Saturday, March 15, 2014


Though I'm trying not to recycle an inordinate number of my fantasy-film reviews on this blog, I want to examine in greater depth the concepts suggested by this passage from my review of the 2012 SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN:

Apparently Magnus' wife does die naturally, but following that event, Ravenna uses her sorcery to stage a fake attack on herself, so that Magnus can come to her rescue and be ensorcelled by Ravenna's charms.  This duplicity leads to the film's strongest scene, when Magnus attempts to celebrate his wedding-night with his new wife.  Ravenna, after immobilizing Magnus with her power, rants about her previous abuse: "I was ruined by a king like you once... I replaced his queen-- an old woman..."  "Ruin" here implies rape, albeit one presumably sanctioned by a forced marriage.  We don't know what happened to Ravenna's original abuser, but she's clearly chosen to vent her rage on a surrogate, slaying Magnus with a (phallic?) knife, after which she takes over the kingdom with her own forces, commanded by her now-grown brother Finn. 

I wrote this in part to point out how the screenwriters had chosen to rewrite the traditional folktale of Snow White with an eye to feminist politics.  But this is not to say such feminine-based concerns don't have valid roots with the traditional Snow White folklore-stories.  Indeed, when I heard the Queen's justification for taking over Magnus' kingdom, I thought that in effect the writers had managed to invoke two archetypes of the "persecuted maiden" and to play them off one another: what I'll call "the Maiden Persecuted by Hera" and "the Maiden Persecuted by Zeus."

The original Snow White story does not dwell on any deep motivations for the Queen.  The tale is concerned only with the persecution of the maiden Snow by her stepmother, who is explicitly jealous of the younger woman's beauty.  She is thus covalent with at least one aspect of the Greek goddess Hera, who in modern times is best known for jealously persecuting either the lovers of her husband Zeus or the fruits of his amours with other women. 

As Ravenna recites her litany of injuries, though, the film's screenwriters evoke the opposing trope of the maiden pursued and persecuted by a powerful, quasi-paternal figure, a la the Greek father-god Zeus.  The best known exemplar of this trope is the folktale known as "Donkey Skin," though the tale's basic structure appears in as many variant forms as the structure of Snow White does. The princess who comes to be known as "Donkey Skin" duplicates the trope of the young woman who is as beautiful or more so than an older rival.  However in this case, the rival is her own mother, now deceased, who perversely tells her husband not to marry another woman unless that woman is as beautiful as the aforesaid mother.  This pledge leads the king to covet his own daughter as a wife. Most versions enable the princess to escape this fate and to be married to an age-appropriate suitor.  Some versions allow the king to prosper with another wife, others cause him to be killed for his wickedness.

Ravenna's story seems a bit like "Donkey Skin with an unhappy ending." Because Ravenna is in the narrative position of the antagonist, viewers of HUNTSMAN do not know much about the circumstances of her "ruination," her mastery of occult powers, etc. Aside from what Ravenna tells the audience while killing Magnus, there's just one other scene that directly expounds on Ravenna's history.  In a scene occuring much later in the story, the audience sees Ravenna in her childhood.  She is in the company of her mother in what appears to be a humble village, and the mother is placing on young Ravenna a spell that will give the power to manipulate men by enhancing her natural beauty with enchantment.  The main function of the scene is to reveal Ravenna's sorcerous weakness, so that the heroine may kill her later.  In addition, Ravenna's mother takes this step because she already anticipates a raid on the village by soldiers who are going to take Ravenna away to be the bride of their master.  A younger version of Ravenna's brother Finn is present when the mother casts the spell.  There is the suggestion that the village will be razed even though the villagers don't resist the soldiers, and the scene ends with Ravenna being carried away.  If Finn is not taken along with Ravenna to the unknown king's castle, he presumably survives in some other manner, since he's alive and well at the time when Ravenna takes over Magnus' kingdom.

What's interesting about this scene is the conspicuous absence of the father of Ravenna and Finn.  One presumes that they had a sire of some sort, who is either dead or otherwise unavailable.  But the resonance of Ravenna's words in the murder-scene suggest that symbolically, outside the actual diegesis of the film, it is the unidentified monarch who is father to them both.

