May 21, 2011

Guest Post: 'Snow White and the Philosopher's Stone,' By John Patrick Pazdziora

Editor's note: At last, our first guest blog post. We already have many more waiting in the wings, but we are especially glad to be starting with John's work. John has had several contest-winning pieces in EC, and is a doctoral candidate at University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. His outstanding blog, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond is well-worth checking out. Super-scholar that he is, John has provided a list of his cited works, and we've included it at the end of the post. We hope you'll be as challenged and intrigued by this post as we were. Happy reading!

There’s a Jewish saying: "Don’t ask questions of fairy tales." If you’re at all like me, you know that’s pretty hard. Questioning fairy tales is fascinating, certainly for scholars and writers, and for many readers as well.

We like interrogating tales to reveal their subconscious or occluded motives. We like taking them apart and rearranging them, like bits of clockwork on black velvet. We like observing them in social settings, in different styles of manner and dress. And all of these are good things.

But when we question fairy tales, it’s tempting to think the fairy tale has answered.

Consider the strange case of  "Snow White." It’s one of the most famous, even notorious, of fairy tales. You can read some versions of it here and here. Walt Disney read it as a parable of domestic bliss and the bubbling of young love. Neil Gaiman read it as a presentation of domestic abuse and the ravening of a vampire. We’re more likely to recognize Disney’s vision than Gaiman’s—it’s been around longer, for one thing—but how can two savagely different readings possibly be the same fairy tale?

Jack Zipes has suggested that "Snow White" is about female competition (133-136). The locus of the struggle is physical appearance and, by metonymy, erotic appeal of the (step)mother and daughter. Certainly Arthur Rackham’s illustration of the magic mirror suggests that’s what the story is about, as have many other retellings.

But, as my friend irreverently recently asked, what if it isn’t? What happens to the tale if that’s not the point?

There’s a fascinating hint in the first paragraph:

If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame. 

The queen’s wish is for a child that’s black, white, red. That’s the classic color spectrum in literary alchemy.

If you’ve read Harry Potter, you’ve encountered a great example of literary alchemy, though the tradition is hundreds of years old. Here’s a crash introduction.* Each color represents a different phase of the alchemical process, or Great Work as the alchemists called it. Black signifies the nigredo stage, where the lead or base metal is burned, to remove its impurities. White is the second stage, albedo, where the purified matter is washed repeatedly to transmute it into the final stage, rubedo, signified by (you guessed it) red and gold. The beginning of the rubedo is signified by the blossoming of streak of red on the white metal; the metal is put into a container, symbolised by burial or interment in a coffin, until the transmutation is complete. The elements in the metal that were in opposition—fluid and solid, female and male, life and death, and so on—become reconciled; this is called the alchemical marriage.

When the metal reaches this stage, said the alchemists, it possesses the power to transmute all material substance to gold. But alchemists understood their Great Work to be as much psychical and spiritual as material; it involved a personal journey, not just experimenting with metal. It gave the alchemist eternal life. The final product of the Great Work was called "The Philosopher’s Stone" or "The Philosophical Orphan."

What if  "Snow White" is an alchemical tale? The argument would go something like this.

   Snow White is the philosophical orphan, traveling through the three stages. The nigredo is her loss of home and self-identification in the forest, that labyrinthine fairy tale symbol for peril, liminal space, and the transmigration between worlds. The albedo is her time with the seven dwarf's (and the number seven has so much symbolism surrounding it, there’s not enough space to even mention it here). She’s reached an equilibrium, and can be herself without the threat and shadow of the forest. The end of the calm albedo is signified by the arrival of the queen-crone, and specifically an apple that’s half white, half red. Snow White bites the red half and becomes as if dead. So she’s put into a coffin that’s decorated with gold lettering. The philosophical orphan is buried to wait for the completion of the rubedo. Enter a prince—the union of opposites and the alchemical wedding, and the completion of the Great Work.

So, was "Snow White" meant as an alchemical tale? It’s possible. Alchemy is as old as fairy tales. But we’ll probably never know for sure. If it wasn’t intentional, it’s a remarkable coincidence. As G. K. Chesterton notes:

   [T]he more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence. If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian, it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle. [...] A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the
right key. (ch. VI)

Intention might not even matter. Carl Jung suggests that alchemical symbols are part of our unconscious minds; he claims that people will dream according to alchemical representation even if they know nothing about alchemy (66ff, et al. ). The alchemists and storytellers may have both been drawing on higher archetypes, symbols of transformation and awakening.

Because that, in the end, is what fairy tale seems to be about. Marina Warner calls it metamorphosis (18). Jung calls it alchemy. Chesterton might call it a miracle.

Regardless, "Snow White" is the story of the transformation of an individual from a place of fear and isolation to a place of confidence and happiness. And we are left confronting the change. The story itself is a magic mirror that shows us what we are, are not, and perhaps might dare to be.

Maybe we don’t ask questions of fairy tales because they’re asking questions of us.


*I am indebted to John Granger for introducing me to these concepts, and to Erzebet Yellowboy Carr for affirming their relevance to fairy tales.

