How Snow White and Her Cruel Stepmother Help Us Cope with Evil

Queen evil stepmother post

“Mirror mirror on the wall, who in this land is fairest of all?”

Whether we first heard these words read to us as a bedtime story, or in a darkened theater, enthralled by the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, (where it was actually “Magic mirror on the wall,” although most people remember it otherwise), the queen’s imperious question casts a spell. We know trouble will soon follow. Even the littlest girls get it and hold their breath in anticipation and concern. “Fairest of all” shocks us with its competitive edge, touching a core part of our feminine selves. Attractiveness, it presumes, determines our status and value as a female. Beauty, we will come to understand, is an asset, but also a curse.

Queen and mirror for Stepmother evil postVanity and envy are the twin engines that drive the story of “Sneewittchen,” the title used by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm when they recorded the folktale in 1812. It became “Little Snow-White” in English translations based on the Grimms’ final 1857 version of the tale. Most fairy tales originate as oral stories repeated over generations and reflect older strata of cultural development when humans lived closer to nature and the membrane between the real and the imagined was more porous. Birds spoke to humans, the wind was a spirit, and giants trod the earth. The collected fairy tales we know today are a distillation of many iterations, the product of countless imaginations told by many tellers. But despite their ancient origins, fairy tales remain relevant to our postmodern selves and depict the dramas of the human soul, one of which is the confrontation with evil. This frequent motif reflects our experiences with destructive forces symbolized by giants, trolls, witches and monsters. The tales suggest ways to recognize and discern good from evil and provide solutions to life-threatening challenges.

Drupsteen Queen for Stepmother Evil postFairy tales set down no single way to deal with evil. In some stories, the heroine outsmarts the opposition, as Gretel does in “Hansel and Gretel” when she pushes the witch into her own oven. In other tales, flattery wins over the devil; in others, a physical battle is required. Sometimes the hero, aided by magical helpers, must become invisible so as not to be seen by the enemy or must simply fly away. In fairy tales characters are typological rather than psychological. They encapsulate known “types” rather than individuals—the king, the queen, the fisherman and his greedy wife, the selfish sisters, the abandoned child. This makes it easy to identify victims and perpetrators.

By taking a closer look at these absolute types, we can spot what roles have dominated our psyches.

Evil is a source of suffering, but enduring suffering brings with it a new level of consciousness, a mature personality, and if we are lucky, wisdom. Fairy tales often begin with a state of deficiency. The king has died or the queen is barren or the poor miller has no money. A crisis ensues that begets suffering, symbolic of psychological pain. The hero or heroine takes up the task to resolve the crisis and end the suffering; radical transformation is in the making. Just so, crises in our own lives can precipitate a search for meaning and a transformation of self.

Peddler Witch for Evil Stepmother postIn “Little Snow-White,” a stepdaughter is persecuted by a stepmother for having something the latter wants: youth and beauty. As in real life, envy provides the fuel for ruthless behavior. In the case of Snow White, the envier demands nothing less than the total annihilation of the envied one.

The D. L Ashliman translation of the 1857 version of “Little Snow-White opens this way:

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.

Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.

The opening scene occurs in winter when life is buried under a layer of coldness. A wistful mother longs for a child, a daughter like herself. She pricks her finger and drops of blood splatter on the frozen ground, hinting at an ominous situation to come. We soon learn that when the child is born, the mother dies. Here, then, is the deficiency at the beginning of the tale: the absent mother and the motherless child. We are next told that the king, now mentioned for the first time, has taken another wife, “a proud and arrogant” woman. The new queen is Snow White’s stepmother.

In fairy tale language, the stepmother embodies traits we associate with evil: rage, envy, jealousy, greed, self-absorption, cunning cleverness, and uncanny powers. Rarely do we meet a kindly stepmother, for like all fairy tale figures, the stepmother is an archetypal symbol not an illustration of a real individual whose feelings, emotions, and thoughts we are privy to. The wicked stepmother contains all that we fear and loathe in the feminine, a female devil whose diabolical nature and brutality frighten us. Unlike her male counterparts, the monsters and Bluebeards who inhabit other tales and engage in bloody combat and wizardry, the witch/stepmother’s weapons of choice are more devious— gossip, poison, and directing others to do her dirty work. Her power to bewitch and the inexhaustible amount of energy she expends to carry out her nasty wishes is the stuff of nightmares. She is the hag on a broomstick, mad Bertha locked in the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre; she is Cruella De Vil. In fact, in a 2014 UK survey, one-third of the 2,000 adults polled voted the Evil Queen in “Snow White” to be “the scariest fairy tale character of all time.”

