Snow in Cameroon: An African take on the story of Snow White

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts on fairy tales in general, and Snow White in particular, you’ll know that I’ve invested some time into researching variants of classic fairy tales for my course on Fables and Tales. I start each unit asking my students to revisit something that’s likely familiar – a classic fairy tale with a prominent place in American culture – but to bring a new critical and analytical perspective to it. I then further complicate our discussions by introducing students to different variations on the story — sometimes older origins, sometimes new adaptations, and often parallel tales from another culture or geographic region. For Snow White, for example, I knew I wanted compare multiple film versions (the Disney classic, with the updated adaptations in Snow White and the Huntsman and Blancanieves), alongside the foundational Grimm fairy tale, and a tangential but intersecting story by Straparola called “Biancabella and the Snake.” But the most interesting intersection I discovered came entirely by serendipity. I read numerous books of folktales from various countries looking for materials, and quite by accident I came across a story in a collection of African tales that strongly evoked the story of Snow White, but confounded my ability to map the narrative logic of one onto the other.

The story is entitled “The Favored Daughter.” It appears in a volume of folktales collected by Harold Scheub, the UW Madison linguist who made a name for himself by literally walking 3,000 miles across South Africa recording oral narratives. Incidentally, Scheub details his experience collecting these stories and watching the performances of storytellers in a video produced by Madison; I like to show my students clips from this video to give them some background for understanding the place of folklore and storytelling in culture and social practice, and also for when, how, and to what extent, the Western world has gained access to and knowledge of African cultural production.

This particular story is cited in African Tales (2005) as originating with the Batanga and Mpongwe peoples who inhabit Cameroon and Gabon. It does not call itself a Snow White story, and certainly its heroine is not described to have skin white as snow. In fact, so far I have not found a single reference to this story in relation to Snow White. And yet, the parallels are startling.

The young heroine, Ilâmbe, is beloved by her father but hated by his favorite wife Ngwekonde, being the biological daughter of a different wife. When her father leaves town, he leaves Ilâmbe in charge, and though she is careful to treat her stepmother fairly, Ngwekonde resents the favor her husband has shown to Ilâmbe. Being adept in sorcery, Ngwekonde casts a spell that causes Ilâmbe to wander into the woods and become lost. Once she is far from help, Ngwekonde beats her and leaves her to die in the forest. But Ilâmbe walks until she finds a house, where she enters and prepares food for herself and the unknown owners, who are out at work. The homeowners, a group of men, return, and after hearing Ilâmbe’s story they agree that she can stay with them, vowing, “None of us shall marry her. She shall be our sister… We will take good care of you” (28). She cooks for them while they go off to work. But there is danger afoot: a malicious visitor may threaten Ilâmbe’s life. Before leaving in the morning, the men warn Ilâmbe to remain in the house and not to open the door. But Ilâmbe cannot escape the danger, and when the men find her lifeless body, they play out a familiar scene:

“When they had made a coffin and placed her in it, they refrained from burying it, for the body looked so lifelike and did not decay. So they kept it suspended in the air, and daily they went to look at her face” (29).

Not only does the narrative structure of the folktale closely parallel the Grimm classic, even the peculiar “coffin-cum-display case” trope that features so prominently in “Snow White” makes an appearance.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of very significant differences. The warning issued by Ilâmbe’s group of male caregivers concerns not the wicked stepmother who drove her from home and attempted to kill her, but a unique danger tied to her place of refuge:

“Be very careful. Sometimes there is a certain big bird that comes here and picks up people and kills them” (28-29).

Though my students often suggest that, through her sorcery, the stepmother may in some way be behind the appearance of the bird (perhaps she sent the bird, or the bird is really the stepmother in disguise), I think it is our desire to map the Snow White plot neatly onto this narrative more than any clues in the text itself that lead us to suspect this.

But it’s not the nature of the threat itself, but the impact on the heroine that represents the greatest departure. First, in the Grimm telling (and in most versions of the tale), Snow White is to a certain degree culpable in her own victimization, as she disregards the dwarves’ warning and invites her attacker into her home. Ilâmbe, on the other hand, seems to heed the men’s direction to stay in the house with the doors and windows shut during “the usual time of the coming of the bird [which] was at noon” (29), yet this does not save her:

“And the bird came at an unusual hour, and it killed Ilâmbe” (29).

The most careful plans, prudent action, and best intentions cannot save Ilâmbe from the unpredictable caprices of death. And unlike the “sleeping-death” of Snow White, there is no hint that Ilâmbe’s condition is a mere semblance of death; the story closes without any miraculous resurrection, only a projection of infinite repetitions of the men’s daily vigil of mourning.

Unsurprisingly, my students tend to be baffled and discontented by not only the refusal of “The Favored Daughter” to provide the happy resolution we know from the Snow White tale, but also the apparent meaninglessness of Ilâmbe’s death. We are used to our fairy tales assuring us of the order underlying the world – the cosmic justice of virtue rewarded and evil punished. Not only does the randomness of “the bird [coming] at an unusual hour” defy our sense of order, but the death of the virtuous heroine defies that just conclusion.

In this way, “The Favored Daughter” serves as a useful tool  to contrast to the patterns and expectations associated with the Western fairy tale. Against this foil, students can see more clearly the metaphysical and moral thrust of the Snow White tale. It also opens up a broader conversation about the function of storytelling, as we think through how we respond to a story like this, and why such a story might be told.

Many of my students come to the conclusion that the story ultimately serves to help us come to grips with the precarious state of human life, and the fact that death can come at any moment. While I find this explanation persuasive, I also like to propose that the world of this story is not so chaotic as it seems. Instead, the resolution we seek is displaced from where we expect to find it. Traditional fairy tales tend to effect their cosmic justice on the level of the individual, by ensuring that the hero/heroine is transported to an extraordinary life. But “The Favored Daughter” offers resolution only once we look beyond the limits of the individual life. Ilâmbe dies, yet her qualities have made such an impact on the community that the impact of her life is felt within her community far beyond the extent of her short lifetime. She exceeds her own life in the effect she has on others, and in the love and veneration that outlast her. Perhaps this suggests an audience for whom the community is more important than the individual – one in which the enduring love of the men proves that Ilâmbe’s qualities were known and appreciated, and therefore her life achieved fulfillment.

But it’s precisely the ways in which “The Favored Daughter” not only upends the traditional Snow White structure, but also destabilizes familiar patterns of narrative totality and meaningfulness, that make it such interesting fodder for discussion.

 

If you’re interested in learning about more variants of the Snow White story, see my other Snow White posts: 

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