Rackham image from

Works Cited

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. 1908. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995.

Granger, John. The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor Explains Harry's Final Adventure. Allentown, PA: Zossima, 2008.

Jung, Carl. Alchemical Studies. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Warner, Marina. Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self. Oxford:  OUP, 2002.

Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. London: Routledge, 2006.


Marilyn said...

Very interesting and illuminating article, John! The transformational aspect is central to all the Fairy Tales, pitting Good versus Evil. Sub-themes of Youth and Beauty versus Age and Lost Beauty are also key to 'Snow White'.

The idea of the transformational aspect of alchemy could also be seen in the wicked queen's desire to transform-back to Youth and Beauty. This impossible-transformation is what dooms her.

I also loved that illustration, where the magic mirror seems tied to an imp, which is a magical trickster. That would fit the mirror's short, pungent rhymes. Only a magical trickster could escape the queen's wrath, with the idea that what he or the mirror says may or may not be a trick - or the truth.

Kathy Empson said...

Enjoyed this very much. A thoughtful and intriguing analysis.

Unknown said...

Great post, fascinating idea! With all the ways to look at fairy tales, it's always surprising and fun to come across a unique interpretation.

Sarah said...

Great article! I've read the idea that Snow White is a transformation story, but never really gave it credence. I was looking at it as a personal transformation, rather than a situational transformation. This article points out the difference.

Certainly Snow White moves from fear to happiness. But none of the movement is by any action or inward change of her own (or at least, any purposeful action. She may have found the house of the dwarfs, but only by running haphazardly through the wood.)

Her transformation using the alchemical model laid out in the article is carried through mostly by the action of others. It bespeaks a change that has nothing to do with personal growth.

1. Alone, in the forest. The only reason she is not dead is that the huntsman could not bear to kill her.

2. Calm time with the dwarfs. She may find their house by pure luck, but they offer her the home in exchange for her work there. They also propose that she will want for nothing, causing the allowance for the calm time.

3. Having died from the poison apple, she is entombed until the prince discovers her and an accident with her coffin brings her back to life.

Through it all, Snow White hardly causes any of the transformation. She really is like the stone, being transformed by the alchemist (the alchemist here being the world around her).

One wonders, really, if Snow White continues her life letting the world around her heat and mold her at will, no wonder the original version of this tale didn't end with happily ever after! Although, perhaps the point of it all is that we can't help sometimes the outward forces that meld us...

Lorraine said...

Red, white and black are also ancient symbols of the Goddess--also mentioned in Robert graves The White Goddess. Though I don't think this was consciously intended wither, it resonates. maiden, (evil) mother, and Death (instead of crone).

Yamini said...

A very interesting interpretation..that of transformation. The character sketches are also only in black (step mother), white (dwarfs-symbolising goodness) and colourless (Snow-white). Only nature of Snow-white that comes across is her trust (in her step-mother), despite repeated betrayal - extreme innocence or foolishness.

John said...

Great insight on the literary alchemy! I thought there was some significance to those colors. I would have guessed the mother wanted her daughter to be/grow up pure and innocent (snow white), brave and romantic (red blood), and tough and resilient (black wood)


Number selection: 761

Charlene said...

Excellent post! Love the info on alchemy. I beleive what Jung suggests: that alchemical symbols are part of our unconscious minds.

Good references. I'm going to have to check out Marina Warner.


Number: 566

Whitney said...

To continue the analysis of characters through alchemy, couldn't Snow White also be a cautionary tale against it? Snow White blindly manages to obtain happiness and a love/gold/immortality equivalent, but what about the mother? She's spent her life trying to obtain her own version of perfection, and as the one who actually lends importance to the alchemical colors, that argues she considers herself the alchemist. She could be seen as the alchemist, seeking that philosopher's stone, especially as she's the driving force behind Snow White's transformation. What happens to her? She not only is clearly mortal (aging), she becomes blinded to family love (or Snow White's love/immortality) in favor of a single aspect of the work, or gold. She sends out for death (black) and a new imbibing of blood red organs to revitalize herself. When that doesn't work she becomes a crone, or even older and farther from her true goals. Often, she does die at the end. She's let the pursuit of a single object (the stone) transform her for the worse and turn her against the great joys of life. Seeking great things for yourself never works, one can only find them through accepting things from others into your life, like Snow White?

Number choice: 694

John said...

Great post, John Patrick, if, as you say, this is really only an opening salvo about using literary alchemy to open up for serious readers the transformational qualities of stories. I look forward to reading your further exploration of fairy tales using alchemy as a lens or key.

To push the point that the use isn't unintentional but miraculous, I'd note that the coffin is a symbol of the alchemical alembic or vessel of change.

Whitney's point is excellent, as Stanton Linden states in 'Darke Hieroglyphicks' that literary alchemy is a tandem tradition. It simultaneously mocks the 'charcoal burners' after wealth and youth while providing an image and experience via identification with the protagonists of gold as 'solid light,' i.e. the Light of the World that is Love, the resolution of contraries. Snow White, as Whitney points out, can be read as a tract both against materialist and self-oriented alchemy and a vision of death to self and the world giving eternal life, that is, a spiritual alchemy.

