Queen (Snow White)

"Evil Queen" redirects here. For Disney version of the character, see Evil Queen (Disney).
The Queen

The Queen with her mirror in an American illustration from 1913
First appearance Grimms' Fairy Tales (1812)
Created by The Brothers Grimm (adapted from pre-existing fairy tales)
Occupation Regent, witch (secretly)
Spouse(s) King
Children Snow White (daughter in the original version, stepdaughter since the 1819 revision)

The Queen, often referred to as the Evil Queen or the Wicked Queen, is a fictional character and the main antagonist in "Snow White", a German fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm; similar stories are also known to exist in other countries. Other versions of the Queen appear in "Snow White" derivative works, and the character has also become an archetype for unrelated works of fiction.

The Queen is Snow White's evil and vindictive stepmother who is obsessed with being "the fairest in the land". The young princess Snow White makes her jealous, so the Queen concocts several plans to kill Snow White through the use of witchcraft. A driving force in the story is the Queen's Magic Mirror. In the traditional resolution of the story, the Queen is grotesquely executed for her crimes. The tale is a lesson for young children warning against narcissism and pride. She is often regarded as the most interesting character in "Snow White" and has been extensively analyzed and evaluated by literature scholars and psychologists.

Various other versions of the Queen appear in many subsequent adaptations and continuations of the fairy tale, including novels and films. In these, the Queen is often re-imagined and sometimes portrayed more sympathetically, such as being morally conflicted, or suffering from madness, instead of just being purely evil. In the revisionist stories, she can even become an antihero or a tragic hero. In some instances, she serves as the protagonist or narrator of the story; one such particularly notable version is Disney's version, sometimes known as Queen Grimhilde. The Queen has also become an archetype that inspired several characters featured in the works that are not directly based on the original tale.

In "Snow White"

The queen with her mirror, from 2011's My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales (illustrated by Jennie Harbour)

In the Brothers Grimm tale

The Queen is a very beautiful but proud and arrogant woman who is secretly dabbling in dark arts. When the King's first wife, the Good Queen passes away, Snow White's father marries again. The King's new and second wife is a very beautiful but a wicked and vain woman who becomes the new and second Queen, and Snow White's stepmother. She owns a magic mirror, which one day informs her that her young stepdaughter, Princess Snow White, has surpassed her in beauty. After deciding to eliminate Snow White, the Queen orders her huntsman to take the princess into the forest and kill her. The Queen tells him to bring back Snow White's lungs and liver, as proof that the princess is dead. However, the huntsman takes pity on Snow White, and instead, brings the Queen the lungs and liver of a boar. The Queen then eats what she believes are Snow White's organs.

While questioning her mirror, the Queen discovers that Snow White has survived. Intending to kill Snow White herself, she uses witchcraft to prepare poison and take the disguise of an old peddler woman. She visits the dwarfs' house and sells Snow White laces for a corset that she laces too tight in an attempt to asphyxiate the girl. When that fails, the Queen returns, as a different old woman, and tricks Snow White into using a poisoned comb. When the comb fails to kill Snow White, the Queen again visits Snow White, this time disguised as a farmer's wife, and gives Snow White a poisoned apple. Eventually, Snow White and the Prince from another kingdom reveal the Queen's true nature and invite her to their wedding, where she is forced to put on red-hot iron shoes and "dance" until she drops dead.[1]

Alternate fates

The Queen at Snow White's wedding in a 1905 German illustration

In the classic ending of "Snow White", the Queen is tricked into attending Snow White's wedding and put to death by torment; this is often considered to be too dark and potentially horrifying for children in modern society. Sara Maitland wrote that "we do not tell this part of the story any more; we say it is too cruel and will break children's soft hearts."[2] Therefore, many (especially modern) revisions of the fairy tale often change the gruesome classic ending in order to make it seem less violent. In some versions, instead of dying, the Queen is even just merely prevented from committing further wrongdoings. However, in the same 2014 nationwide UK poll that considered the Queen from "Snow White" the scariest fairy tale character of all time (as cited by 32.21% of responding adults), around two thirds opined that today's stories are too "sanitised" for children.[3]

