We have a retelling of the fairy tale “Snow White” from Leandra Ranger this week.
Happy Reading and Writing!
P.S. To hear more about the symbolism and inspiration behind this story, check out Leandra’s follow-up essay, “In the Author’s Head: Snow White in the Woods.”
Snow White in the Woods
By Leandra Ranger
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a princess. She was closer to your age than mine, and she was smart and brave and kind. She was also pretty and very pale, so everyone called her Snow White, so much so that, every once in a while, she forgot her real name.
Now, this princess had a father she loved very much; however, her mother had died when she was very young. Her father had remarried very shortly after his first wife’s death, and so Snow White had a stepmother. She was lovely with dark skin and curly hair, though she had a few wrinkles, and she was as kind as Snow White and very good at being a queen and running a country. In fact, she was so good at this that her husband let her handle all of his work and often went hunting instead.
One day, not too long after the king remarried, the entire family went hunting. They had a lovely time galloping through fields and over hedges and in streams. Snow White’s little black horse kept up with all the big horses admirably. However, when Snow finished her ride, she hopped off his back and would have left him there, saddled and sweaty, except that Snow White’s stepmother called her back to him.
“Now, Snow White,” she said, “Your horse was very kind to you and carried you safely over fields and hedges and streams. It would be very rude to leave him like this. Go remove his saddle and rub him down with a wet cloth and give him a carrot, and then you may go play with your friends.”
Snow White did as she was told and took care of her horse. She was a bit scared, not because her stepmother was amiss in her words, but because the young princess was very well behaved and her father had been too busy with her mother’s death and his remarriage to parent her properly, so she had not been scolded in quite some time. However, soon Snow White went and played with her friends and all seemed forgotten.
Unfortunately, the king saw all of this. He had begun to notice how much his daughter looked like his first wife, and it made him sad because he missed his first wife very much, to the point that he felt he was cold to his second wife because of it. He thought, if he sent Snow White away, he might be able to forget his first wife and love his second. Therefore, not long after, he took his daughter out on another horseback ride.
“I love you very much, Snow White,” he said, “but your stepmother hates you. That is why she scolded you so harshly.” Snow White was quite distressed at this, for, scolding aside, her stepmother had been very kind to her, and the princess loved her dearly.
“I fear she wants to kill you,” continued the man, “and so I am taking you to the forest for your own safety. You must ride far, far away and never come back.” Snow White nodded, for she had no reason to suspect her father’s true intention. At her agreement, her father told her to run, and it all seemed so scary that Snow White and her faithful steed ran for a good hour through the woods. Eventually, she and the horse started to tire and stopped for a rest.
She also calmed down, for she knew the forest from her explorations. Though still a little scared, she was able to think, and decided to travel until she did not know the forest anymore, and then she would be far away enough from the castle that her stepmother would not wander out that way and would never find her. She traveled for a day and a night and was quite famished by the end of it, for she had only been able to find a couple of wild strawberries to eat, which are very small and not at all filling.
Finally, she was out of the known parts of the woods. To congratulate herself, she took off her horse’s saddle and tied him up, and treated herself to a nap. When she woke up, she realized she was not out of the woods yet because, though she was out of her stepmother’s grasp, she still had no way to get food and very few skills to market. Of course, being a princess does not prepare you for poverty. After riding on for an hour or so, she was very pleased to discover a little cottage.
She quickly dismounted and walked up to the door. Despite her excitement, she knocked politely. Almost immediately, it swung open to revel seven old men, who all gathered around the doorway to peer at the visitor. They had long white beards and small, gem-like eyes hidden in wrinkly crevices of skin, but they still seemed quite healthy and hale.
“Hello, kind sirs,” began Snow White, “What a lovely house you have!”
“Thank you, thank you” replied the old men.
