Allison's Book Bag

A Fairy Tale Rooted in Two True Tragedies

Posted on: November 26, 2015

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer are fantasies inspired by famous fairy tales, most notably Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White. The fourth actually inspired both Fairest AND Winter, the final books in the series. As a prelude to my review of those two books, I’m sharing some of the origins of Snow White. Tomorrow, I’ll return with reviews. Save the date: November 27!

A magic mirror, a poisoned apple, a glass coffin, and the characters of an evil queen/stepmother and the seven dwarfs. These are all elements of the German fairy tale, Snow White, made famous by the Grimm Brothers. There are many versions of this story, one of the most modern being found in The Lunar Chronicles. Let’s now take a step back in time to look at the origins to the Grimms version.

Like many of the Grimm tales, it is believed that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been in existence since the Middle Ages, passed down through word-of-mouth over the centuries. Recent research suggests, however, that the tale may be anything but fiction; the story may have roots in true tragedies. Two young German ladies have been identified as possible inspirations for the story of Snow White and her jealous stepmother.

Snow White_SevenDwarfsAncient Legends describes the claims of German historian named Eckhard Sander, who argued that the character of Snow White was based on the life of Margarete von Waldeck, a German countess born to Philip IV in 1533. At the age of 16, Margarete was forced by her stepmother to move to Brussels. There, Margarete fell in love with a prince who would later become Phillip II of Spain. Margarete’s parents disapproved of the relationship as it was ‘politically inconvenient’. Perhaps due to having been poisoned. Margarete died at the age of 21,. Historical accounts point to the King of Spain, who opposing the romance, may have dispatched Spanish agents to murder Margarete.

Mental Floss puts a slightly different spin on this tale, saying that back in the mid-1500s, there was a girl named Margarete who lived in a mining town called Waldeck. Possibly due to problems with her father’s new wife, Margarete moved out of Waldeck at the age of 17, and headed for Brussels. At this point, the two versions of Snow White begin to mesh. Apparently, Margarete attracted the attention of Philip II of Spain but someone didn’t care for the idea of Philip marrying Margarete and she fell gravely ill. Her handwriting in her last will and testament was shaky enough to make most people think she had developed tremors, a sign of being poisoned, by whom no one knows.

What about the seven dwarfs? Both sites suggest that Margarete’s father owned several copper mines that employed children as quasi-slaves. Ancient Legends suggests that the poor conditions caused many to die at a young age, but those that survived had severely stunted growth and deformed limbs from malnutrition and the hard physical labor. As a result, they were often referred to as the ‘poor dwarfs’. Mental Floss writes, “Children worked in the mines there, so you can see where retelling of the tale eventually morphed the children into small men over the years.”

What about the poisoned apple? Sanders believed this stemed from a historical event in German history in which an old man was arrested for giving poison apples to children who he believed were stealing his fruit.

Not all experts are convinced, however, by Sander’s claim that Snow White’s character stems from the life of Margarete von Waldeck. Ancient Legends refers to a different account, in which Snow White is based on Maria Sophia von Erthal, born 1729 in Bavaria. She was the daughter of 18th century landowner, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife, Baroness von Bettendorff. After the death of the Baroness, Prince Philipp went onto marry Countess of Reichenstein, who was said to dislike her stepchildren.

SnowWhite_TalkingMirrorMental Floss concurs with the above details, adding a few of its own. For example, Maria’s outlook under her stepmother wasn’t quite so bleak, in that there was no huntsman seeking internal organs for proof of Maria’s death. However, scholars still believe it wasn’t an easy existence. “Presumably the hard reality of life for Maria Sophia under this woman was recast as a fairy story by the Brothers Grimm.”

What about the dwarfs? The dwarfs in Maria’s story are also linked to a mining town. The smallest tunnels could only be accessed by small-statured men, who often wore bright hoods, as the dwarfs have frequently been depicted over the years in the tale of Snow White.

This version of Snow White also accounts for the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, and the mirror. The poisoned apple may be associated with the deadly nightshade poison that grew in abundance where Maria lived, while the glass coffin may be linked to the region’s famous glassworks. Whether the acoustical toy that could speak had been in the house during the time that Maria’s stepmother lived there or Maria’s father gave the looking-glass to his second wife as a gift is debated, but the fact remains a “talking mirror’ existed.

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