Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday! It’s been a very long time! Remember when I planned to post this in September? Yeah, sorry about that. Academia has essentially taken over my life. But today we are finally taking a look at the second “Snow White and Rose Red” retelling of this feature. I have since bought a new illustrated version of the story since apparently my grandparents got rid of my childhood one. Boo hiss to them, but this one is way prettier so I guess it’s okay. Now let’s jump into Snow White and Rose Red!

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

As I discussed in my post on Blanca & Roja, “Snow White and Rose Red” did not originate in oral folklore. The original story by Caroline Stahl is called “The Ungrateful Dwarf”; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm adapted it for their collection and added in the bear prince. Their version is the most well-known, and Wrede’s book is a nearly beat for beat retelling of it. She doesn’t change or remove much of anything; she just embellishes on what’s already there. She even includes the original story word for word, quoting a piece of it at the beginning of each chapter. I found that particularly nice since I didn’t have to go to another source to reread the tale in order to write this haha. Though the tale originated in Germany, Wrede sets her book in Elizabethan England. To start off the book, Wrede introduces the Widow Arden and her two daughters, Blanche–Snow White–and Rosamund–Rose Red. Unlike the tale, Wrede does not just focus on these characters but also on the princes and the antagonists. We get to see the story from all sides.

Blanche and Rosamund are just like their fairy tale counterparts. Blanche is the sweeter of the two and rather docile while Rosamund is more wild, headstrong, and outspoken. As in the fairy tale, the sisters share a close bond. The family lives in a cottage by the forest and the girls spend a great amount of time outside collecting herbs for their mother, who uses them to make healing tonics and salves for the villagers. However, Wrede’s forest shares a border with Faerie, which the girls are aware of and sometimes purposely go into to get special herbs. Unknown to her daughters at first, the Widow also knows a little bit of magic. She tells them about it once they meet the bear prince, and together they try to create a spell to undo his curse. They become quite adept at it. As a family they make a spell that is able to restore the bear’s speech, and later on the two girls make an ointment on their own that is essential for his transformation back into a human.

The bear prince and his brother are Hugh and John, and they are the half mortal sons of the Faerie Queen. Their personalities complement the girls’. Hugh stays close to home in Faerie while John likes to go out and explore the mortal world even though his mother dislikes it. Hugh ends up cursed due to a spell performed by Doctor John Dee and Edward Kelly, who trap the magical part of his soul in a crystal. The spell causes him to turn into a bear and lose most of his ability to reason. Since the spell comes from the mortal realm, no one in Faerie can help him. They exile him to the mortal realm, where he eventually comes upon the Widow Arden’s house. John’s presence throughout the story is one of Wrede’s few major deviations from the original tale. The bear prince’s brother isn’t mentioned until the very end of the tale when we are told Rose Red marries him when Snow White marries the bear prince. However, John plays a large role in the story and also befriends the girls, helping them search for a way to save his brother. He also takes on the role of a separate character from the fairy tale (if this can even really be called a character, it’s so minor). In both the tale and the book, the girls end up spending the night in the forest. They wake to find someone watching them. In the fairy tale, it is a child-like angel; in Wrede’s story, it is John, who quickly slips on his ring of invisibility after they see him and follows them out of the woods.

The romance in “Snow White and Rose Red” has always been one of my biggest complaints about the fairy tale. Even as a child I didn’t like that Rose Red ends up marrying someone she doesn’t even know while Snow White gets to marry the bear prince they’ve both spent time with. It just doesn’t seem fair. Wrede eliminates this problem by including John right from the beginning. The reader actually meets him before Hugh, and so does Rosamund; they encounter each other while John is on his way back to Faerie from another trip traversing the mortal realm. Their connection is made quite clear through him lightly flirting with her and giving her a rose in full bloom despite it not being the right season. After they meet Hugh, we get many hints that Blanche has strong feelings for him. Even though all of them befriend him, she often gazes at him longingly and gets very emotional in regards to helping him. Even though none of them confess their feelings before the end when the brothers ask to marry the sisters, their relationships are given enough set up that the proposals don’t feel disappointing or out of left field.

Wrede also puts an interesting spin on the antagonists of the story. In the fairy tale, the main antagonist is the dwarf. He steals the bear prince’s treasure and turns him into a bear, though we don’t know this until the end. Snow White and Rose Red meet him three times when he is in difficult situations; the girls help him, but he is always rude in return. Wrede casts two characters in the role of the dwarf: Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, and Edward Kelly, an occultist. They don’t place the spell on Hugh out of malice; they don’t mean to cast it on him at all. They are merely trying to get some magical force they can experiment with. However, once they learn the source of the magic they have trapped, Kelly is unwilling to give it up. The antagonists with malicious intent are three creatures from Faerie: Madini, Bochad-Bec, and Furgen. They want to keep Faerie entirely separate from the mortal realm and feel they need to get rid of Hugh and John to do that. They spend a great deal of the book trying to steal the crystal Dee and Kelly trapped the part of Hugh’s soul in. Some of their antics line up with the dwarf’s troubles from the fairy tale. The first time the girls meet the dwarf, his beard is stuck under a fallen tree. In the book, Bochad-Bec, who is an oakman, knocks a large tree branch onto the men, pinning Dee down. The second time the girls meet the dwarf, he is being pulled into the river by a fish. Furgen, a water creature, tries to get Kelly to bring the crystal with him to drown himself in the river. This is a clever way to use events from the original story while removing the reliance on the girls coincidentally meeting an antagonist who just happens to always be in a bad situation.

My Thoughts:

I loved the Elizabethan setting of the book. I’ve been very into historical fantasy recently, so this was perfect! Wrede does a great job balancing the reality of the era with magic and faeries. John Dee and Edward Kelly were real people, so I spent some time looking them up after I finished the book. The events of the story work quite well with what would have been going on in their lives at the time. Even the village the story takes place in is real, which I didn’t know until I was scrolling through Dee’s Wikipedia page! Mortlak, or Mortlake as it is actually called, is a suburb on the south bank of the Thames, and Dee really did live there. So not only was this book an enjoyable fairy tale retelling, it also taught me something new!

One problem I did have with the Elizabethan setting was Wrede’s choice to write the dialogue in Elizabethan English. I found it tedious to read a whole book full of things like, “Cease thy foolishness and tell me where thy wandering feet have taken thee today, that thou hast returned with such uncommon treasures.” I found is especially jarring because the descriptions are written in regular, modern English. Something about switching back and forth between the two kept short fusing my brain. I also typically associate this style of English with books I read for school, so it created a kind of weird disconnect for me. While this is a problem for me personally, I expect that many people might not have so much of an issue with it.

I also did think that Blanche and Rosamund were a little too perfect. They are beautiful and good, and even though Rosamund is outspoken and bold, she never actually does anything bad. There is never any conflict between the two of them or between them and their mother. On one hand, it is nice to see sisters who aren’t being pitted against one another. However, it felt unrealistic for them to be so perfect, especially since most siblings, even those who get along, tend to fight occasionally. I found myself wishing for characters more like those of Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja. Those sisters have a good relationship, but they are both flawed people and those flaws create conflict. I would have liked to see Blanche and Rosamund as more realistic characters with both good qualities and flaws that contribute to the plot.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  I haven’t read many retellings of this tale, so there aren’t as many starred ones as usual.

Other Retellings of “Snow White and Rose Red”:

More Books by Patricia C. Wrede:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com

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