The Norton volume of fairy tales, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, edited by Jack Zipes, includes two tales under the thematic heading “Virtuous Queens.” They are two variants of a story sometimes referred to as “The Girl without Hands,” or “The Armless Maiden” – a tale of a girl who is attacked and disfigured, but whose worth is proven by her body’s mystical ability to cause precious objects to appear. The two versions collected here, however, are united not only by parallel plot structures, but also by the appellation of our maimed but magical heroine: Straparola’s “Biancabella and the Snake” and Jean de Mailly’s “Blanche Belle” both feature a maiden who takes her name from her fair features; in de Mailly’s tale, she is explicitly noted to have been named for her very white skin.
At the time I encountered this volume, I was prepping a class on Fables and Tales, and had been on the lookout for variants of the classic tale of Snow White, so the names of these stories caught my eye. Reading them, I was soon disabused of the idea that these were variants of the Snow White tale; not only are they missing many of the classic tropes we associate with the Grimm Brothers’ (and Disney’s) Snow White (the magic mirror, the poisoned apple, true love’s kiss), they also follow a largely different plot structure. Straparola’s story features a Queen impregnated by a magic snake, who gives birth to a beautiful daughter with a grass snake coiled around her neck. The snake gives the girl gifts of divine beauty and grace, but also the more quixotic features of hair that sheds jewels and arms that excrete flowers. Biancabella’s gifts catch the eye of the king of Naples, and he makes her his wife. Tragically, he must leave her to go off to war, and when he does, his stepmother and stepsisters plot against Biancabella, driving her from the palace – but not before having her hands cut off and her eyes gouged out. Biancabella is cared for by an old couple and their three daughters, and eventually she is healed by the snake who then sheds her snakeskin and reveals herself as a beautiful maiden, declaring that she is Bianca’s sister, Samaritana. The two set up Bianca’s benefactors in luxury, and finally seek out the king, who, when Biancabella’s true identity is revealed, rejoices to have her back and burns the offending womenfolk in a red-hot furnace. The story nearly buries one in masses of plot and symbolism that have little if anything to connect them to the story of Snow White.
And yet, there are some similarities: a beautiful young heroine, an older and jealous not-mother (Don’t fairy tales always villainize anyone who’s kind-of-but-not-quite a mother – stepmothers, adoptive mothers, and mothers-in-law? In Straparola’s story, we have double trouble – she’s a stepmother-in-law). There’s also a missing male, which leads to a foiled murder plot, culminating in a healthy dose of comeuppance for the evil and unnatural not-mother – all narrative features that suggest an affinity with the story of Snow White.
Then again, the jealous not-mother is a common enough motif in fairy tales. Indeed, the one in Straparola’s tale almost seems more reminiscent of Cinderella’s evil matriarch, since she “had two ugly and nasty daughters, and she had a desire to marry one of them to the king” (410). Continuing the echoes of Cinderella, the climax of the story turns on the trope of recognition – the King must recognize the strange woman newly arrived in Naples from Persia as his own wife Biancabella, and realize that the creature masquerading as his wife is a fraud.
But in the midst of all the very un-Snow White details appears a startling moment of resemblance, in a passage describing the jealous stepmother-in-law’s plot to destroy Biancabella:
Soon thereafter, the malicious and impetuous stepmother made plans to kill Biancabella. She called two of her most loyal servants and commanded them to take Biancabella with them to some place for her amusement and they were not to leave until they had killed her. Moreover, to make sure that her servants would carry out her orders, the stepmother demanded some sign of her death… Pretending that they wanted to take Biancabella to someplace where she could amuse herself, they conducted her to some woods, where they prepared to kill her. But when they saw how lovely and gracious she was, they were moved to pity and decided not to murder her. But they cut off both her hands from her body and tore her eyes out of her head to prove to the stepmother that Biancabella had been killed by them. Then the odious and cruel woman examined the proof, she was very pleased and paid them for their work. (410)
Like Snow White, Biancabella is enticed into the woods, ostensibly as an amusing outing, but in reality to provide a secluded setting for her murder – the execution of which is to be corroborated with proofs in the form of excised body parts. Not only the fraudulent sylvan romp, and the fabricated corporeal evidence, but also the morally stricken servants choosing to “spare” the heroine, can’t help but remind us of Snow White. This scene is a key feature of nearly every version of the Snow White story.
