This is an essay that I wrote for the unit ‘Narrative Structures’. In the essay I compare various versions of Snow White throughout different cultures, in a bid to assess Barthes’ (1966) claim that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural”.
Discuss Barthes’ (1966) claim that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural” with close reference to folk tales/fairy stories.
On the subject of narrative, Barthes (1966) writes: “it is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative” (p237). For Barthes, narrative transcends historical and cultural boundaries, claiming that “like life itself, it is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural” (1966, p237). This essay examines Barthes’ claims for narrative, with reference to various sources on the subject of narrative and includes examples of folk tales/fairy stories from different cultures as evidence.
First we shall begin by examining Barthes’ statement that “narrative starts with the very history of mankind”, for if this statement holds any value than it gives credence to the claim that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural”. Jaynes (1976) proposed a hypothesis for the evolution of consciousness, postulating that the brain and the functions of the mind in early mankind were originally in a state known as a bicameral mind, where the cognitive functioning of the mind were split between the two hemispheres. In this model, the mind existed in a state of dual-consciousness, where one hemisphere exerted control over the other side – one side issuing auditory and visual commands with other side obeying (p100-125). As mankind assimilated the two independent hemispheres, Jaynes believes that humans became truly “conscious”. Jaynes attributes narratization as one of the fundamental precursors to consciousness. Building his case by examining historical literature, he explains:
My suggestion is that narratization arose as a specific codification of reports of past events…In the chaos of transilience to consciousness, man assimilates both [his] memory ability and the ability to narratize memories into patterns (p218-219)
Here Jaynes stresses the importance of narratization on early conscious man, supporting Barthes’ (1966) claim that narratives start with the very history of mankind, and that “there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative”. It may actually be that the evolution of narratives have contributed to the evolution of consciousness in the mind.
Part of Barthes’ claims for narrative is rests in his assumption that the structure and summary of narrative can be translated. “In other words, narrative is reducible without fundamental damage” (1966, p269), Barthes writes. This explains how folk tales and fairy stories throughout cultures can have the same fundamental structure and recurring themes, even through drastic differences in cultures and histories. It is only the “last layer of the narrational level, namely the idiosyncratic mode of writing”(Barthes, p269) that cannot be translated from one language to another . This Bruner (1991) elaborates on, stating that:
To translate the “way of telling” of a genre into another language or culture where it does not exist requires a fresh literary-linguistic invention. (p14)
This is because “language, after all, is contained within its uses” (Bruner, p14). This suggests, therefore, that Barthes’ statement that narratives are “transhistorical, transcultural” requires occasional “literary-linguistic invention” (Bruner, p14) when translating from one language to another, in order to merit truth. Of course, the underlying signifiers and themes can usually be carried over, the “irreducible” elements (Barthes, p269), as narratives (especially folk and fairy tales) often deal with universal, recurring themes such as sexuality, love, death, growing up, independence, class structures, and so forth. This may be why many folk tales and fairy stories can be found throughout many cultures. Bruner (1991) elaborates, replacing the term “narratives” with “genres” here:
What are genres, viewed psychologically? Merely conventialized representations of human plights? There are surely such plights in all human cultures: conflicts of family loyalty, the vagaries of human trust, the vicissitudes of romance, and so on (p14)
Folk tales and fairy tales often contain such “plights” and have been used to convey morals and tackle issues of conflict and class, for example. In the narrative of Snow White, which will be examined shortly, there are recurring themes of beauty, vanity, conflicts of family, life and death, jealousy, to name but a few. These “representations of human plight” can be stated to be universal – indeed it would be hard to imagine a time or a culture where humans have not had to deal with such aspects of life.
Narratives can be found throughout different cultures, with sometimes subtle variations on the same recurring themes. With the fairy tale of Snow White, one can find evidence of the narrative throughout many cultures in Europe and beyond. And yet, how can a narrative like Snow White be “transhistorical, transcultural”, as described above, if there are variations on the story? Barthes’ (1966) explains that: “A narrative can be identified even if one reduces its total syntagm to its actants and major functions” (pg.268). Therefore it can be stated that the major functions and actants of the Snow White archetypal story can be found in varying narratives throughout history, throughout cultures, thus identifying the stories as essentially being from the same narrative. Note that this does not necessarily mean that they sprung from the same origin, indeed it may rest on Bruner’s claim that as genres may be “conventialized representations of human plights” (p14), the universal themes present in the narrative may naturally and organically lead to variations on the same narrative story. For Barthes, “Narrative lends itself to summary” (1966, pg.268) – a summary of its major actants and functions. Although narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural”, it cannot be “translated from one language to another” (pg.269), therefore “the translatability of narrative is inherent in the structure of its language” (pg.269, italics added), thus preserving “the individuality of the message” (pg.269). This is why one can find various variations on the narrative of Snow White, for example, yet still claim that they are from the same narrative. This is what Barthes means when he claims that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural” (1966). The reasons for the variation on a common narrative can be explained by Italo Calvino’s observation that every tale “tends to absorb something of the place where it is narrated… telling us something about the ethos and assumptions of the culture in which a given tale takes hold and [is] developed in new directions” (quoted Maria Tatar, 2003, pg.46).