Wave Writer said...

I had not read about this connection between Snow White and alchemy before, though the emphasis on the colors always did strike me as strange and meaningful (though I think I once interpreted them as the three stages of a woman's life: maiden (white), matron (red), and crone (black)).

Very fascinating, and thanks for the post.

Number 444

Anonymous said...

I've definitely got to have another look at alchemy, particularly as applied to fairy tales.

I wonder if there's another heroine who embodies red/white/black? Golden hair seems to be the default colour, although in "Snow White, Rose Red" one of the daughters is dark and the other fair.

The Prince, "the union of opposites and the alchemical wedding", is perhaps more "opposite" than it at first seems. In at least one version he buys Snow White in her coffin from the dwarves.

Setting aside considerations of purchase, there seem to be only two choices for the Prince; he'll leave the coffin sealed and merely look on this perfect, static beauty, or he'll open the coffin and attempt to act on/with it somehow. The kiss in Sleeping Beauty was originally a rape perpetrated on a sleeping woman. It makes me wonder if the Prince isn't a bit on the necrophiliac side. It would be an opposite, all right, joining life and death!

My number - hmm 538.

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

Fascinating! And very well explained. Makes me want to re-read the tale. :)

Eric said...

Excellent, for reasons you know.

Looking at the first edition of the Grimms' tale, it's fascinating that the character of the Stepmother was originally Snow White's own mother, the same one who wished for the Black / White / Red child. (Bowdlerized to avoid traumatizing the young, I suppose somewhat understandably.) Yet in wishing for the alchemical baby, the Queen remains destructively unwilling to transform, and ultimately meets her end by burning. Do you suppose the red-hot shoes are just the Grimm's characteristic gruesomeness, or might they be something of a failed nigredo as the Queen rejects purification?

Todd A. said...

This is an interesting take on “Snow White.” I have often wondered what the colors symbolized in this fairy tale and agree that it could be a tale of Fairytale Alchemy. I would like to point out that although the Fairytale many focus on Snow White’s alchemy transformation, her (step)mother may have went through the same metaphorical transformation. \
The tale starts off with the (step)mother wishing for a child, and after birth she “dies” and the king marries another queen known as the evil step-mother. However, think of it as Snow White’s mother (the “good queen”) transforms (like alchemy) into an evil queen. If this is the case, Snow White’s mother never physically dies but rather she enters a new state of mind having given birth to the more beautiful snow white?
I agree that although we may question fairytales in order to figure out the underlying meaning, we may want to step back and realize the fairytales may be questioning us, the readers.

Anonymous said...

Molly G.
This an amazing article! I have never been one to question fairy tales more than why are women the center focus, but recently I have been reading works of scholars and writers. I have read some of their ideas on the possible theories behind some of the fairy tales and they are beyond interesting to think about. Just as this article says there are many different people with multiple opinions of each fairy tale and they could be right or wrong no one truly knows. I love the idea that the color scheme in Snow White could be based on literary alchmey. I have never heard of this before, but it seems quite like the story. Knowing that this question will forever be unanswered is sad. Since the answer will remain unknown believing it could be true is one possibility that I will keep in mind from now on.

Kim B said...

The idea of this article was definitely a little daunting at first, I couldn't understand how this could work. But after reading it, I was truly surprised to not only understand the author's argument, but agree with it and kind of wish that I could know if it was true or not! After studying Jung in school, reading things through the lens of his knowledge has always opened up a wealth of knowledge for me, and after finding out that one of his archetypal images for the human mind was alchemy, I realized I was truly convinced. The idea that Snow White can have more meaning that just the ones that are popular or talked most about is such an interesting theory, and it makes me want to read all of the fairy tales over again and try to read them in different lights!

Gypsy Thornton said...

Yay! What a great article and discussion. These ideas gel well with my (many) thoughts on Snow White. I read a book a long (!) time ago (once upon a time?) that, although it had a heavy Christian lens through which to view the tales, also introduced me to these sorts of ideas of representations of nature and alchemy. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I love Snow White l like I do. Transformation is my favorite aspect of fairy tales and Snow White has a TON of imagery concerning this concept.
PS I believe the book was The Wisdom of Fairy Tales by Rudolf Meyer. Not for everyone but I think I just happened to read it at the right time for me.
PPS I want to keep this article and all the comments!

Christina Ruth Johnson said...

Absolutely fascinating and well presented! I am now very curious to read other tales through this lens and see if alchemical themes appear. Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting take on Snow White and at first, I did not believe that this could work. But after reading it a few times, I think it could especially being in a fairy tale. Snow White definitely transforms throughout the story with the help of some others. What some others have mentioned and I thought were very interesting takes are how the mother has the desire for transformation from age and lost beauty to youth and beauty as snow white has which brings me back to the transformation comes from others. Throughout the fairy tale, things keep happening to her due to other people in the story as the huntsman having the struggle to kill Snow or the Evil mother poisoning her. During all of this she is living in a life of fear and by the end due to others transforms her into happiness. Great insight to alchemy! T.R.