“I am Frida,” she continued, though that was not her name. She figured, if she was to be a princess in hiding, she should do it right. “I need a place to stay. If you will have me, I will help you with tasks. I can hunt and fish, and I know which berries and mushrooms are good to eat. Also, I can carry messages on my horse, as long as you don’t ask me to go into the neighboring kingdom.”
The old men looked about at each other and slammed the door in her face. This was very alarming to the princess. However, barely thirty seconds later, the door opened just as suddenly.
“You can work for us,” said one old man.
“Leave your horse in the pasture in the back,” said another.
“And then come inside and you can sign your contract,” said a third.
Snow White did as she told. The pasture in the back was small, but filled with nice grass, and there was a small lean-to where the princess put her saddle and bridle. The house itself was much larger, and the kitchen was impeccably clean and filled with the strange old men. They were clustered around a table where one was writing on piece of paper. As she walked in, he smiled toothlessly and handed it to her.
“Here it is!” he said happily.
The princess took it and read it closely, because that is what you do with things you sign. It promised a bed in the attic and three meals a day (which seemed quite acceptable to her) in exchange for carrying messages in country, gathering food, cooking food (“But I don’t know how to cook!” exclaimed Snow White. “You’ll figure it out,” promised the old men), taking care of animals, and cleaning (“But I don’t know how to clean!” “You’ll figure it out”). After she read it, she signed it. After she signed it, one of the old men said, “Did you look on the back?”
Snow White turned the paper over and looked on the back. “Whoever signs the front,” it read, “agrees to work for the seven old men in the cottage in the woods for seven years.” Seven years! That seemed like a very long time to Snow White. Surely, she could find a better job and her own house before then. But what could she do? She had already signed.
Three years passed while Snow White worked for the old men. She did figure out how to clean, and she did figure out how to cook, and she hunted and gathered berries and carried messages and worked hard. In fact, she seemed to do all the work while the old men sat around and ate and made messes and went to parties. Snow White grew very tired of this and was acutely aware that she’d been tricked, but she could not think of a way to escape without getting herself in trouble with the law (they did have a contract, after all).
During these three years, Snow White heard that her father was gored by a boar on one of his hunting trips and died from his injuries. This left Snow White’s stepmother to rule over the land as a steward as Snow White was the king’s only child. This, of course, made Snow White very sad, and she cried throughout her chores despite the old men making fun of her for being overly-emotional. She considered asking for leave to attend her father’s funeral, but she was too scared of her stepmother, and they would have probably said no, anyway.
One week after the start of the fourth year of her contract, Snow White rode out into the forest on her horse to gather berries and nuts, as she tended to do about every week. She found a lovely blackberry bush and was gathering them into her basket, when her horse, who was standing nearby loyally, whinnied as if greeting an old friend. Snow White turned around wonderingly, for the horse was normally very quiet, and found her stepmother, who was riding her chestnut mare, emerging from the woods after returning from a meeting with the king of the country Snow resided in.
Upon seeing her stepmother, Snow White gasped and tried to run to her horse, but the happy creature had moved closer to his friend the chestnut mare and Snow White would have to get in the older woman’s grasps to fetch him.
“Snow White?” called the stepmother, tears in her eyes, “My daughter! Is it really you?”
“Yes, Stepmother,” replied Snow White, trying to discreetly coax the horse over with some grass without her wicked stepmother noticing.
“I thought you were dead!” exclaimed the older woman, hurriedly sliding off her horse and walking toward Snow White with open arms. The princess hurriedly backed away from her, and, seeing this, the steward stopped moving.
“Why do you fear me?” asked the stepmother.
“Aren’t you trying to kill me?” Snow White stopped backing up.
“No, darling, I would never-” The stepmother shook her head in wonderment. “Why do you think that?”
“Because Father told me so. He told me I had to run so you wouldn’t kill me.”
“I would never hurt you,” reassured the stepmother, and Snow White, seeing the truth and tears in her eyes, ran into her embrace. The two women held each other for a long time before the stepmother asked Snow White to come home with her.
