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Snow White, blood red, Raven Black [Apr. 14th, 2006|09:21 pm]

I have written before, but it was in a locked post so I'll say it again, about the narrative motif in which feminine beauty is evoked by the white of snow, the red of blood and - well, I'll come to that. The most familiar version is probably the story of Snow White, which begins:
It was in the middle of winter, when the broad flakes of snow were falling around, that a certain queen sat working at a window, the frame of which was made of fine black ebony; and as she was looking out upon the snow, she pricked her finger, and three drops of blood fell upon it. Then she gazed thoughtfully upon the red drops which sprinkled the white snow, and said, 'Would that my little daughter may be as white as that snow, as red as the blood, and as black as the ebony window-frame!' And so the little girl grew up: her skin was as white as snow, her cheeks as rosy as the blood, and her hair as black as ebony; and she was called Snow-drop.
This text is taken from the version collected by the brothers Grimm, as published in Iona and Peter Opie's collection, The Classic Fairy Tales; Josephine Poole's retelling has the queen wish for child "as black as the wood of an ebony tree", but Angela Barrett's illustration reinstates black as the line that divides interior and exterior, not as window-frame but the palace wall, seen in dramatic cross-section.

But the motif is traceable to long before the nineteenth century; something very similar appears in Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval. King Arthur and his court have set off in search of Perceval:
Et Perchevax la matinee
Fu levez si come il soloit,
Que querre et encontrer voloit
A venture et chevalerie;
Et vint droit vers la praerie,
Qui fu gelee et ennegie,
Ou l'os le roi estoit logie.
Mais ainz que il venist as tentes,
Voloit une route de jantes,
Que la noif avoit esbleuies.
Veües les a et oïes,
Qu'eles s'en aloient braiant
Por un faucon qui vint raiant
Apres eles de grant randon,
Tant qu'il en trova abandon
Une fors de route sevree,
Si l'a si ferue et hurtee
Que contre terre l'abati;
Mais trop fu main, si s'en parti,
Qu'il ne s'i volt liier ne joindre.
Et Perchevax comence a poindre
La ou il ot veü le vol.
La jante fu navree el col,
Si sainna trois goutes de sanc
Qui espandirent sor le blanc,
Si sa[m]bla natural color.
La jante n'ot mal ne dolor
Qui contre terre le tenist
Tant que cil a tans i venist,
Qu' ele s' en fu ainçois volee.
Quant Perchevax vit defoulee
Le noif sor coi la jante jut,
Et le sanc qui entor parut,
Si s'apoia desor sa lance
Por esgarder cele samblance;
Que li sanz et 1a nois ensamble
La fresche color li resamble
Qui ert en la face s'amie,
Si pense tant que il s'oblie,
Qu'autresi estoit en son vis
Li vermels sor le blanc assis
Com ces trois goutes de sanc furent,
Qui sor le blance noif parurent.
En l'esgarder que il faisoit,
Li ert avis, tant li plaisoit,
Qu'il veist la color novele
De la face s'amie bele.
[In the morning, Perceval rose early, as was his custom, because it was his aim to seek out adventures and chivalry; he came directly to the meadow, all frosty and covered with snow, where the king's host was encamped. But before he reached the tents, a flock of wild geese flew past, dazzled by the snow. He both saw them and heard them, because a falcon was chasing at full speed after them, setting them honking as they flew, until by chance it came on one of them separated from the flock, and struck her down and brought her to ground. But it was too early, and the falcon flew off, not wanting to attack the goose or do battle with her.
Perceval spurred his horse on to where he had seen the flight of geese. The goose was wounded in the neck, so that it bled three drops of blood which spread out on the white snow, looking like natural colour. The goose had no injury to keep it on the ground, so that by the time Perceval arrived she had already flown off.
But when he saw the snow disturbed, where the goose had been lying, and the blood visible round about it, he leaned on his lance to view the sight; because the blood and the snow together seemed to him like the fair colouring in the face of his love. He became quite lost in the thought of how the ruby red was set on the white of her face just as these three drops of blood were, which he saw on the white snow. It seemed to him that his contemplation of this sight was so agreeable, he might have been gazing on the bright colour of his lovely lady's face.
An early twentieth century retelling of this episode has the hawk bring down a raven, and Perceval entranced by the three colours, because "that snow is not whiter than the brow and the neck of my lady; and that red is not redder than her lips; and that black is not blacker than her hair". This may be the earlier form of the motif: the three colours are a more plausible - because more specific - trigger for the memory of the beloved than the simple contrast of red and white, and there is something unsatisfying about Chrétien's introduction of the goose only to have it fly away again, something satisfying about the place of the raven's feather in the three colour pattern. If Chrétien's source material took this form, it is easy to see why he would change it: the heroine of courtly romance is always blonde. In the case of Perceval's Blancheflor:
Les chaveus tiex, s'estre poïst,
Que bien quidast qui les veïst
Que il fuissent tot de fin or,
Tant estoient luisant et sor.
[Her hair was such that anyone who saw it might think it was of pure gold, it was so gleaming and blond.]
Google turns up the same motif in a variety of undated folk tales, not to mention Angela Carter's short story The Snow Child: the onlooker sees blood and freezing cold, and reacts only to their beauty.

So I was amused at the reversal of this motif in Ann Cleeves's Raven Black which is, among other virtues, a traditionally constructed crime novel. Therefore, it has a scene in which the body is discovered:
She stopped there to look down at the water again, hoping to recreate the image she'd seen on the way to the school. It was the colours which had caught her attention. Often the colours on the islands were subtle, olive green, mud brown, sea grey and all softened by mist. In the full sunlight of early morning, this picture was stark and vibrant. The harsh white of the snow. Three shapes, silhouetted. Ravens. In her painting they would be angular shapes, cubist almost. Birds roughly carved from hard black wood. And then that splash of colour. Red, reflecting the scarlet ball of the sun.

I had the opportunity to ask Ann whether she had deliberately made use of the traditional motif, and she said no, but that after writing it she realised it had a familiar strength, Yet she has in several ways reversed the pattern: here are the white of the snow, the black of the ravens - but they are not reminders of an absent beauty, they frame the actual body of the young girl who has been murdered. For once, the red of blood would not be an incongruous touch of violence in a reverie of love - but in this case, the red turns out not to be blood: "There was a red scarf tight round her neck, the fringe spread out like blood on the snow."