The Disney film, in particular, really plays it up. After the dramatic warning of the huntsman, Snow is plunged into an extended forest-themed acid trip of terror. But the horrors of the forest are quickly revealed to exist only in Snow White’s imagination. In reality, hers is a forest filled with bunnies, birds, and bambis, and she chides herself for ever having been afraid: “I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made.” Disney seems to want to convince us that the huntsman is truly a stand-up guy for setting Snow White free; he’s represented as being genuinely distraught at the prospect of harming her, and since we are assured that Snow White is never in any real danger when he leaves her in the forest, it’s easy to believe in his good intentions.
The literary judgment of this figure is harsher. The Grimms are quick to dispel any mistaken belief in the huntsman’s honor:
So he left her by herself; and though he thought it most likely that the wild beasts would tear her in pieces, he felt as if a great weight were taken off his heart when he had made up his mind not to kill her, but to leave her to her fate. (177-8)
The blatant bad faith displayed by the huntsman – who believes that as long as he doesn’t kill her with his own hands he avoids all moral culpability for the certain death he leaves her to – is undeniable in this rendering of the scene. Readers of this tale can have no illusions about the huntsman’s moral worth.
The Grimms’ huntsman strongly echoes the servants of “Biancabella”, whose idea of mercy includes brutally mutilating a young woman, and leaving her blind, bleeding, and helpless in the woods – did I mention she was pregnant at the time? And the detail that, on reporting to the stepmother, they are “paid… for their work” seems to indict them even further; while some renditions of the huntsman represent him as fearing for his life if he incites the villain’s rage, Straparola’s emphasis on what the servants have to gain makes their motives seem even more selfish.
In both stories, the episode also seems to raise the question of true faith. The huntsman and servants have a kind of conversion experience, in which they suddenly question their blind obedience to the queen, but this conversion doesn’t impact them deeply enough to overcome their own egoism; they recognize that the victimization of the heroine is wrong, but are only willing to act on this belief insofar as it requires no actual risk to themselves.
In a story that features a character named “Samaritana,” the import of this moment is clear. Indeed, both Straparola and the Grimms present us with a morality play of true charity and false charity: characters like the dwarves and the old couple who make genuine sacrifices to aid those in need, and moral charlatans, who go about patting themselves on the back for being slightly kinder than a murderous evil queen.
So this brief moment of convergence that collapses Snow White into Biancabella actually points us to a deeper thematic concern that permeates both stories. And this moment of collapse illuminates each story in turn – both insofar as it reveals a significant similarity and as it challenges us to examine the divergence of the plots between which the episode migrates. In a previous post, I discussed the suitability of Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances as a model for intertextual relationships in folklore. These tales of Straparola and the Grimms exemplify this type of relationship perfectly; while there’s enough divergence to make it difficult to view these as variants on the same story, or even belonging to the same tale type, there are nonetheless significant enough points of resemblance to suggest that these stories must be understood as branches of a single narrative genealogy.
In my Fables and Tales class, reading and discussing “Biancabella and the Snake” has served as a means for reexamining fairy tale tropes that appear in both the Snow White and Cinderella tales (which we read earlier in the semester), as well as the role of women and the representation of female agency in fairy tales more generally. I usually start by asking my students whether they feel the story has more in common with Snow White or Cinderella, and let them all weigh in. From there we list the story elements which recur across the three stories, and examine whether the meaning of each shifts when they are embedded in different plots. Ultimately, it allows us to have a conversation about the nature of literary influence and migration, allusion, and intertextuality, as well as how examining texts in dialogue with each other provides unique and useful insight into each.
If you’re interested in learning about more variants of the Snow White story, see my other Snow White post:
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Snow-drop.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Iona and Peter Opie. Print. Oxford UP, 1980.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1937.
Straparola, Giovan Francesco. “Biancabella and the Snake”. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. Ed. Jack Zipes. Norton, 2001.