child, but her dream is purely physical, based on the colors she sees before her. We know nothing of this queen, whether she is a beauty herself or if she is kind or careless. She doesn't even give us a name for her child before dying in birth, and so we are left with an unusually pale, squalling babe in the hands of what would appear to be an unstable or perhaps apathetic father.
She is simply called Snow White in the Grimm version of the classic tale we know so well, an odd name for a beloved daughter, I would think. Among other versions of the story, we can find some actual names; Maria, Margarita, Lisa, Anna and Ermalina are a few. Like the names, this cross cultural tale is quite diverse in the telling. Our maiden can be cast in roles from someone akin to Mother Mary all the way down to a supposed harlot. And her assisting characters vary as well.
It may be the biological mother who wishes her death, not a stepmother. Or there may be a loving mother who does accidental harm instead, as happens in Italy's The Young Slave. She may have brothers or sisters. The "seven dwarfs" may be seven robbers or seven fairies (not even males).
There are even greater variations on the matter of her deathly sleep and the way she is roused from it. I have read everything from bouncing caskets to loosened stays as she was being undressed by her future mother in law, whose maids accidentally spilled water on "the corpse's dress," to a jealous wife yanking her out of the casket by her hair, to the poor woman, no longer a maiden, waking to the suckling of her newborn twins! Her tale often entwines itself with various versions of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, even Hansel and Gretel. Go ahead. Open the door to the old peddler and see which of these treasures she has to offer, at the mere risk confusion and madness.
Though reality eludes us in fairy tales, we can easily find common motifs; those standards of what should happen in a given type of tale:
Snow White is the story of maternal sin; vanity, jealousy, attempted murder, as well as the innocent child who miraculously, and sometimes undeservedly, escapes. From the male standpoint, we see an eclectic set of characters; the compassionate huntsman, the doting (although demanding) seven who take her in, the unusual (and often whiny) prince who borders on necrophilia. Not to mention the father, who is usually far too remote to characterize. Another motif is the poison or strangulation-induced coma, which is often translated as the loss of childhood. And finally, there is marriage for the innocent and punishment for the wicked. Though the details vary according to each version told, the motifs remain true, making Snow White a recognized order of fairy tale.
In modern retellings, it is all too often a matter of altering little more than the details. But the finest of details are often overlooked, and they beg to be studied.
My absolute favorite part of the common Grimm version is when the dwarfs lay Snow White on the bier in a glass coffin, "And the birds came and wept for Snow White, first an owl, then a raven, and then a dove." Grieving birds-- what a beautiful image! This line was the beginning of my inspiration for the identities of The Seven (my alternative to the seven dwarfs). It was, in truth, the seed of a new Snow White that would eventually grow to become Opal.
This connection with wildlife confounded me, while the overdose of wicked stepmothers and strange little dwarfs made me restless. Then the mystery of her parents and the odd qualities of her lover made me rethink everything. I retained several of the motifs in order to keep my Snow White recognizable as such, but many others I simply tossed. You'll find no jealous, anti-maternal figure, nor her beloved mirror (shouldn't she be little more than a liver spotted hag by now? Why do we dwell on her with such enthusiasm?). There are no poison apples or deadly combs either, nor is my Snow White a gullible fool, or a good housewife, practicing her skills on The Seven before her destined marriage. My maiden is perhaps a little closer to the tormented child who threatens suicide in the Italian version mentioned above; a bit unusual, disturbed even. Her happily ever after is a destined failure. But like the tales of old, a death is only the beginning of my story, and there is mystery around a motherless child without a proper name. There is also a duel marriage; a subtle hint at the Celtic Snow White, Gold Tree and Silver Tree. The prince has his presence, as he outright pleads for more personality, and of course The Seven remain, though they are not all males, and none are human.
My hope is that Opal will add to the depth and beauty of Aarne-Thompson type 709 tales, fleshing out the "fairest of them all" with something delightfully unexpected.
Kristina Wojtaszek grew up as a woodland sprite and mermaid, playing around the shores of Lake Michigan. At any given time she could be found with live snakes tangled in her hair and worn out shoes filled with sand. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management as an excuse to spend her days lost in the woods with a book in hand. She currently resides in the high desert country of Wyoming with her husband and two small children. She is fascinated by fairy tales and fantasy and her favorite haunts are libraries and cemeteries. Follow her @KristinaWojtasz or on her blog, Twice Upon a Time.
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