Dwarfs remove comb for Evil Stepmother postAs a universal figure, the witch or stepmother or evil-doing woman reappears in fairy tales across time and continents. That she is a mother and cruel engenders in us a peculiar dread. The wicked mother figure presents a paradox: if we are to survive childhood, we need our mothers to nurture us, but the evil mother wishes to devour our being. We fear her ravenous desire for power, her one-sided narcissism and obsessive nature as we fear our own hunger for power and rage, the split-off and dissociated qualities in ourselves C. G. Jung called our shadow, those despised parts of self we project onto others. In psychological terms, the denial of what is most troubling in us is a primitive defense mechanism that strives to keep us ignorant of what we are unwilling to face. In “Snow White” we have the positive and negative aspects of the feminine self. While the queen is “all bad,” Snow White is too good, too pure, too innocent, and thus unable to discern the evil in her midst. Psychologically speaking, the unacknowledged dark forces within her have been projected onto her stepmother. However, being “the good one” does not prevent suffering; in her regressed childlike state, Snow White is vulnerable; she fails the test of each of the three temptations offered by the queen, and becomes immured in a glass coffin.

Fairy tales and dreams share a compensatory function in alerting us to unconscious elements in our psyches. The witchy woman in our dreams may well symbolize some stifled, raging, but unrecognized part of ourselves. The stepmother stands in contradistinction to “the good mother” whose qualities lie on the other end of the spectrum. The “good mother” is all loving, giving, caring, beautiful, kind. But she is often too passive, too innocent, or too weary to protect her child. In this tale as in many others, the good mother dies at the outset, leaving the daughter the task of having to find the path to maturity.

For Snow White, the death of her real mother and the arrival of a stepmother appears to portend disaster, but the challenges presented by the new queen’s cruelty are actually good news for Snow White. As Terri Windling notes in her wonderful blog post “Snow, Glass, Apples: The Story of Snow White,” “Unlike sons who set off to win their fortune, who are journeying toward adventure, the daughters are outcasts, running away. The princes usually return at the end of the story, bringing treasure and magical brides. Princesses do not return; they must forge new lives, new alliances.”

Queen poison for evil stepmother postBy forcing her to leave home, grow up, and discover who she is, the stepmother’s malevolence moves our heroine along the path to self-discovery and resilience ending in her psychological growth. The cruel queen makes three attempts to kill her competition, and with each attempt the younger woman is seduced by her own desire and narcissism, accepting the laces, poisoned comb, and ultimately the poisoned apple from the disguised queen. Until she faces the existence of evil and her own naiveté, Snow White will remain a child.

If you’d like to chew on one aspect of this story, consider this:  “Little Snow White” is a story about emotional development set in motion by the arrival of evil. The tale has a satisfying ending: the evil queen dances herself “to death in red-hot iron shoes.” Yet we must remember: we have the evil to thank for the plot twists that lead to Snow White’s awakening. In stories as in life, evil sometimes gets the ball rolling. Without the evil stepmother, there would be no story.

Dance for us! Marcel Mercado http://www.marcelmercado.com evil stepmother post



Five Remedies for Writer’s Envy

Envy by Giotto 1306A close friend you cherish, a relative, your partner—someone you love and care about—wins the award, gets the job or the raise you thought was in your pocket; charms the socks off the guy you’ve adored from afar, sails for a month-long vacation—attains exactly the goodies you’ve secretly coveted.

Because you do care about the lucky person, you share in the happiness of their good fortune. Well, mostly. Your smiley face congratulations is hearty enough, but isn’t it sometimes tainted by a tightening in your gut, a cold gust sweeping your heart?

If you’re like me, you’re horrified and ashamed that your joy for the other isn’t unconditional, but what a relief to realize envy is part of human nature across continents and down the eons. What child hasn’t made loathsome comparisons between self and other, smoldered with envy, felt envy gulp down their confidence? What child hasn’t suffered the humiliating experience of feeling less than, having less than, wanting more? Who of us hasn’t worried we’re flawed or sinful (see the Bible for brutal stories of envious sibling rivalry), felt cheated when the goodies were doled out?

