The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters by Maria Tatar, reviewed by Nin Harris


Snow White remains one of the most well-known of all of the Grimm Fairy Tales, due in no small part to the Disney movie of 1937. This volume curated by Professor Maria Tatar provides an exhilarating journey into the history of the fairytale, its various permutations in literature and in popular culture and featuring an edifying introduction by Tatar that examines the different cultural resonances within the different retellings of the folktale from the brothers Grimm to the farflung variants of what is known Occidentally as the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) type 709.

The different variants of the jealous stepmother tale has been well-discussed in both fairytale scholarship and feminist scholarship, with scholars ranging from the power team of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar to Shuli Barzilai tackling the intergenerational rivalry between Snow White and the woman who is sometimes her stepmother, at other times her biological mother. As Tatar elegantly points out, these familial motifs are omnipresent in more than one folktale. Family conflict is often a given, ranging from jealous sisters to jealous mothers – and may be seen as the ways in which patriarchy operates. Tatar therefore compares these tales with other variants  ranging from European tales to African accounts which are both traditional and syncretized with the more familiar European variants.

There is much room for consideration of how these tales in their original framings seem to suggest that patriarchy acts as a kind of sop or saviour to the virtuous heroine, as emblematized by the colour “white”. As such, Snow White is a culturally charged tale no matter the culture, and it is unsurprising that Disney, in his 1937 retelling decided to augment these resonances. On the other hand, Disney’s version, as Tatar adroitly points out, showcases the Wicked Queen in all of her glory, turning all attention to her power, and her cruelty, drawn with a less subtle hand. One of the most valuable contributions Tatar makes in this book is by suggesting the ATU 709 type not be called “Snow White” but based on the global variants, “the Beautiful Girl” (35). I would think this is valuable since it is clear from the different variants that the familiar tropes introduced by the Brothers Grimm inclusive of colour metaphors are by no means universal. I particularly enjoyed in this collection, variants in which the moon is the one who makes the pronouncement of beauty rather than the mirror. Tatar points out that the mirror is “the voice of judgement, authority in its most compelling form” (40). She also reminds us that this authority is what Gilbert and Gubar refer to as “patriarchal authority” (40). I feel it is important to augment the different interpretations of critics with the stories themselves as most scholarship and criticism is rooted in in-depth comparisons of the different variants . Here, Tatar has excelled in bringing together different versions from around the world – with the familiar tropes we associate with ATU 709 replaced by other tropes. Instead of dwarves, we have robbers, we have stories that have elements recognisable from the Cinderella, Bluebeard and even “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fairytale types.

Tatar’s curation includes a version by Grimm, Giambattista Basile’s The Young Slave, which features tropes found not just in Snow White but in Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty as well. There are other cross-currents running through the different versions found in this volume, some reminding one of Goldilocks, and there is at least one brutal, adult version which is verging on folk horror. I was particularly interested in the more active part the father, often absent in more popular retellings takes in a couple of these tales. In Basile’s tale, that role is played by the Uncle.

One of my favourites of this collection is the Armenian tale, “Nourie Hadig” which has the moon play a very vocal part in the narrative. This is the narrative that also shares elements with “The Goose Girl” and a couple of other fairytale types that I could discern.I also greatly enjoyed the Bantu tale “The Unnatural Mother and The Girl with A Star on Her Forehead”, deeply fascinating because of the cosmological detail, as well as the implied syncretic elements within. However, one must consider that the tales collected in Africa by missionaries and European adventurers would be subject to the translator’s lens – and that does indeed leave a lot for one to wonder about. How much of it is syncretic, how much of the oral narrative retained, and how much transformed by the transcribing? One of the best tales in this collection, in my opinion, is the Japanese “The Mirror of Matsuyama” which, as Tatar reflects, “values forebearance and forgiveness over ill will and retribution” (148).  It is a refreshing take on the two connecting folktale types that often focus on rivalry and the punishment of an unnatural maternal figure. “Silver-Tree and Gold-Tree” is also notable as  one connected by Joseph Jacobs from the Scottish Highlands, and one that intriguing features bigamy.

I would say that this is an essential collection, complete with histories, and illustrations, for anyone keen on this maddening fairytale and who may want to know more, as scholar, as storyteller, or as the interested reader. It reaches beyond the traditional and known fairytale scholarship on Snow White to consider other discourses and other perspectives. As a scholar who has written about Snow White from a postcolonial perspective in both her PhD dissertation and in a follow-up article in Marvels and Tales, I am sure I will find this a very helpful collection for future research.

Note: A digital review copy of this book was given to me by the (then) Harvard University Press publicist for the book.

Nin Harris is an SFF author and poet. In her day job she is a literary academic  with a focus on the Postcolonial Gothic. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include:  Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Uncanny and more.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This review is supported by the grant GGP-2019-017 Climate-Based Literary Theory and Analytical Model for Indigenous Malaysian Communities impacted by Climate Change and Climate Migration, awarded by the Centre for Research and Instrumentation (CRIM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. (Principle Investigator: Dr. Anita Harris Satkunananthan)

Truancy 9, July 2021