The narrative of Snow White shall be discussed as told by different cultures, in order to examine Barthes’ claim that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural”. If there was any merit to this statement, one would be able find the same narrative elements in tales across culture, across history. Indeed, it is clear that the fairy/folk tale of Snow White can be found throughout Europe, in a number of different guises and forms, though containing much of the actants and major functions of the narrative even throughout different cultures, languages, and times. Thomas Frederick Crane published a collection of Italian folk tales and fairy stories, entitled “Italian Popular Tales” (1885). Within this collection is a variation on Snow White entitled “The Crystal Casket”. In this tale, the heroine of the tale is not named Snow White (henceforth to be labelled “SW” for simplicity), but is named “Ermillina”. In this tale, there is no absent father, indeed the father is a widower who looks after SW. The “wicked stepmother” is SW’s teacher, who falls in love with her father and persuades SW to introduce her father so they may be wed. When the teacher becomes her stepmother, the tale describes:
“Poor child! How bitterly she had to repent having found a stepmother so ungrateful and cruel to her!” (pg.327)
Like many other Snow White narratives, the stepmother is cast as being wicked and cruel to SW, thus preserving the underlying themes present in the archetype of the narrative. Therefore, it supports Barthes’ claim that narrative is “tranhistorical, transcultural”, for it transcends cultural and historical boundaries. However, unlike the modern telling of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, the archetypal Snow White story the West has come to know, in this Italian telling the stepmother is not jealous of SW’s beauty. Here, the cruelty comes in the form of sending SW out everyday onto a terrace to water a pot of basil, despite the danger that SW may fall into a large river. This also supports Barthes’ claim, for here the narrative has translated “without fundamental damage” (pg269). The cruelty of the stepmother is retained, even if the mode and reasoning has changed. The fundamental elements remain, even if the tale utlises new “literary-linguistic invention” (Bruner, 1991).
In this telling of Snow White, there are variations which do not damage the narrative, as it still retains the major functions and themes which connect the narrative to other tellings. The catalyst for the stepmother’s rage and vengeance is in the form of a large eagle, not a magic mirror, who notices SW’s suffering and takes her to a crystal palace where she is greeted by “fairies”, not dwarves. Upon hearing this, the stepmother is “filled with rage and jealousy”, calling a witch from the city so that she may kill SW – fearing that her father may find out about the cruelty to his daughter, and in a rage kill the stepmother. Here we have the appearance of the witch, a figure that is found in other variations of Snow White. Again, the major actants, functions and structure are retained even if the “mode of writing” has changed. Instead of a poisoned apple, the witch (who appears in disguise) gives SW poisoned “sweet-meats”. The chief of fairies revives her after her “death”, but again the witch deceives her, giving her an enchanted dress which again “kills” her. The chief fairy is enraged that SW did not heed her advice a second time, and does not revive her but instead creates a casket for her to lay in. The theme of death, and the use of caskets or locked rooms for the “corpse” of SW are universal to tellings throughout cultures, however SW is always “revived” from death at the end of the tale. A horse pulls this casket through the city until a prince stops the horse and takes the casket with his new-found “wife” into the castle, whereby the servants remove the dress and revive SW. It is clear that the prince is a major figure in Snow White tellings, where the themes of love and marriage are explored, and the difficult transition when a daughter must grow apart from her mother as she finds love and is eventually wed. As with many fairy tales/folk stories, these universal plights of human existence are explored with exaggeration or emphasis, in order to convey meaning or morals.
