Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Snow White by P.J. LynchI find the history of mirrors kind of fascinating (nerd alert), but especially because it does have an impact on certain fairy tales and how we look at them-most notably Snow White.

It's hard for me to wrap my mind around it, but for the majority of human history, a decent mirror has been a luxury that only a few had access to. Most early mirrors were made of polished metal, so even the best ones would have dark, uneven reflections. The first glass mirrors were still "always slightly curved, and always slightly colored." Once the Venetians started mastering glass mirrors, they became an incredibly valuable commodity. The trade secrets were worth kidnapping for, as eventually happened when the French decided they needed to manufacture the luxury themselves (and as a rule, Italian mirror makers' families would be held hostage whenever they traveled, to insure loyalty).

Even when mirrors became more broadly produced, they were incredibly expensive. Most cultured ladies would have a pocket mirror that was very valuable-there is an anecdote of one lady trading a wheat field for a mirror. It was only the extreme indulgence of Louis XIV that pushed mirror makers to discover a way to make mirrors larger, and thus create the famed Hall of Mirrors.

The majority of humans in history would have only seen reflections of themselves in smooth surfaces, such as water. It's no surprise that in many versions of Snow White, the evil Queen does not ask a mirror to proclaim the fairest of them all, but other objects of nature, such as the sun or moon, or even an animal such as an eagle or trout. It makes more sense to imagine a woman, in a world in which you could never really see what you look like, to wonder how you compare to the other beautiful women you see, and ask someone else for their opinion. The sun, moon, or eagle would have authority to make a pretty good judgment, for they would see a great number of people as they made their way across the sky (not sure about the trout, but that's not as common).

By the time Snow White variants started featuring mirrors, they would have represented not only the Queen's narcissism, but the fact that she was extremely wealthy. I would guess that most people who couldn't afford mirrors had a sort of love/hate relationship with them-desiring one in a way, yet suspicious of the negative affects of being able to preen in front of one. I can imagine that, being able to see oneself clearly for the first time in human history would be incredibly unsettling, like we might feel if we were cloned or realized we had an identical twin.

A. W. Bayes' Snow Queen
A. W. Bayes, "The Snow Queen"

Ford Snow QueenIn fact, this suspicion of mirrors is reflected (hah!) in Anderson's "Snow Queen," which starts with a mirror that is inhabited by a demon, and distorts the reflections of everything seen in it, so that the beautiful seems vile. The shard that becomes lodged in Kay's eye changes his personality, causing him to be negative and cruel; eventually Gerda's love saves him and her tears wash away the piece of mirror.

Mirrors have great capacity for new boundaries in art, science, and self-reflection. Yet mirrors also have dangers, ones that we tend to take for granted, especially now that we see images of ourselves more often than ever on social media and the ubiquitous selfie. In a way, we are all now the Queen, whenever we look at a picture of ourselves and contrast our looks with others (and if we're honest, don't we all do it?). In an incredibly visually oriented world that promotes conventional beauty as the ideal, it becomes more and more difficult to avoid assigning value by physical appearance.

The History of a Mirror: Through a Glass Darkly by Stephanie Lowder
The Essence of Style by Joan deJean
Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales from Around the World by Surlalune

Illustrations: P.J. Lynch, John Patience, Hans Juttner, A. W. Bayes, H.J. Ford


  1. Amazing, I had no idea the seemingly humble mirror was so interesting! Really shines a whole new light on Snow White, thank you

  2. Wow, this is really interesting. Especially about the evil queen. It makes more sense now that she was always asking about her appearance since in earlier stories she probably never knew what she looked like.

  3. Interesting. There's actually a Greek version of Snow White called "Myrsina" with Jealous older sisters instead of a Stepmother, the Sun instead of a mirror, and the anthropomorphic personified 12 Months instead of seven dwarfs. Also, instead of a poisoned apple, the jealous Sisters use a cursed ring that they claimed belonged to their mother, thus compelling Myrsina to put on the ring in honor of her deceased mother. A similar take on the Greek Cinderella, "Little Saddle-Slut" also has selfish sisters who cannibalized their own mother but the youngest sister buries her mother's bones and it grants her wishes.

    1. I'm especially intrigued by the idea of personified 12 months in place of the dwarves! That tale isn't in the Surlalune book so I hadn't heard of this one!

  4. I had no idea mirrors were so complex. Knowing the history makes mirror-oriented tales much more exciting. And it makes me want to write a book involving a mirror...

  5. It definitely gives a different perspective, thinking that people were not nearly as used to their own reflections as we are today. Of course, we still look to others to validate us. Very interesting!

  6. I didn't realise mirrors had such a grand history! Now I really want to write a story about a family of mirror makers haha! I also have not encountered any version of Snow White where the Queen asks for animals to judge her beauty, but that does make a lot of sense (except for the trout, as you point out. Unless it's a stuffed trout ;) ) In The Snow Queen, some versions have ice instead of mirror. It's interesting that having a mirror suddenly loads the story with these ideas about wealth and beauty, whereas with ice it's just cold. I love how details like that can alter the whole interpretation of a fairy tale.

  7. Also, this article about mirror folklore might interest you:

    1. Thanks for that! I've looked a little into superstitions/beliefs surrounding mirrors, but there's always so much more! Like that one about a girl eating an apple and brushing her hair in front of a mirror to see her husband, I've never heard that before, and is another interesting similarity to Snow White!