Monday, January 28, 2008

Obscure Fairy Tale: Snow White and Rose Red

Today's fairy tale is "Snow-White and Rose-Red." Not to be confused with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Totally different. Except for the name thing. And the use of dwarves. But that's it.

I love this story. I think it's even better than its more-famous counterpart. Except that if you look at it a little too closely, it kind of doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Okay, fine, even if you look at it from a mile away, the narrative is a total mess. But who cares? It has a talking bear! Talking bears are always good!

Snow-White and Rose-Red (from the Brothers Grimm)

A poor woman has two rose bushes (one white and one red) and two beautiful daughters (one called Snow-White and one called Rose-Red).

Red-herring #1: the Roses. You'd think they'd play an important part in the story. Yeah, not so much.

The daughters are fast friends. Snow-White says, "We will not leave each other." Rose-Red says, "Never so long as we live." And their mother finishes, "What one has she must share with the other."

Red-herring #2: the Promise. Ooh, foreshadowing! They're going to be forced apart! Or the mother will have to make some hideous choice between them! Or the fate of one will uplift and/or destroy the other! Very dramatic! Except not. They just like each other. And that's one of the things that I love about this story: the two sisters and the mom all love each other. No one's trying to enslave or poison or eat or dismember their relative. Refreshing.

The sisters like to gather berries in the forest together, and the birds and beasts like to frolick around them. No harm ever comes to them. Sometimes, they stay out in the woods too late, spend the night on a bed of moss, and wake to see a ghost-like boy leaving. Mom tells them he is an angel who watches over good children.

Red-herring #3: Angel-Boy. That's it for him. No dialogue. No action. No mention ever again. My guess: when the original audience heard about the woman whose daughters frolicked unharmed in the deep, dark, scary woods, they started crying, "She's a witch! A witch!" So the storyteller tossed in a spare angel.

One day in winter, while the sisters, a lamb, and a dove are listening to the girl's mother read a story, there's a knock at the door. Rose-Red answers it and finds a great black bear. She shrieks and hides.

I love a sensible heroine. That's totally what I would have done (though I'd like to think that I would have slammed the door shut first). No idea what's up with the lamb and the dove. Maybe they serve the same purpose as the spare angel: proof of non-witchiness. Kind of like the opposite of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books -- in those books, the witches prove their witchiness by purchasing skulls and warty noses and other witch paraphenalia from a mail-order catalog; in this tale, the family has purchased their set dressing from the "we're innocent" collection. The Grimm Brothers are far too subtle to mention it, but the family is also listening to harp music and eating Angel Food Cake.

The bear says, "I mean you no harm." Mom invites him in.

I love the mother. She's so very polite. Not wanting to embarrass their ursine guest, she never even asks why he's a talking bear. She simply invites him in to share their angel food cake.

The girls sweep the snow from the bear and then play with him -- tugging his fur, rolling him with their feet, beating him with a hazel-switch...

Beating him with a hazel-switch??? Where's the ASPCA? And since when is whacking a bear with a stick a good idea? Even a talking bear has teeth. Are they really so bored that this is considered "fun"? Well, maybe. They are cooped up for the winter, and TV hasn't been invented yet. If not for "American Idol," perhaps we would all be spending our winters whacking bears with sticks. Um, right.

When they're too rough, he cries, "Snow-White, Rose-Red, will you beat your wooer dead?"

Ahhh, sweet romance!

Spring comes, and the bear says, "Now I must leave and guard my treasure from the wicked dwarves. It was safe in winter while the ground was frozen and the dwarves could not dig." And he leaves. Snow-White is sad.

I smell cross-over! This is what the famous Snow White's dwarves were mining! Also, note that only Snow-White is sad. I smell romance!

One day in the woods, the girls find a dwarf with his beard stuck in a crevice of a tree. He cries to them for help. To free him, they cut off a bit of his beard. He shouts at them, "You uncouth hooligans! How dare you cut my beautiful beard!"

The famous Snow White has Sleepy, Dopey, and Sneezy. This Snow-White has Fussy. I'm rather fond of Fussy Dwarf.

Another day, by a stream, they find the same dwarf with his beard caught in a fishing line. He's about to be dragged into the water by a big fish. To save him, they cut a bit of his beard again. Again, he curses them.