“But I can’t!” exclaimed Snow White, and she explained all about the deal she made with the old men and how they tricked her. Hearing this, her stepmother sighed.
“You have certainly been through a lot,” she said, “but I think I can help you. Meet me here next week, and I will bring you a corset you can wear that will make it seem like you aren’t breathing. When the old men find you, I will ride by and take your body back to the castle and revive you. Your death will remove you from your contract, and then you can rule your country.” Snow White was still a little unsure of this; three years of suspicion take some time to go away. However, she decided to have her stepmother use the corset on herself first so Snow White would know it would not kill her, and so agreed to the plan. They hugged some more, and then Snow White hopped on her horse and returned with the berries to the cottage with the old men.
The week between meetings passed boringly (as most of Snow White’s weeks did), and she was hopeful and excited when she rode out to the berry bush. She greeted her stepmother joyfully, the corset was demonstrated, and Snow White happily headed home. She put on the corset in her little attic room, headed downstairs, and soon fainted. However, the old men simply loosened the corset, woke her up, and told her to continue cooking dinner. Of course, her stepmother rode by to check on her and found her breathing, and they quickly planned though hand signals to meet again at the berry bush next week.
Seven days later, Snow White once again rode out to the berry bush, and her stepmother once again greeted her kindly.
“Here,” she said, “Is a comb that I have laced with a sleeping drought. Put it in your hair and you will rest as dead until I come along.”
Snow White took it, thanked her, and want back home. Once again, she went upstairs, put her comb in her hair, and went downstairs only to fall in a heap at the bottom step. And, once again, the old men simply saw the comb, removed it, and asked her to cook dinner.
The next week, Snow White meet with her stepmother at the berry bush for the third time.
“This,” said her stepmother, after the prerequisite hugs, “is an apple. Bite it, and the skin will keep you asleep until it is removed.”
“Surely the old men won’t find this!” exclaimed Snow White, “Thank you!” Hopeful again, Snow White quickly returned home, ate her apple outside the door (for she did not want to fall down the stairs again), walked into the cottage, and fell into a death-like faint. The old men searched her body for a comb or a corset, but they could not find anything. Distressed at the loss of their servant, they dragged Snow White’s body outside to bury her.
“What shall we do?” asked one man. “We’ve lost our cook!”
“And our maid!” exclaimed another.
“And our huntress!”
“And our messenger!”
“And our berry-gather!”
“And our groom!”
“She will be missed,” concluded the oldest of the old men.
At that moment, the stepmother rode by and approached the old men, tears streaming down her face.
“Oh no!” she cried. “Is that my stepdaughter there? I have missed her all these years!”
The old men were quite impressed, for they recognized the queen of the neighboring country, and they all bowed deeply.
“Is it?” asked one of them. “Had we known, we would have brought her back to you.”
“And we had nothing to do with her death,” assured another. “She just died on her own, we promise.” The others nodded urgently.
“We gave her a home and food for four years,” added the oldest, managing a sniffle. “We feel her loss as keenly as you do.”
“I’m sure you do,” replied the stepmother, with as much sincerity as the man she responded to. “May I at least take her body to bury her next to her father?”
“Of course, of course,” agreed the old men, eager to avoid digging a grave.
“Here’s her horse!” offered the youngest of the old men. The others all looked at him.
“What?!” he protested, “We’re too big for it anyway!”
The stepmother gently lifted her daughter onto her horse’s back and took the reins of the little horse. She nodded tearfully at the men and left the clearing. As soon as she entered her own country, she dismounted and pressed against Snow White’s chest to dislodge the apple from her throat. Sputtering, Snow White sat up.
“It worked!” she exclaimed, and hugged her stepmother.
“It did,” smiled her stepmother. She finished the hug and curtseyed deeply. “Now, my Queen, it is time for you to learn how to rule your country. You’ve missed a couple years of classes, after all.” Together, the stepmother and the queen rode their horses to the castle, and, with the help of her stepmother, Snow White brought her people their happily ever after.