Snow White and the Seven Monks: A Fanciful Lesson in Humility

“Happily, the fairy tale lets truth blossom forth in images.” —Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Victor Müller, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, 1860/1865
Victor Müller, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, 1860/1865 (photo: Public Domain)

“What do you remember about Snow White?” I asked Cecilia.

“You mean the Disney princess movie?” she asked in turn. “It was the first one, I think. Wasn’t it made a long time ago?”

“Right,” I said. “In the 1930s. But what do you remember about the story? What was it about?”

Cecilia, my high-school sophomore daughter, had homework to do, but she still indulged me with a brief synopsis. “Well, it’s a princess, of course, and her evil step-mother is jealous of her beauty, so she has some guy take her out in the woods to kill her. She escapes and ends up at this house in the woods where the dwarfs live. They let her stay there, but the step-mother tracks her down and tricks her into eating a poison apple. She dies, and the dwarfs put her in a glass coffin – which is weird – but a prince comes and wakes her up and they get married. That’s pretty much it.”

I nodded approval – not bad for a quick overview on the fly – but I wanted a bit more. “That’s the story; what’s it about?”

“What do you mean?” she came back impatiently. “I just told you.”

“You don’t think it’s about conversion?”

She gave me the teenager’s “look” – as in, “Yeah, right, dad” – but I was serious. Even the Disneyfication of the classic Grimm brothers’ tale can’t obscure the fact that Snow White’s travails parallel the contours of the spiritual journey template. Baptismal purity and flight from the world, succumbing to temptation and grace restored, Snow White’s story is a portrait in miniature of what happens to all of us as we stumble along toward heaven.

Of course, Walt Disney wasn’t thinking about catechesis when he turned the German folk tale into a full-length animated film, and neither were the Grimms when they documented it in the 19th century. So am I making up the catechetical connections? Was Cecilia justified in giving me the look?

I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you right up front that those connections didn’t originate with me. Many years ago, I heard Fr. Martin Boler, OSB, from New York’s Mt. Savior Monastery, give a talk on Benedictine spirituality. Drawing on Benedict’s Rule, the Dialogues of St. Gregory, and other sources, Fr. Boler sketched out the major tenets of monastic discipline: Stability, obedience, humility, ora et labora, and, above all, listening. It’s the first word of the Rule, after all – obsculta in Latin – and it sets the tone of receptivity that reflects the essence of not only religious asceticism, but the Christian life in general. “Genesis 1.1: ‘God said....’ God’s first action is to speak,” I’d jotted down in my notes from Boler’s remarks. “Our response is to listen.”

Toward the end of Fr. Boler’s presentation, almost as an aside, he referenced the Grimms’ version of Snow White’s seven dwarfs as emblematic of a monastic brotherhood. They were celibate and isolated, living a simple, regimented communal life sustained by their own manual labor. Yet they also demonstrated receptivity in their hospitable welcome of an outsider and ardent commitment to protect her. In keeping with the popular genesis of such folk tales, the story reflects an outsider’s view looking in, as if a German peasant were making sense of what went on in those odd societies of men striving for holiness – seven of them, it’s worth noting, the number of perfection. And their labor? Mining for ore – that is, digging deep for treasures that most of us can’t reach.

Suddenly the lights went on – I saw it! A startling series of linkages, but one that immediately captured my imagination. I started making my own connections with what I could remember from the 1937 Disney version of the tale – like the toxic apple, for example, that I readily associated with Eden and sin. I approached Fr. Boler after his talk and asked for more, and he directed me to a 1980 essay by Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, “Paths of Obedience: Fairy Tales and the Monk’s Way.” I had to do some digging of my own to track it down, but it was well worth the effort for it further elucidated the story’s rich Catholic character that seemed to be hiding in plain sight.

For example: Unlike the Disney heroine’s sole trial (and failure), the Grimms’ “Little Snow White” (1812) endured three separate tests posed by the disguised step-mother queen. First was an offer of silken “stay-laces of all colours,” along with a proposal to apply them to the innocent girl. Later, the dwarfs found her bound so tight that she couldn’t breathe – an image of the ties that bind us to the world and need to be cut so that we can grow in the spirit. Next comes a temptation to vanity in the form of a poisoned ornamental comb. Once again Snow White succumbs, forgetting the dwarfs’ admonitions, and she falls down as if dead. “This time, cutting won’t do,” writes Steindl-Rast. “The comb has to be extracted. Vanity threatens monastic life closer to the core than external ties.”