Most of us identify with the innocent, blameless characters in stories. I am not—the evil stepsister, the vengeful queen, the brother who rats on his brother and steals his inheritance—those archetypal figures we know so well as moral disasters. Aren’t we more inclined to identify with the all-good, too-good Cinderella, express sympathy for the pure and virtuous Snow White? It’s true that today’s heroines have become sassier, edgier, more complicated, but still their strength and fury, like those of their male counterparts, are usually directed toward admirably heroic undertakings.

Frans de Waal narrates a video of his experiment in which two capuchin monkeys are paid unequally.

But whether we admit it or not, we all experience envy. “There is not a passion so strongly rooted in the human heart as envy,” wrote the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ain’t it the truth! But it’s just so dang painful to admit that cruelty and betrayal lurk within. I would never have the courage to look at envy so directly, let alone write about it, if I had not come to recognize its universal nature and to understand that denying envy only reinforces its snarky, trickster, debilitating aspects.

Even if we ignore them, the disliked, disowned envious parts of ourselves don’t go away, they simply get projected onto the Other, often in the form of blame. So, along with the personal suffering envy causes, it might well be responsible for most wars and murders on the planet.

meg_jo_beth_and_amy_by_jessie_willcox_smith_wood_wall_art-r023ecc7054f848968dfe9c28135f6c21_z2skx_512A new realm of Envy Hell opened up to me after I became a published writer. Google “Writer’s Envy” and a whole host of links appear. This is no surprise since we artists have our eye on immortality, and fame is a very small ship onto which many hope to sail. I do find it ironic that while envy is the engine that drives many works of literature—think Agamemnon taking Briseis from Achilles and Achilles sulking in his tent for three years; Iago envying Othello or Edmund Edgar in King Lear; or Amy March’s envy of Jo in Little Women. Authors are forever weaving plots around envy; we are mighty resistant to ‘fessing up about our own.

As a commercially published writer, I have certainly felt both the discomfort of being envied and the equally painful experience of being the envier. To be the envied one causes its own set of difficulties. By definition, the envied receives the projected anger and resentment of the envier whose attacks maybe come across as confusingly passive aggressiveness or as blatant sabotage. Envy is a master at wearing costumes: the gratuitous smile, the devious offers to help. The storybook witches of our childhood abide in our adult imagination. Can’t we still feel the uncanny thrill, the fear and delicious trepidation of being invited by a kindly old lady into the gingerbread house? Envy seems to put us to a test: first we need to recognize and acknowledge its existence, then we are asked to decide how to be in relationship to it. (Run away; hide our face; attack with a weapon; cajole; outwit; succumb; reform. The possibilities are many.)

Dore Pur_12_arachneMyths and fairy tales tell us the gods can be jealous, even ruinous. These stories work well as cautionary tales to warn us not only of the gods that strike from above, but depict representations of the archetypal forces in the human psyche and ask us to consider how envy motivates us from within. For her hubris at claiming to be a better weaver than Athena, Arachne is turned into a spider. We know what happened to Icarus when he, attempting to fly like the gods, flew too near to the sun.

Three thousand years ago, the Buddha recognized envy as one of the root causes of suffering and suggested to his students that they develop genuine happiness for the success of others—mudita in Pali—one of the four brahma-viharas, practices that cultivate our highest human virtues. Mudita or vicarious joy encourages us to develop the opposite of a scarcity mentality that supposes there is only so much happiness to go around. Scarcity mentality is in part responsible for envy since the envier feels the other’s good fortune diminishes the possibility of her own.

May I be happy

May you be happy

May we be at peace

These are simple, elegant phrases I use when I become conscious of envy’s presence. Practicing these cleansing loving-kindness phrases has a quality of restorative justice, whereby I remember that envy, being a universal trait, is yet one more oddball way I am connected to the human race.

Other remedies?

  1. Laugh at oneself! Just plain sit down in a chair and think of the absurdity of assuming life is fair. Fairness was conceived by mankind. The nature of Nature is something altogether other.
  2. Recognize envy is universal condition. You are not being singled out. Every wisdom tradition includes instructions about envy. Educate yourself.
  3. Especially if you are a writer dealing with writer’s envy. It soothes the soul to read writers you love.
  4. Devise a ritual or ceremony to deal with envy. Invest a stone with your uncomfortable feelings and bury it. Light a candle and recite a wish. Draw a picture of envy or the feelings it arises, then burn the drawing and scatter the ashes. Using your creative energies in this way ignites and inspires the good muses to hang around.
  5. Talk to a trusted friend about envy. Find out you are not alone.

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