Already the first English translation of the Grimms' tale, written by Edgar Taylor in 1823, has the Queen choke on her own envy upon the sight of Snow White alive. Another early (1871) English translation by Susannah Mary Paull "replaces the Queen's death by cruel physical punishment with death by self-inflicted pain and self-destruction" when it was her own shoes that became hot due to her anger.[4] Other alternative endings can have the Queen just instantly drop dead "of anger" at the wedding[5] or in front of her mirror upon learning about it,[6] die from her own designs going awry (such as from touching her own poisoned rose[7]) or by nature (such as falling into quicksands while crossing a swamp on her way back after poisoning Snow White[8]), be killed by the dwarfs during a chase,[9] be destroyed by her own mirror,[10] run away into the forest never to be seen again,[11] or simply being banished from the kingdom forever.[12]


Origins and evolution

The Queen's origins can be traced to the character of Silver-Tree, a jealous queen who threatens her daughter, in the Celtic oral tale "Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree".[13] According to Kenny Klein, the enchantress Ceridwen of the Welsh mythology was "the quintissential evil stepmother, the origin of that character in the two tales of Snow White and Cinderella".[14] Oliver Madox Hueffer noted that the wicked stepmother with magical powers threatening a young princess is a recurring theme in fairy tales; one similar character is the witch-queen in "The Wild Swans" as told by Hans Christian Andersen.[15]

The Queen in disguise, offering a poisoned apple to Snow White (a late 19th-century German illustration)

Rosemary Ellen Guiley suggests that the Queen uses an apple because it recalls the temptation of Eve; this creation story from the Bible led the Christian Church to view apples as a symbol of sin. Many people feared that apples could carry evil spirits, and that witches used them for poisoning.[16] Robert G. Brown of Duke University also makes a connection with the story of Adam and Eve, seeing the Queen as a representation of the archetype of Lilith.[17] The symbol of an apple has long had traditional associations with enchantment and witchcraft in some European cultures, as in case of Morgan le Fay's Avalon ("Isle of the Apples").[18]

In some Scottish versions of "Snow White"-type fairy tales, a talking trout takes the place of the Queen's mirror, the Queen is the princess' biological mother, rather than her stepmother, the huntsman figure is the princess' own father, and the Queen's fate remains unresolved.[19] The tale varies widely from place to place, with the Queen using various tricks against the princess. For example, in Italy, the Queen uses a toxic comb, a contaminated cake, or a suffocating braid. The Queen's demands of proof from the huntsman (often her lover in non-Grimm versions[20]) also vary: a bottle of blood stoppered with the princess' toe in Spain, or the princess' intestines and blood-soaked shirt in Italy.[21] In France, a local tale features a poisoned tomato.[14] One of the early variations of the tale was Giambattista Basile's "The Young Slave".

The iron shoes being heated in an illustration from an 1852 Icelandic translation of the Grimms' story

The Grimm brothers invented the motif of the Queen's execution at Snow White's wedding; the original story sees her punished by the King. The Grimms noted on the margin of their 1810 manuscript: "The ending is not quite right and is lacking something."[22] Diane Purkiss attributes the Queen's fiery death to "the folkbelief that burning a witch's body ended her power, a belief which subtended (but did not cause) the practice of burning witches in Germany",[23] while the American Folklore Society noted that the use of iron shoes "recalls folk practices of destroying a witch through the magic agency of iron".[24]

The Brothers Grimm collected the German fairy tale in their 1812 Kinder- und Hausmärchen ("Children's and Household Tales", more commonly known in English as Grimms' Fairy Tales). In the first edition of the Brothers Grimm story, the Queen is Snow White's biological mother, not her stepmother. This motif changed in subsequent versions,[25] after 1819.[26] The earliest version was known as "Snow Drop".[27] Jack Zipes said "the change from 'evil mother' to 'evil stepmother' for example, was because the brothers 'held motherhood sacred'.[28] According to Sheldon Cashdan, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, a "cardinal rule of fairy tales" mandates that the "heroes and heroines are allowed to kill witches, sorceresses, even stepmothers, but never their own mothers".[29] Zipes' 2014 collection of Grimm fairy tales in their original forms reinstated the Queen as Snow White's mother.[30][31]