Personally, I'm fascinated by this dwarf-eating fish. What kind of stream has dwarf-eating fish? How big is this fish?

Yet another day, the girls are walking into town, and they find the dwarf about to be carried off by a bird. They pull him free, though his coat is ruined in the process. "My coat!" he cries. "My beautiful coat! Ruined! You clumsy, stupid oafs!"

Fussy Dwarf has keen fashion sense.

On their way home from town, they find the dwarf admiring a bunch of jewels. He yells at them, and a black bear emerges from the forest. Frightened, the dwarf tells the bear to eat the girls and spare him.

Fussy Dwarf has a not-so-keen sense of gratitude.

The bear kills him.

Oh, no, Fussy!!!

The bear then transforms into a handsome prince. He explains that he was bewitched by the dwarf who had stolen his treasure. Now, with the dwarf's death, he is free.

Not to be all hung up on chronology or anything, but didn't he say earlier that he had to leave to protect his treasure from the dwarves? And now he's saying his treasure was stolen before he became a bear? Also, why kill the dwarf now? Why not earlier? And why the three rescues? Was that supposed to be comic relief before the big finale, or was that key to the plot? Did I skip a page? I must have skipped a page...

Snow-White marries the prince, and Rose-Red marries his brother.

Yay for romance! See, told you she liked the bear. Wait, where did the brother come from? Does Rose-Red like him? What was he doing while his brother was a bear?

They split the treasure.

Yay for practicality! Of course, it was his treasure in the first place. Or so he claims.

The mother moves in with them, and she brings her two rose bushes. Every year they bear beautiful roses, white and red.

Yay for poetic yet pointless roses! And yay for the mother and her two daughters who successfully navigate a Grimm's fairy tale without suffering anything particularly grim!

If you'd like to read a retelling of this tale that actually makes sense, check out the beautiful and wonderful book, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede.

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior obscure fairy tale posts.



At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What -was- the bear's brother doing all this time?


At 2:17 AM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I laughed so hard!

I can't remember if I said so already, but I adore your commentary pieces (it's how I first found your blog).

My DH (dear husband) says I should do them too, but I feel like I'd be infringing on your trademark ;o)

I guess I have too much still vested in convincing people they're of continuing value that I'm not ready to mock them yet-- as much fun as that is.


At 9:15 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Michael: Bowling? Needlepoint? Hunting bears?

Amy Jane: Glad you like them! They're fun to do. Thanks for the link!

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe when Rose Red ran from the room it wasn't really because of the bear, but because she needed to call her boyfriend, the prince's brother. I bet they'd been seeing each other on the sly for years.

Maybe the boyfriend even told his bear-brother that Rose Red had a hot sister. Maybe that's why the bear came around in the first place.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Kate W. said...

Wow! Enjoyed the tale and the analysis. My blog, Diamonds And Toads, is fairy tale oriented. My 80 college writing student use it each semester. I think they would enjoy reading your blog. I will link to it! Congrats on your writing successes!

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Janni: Ooh, I like that. Maybe it's all one big complicated matchmaking scheme.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Kate: Thanks so much! And thanks for the link. Great blog! I've bookmarked it.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Faith said...

Boy did I remember that one incorrectly! I had it in mind that the sisters were friends until after the bear turned into a prince. Because they were both in love with him, and he was going to marry Snow White, Rose Red pushed her into a river so he'd marry her instead. I wonder what I got it mixed up with.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Faith: Yikes! The Rose Red in that version clearly had issues. Let me know if you find out where it's from. I'm curious...

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Ooo! Ooo! Pick me! I know that story!

The version I have is called "The Singing Breastbone."

And I think it was originally a ballad (This is how it's written in E. Pope's The Perilous Gard, but it's nearly identical to what I read in an old book of ballads):

As they were walking on the sea brim,
(Binoorie, O Binoorie)
The elder pushed the younger in,
By the bonny mill dams of Binoorie.


O sister, dear sister, reach me your glove,
(Binoorie, O Binoorie)
And you shall have my own true love,
By the bonny mill dams of Binoorie.

It's a tragic story, really (as many ballads are, I suppose).

An older daughter is courted until the heel meets the younger daughter who welcomes his shifted affections.

