What Tatar urges in her deft and thoughtful introduction is that we read each variation, whether it is from West Africa, Afghanistan or China, with equal attention. For once Snow White, “the fairest of them all”, migrates into cultures with a history of slavery and race discrimination, a whole new of possible meanings emerges. This provides a way of thinking about how fairytales reveal more than the essentially early 20th-century upper bourgeois insights of Freudian psychoanalysts. There are plenty of examples of mother-daughter rivalries in these tales to be sure, but there is so much more of the material and temporal world – food, hunger, disease and war – too.
Shocking yet familiar, these stories of regeneration and transformation even when written down retain the secret whisper of storytelling. This is a properly magical, erudite book that follows Snow White’s trail into the darker forests of the human psyche in which she originated.
Visually it is stunning, with vibrant colour and brilliant line presenting vivid contrasts between light and dark, beauty and ugliness, goodness and wickedness. It is partly sentimental, like most Disney confections, but also very frightening. Children who take a reading of the story in their stride have to be escorted out of the cinema version. Tatar makes some strong points about both Disney and Grimm; but everything, even the book’s title, hangs on one key erroneous assumption — that in fairy stories, as in many other contexts, the designations ‘mother’ and ‘stepmother’ are synonymous and interchangeable