In the comments on my post on the history of mirrors, Nectar Vam mentioned a version of Snow White in which the heroine's helpers are the personified 12 Months of the year. That in itself is a fascinating concept, but it also got me wondering about how often Snow White is helped by creatures other than Dwarfs.
I turned once again to Surlalune's fabulous collection of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales from Around the World! It's not an exhaustive group of Snow White tales (as if such a thing could exist), but with 40 variants from around the world it still reveals some interesting trends.
Some stories didn't quite have a group of characters that functioned like the dwarfs we're familiar with, but almost all did. And dwarfs were actually not that prevalent in the stories! The clear winners were thieves and robbers, in 9 stories. Next most popular was just a regular band of men, in 6 tales. When the helpers were males they were often brothers. In 4 versions, they were the heroine's own brothers (in fact you could probably call these versions of "The Twelve Brothers.")
Dwarfs weren't really that popular in folklore versions of Snow White, showing up only twice besides the Grimms' (they were featured in Joseph Jacob's story but that's basically a condensed version of the Grimms). Other characters that featured as helpers in two versions each: Giants, Fairies, and an Ogre husband and wife.
Other helper groups that appeared once were a wounded woman, a spirit of a dead woman living inside a magic castle, an old man, the Goddess Nycteris, and one group of dragons (although Heidi Anne Heiner notes that the dragons could also be translated as "heroic men").
Also, the number "7" wasn't present in every version either. No matter what form the helpers came in, they could be helping alone, in pairs, or other significant numbers-groups of 3, 7, 12, 24, and 40 were common.
Some of Snow White's helpers-giants and ogres-would obviously be assumed to be very dangerous. I like that they weren't all males, either, although males prevailed (and sometimes there was an added helper role-an old man or woman might point Snow White to the house where the helpers lived, etc.)
And, although I just skimmed the tales, it really struck me once again how creepy the Prince is for being obsessed with a young girl's corpse. It really serves to highlight the contrast between how he and the group of helpers treat her. In the Portuguese "The Vain Queen," the man who takes in the beautiful Princess would like to marry her but gives her the power of choice-he asks if she would like to remain with him as his wife, or as his daughter, and she chooses the latter. This tale makes me wonder if the story just serves to highlight Snow White's growing older and desiring to marry, because at the end she is asked if she would like to marry the Prince who fell in love with her and she agrees.
That story was one of the healthiest examples of love and marriage, but some were so extreme I feel like the marriage at the end wasn't necessarily assumed to be a happy ending. The Italian tale "The Crystal Casket" really highlights the creepy factor when the Prince's mother asks him, after he brings home an unconscious girl, "But what is it? A doll? A dead woman?" and he replies, "Mother, don't trouble yourself about what it is, it is my wife." The heroine, Ermellina, was referred to as a "doll" or an "it" for the rest of the text. (Cue "Psycho" theme...)
Not every Prince is quite that level of horrifying. In fact, in some versions, like the tale I referenced at the beginning, Myrsina, the Prince gets the chest that contains the body without knowing what is inside it, and only discovers later that it contains a beautiful woman. (That tale isn't available in full online, but the summary can be read on Wikipedia). In that story it was a ring that proved the Princess' ultimate downfall, not an apple (I noticed a ring was a very prevalent symbol but I didn't count the number of appearances, maybe in a future post?).
Illustrations by John Hassall