The sisters go walking and the elder murders the other by pushing her into the swift waters.

A famous harper saw the drowned girl, and, unable to get her out of his mind, he returned to the place where she was. But only her breastbone and a lock of hair remained.

(I'll refrain from the commentary-- I'm sure you've got something much more witty to add than I.)

The harper fashions an instrument from the leftover parts he collected, and brings it along to his performance back at the sisters' castle.

He does his regular show with his own harp, then sets out the newly made harp, tells the story of the girl he found, and it begins to sing on its own:

There's dad and mum, and there's William the cause of all our trouble gazing into my murderer's eyes.

With a few more rhymes and Binoories, of course.

Then the harp frame snaps and it sings no more.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Amy Jane: Cool!!! Thanks for posting this! It reminds me of the Grimms's Singing Bone (, except those are brothers and the rest of the tale is totally different. But still... Why do fairy-tale characters so often get the urge to make musical instruments out of bones? I've never had this urge.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

2 reasons we don't "get the urge:"

1) Access to synthetic materials
2) Not expecting our instruments to have spiritual power/significance.

Yes, I approach pretty much everything this literally.

In this house we have a recorder (basic flute), a piano, a guitar and two ukuleles.

None of those instruments have any unprocessed materials (even the wood of the ukuleles is "laminate" which is the wooden equivelent of formed and sliced lunch meat).

If we expected more of our level spiritual wholesomeness (quality of music still applies) connected to materials, this would not be the case.

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the bear/prince's brother is ghost/angel boy who likes to watch the girls sleeping? (He is the slightly creepy, voyeuristic younger brother.) He has his own parallel story running in the background, but because he is invisible, no one really pays attention. He was cursed by the Fussy Dwarf as well, and needs two bits of beard and the ruined coat to set himself free. No one pays attention when he gathers up the bits and pieces that are left behind. He is rescued without any obvious effort by anyone, but isn't bitter about it.

Or maybe the younger brother is picked up at a discount from the "I Am Not a Witch" Store in the "Polygamy is Wrong" section? I hear younger brothers are pretty cheap in fairy tales.

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Marsbarn: Perfect! I love it! I'm picturing the brother singing his own variant on "snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that's what little boys are made of..." as he stirs together the bits of beard and coat in a big Macbeth-Witches-style cauldron...

At 10:42 PM, Blogger Q said...

I have actually read this before, out of this huge, old, binding-falling-off book of fairy tales, but it was not nearly so funny as this one with commentary.

At 11:32 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Thanks! Glad you liked it! My favorite collection of Grimms tales is actually older than I am. Not much older, but still I've always thought of it as this ancient, special tome.

At 2:19 AM, Blogger Cassie said...

Heh, that is an obscure one. Though I think the Rose Bride is even more obscure, but there is a fairy tale in the Once Upon a Time series based off of that one.

Have you ever read Fables by Bill Willingham (my reviw)? The author blends the story of Snow White and Rose Red with the traditional Snow White story wonderfully. If you haven't read those books, and don't mind a bit of more graphic content, check them out.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger David T. Macknet said...

Hey - maybe it's, like, Nordic with the beating with switches. Kinda like they do when you're in a sauna, sort of thing?

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Cassie: I don't remember Rose Bride off-hand. I'll have to look it up. Thanks!

DaviMack: It probably is difficult for a bear to find a spa...

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Elenatintil said...

Actually, I believe there is a version of this fairy-tale in which the Prince's brother is actually turned into a Fish. (The same one who almost ate the dwarf? not sure) This part of the story was picked up in a modern retelling of "Snow White and Rose Red" called "The Shadow of the Bear." Great book for those who love the original fairy-tale!

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments are GREAT! I really enjoyed them.

Random facts and/or stuff I remember about Snow White and Rose Red that might clear some stuff up (that one's my favourite fairy tale so I couldn't shut up if I tried :P):

1. In German Snow White and Rose Red is called Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot which are direct translations. Except that the -chen at the end of Schneeweißchen is a... minimization? You know, like the japanese chan. It's been added to a lot of fairy tale princesses names (if they have names, that is) like Schneewittchen (Snow White (and the seven Dwarves)) and Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty)

2. The Snow White cut the last bit of beard of when she and her sister saved the Dwarve from the bird that's why the bear was able to kill the dwarve: the beard held the dwarve's magic

3. The bird was really the bear's brother. That's why he attacked the dwarve. I've heard about a version in which the fish was the brother but that weirded me out. How's a fish supposed to draw a breath to speak?