Finally comes the poisoned apple, and Snow White rebels against the warnings of the dwarfs by accepting it. “The laces had remained on the outside; the comb was merely inserted in her hair, but she swallowed a bit of the apple,” Steindl-Rast comments. “Eating is a full engagement. It is communion” – although, unlike Holy Communion, it is full engagement with evil and leads to death.

Eventually, of course, Snow White is restored to life through the agency of a prince, and when she awakes from her mortal sleep, the “King’s son, full of joy,” tells her, “I love you more than everything in the world; come with me to my father’s palace.” Isn’t that the goal of the Christian life? We cut ties with our former ways, we put aside the petty sins that batter our commitment to Christ, and, when we falter, we accept the grace of forgiveness and resolve to abandon ourselves completely to him.

Too much of a stretch? Maybe, but if you’re intrigued by these parallel motifs and echoes, I suggest you give Steindl-Rast’s article a thorough review. It’s fascinating stuff, although the author himself warns that such explications of fables and legends ought to be understood as playful inquiry. “Let us never press their images, nor, for that matter, my own interpretations,” he writes. “In the spirit of the fairy tale, they want to be held lightly.”

In keeping with that spirit, I want to end up here with some playful interpretation of my own and consider the dwarfs apart from Snow White. In the Disney film, you’ll recall, they’re all named according to an outstanding trait – Bashful, Sleepy, Grumpy, and the rest. Contrast that with the Grimm brothers version, in which the dwarfs remain nameless throughout. Indeed, their anonymity is underscored at the end of the tale when they disappear from the narrative altogether; they’re entirely absent from their de facto ward’s wedding feast which was “held with great show and splendour.”

Here’s an image, I’d say, of the most thorough kind of conversion. The dwarfs, hidden and humble, had been suddenly called upon by circumstances – read: “divine providence” – to take up an extraordinary task. They hadn’t sought it, they certainly hadn’t anticipated it, and they would’ve no doubt felt ill equipped to carry it out. Nonetheless, they rose to the occasion, sheltered their unlooked-for guest, provided her with honest, plainspoken counsel, and came to her aid time and time again. They didn’t even give up on her when all seemed lost, and they seemed prepared to keep vigil at her glass-encased side indefinitely.

Then the prince shows up, facilitates Snow White’s revivification, and “happily ever after” is on the horizon. But what of the monkish dwarfs who’d been so faithful in their solicitude and vigils? They sink back into literary obscurity, presumably returning to their hidden regimen of work and prayer.

That’s the kind of conversion I associate with Lent, beginning with the Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” Jesus tells his disciples, “otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” Almsgiving? “Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.” Prayer? “Go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” Fasting? “Anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.”

It’s so countercultural, so against the modern grain. We want credit for our efforts; we crave recognition and affirmation. But the way of the dwarfs – the way of the monks, that is, and, by extension, the way of all who seek perfection in Christ – is humility rooted in gratitude and love. We seek to do God’s will, not for reward, but because it’s God’s will. And doing God’s will, more often than not, is simply carrying out the duties of one’s state in life without fanfare. Sure, God might call us to great works, but that’s his business. For now, my business consists of doing the dishes, grading exams, and paying the gas bill. “It is these trivialities, as we consider them, which would do marvels for us if only we did not despise them,” writes Jean-Pierre de Caussade. “We are so stupid!”

Ouch – but true? I’m afraid so, at least for me. I tend to set my sights on princely heroics, and routinely miss the treasures of divine beckoning and grace that God strews about me on all sides. Conversion itself is a dramatic process, with fits and starts, ups and downs, poisoned apples and miraculous recoveries, but converted living can appear dull and routine. Yet, as Snow White’s story illustrates, appearances can deceive and we shouldn’t be fooled. There’s gold to be mined in our daily, humdrum lives. We need but keep digging to find it.