Snow-White, -Black, and -Red
by James Parker
Fairy tales are largely known for their usage of animals and magic. They are also popular due to their moral lessons and evil’s receiving its comeuppance. However, another very powerful tool in many fairy tales is the use of color. Max Lüthi, an insight on folklore, even wrote about how “[t]he real world shows us a richness of different hues and shadings, […] by contrast, the folktale prefers clear, ultrapure colors” (27). However, color is more than just enhanced descriptions. Color, in fact, is indicative of the age and advancement of a given language, as well as is heavily symbolic. The importance of color in the tales of the Grimm brothers, for example, relies on these two facts.
Linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay explain that languages and cultures begin with two basic colors, and then grow from there (1). There is even a distinct pattern of color identification that the people tend to follow (2). Berlin and Kay suggest that dark and light, typically black and white, are the first colors a language identifies. Red is usually the third color. This is not surprising in the least, as the first color departing from black and white that a baby grasps is red (Taylor 1155). They go on to write that “[i]f a language contains four terms [for colors], then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both)” (Berlin 2). Next, the language will include both green and yellow. Then blue, and then brown. “If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, grey, or some combination of these” (3). By this point, a language has advanced enough to include a multitude of color terms.
I find it interesting that the three colors the Grimms used to describe Snow-White are white, black, and red – the first three colors that a language identifies. She has “skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony” (213). Though after research, my surprise was lost as my understanding increased.
The combination of black, white, and red are prominent in other tales too. Perceval, le Conte du Graal is a French unfinished romance novel by Chrétien de Troyes from the late 1100’s. At one point in it, King Arthur and his knights are searching for Perceval. While lost, Perceval is contemplating three drops of blood in the snow. “[F]or the blood and snow together resembled for him the fresh hues of his beloved’s face, and he became quite lost in the thought that in her face the red was blended with the white like those three drops of blood in the whiteness of the snow” (50).
Literature analyst Michelle Freeman connected Chrétien’s romance to a Latin tale Ovid wrote about Narcissus and Echo (162). The former beholds a red and snowy-white reflection, written as “in niveo mixtum candor ruborem” – rubor is the shade of blood on the surface of the skin; niveo modifies candor. This all translates literally into “blood red and dazzling snow-white”.
Five centuries later, in Nancy Canepa’s translation of fairy tales entitled Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, “The Crow” features a prince finding a dead crow on a marble slate. “Would that I could have a wife as red and white as this stone, and with hair and eyebrows as black as the feathers of this crow” (488–89). Later in the collection, a different prince in “The Three Citrons” accidentally cuts his finger while slicing cheese; the sight leads him to wanting a wife who is like the blood-stained ricotta.
Like many other writers and story-tellers, the Grimm brothers took advantage of color symbolism to help tell their tales. White, for example, tends to be a symbol of purity and innocence. “A white object […] is universally understood to be something that can be stained easily and that must remain unblemished to stay pure” (Sherman 1019). White can also represent wisdom. The snake in Grimms’ “The White Snake” is such because upon eating it, the king and the servant are granted insights to the world (93).
Black, being white’s opposite, is representative of death and evil. Black pollutes white. “One can see with one’s own eyes that a drop of dark paint discolors white paint more readily than the reverse” (Sherman 1019). In Grimms’ “The Raven”, it’s black that the final four horses must be to set the woman free (27) – the final four horses, the last chance, finality, death. The wolf in “The Wolf and the Seven Goslings” “often disguises himself, but he may always be known by his hoarse voice and black paws” (40). Both the sea and water are referred to as black in “The Fisherman and His Wife” (105, 107). My favorite example of the Grimms using black to represent evil is in “Aschenputtel”: “The new wife brought two daughters home with her, and they were beautiful and fair in appearance, but at heart were black and ugly. And then began very evil times for the poor step-daughter” (118). There exists tons of other examples of black depicting evil and death in Grimms’ tales, including but not limited to the specter in “The Bremen Town Musicians” (139).
And we can’t forget about the third color, red. “The frequency of couplings of these three colors probably reflects red’s customary appearance as the first unequivocal color word in languages, after black and white, whose status as colors remains controversial” (Coates 3). Of course the most obvious usage of red in the Grimms tales is that of “Little Red-Cap” (132). The witch’s eyes in “Hansel and Grethel” were red (90). These two characters are of opposing teams – Little Red-Cap was the protagonist or her tale, whereas the witch was an antagonist of her own. But red does not equal good or evil. Rather, it represents passion, anger, and attention (Gaskill 720).
So what does the black, white, and red in “Snow-White” represent? The phrase “skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony” perfectly sets up the story (213). The daughter is born out of innocence – white –, and is sent away by the angry and passionate queen – red; the queen then attempts multiple times to kill Snow-white – black. In many versions of the tale, the evil queen is depicted in black attire. And the apple Snow-White bites into is always a bright red.
Be it due to the advancement of the language of the symbolism of the colors, the usage of white, red, and black are very important pieces of the Grimms’ “Snow-White”. It’s o important, in fact, that they name the protagonist after one of the colors.
Basile, Giambattista. Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. Trans. Nancy Canepa. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007. Project MUSE. Web. 10 Jun. 2013.
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De Troyes, Chrétien. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Nigel Bryant. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982.
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