4. Everytime Snow White and Rose Red rescued the dwarve the bear was lurking around somewhere with the bird on his shoulder. The dwarve cussed simultaneously at Snow White, Rose Red and the bear. I guess it was to imply that the bear and the bird were responsible for getting the beard of the dwarve caught.

5. The mother named the girls after the color of the roses because she wished her children to be as fair and beautiful as the roses she loved so much. Wonder what she would have named her children if it had been boys. And I always kind of wondered what happened to the dad.

Well, hope that was even remotely interesting :)
Also, have you ever thought about doing Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel)? Because if there's ever been an obscure fairy tale it's Hansel and Gretel. Plus it would be fun to know what the rhymes are in English.

But whatever you're going to do next, I'm sure looking forward to it!

At 12:34 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Hunterwithcause: Thanks so much! Very cool info! I'm going to have to track down some of the versions you reference... I hadn't heard the bit about the beard or the bird as a brother, though both fit well...

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

3 other Points:



3) FUSSY DIES!!!! :-(

At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Y SO SAD?!?!?!


At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this fairy tale!!!!!!!
For some reason, I adore Enchanted-Lovers,-Relatives-and/or-friends stories.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Anonymous/Annie: Great point about the names. How does Little Red Riding Hood fill out forms? Does she have to drop one of her middle names to fit it all? Is Hood her last name? Is her mom Mrs. Hood? Any relation to Robin? And I agree: poor Fussy!

Lucas: It's one of my favorites. A great retelling of it is Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede.

At 8:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regina Doman also wrote a book on this story.

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amiable brief and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you for your information.

At 1:13 AM, Anonymous Suris said...

Are the two daughters twins or something?
and i am also curious about the dad is he maybe the angel looking out for his daughters in the wood?

At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Deerdryad said...

Great journal! I'm loving your commentry on these old storis! Also, I have some recommendations you may find interesting. The first is the cd 'The Glammoury' by English Folk singer Emily Portman. The songs on this cd make various references to other old tales, and the songs are rather beautiful. The other recommendation is a book of retold fairy tales by Francesca Lia Block, called 'The Rose and The Beast.'

As for the brother- I'm inclined to agree with Janni. XD

At 10:29 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Suris: I never thought about whether they were twins or not... I do always picture them as the same age, but I think that's just because they always look the same age in the illustrations. I can't remember whether any of the variants specify their ages...

Deerdryad: Thanks for the recommendations! I loved Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books.

At 5:33 PM, Blogger BexMinx said...

I knew you had to be a Terry Pratchett fan. There was just something about your sense of humor that called to me lol.

For the record I think I'm falling in love with your postings... Especially the commentary.

At 10:00 PM, Blogger CJ said...

When i was a little kid i had this book and i loved it!! I think it was one of those "Golden Storybooks"...i remember the artwork on the front was of two rose bushes one red and one white that were climbing over and arbour in front of a cottage...i never forgot that story and have wondered about it for years..and it is nice to have found it on this page after all these years...very nostalgic.

At 7:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got here after doing a google search of "snow white and rose red" after viewing a vaguely erotic Russian wallpaper. This blog was way better, kudos =)

At 2:36 AM, Blogger tammycolo said...

I took found you looking for information on Snow White and Rose Red. It was one of my favorites as a child, perhaps children are not as concerned with tight plot lines as we think they are. My grandmother used to read it to me. I have not yet checked out the rest of your fairy tale commentaries but my very favorite was "One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes" if you haven't done that one and can find a copy of it I would love to hear your opinion.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Emma said...

well at least the japanese cartoon grimms fairy tale classics gave the brother a bigger role by having him searching for his brother when said brother vanished at the beginning of winter

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

right so does this Rose Red have any connection to Rose Red from the song? Yknow, "rose red, rose red, will i ever see you wed", that one? I don't really know much about it other than it's cover by british steampunk band The Mechanisms but hey


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