Story and TheoryWhat Different Folklore TheoriesCan Tell Us About“The White Snake”Presented by Victoria Harkavy
Historical-GeographicalThe Finnish SchoolThe Finnish SchoolIsolating tale type and motifs, findingregional variants.
Tale Type“ATU: The White Serpent’s Flesh. Contrary to warning, a servant (cook) eats theflesh of a white serpent (from the king’s pot), whereupon he understands thespeech of animals...When he is accused of stealing a ring this knowledgeenables him to prove his innocence. By overhearing the conversation of duckshe learns that one of them has swallowed the queen’s ring that fell from thewindow. He orders the duck to be slaughtered, the ring is found, and he issaved...This Type is usually found in combination with type 554” (Uther, 370).“ATU 554: The Grateful Animals. This miscellaneous type comprises varioustales dealing with helpful deeds of grateful animals. In numerous tales the typeoccurs only as episode. Most of the variants present the following basicstructure: A man while travelling meets three animals (from air, water, andearth) who are in trouble. because he rescues them, they promise to help himif needed. Later he falls in love with a princess whose father sets threeimpossible tasks for him to accomplish. With the help of the grateful animalshe succeeds on three successive days...and wins the princess.” (Uther, 324)
Where Are Versions Found?ATU 673 has documented versions from thefollowing areas/ethnic groups: Finnish, Estonian,Latvian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Scottish,Irish, French, German, Czech, Slovakian,Slovene, Serbian, Polish, Byelorussian,Ukrainian,Turkish, Mari, Georgian, Saudia Arabian,Chinese, and Brazilian
MotifsB217.1.1. Animal languages learnedfrom eating serpent.N451. Secrets overheard from animal(demon) conversation.B571. Animals perform tasks forman./H982. Animals help man performtask.B582.2. Animals help hero winprincess.H13188.8.131.52. Quest for magic apple.D1905.2. Apple divided and eaten aslove charm.http://cakelurking.blogspot.com/2012/06/grimm-tales-posh-grounds.html
The Historical-ReconstructionalSchoolCertain elements of this story mayreflect pre-Christian Germanic beliefs.The sacrifice of the hero’s horse toravens reflects equine sacrifice to thechief Norse god, Odin, who is servedby ravens who act as messenger-spies. The learning of animal languageby consuming a serpent relates toactions of Sigurd, who consumed theheart of the dragon, Fafnir and couldthen understand the language of birds.http://www.craftycelts.com/Jewelry/Clasps/Norse_Raven_Cloak_Clasp.html
IdeologicalThe Grimms believed that by collectingand publishing folktales they were helpingto preserve the German past. This wasespecially important in the face of theFrench conquest of Europe underNapoleon Bonaparte. The brothers felttheir collection of fairy tales supportedtheir German Idealist values bycontributing to a shared sense of historyand language that unified the Germanpeople. The elevation of servant to royalstatus and the invocation of ancientGerman motifs may have appealed to theGrimms.http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dorothea_Viehmann.JPG
FunctionalThe Grimms’ themselves espousedtheir fairy tale collection as tool formoral teaching. The hero of “The WhiteSnake,” in helping the fish, ants, andravens, shows “compassion andhumility” (Tatar, 89) and is thus able toovercome a lack of class status.The story also reinforces the preferredcharacteristic of women, docility, inframing the princess as an oppositionalfigure whose “arrogance” must beovercome.“The White Snake” may also expresssome wish/ideal fulfillment in thatsomeone of the servant class is able tosubsume the ability and ultimately theposition of royalty.http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/52200/52219/52219_spindle.htm
PsychoanalyticalFreudian:Snakes represent male genitalia. The hoarding of the white snakemay represents the patriarch’s desire to be the soul bearer ofmale procreative power. The servant’s desire to taste the snakerepresents the Oedipal desire of the son to take the place of thefather.The golden apples represent breasts; the princess eats the applesand embraces the feminine nurturing principle by acceptingmarriageJungian:“The horse-sacrifice signifies a renunciation of the world”(Hannah, 103).Ants represent unconscious impulses that can aid the hero whenhe gives into them.
StructuralThe hero of “The White Snake”functions as his own donor anddispatcher, having taken and eaten ofthe white snake without permission.He also chooses to leave homewithout being expelled or set on anyparticular quest. These are not part ofthe “sphere of action of the hero”according to Propp.The grateful animals “begin asdonors...then become [the hero’s]helpers” (Propp)The king/princess operates in thecharacteristic sphere of action:assigning of difficult tasks, marriage.http://cakelurking.blogspot.com/2012/06/grimm-tales-posh-grounds.html
ContextualContextual theory is difficult to apply tohistoric text collections, because there wasno way of recording the performance itself.Many scholars have identified the telling oftales by women performing domestic work.The Grimms often invited storytellers intotheir home specifically for the purpose ofrecording their stories.“The White Snake” may have beencontributed to the collection by thedaughters of the German, aristocratichouse of Von Haxthausen or thebourgeois, Huguenot Hassenpflugs.http://www.zeno.org/nid/20004257596
Reference ListDorson, Richard. 1972. Introduction: concepts of folklore and folklife studies. In Folkloreand folklife: an introduction, ed. R. Dorson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Paradiz, Valerie. 2005. Clever maids: the secret history of the Grimm fairy tales.New York: Basic Books.Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the folktale. 2nd ed. Translated by Laurence Scott.Revised and Edited by Louis A. Wagner. Austin: University of Texas Press.Tatar, Maria. 2003. The hard facts of the Grimms’ fairy tales. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press.Thompson, Stith. 1955-58. Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements infolktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and locallegends. Revised and enlarged edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: IndianaUniversity Press.Uther, Hans-Jörg, and Folklore Fellows. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: aClassification andBibliography, Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. FF Communications no.284-286. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica.Zipes, Jack, trans. and ed. 2003. The complete fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York:Bantam Books.