Snow White is the conflict of mother and daughter as one grows toward marriage and queenship as the other steps aside. This forces a conflict and reintegration far more profound than the epic battle of father and son. “Snow, Glass Apples” reverses the traditional pattern, casting the young princess as a murderous werewolf and leaving the heroic queen to try to save the kingdom from this threat.
The Grimms’ stepmother is clearly threatened by her daughter’s beauty and the fear that the daughter will supplant her. She neglects the kingdom to peer selfishly into her mirror each day and reduces her vision to the two of them, valuing only herself and the need to be uniquely desirable. More frightening still is her demand for Snow White’s heart. Eating one’s enemy is far more intimate than any other form of possession; by consuming Snow White’s youth and beauty, the queen hopes to absorb them.
Gaiman’s stepmother, by contrast, looks outside the two women’s relationship to see the needs of the kingdom, as trade and the population are slowly dying from Snow White’s destruction. This innocent side of the queen has become a killer. The queen takes her heart and protects it, guarding it with berries and garlic to save others from Snow White’s power, rather than taking it for herself.
At the same time, like the original story, the two women are inextricably bound as they desire the same men and prey on each other, Snow White biting her stepmother and the stepmother keeping Snow White’s heart, until they’re bound like two sides of the same self, innocent and evil, light and dark, nurturing and devouring. The greatest tragedy is that the people of the kingdom, like those who read the story, assume the stepmother must be the monster.
When Helena’s mother falls ill, Helena descends into the shadow world to wake the sleeping queen and restore her world. But when she does, she discovers the princess—shadowHelena—has gone to earth and taken her place. Shadow Helena fights with her father, rages and storms. She’s the dark, angry side of Helena, the side she usually keeps buried beneath the paper-covered walls of her room.
More than simply the inverse of the heroine, this shadow has hidden positive qualities as well, often strong and assertive where the heroine is silent and passive. In her battle to achieve a higher consciousness, the heroine pits herself against this shadow, and must integrate it into the self.
In the Otherworld,Helenatries on the shadow princess identity like a costume. What would it be like to look mature and glamorous, to sit at a stately table and be a perfect daughter? Through windows and mirrors the rebellious princess rages, screaming for attention and independence as she battles through adolescence. And yet, the rage and power she has evoked are too strong within her and she can’t figure out how to fight through it, to return to the sunny Helena the juggler she once was.
At last,Helena harnesses the power of the mirrormask—a tool that both lets her perceive the world and show the world the face she wants to reveal. Using it she climbs out of the darkness and reclaims her place from her bratty, miserable self before the world of pen and paper, of imagination, creativity, and beauty is lost forever. Here is the heroine’s classic journey.
The heroine’s journey sees the adolescent girl receiving a mirror, seeing stone, or tool of knowledge and perception (like a book, magic spectacles, or a golden compass) rather than a hero’s sword. She quests, not to topple the tyrant and rule his kingdom, but to rescue a lost sibling, parent, or lover. However, her quest is no less valiant for its lack of weapons as the heroine often struggles through the darkness, helpless and alone, battling her deepest terrors to save those she loves. And she does it swordless.
Armed with only a seeing stone and her own wits, Coraline has plenty of horror to face, most particularly in the sickly-sweet Other Mother who wants to remake Coraline into a dark, frightening self. If Coraline agrees, the Other Mother will one day devour her and leave nothing but a ghost floating pathetically behind the mirrors of her home. This reflects the archetypal struggle for independence, as girls long to leave home and grow up, but the fairytale dark mother clings too tight, begging her to stay home and be a child forever, let her mother dress her and take over all aspects of her personality. Girls everywhere must learn to avoid the temptations of ice cream and dancing toys, to outwit the mother and become adults.
In the pattern of heroine quests everywhere, Coraline defeats the Other Mother with a hollow stone and a riddle game, and then conquers her disembodied hand with a doll’s tea set. As she does so, she’s following the tradition of mythic heroines across the world, who use magic thread, charms, potions, and their own wits to recreate the world and save their most beloved.