In Mirror Mirror Snow White is called Bianca de Nevada. She is born
on a farm in Tuscany in 1495, and when she is seven, her father is ordered by
the duplicitous Cesare Borgia to go on a quest to reclaim the relic of the
original Tree of Knowledge, a branch bearing three living apples that are
thousands of years old. Bianca is left in the care of her father's farm staff
and the beautiful -- and madly vain -- Lucrecia Borgia, Cesare's sister. But Lucrecia
becomes jealous of her lecherous brother's interest in the growing child and
plots a dire fate for Bianca in the woods below the farm. There Bianca finds
herself in the home of seven dwarves -- the creators of the magic mirror -- who
await the return of their brother, the eighth dwarf, long gone on a quest of
Questions for Discussion
said he doesn't want to be known as the writer who retells children's stories
for adults. Is Mirror Mirror
a retelling of the story of Snow White, or is it something else? Something more
than a fairy tale? Something less?
The version of
Snow White that we are most familiar with is from the collection of the
Brothers Grimm. Countless picture books as well as film and theater adaptations
set the book where the story itself was collected: in the shadowy woods of Bavaria, Germany. There is a northern cast to the telling even in the
title: Snow is less familiar in the Mediterranean than in the Black Forrest. What undertones arise when
telling the story in a northern clime that are absent in a Mediterranean
setting? How does the story change by being set on sunny Tuscan slopes rather
than in the aromatic pines forests of the Alps?
An airy tale
exists in a kind of "nevertime." The famous "Once upon a
time" beginning of the old tales generally signals a setting vaguely
medieval, freed from cultural or historic details that would pin the story down
to a specific century. To paraphrase writer and critic Jane Langton, a fairy
tale happens in an amorphous period some time between the fall of Constantinople and the invention of the internal
combustion engine. We expect wishing wells, swords, goblets, maybe even
battering rams and spinning wheels; we don't expect spectacles, wheelchairs, a
postal service. What does it do to an old tale to slap it into a particular set
of decades -- in the instance of Mirror Mirror,
the first three decades of the sixteenth century? Is that story at home here?
Mirror Mirror, more than any other novel of
Maguire's, features figures from history. Lucrezia Borgia and her bother Cesare
Borgia, the model for Machiavelli's The Prince, have central roles. (Think how
the traditional prince who wakes Snow White with a kiss differs from
Machiavelli's The Prince!) Pope Alexander VI, his courtesan la Cattanei, the
scientist Paraclesus, the poet and typeface designer Pietro Bembo are referred
to in passing. (Maguire has mentioned that a temptation he found very difficult
to resist was to find roles for the young Michelangelo, the older da Vinci --
so many famous figures of the High Renaissance were thriving in these decades.)
Is the inclusion of actual figures in a tale of fancy in any way dismissive of
their place in history? Does it strengthen the story?
Snow White, the dwarves are named. This was a daring move, for in a fairy tale,
creatures like dwarves, woodland animals, crones in the wood, and so on, are
meant to perform a universal function, to stand in, like a Greek chorus, for
the rest of the world. To name the dwarves is to confer individuality upon them
and to threaten to muddy the focus of the story. How does Maguire play with
this stress in his naming the dwarves in Mirror
planning to begin the first draft of Mirror
Mirror just after his kids began the school year in September 2001.
He was still making notes on September 11, 2001. Writing seemed futile and self-absorbed in those nightmarish weeks.
Can you see why the first lines Maguire could bring himself to write of Mirror Mirror were the four lines on
I am a girl who did no wrong.
I walked this side of Gesú when I could.
I kept an angel in my apron poacket.
I do not think it did me any good.
In a sense, the
original story of Snow White is a story of maturation, of evolution. How do
each of the characters evolve in Mirror Mirror?
In terms of
symbolic weight, the apple in the Snow White tale -- the poisoned apple -- is
likened to the apples from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. How
farfetched is this association? Does it work?
monologue in the chapter called "Mirror
Mirror" (page 187), Lucrezia Borgia muses: "Out of out
need we patronize our artists, we flirt with our poets, we petition our
architects: Give us your lusty colorful world. Signal to us a state of being
more richly steeped in purpose and satisfaction than our own" Of course
her life of wealth, power, and comfort proves relatively unsatisfactory. She is
always hungry for more. Perhaps it is the storyteller and the novelist who
provide their "lusty colorful world" to nurture us, distract us,
console us. The philosopher Roger Scruton said, "The consolation of
imaginary things is not imaginary consolation." Is this true of Mirror Mirror? If there is consolation
to be had in his novel, what is its character?
For an alternate version of a Snow White tale by Gregory Maguire,
take a look at the short story called "The Seven Stage
A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales,
edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, published
by Simon and Schuster. For another alternate version check out
"So What and the Seven giraffes," included in Maguires
Leaping Beauty and Other Animal Fairy Tales,
published by HarperCollins children's division. What is it about
fairy tales that they can survive multiples retellings, even by
the same author? Perhaps not only survive retellings, but
thrive on them?
Who is the
fairest one of all?