Snow White’s been making the rounds, have you noticed? We’ve had the movie Mirror, Mirror which was supposedly a story about the evil stepmother; there was also that movie with Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth and that other actress; we’ve had the series Once Upon A Time which incorporated pretty much all known and popular fairy tale characters but led by Snow White, and we have this. Another masterful retelling of a fairy tale from THE master of retellings, Gregory Maguire.
Yes, I am well aware that this book came long before those movies and tv show came out, but I’ve only finished reading this last Sunday, so I’m way behind the Snow White bandwagon.
Let’s see. The beauty of Maguire’s retellings is that he contextualizes the original tales, giving them history but without taking away the magical elements from the stories. In Wicked, he painted an entire history for the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her depth, making the reader sympathize with such supposed wickedness. In Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister, he turns the tables around and makes Cinderella the evil stepsister. As for history and context, this sad perspective from Iris, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, has as its setting seventeenth century Holland. I don’t know much about that time, so I’ll leave it at that. In Lost, which isn’t so much a retelling as one big allusion to the Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, we find that Ebenezer Scrooge may have been based on a real-life fictional person. Confusing last bit, I know, but I hope you get the point.
Maguire doesn’t just give us the pretty parts of the fairy tale; he gives us everything, from the disgusting to the sad to the confusing and infuriating and hopeful and magical and the real. He takes the glamour out of the fairy tales and presents us with something not necessarily more palatable but more sensible, I suppose, even with the supernatural elements.
Take the seven dwarves, for instance. In Mirror, Mirror, the dwarves are not human-like as the original stories tell. They are not like Gimli nor like Willow nor like Tyrion; they are, instead, initially like boulders, until they were given features by the humans who first come across them. Bianca de Nevada (Snow White), comes across seven of them and gives them human-like features when she first awakes in their home. Her father, on the other hand, gives the eighth dwarf (spoiler, sorry), rather dog-like physical characteristics. But how is this even remotely sensible? I find it sensible because in each culture there will always be some earthly supernatural being that pre-dates anything we could ever scientifically know. And because these creatures exist in a multitude of cultures in different forms, I find this version of living boulders more sensible than fairy godmothers or the like that fairy tales are fond of.
It is the same with the other magical and supernatural elements of Maguire’s version. The talking mirror “…spoke in the language of mirrors, not of words [as] a mist crept over the skin of the glass,” showing her the image of Bianca. There are others not from the original fairy tale but are as mysterious and magical as these things, yet also depicted in a way that is reasonable.
As for the historical context, Maguire puts Bianca de Nevada in 16th century Italy, during Borgia’s rule, and, as a matter of fact, right smack in the middle of their lives. Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia, children of Rodrigo Borgia, otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI, are the Borgias whose first interaction with the protagonist was at the time when their father’s time on the throne was nearing its end. Cesare sends Bianca’s father on an insane quest similar to that of the Holy Grail, and the child is left to the care of his sister, Lucrezia. No, Lucrezia is not the stepmother, but acts as a mother-figure, or as much as evil stepmothers could anyway. It was a brilliant move to include the Borgias, for it provided the reason to send the father away and for Lucrezia to act as caretaker for the young Bianca.
Maguire’s version retains the magical aspect of the original and at the same time gives it that trademark sad realism common in his retellings. The prose is beautiful and appropriate, not once sounding contrived and out of place in 16th century Italy. The imagery is strong and vivid while the characters–human or otherwise–were not difficult to empathize with. What else can I say? This is another wonderful retelling, a fractured fairy tale, if you wish, but beautifully fractured one.