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Grimm, Indeed

by Barrie Hardymon
Oct 18, 2010

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Barrie Hardymon

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The manuscript for Snow White was completed in 1810 by the Brothers Grimm, making our favorite pale princess 200 this year.  She doesn't look it — the version that many of us grew up with, Disney's angelic black-haired gal, dressed in primary colors, is still admirably fresh given that their version was made in 1937.  (I just looked that up — NINETEEN THIRTY SEVEN — are you kidding me!?)  Stephany Anne Golberg has a nice appreciation of the evolution of Snow, from Grimm to Disney, in which she identifies the key ingredient that Disney was able to spin into gold.

The word "fairy tale" is synonymous with "hope." Fairy tales are aspirational even when they are sad. The crueler a fairy tale is, the more hope it inspires, in children and adults. Maybe the point of fairy tales is just to tell us hope's story, to remind us of its existence.

Walt Disney glommed on to this single aspect of fairy tales — hope — and owned it. The base level of hope in your average fairy tale is increased fiftyfold in a Disney version. Of all the ubiquitous elements in the Snow White story — the poison apple; Mirror, Mirror, on the wall — those we most associate with hope come from the Disney version. Love's First Kiss. Whistle While You Work. Hi-Ho, It's Off To Work We Go. Some Day My Prince Will Come. The very innovation of animating the story makes the hope more real. Maybe Americans can't make our own fairy tales, but we can sell hope like nobody else.

That's probably true — though the brand of hope that Disney's selling is born of the worst adversity a child can face — the loss of parents.  Parents stay alive a lot longer in Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson stories, sometimes to very bad effect.  (In the Grimm version, it's important to note that Snow White's natural mother is the one trying to kill her.)  It amazes me how many parents are dead, or killed early on in Disney films; Simba's Dad, Nemo's mom, Tarzan's parents, Bambi's mother.  When you really go through it, the list is long.

I wonder if that is what is uniquely American about the notion of hope in Disney fairy tales — the idea that everyone is an orphan to some extent, and that the origin of hope is, actually, making it through that particular tragedy.

Something to chew on.  Besides that apple.

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