According to some scholars, the story is constructed and characters are presented with ageist undertones. The University of Hawaii professor Cristina Bacchilega said, "I think there is still very much an attachment to vilifying the older, more powerful woman."[32] Roger Sale opined that "the term 'narcissism' seems altogether too slippery to be the only one we want here. There is, for instance, no suggestion that the queen's absorption in her beauty ever gives her pleasure, or that the desire for power through sexual attractiveness is itself a sexual feeling. What is stressed is the anger and fear that attend the queen's realization that as she and Snow White both get older, she must lose. This is why the major feeling involved is not jealousy but envy: to make beauty that important is to reduce the world to one in which only two people count."[19] Terri Windling wrote that the Queen is "a woman whose power is derived from her beauty; it is this, the tale implies, that provides her place in the castle's hierarchy. If the king’s attention turns from his wife to another, what power is left to an aging woman? Witchcraft, the tale answers. Potions, poisons, and self-protection."[19] According to Zipes, "the queen's actions are determined by the mirror's representations of her as exemplifying beauty and evil, or associating evil and vanity with beauty, and these mirror representations are taken as the truth by the queen. Had she perhaps doubted and cracked the mirror, cracked the meaning of the mirror, she might still be alive today."[33] Deborah Lipp, discussing the character's archetype, stated that "in fact Western culture had, for hundreds of years, associated the idea of powerful, commanding women with witchcraft and evil. That's why, I think, the most interesting women in stories have been villainesses."[34] Zipes opined that the Queen character is much more complex and "as a figure she is much more fascinating than this dumb, innocent, naïve Snow White. So why not focus on this figure who is tragic in many, many ways. We really don't know too much about her - where she gets her powers. She's mysterious."[32]

Whereas Snow White achieves inner harmony, her stepmother fails to do so. Unable to integrate the social and the antisocial aspects of human nature, she remains enslaved to her desires and gets caught up in an Oedipal competition with her daughter from which she cannot extricate herself. This imbalance between her contradictory drives proves to be her undoing.[35]

Bruno Bettelheim

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar regard Snow White and her mother/stepmother as two female stereotypes, the angel and the monster.[36] The fact that the Queen was Snow White's biological mother in the first version of the Grimms' story has led several psychoanalytic critics to interpret "Snow White" as a story about repressed Oedipus complex, or about Snow White's Electra complex.[36] Harold Bloom opined that the three "temptations" all "testify to a mutual sexual attraction between Snow White and her stepmother."[37] According to Bruno Bettelheim, the story's main motif is "the clash of sexual innocence and sexual desire"[35] and Cashdan wrote that the Queen's "incessant query, 'Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?' literally reflects her fear that the king will find Snow White more appealing than her. It thus is the implicit sexual struggle between the young girl and the queen."[29] This struggle is so dominating the psychological landscape of the tale, that Gilber and Gubar even proposed renaming the story "Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother".[21][38]

According to Bettelheim, "only the death of the jealous queen (the elimination of all outer and inner turbulence) can make for a happy world."[39] Cashdan opined "the death of the witch signals a victory of virtue over vice, a sign that positive forces in the self have prevailed," and "the active involvement of heroine in the witch's demise communicates to readers that they must take an active role in overcoming their own errant tendencies." The evil queen "embodies narcissism, and the young princess, with whom readers identify, embodies parts of the child struggling to overcome this tendency. Vanquishing the queen represents a triumph of positive forces in the self over vain impulses." According to Cashdan, "her death constitutes the emotional core of the tale" as the story could easily end with the resurrection of Snow White, "but there is one detail that needs to be resolved: the wicked queen is still alive. Her continued existence means not only that Snow White's life remains in jeopardy, but that the princess is apt to be plagued by vain temptations for the rest of her days. Unless the evil woman is eliminated once and for all, Snow White will never be free."[29] Similarly, the psychologist Betsy Cohen wrote that "in order to avoid becoming a wicked queen herself, Snow White needs to separate from and kill off this destructive force inside of her. The death of the wicked queen allows Snow White to truly celebrate her marriage, the bringing together of herself." Cohen further wrote that "the queen was forced to face her own mortality, the inevitability of death. As Snow White rids herself of her envious stepmother, she is, at the same time, next in line to become a mother herself—more able, we hope, to deal with envy than her stepmother had been."[40]