Recall that the basic oppositions of Ravenna's monologue duplicates the basic structure of the "Donkey Skin" story.  The king's old wife does not perish naturally, but is put away by the king because she has committed the unforgiveable act of growing old.  This trope does appear in some traditional tales, though natural death seems to be the preferred method to place the persecuted maiden in danger, whether from a lascivious father or a jealous stepmother.  It is arguable that the very nebulousness of Ravenna's unknown ravager leads one to associate him with the absent father-figure; the sire whom no one sees.

The queen's brother Finn seems to have no basis in any traditional "Snow White" or "Donkey Skin" tale.  In the film Finn serves as Ravenna's enforcer, leading her men to hunt down Snow White and to fight with her protector, the Huntsman.  The screenplay does not explicitly state that there has been some incestuous hanky-panky between the queen and her brother, but certain lines-- as when Finn tells Ravenna that he has given her "my all"-- were effective enough that dozens of online reviews of the film have "read" the characters' relationship as incestuous.  I agree with this, but I would extend it to imagine that their relationship might have its origin in the recapitulation of Ravenna's ruination by her "symbolic father."  If Ravenna had been depicted as the actual, rather than the symbolic, daughter of her ravager, one would expect her to show Freudian ambivalence to him: both loving him as her parent and hating him for his crime.  Finn may be "read" as the helpless male sibling who allows his sister's rape to take place, onto whom Ravenna projects the love that the father betrays.  And yet the love Ravenna and Finn share has also been tainted by the father's rape of Ravenna, with the result that their relationship also devolves into incest-- though this is the least of their crimes.

The unknown monarch may or may not pay for his crime; the film tells us nothing of him save what Ravenna says about him.  The audience never knows in what way Ravenna thinks Snow's father Magnus is similar to the nameless king.  In the traditional "Snow White" tale, one may read the father's willingness to remarry after his wife's natural death as a loose betrayal, and it seems likely that the screenwriters were drawing a symbolic connection between this level of betrayal-- which would only seem so to Magnus' daughter, though she never objects to Magnus' remarriage in the film proper-- and the more overt form of betrayal seen in "Donkey Skin," wherein a father oversteps his bounds by seducing his daughter, with or without having "put away" her mother.

It's interesting that both Ravenna's mother and Snow's mother conjure with the image of the traditional tale's "three drops of blood," which is usually applied only as a signifier of Snow White's charmed beauty.  By extending this motif to the queen in her childhood as well as to Snow, the writers suggest that the function of women's charms and beauty is one that all women potentially have at their command, and that it is-- or can be used-- to counter male acquisitiveness and/or aggression.  The screenplay isn't quite intelligent enough to distinguish the specific moral reasons as to why Ravenna's sorcerous charms are evil while Snow's natural charms are good. The script does portray Ravenna as tyrannizing women as much or more than her male victims, and conjures somewhat with the Arthurian motif of the "waste land" to demonstrate that Ravenna has been too tainted by her misfortune to make a decent ruler.  The most one can say is that in some manner the power invoked by both mothers is one that can be turned to good or evil, a familiar trope supported by the elucidation of Ravenna's weakness.  On one hand, if Ravenna devours Snow White's heart-- rather than simply having it torn out to kill Snow, as in the traditional tale-- she can be immortal and beyond any of the ravages of time.  On the other, Snow's blood-- depending on the film's somewhat confusing plot-circumstances-- can and does slay the evil queen.  Since the whole film leads up to the battle of Magnus' natural daughter and his ilicit second wife, one might say that the main point of the film is to validate the very aspect of life which Ravenna refuses to accept-- the ability of the young to overthrow the elder generation.  In this familiar equation, the sole comfort of the elders who watch the film is that their representative in HUNTSMAN gets all the best lines and the most evocative scenes in the story.

ADDENDA: I meant to add that Ravenna gets one definite proof of Snow's ability to replace her, as she Ravenna replaced the "old woman" of the backstory.  Early in the film, Snow is able to escape her jail because Ravenna's brother Finn has been watching her mature for some time.  He confronts her in her cell, trying to talk her into yielding to him, and she breaks free by wounding him.  Though the action of Snow getting free could have taken place with any random guardsman, there's a special irony that even Ravenna's brother-- with whom she shares some special bond-- is lured by Snow's charms.  To be sure, when Ravenna upbraids Finn, her dialogue doesn't communicate the sense of a jealous rage toward an incestuous lover.

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