In a Celtic variation (Jacobs, 1892) on Snow White, entitled “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree”, SW is named “Gold-Tree”. In this version, SW already has a father, much like in “The Crystal Casket”. However, she also has a mother – there is no wicked stepmother in this tale, the villainess in the tale is SW’s own mother. In this tale, the themes of vanity and beauty are explored more than in the Italian version. In place of a magic mirror, or a large eagle, there is a talking trout that functions as a catalyst, although the trout is much more similar to the magic mirror of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. SW’s mother asks the talking trout:
Troutie, bonny little fellow, am not I the most beautiful queen in the world? [pg.88]
To which the trout replies that, in fact, it is her daughter SW who is the most beautiful. Here we have the archetypal Snow White theme of the jealous mother/step-mother who vowes to kill her daughter/step-daughter so that she may be the most beautiful in the land/world. This variation is much more violent than other incarnations of the narrative, as SW’s mother vows to eat the heart and liver of SW. At this time the son of a “great king from abroad” asks for SW’s hand in marriage, to which the father agrees to and sends SW on her way, safe from his wife’s wicked plans. Here again, a prince is present as the rescuer of SW from her fate cast by her mother figure. These are clear recurring themes in Snow White narratives, thus supporting Barthes’ statement that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural”. In “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree”, there is no magic (save that of the talking trout) for the queen does not hire the services of a witch, nor does she disguise herself. She crosses the sea herself to visit SW, but her servants lock SW in a room to protect her from the queen, who they all know is plotting to kill her. Here the locked room serves as her “casket”; the main themes and functions are present even in different forms. The mother still deceives SW, by asking her to place “[her] little finger through the key-hole, so that your own mother may give a kiss to it” (pg.90). Fooled by this, SW complies only to be stabbed by a poisonous needle, falling dead. Again, it is evident that the theme of poisoning is carried over through the tales, despite dramatic differences in how other elements are played out. The king locks SW in a room, and re-marries. One day the king’s new wife stumbles across the room and finds “the most beautiful woman that she ever saw” [pg91]. SW’s beauty is never underplayed in these tales. Despite the king’s remarriage, there is still a “happy ending” as the second wife kills the wicked queen, and the king marries SW as well, and the king and his two wives “were long alive after this, pleased and peaceful”.
In another variation, entitled “Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers” (Gozenbach, Zipes, 2004), SW is again saved by a prince, who takes her as his queen. This story is from Sicily, and much like “The Crystal Casket”, involves a widowed father who weds SW’s teacher. The teacher then becomes the wicked step-mother, who despises SW and makes the father take SW into the countryside and abandon her. Afterwards, SW comes across a little house where seven robbers live, and they let her stay in return for her doing household chores. An old beggar woman [in the witch’s role] meets SW and tells the step-mother that SW is still alive. The step-mother gives a magic ring to the beggar woman to pass on to SW, who then falls down “dead” after wearing the ring. The seven robbers make a “beautiful” coffin for her, and take the coffin to the castle. The “young king” sees beautiful SW and, after the magic ring is removed, SW is revived and she is wed to the prince, becoming a queen.
There are other variations on the Snow White narrative which all focus on the same themes: A jealous mother figure sets about to “kill” SW; different catalysts are present, a magic mirror, an eagle, or even a trout, but there is always a device used to place SW in a type of coma – a “death” from which she can be resurrected. Often poison is present. There is inevitably always a prince figure who falls in love with SW’s beauty and weds her. There is always a “happy ending”. The themes present are those of love, death, beauty, innocence, jealousy, the relationship between mother and daughter, and step-parents and children, to note but a few underlying “plights” that people encounter. There are many more versions of this narrative, but it is clear that they hold the same “actants and major functions”. In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that Barthes’ (1966) statement that narrative is “transhistorical, transcultural” holds merit and value, as the examples above show. Even through different cultures, languages, timespans, and geographical locations, folk tales and fairy tales emerge as identifiable narrative structures, which deal with univerally recurring themes that people encounter in life. Narratives do not stop at borders drawn on a map, nor do they halt at boundaries between languages. As Barthes states, “there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative” (p237) and narratives, especially folk tales and fairy stories, clearly transcend historical and cultural boundaries.
Barthes, R., Duisit, L., 1975. An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. On Narrative and Narratives, Vol.6 (2), ed. Translated, 237-272.
Bruner, J., 1991. The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry, Vol 18 (1), 1-21.
Crane, T. F., 1885. Italian Popular Tales. Accessed from Google Books, available from: http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy_pia_ops_publiclyavailablesocialmedia.pdf
Gozenbach, L., Zipes., J. D., 2004. The Robber With a Witch’s Head: More Great Stories From The Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales. Ed. Illus. p-2. P 22-26. Accessed from Google Books. Available from: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=C0AK-craXq4C&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Jacobs, J., 1892. Celtic Fairy Tales. Accessed from Google Books, available from: http://books.google.com/books?id=MPDMpD2w_2gC&dq=Joseph+Jacobs,+Celtic+Fairy+Tales+1892,&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Jaynes, J., 1976. The Origin of Consciousness In the Break-Down of the Bicameral Mind. London: Penguin.
Tatar., M, 2003. The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Ed. 2 (illus.). Accessed from Google Books, available from: http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy_pia_ops_publiclyavailablesocialmedia.pdf