Regarding the manner of the Queen's execution, Jo Eldridge Carney, Professor of English at The College of New Jersey, wrote: "Again, the fairy tale's system of punishment is horrific but apt: a woman so actively consumed with seeking affirmation from others and with violently undoing her rival is forced to enact her own physical destruction as a public spectacle."[41] According to Sheldon Donald Haase, Professor of German, and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Wayne State University, "a measure of justice is achieved" with "the sadistic punishment to some extent fitting the crime. The glowing shoes, an appropriate symbol for her own unbridled envy, bring about her final demise."[36] Likewise, Mary Ayers of the Stanford University School of Medicine wrote that the red-hot shoes symbolise that the Queen was "subjected to the effects of her own inflamed, searing hot envy and hatred."[42] It was also noted that this ending echoes the fairy tale of "The Red Shoes", which similarly "warns of the danger of attachment to appearances."[43]

Should we cheer on Snow White's wicked stepmother as she dances to her death in red-hot iron shoes? Parents may believe in promoting high spirits, but they will not be keen about giving their approval to stories in which 'happily ever after' means witnessing the bodily torture of villains.[44]

Maria Tatar

John Hanson Saunders of the Pennsylvania State University wrote that the Queen's "rather barbaric...torture and death gives closure to the reader and the death seems more fitting...Her death can provide justice and allows the audience to see good triumph over evil."[45] Cashdan argued that, from a psychological viewpoint, the Queen could not flee or get merely locked up in a dungeon or exiled, as the story has portrayed her "as a thoroughly despicable creature who deserves the worst conceivable punishment." Furthermore, he claims "such a horrible death" is necessary because, like in several other fairy tales, "if the witch is to die — and remain dead — she must die in a way that makes her return highly unlikely," and so "the reader needs to know that the death of the witch is thorough and complete, even if it means exposing young readers to acts of violence that are extreme by contemporary standards."[29] On the other hand, Oliver Madox Hueffer wrote that "it is impossible not to feel a certain sympathy with this unfortunate royal lady in her subsequent fate."[15] According to Sharna Olfman, Professor of Psychology at the Point Park University, "when reading or listening to stories, children aren't assaulted with precreated graphic visual imagery. They don't have to see close-ups of...the agony of pain in the queen's eyes as she dances to her death." Nevertheless, Olfman's personal preference is to "skip the torture scenes when I read these stories to kids."[46] Anthony Burgess commented: "Reading that, how seriously can we take it? It is fairy-tale violence, which is not like real mugging, terrorism and Argentinean torture."[47]

In derivative works

An entertainer dressed as the Evil Queen at the Walt Disney World

The character was portrayed in a variety of ways in the subsequent adaptations and reimaginations of the classic fairy tale. According to Lana Berkowitz of the Houston Chronicle, "Today stereotypes of the evil queen and innocent Snow White often are challenged. Rewrites may show the queen is reacting to extenuating circumstances."[32] Scott Meslow of The Atlantic noted that "Disney's decision to throw out the Grimms's appropriately grim ending—which sentences the evil queen to dance in heated iron shoes until her death—has meant that ending is all but forgotten."[48]

Actresses who have played the Wicked Queen in "Snow White" stage productions (usually pantomime plays) have included Stephanie Beacham,[49] Lucy Benjamin,[50] Andrée Bernard (as Queen Lacretia),[51] Jennifer Ellison,[52] Jade Goody,[53] Jerry Hall,[54][55][56] Lesley Joseph,[57] Patsy Kensit,[58][59] Josie Lawrence (as Morgiana the Wicked Queen),[60] Joanne Malin,[61] Vicki Michelle,[62] Denise Nolan,[63] Su Pollard,[64] Priscilla Presley,[65] Liz Robertson,[66] and Toyah Willcox.[67] The role was also played by "Lily Savage" (Paul O'Grady)[68] and Craig Revel Horwood.[69][70]

Reimagined adaptations in literature

Reimagined adaptations in film and television

Reimagined adaptations in comics and theatre

Queen Brangomar and Witch Hex in an illustration for the play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Sequels to "Snow White"



Other appearances

The Disney version of the characters also appears in variety of other Disney media, also making some cameo appearances in other works such as the 1977 film Annie Hall.

Inspired characters

Further information: Influence of the Disney version

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Queen (Snow White).


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