Interview with Ilene Cummings
In your own words, Ilene, can you remind us what happens in the story of Snow White?
When the story starts, little Snow White is living in the castle with her stepmother and her father, who isn’t there very much. The Queen is very vain and beautiful, physically, but doesn’t really have any heart. She asks her mirror everyday, “Who’s the fairest in the land?” and the mirror tells her she is. She’s very happy with that. But little Snow White is growing daily and becoming more and more beautiful.
So the real impulse of the whole story begins when Snow White is declared the fairest of the land by the mirror, and the Queen is very angry, upset and jealous, and decides to take action to get rid of Snow White.
She calls in the woodsman, and tells him to take Snow White out into the woods and to bring back her heart, which she plans to boil for dinner. He’s supposed to shoot her with his arrow, but when he gets his arrow out, little Snow White says, “Oh, please don’t shoot an animal! I can’t bear it if you do because I love them so much!” The woodsman takes pity and tells her to run away, which she does, and she runs and runs into the depths of the woods. She finds a little house that belongs to someone she doesn’t know. She goes in and she sees seven little plates on the table, and she takes a bit of the food from each one. She sees seven little beds and she tries out each one, and she finally finds the best bed, which is the last one, and she falls fast asleep.
Shortly thereafter, the seven dwarves return to the house and find her asleep. She tells them her story and they invite her to stay with them. She can take care of the house and cook for them, but she is not to let anybody in or talk to anybody. And they go off to work.
The next day, the Queen, who has received a heart from the woodsman—asks the mirror again, “Who’s the fairest of the land?” and she’s told, “Oh, it’s still Snow White, she’s living in the forest with the dwarves.” The Queen becomes very angry. She calls for the woodsman (who is nowhere to be found, curiously enough.) She figures she has to go out into the woods herself to kill Snow White herself. But she calls herself a little soft-hearted (can’t bear the sight of blood) so she tries to think of some way to get rid of her that is a little less bloody. She first goes with a cinching belt. She manages to persuade Snow White to open the door and she cinches it on her, and of course she cinches it so tight that little Snow White falls on the ground. The Queen leaves, thinking she’s done the deed, and returns to the castle. The dwarves come home just in time to unloosen her belt and save Snow White.
The next day the Queen asks her mirror, “Who’s the fairest in the land?” and when she finds out Snow White is still living, she takes her beautiful comb, poisons it, and again she manages to persuade Snow White to let her in. She gives her the poisoned comb, and she puts it on her head, and of course as soon as the poison hits the scalp, she falls to the ground. The Queen goes home, and again, the next day when she asks her mirror, “Who’s the fairest in the land?” she is told, “Snow White is because the dwarves came home and saved her.” This time, she decides that her only hope is this poisoned apple trick she learned some time ago. She goes into a total disguise—she looks like a very old lady and she has this apple which is beautiful and red on the one side and green on the other. She takes it down there and offers Snow White this apple. She knows that little Snow White loves apples.
In order to prove that it’s a good apple, she bites into it on the unpoisoned side. Little Snow White says, “I’m not supposed to come outside I’ve been warned not to come out,” and she says, “Well, just take a little bite, it’s so good,” and she holds it out. Little Snow White reaches her hand out through the window, accepts the apple and takes a big bite. Then she does fall down—dead.
The story makes it quite clear that she’s dead. The Queen rushes back to the castle, and is reaffirmed by the mirror that she is the fairest in the land. Meanwhile, the dwarves come home and they try to do everything they can but Snow White can’t be revived. So with great sorrow they put her into a casket of glass. She is so beautiful they can’t bear to put her down inside the earth. One of them stays with her every day and seven more years go by.
Now I think of her as sort of growing. She doesn’t disintegrate. She doesn’t rot or decay in any way and in fact, she becomes even more beautiful. Because she’s really growing up. She’s only seven years old at the beginning of the story. And seven more years would make her 14 which seems a little more appropriate. (The age of Juliet, and so forth!)
Anyway, at some point, at the age of 14, a handsome prince from a nearby kingdom rides through the forest and happens on the dwarves’ home. He sees the beautiful casket with body of Snow White laid out in it. He can’t resist her beauty. He decides to take her back to his castle, even though she’s dead, because he just can’t think of leaving her there in the woods. He begs the dwarves, who are a bit reluctant, but they finally agree—alright, he can take her. He has a big cart, and he puts that casket onto the cart, and starts struggling away through the rocky paths of the forest. And at one point it hits a big bump so hard that the apple inside the throat of Snow White is jarred loose, and she coughs it out! After that she can breathe, and she can speak, and she can see! She is alive again.
The prince and princess look at each other, and see that they are meant to be together. Immediately they decide to get married. He takes her back to his castle and they have a private ceremony followed by a big wedding feast. They invite all of the people from the nearby kingdoms. They send an invitation to Snow White’s father, and they have to include the stepmother. Snow White isn’t sure how all that is going to work, but she thinks it will be interesting to see. And so they have the big feast, and at one point the father and the wicked Queen arrive. The father is so happy to see Snow White! He thought that she was dead. He was told that she had been lost in the woods and nobody knew where she was. The Queen stands in the doorway, terrified. She can’t move. She is shaking hard because she realizes that all her evil is going to be revealed. Everybody is going to know about it. And someone … it comes to me that perhaps it is the woodsman … who moved from her kingdom, over to the kingdom of this new prince, and started working as a woodsman there … anyway, someone brings forward some iron shoes that are red hot. They are put on the Queen’s feet and she begins to dance. She dances a little bit, and then she dances more and more wildly.
Meanwhile, Snow White and the prince and the dwarves and some of the other guests are sitting at another table and aren’t really watching what is going on—at least this is how I picture it—until the Queen collapses. She danced until she was all danced out and then she fell to the ground—dead. And that is the end of the story as the Grimm brothers told it. I think Snow White would say, “Well, it wasn’t exactly what I wished, but I wasn’t very sad to hear about the Queen's death, either!”
What first drew you into the story?
It was a favorite story of mine when I was a kid. I used to go to the library, take the book out and then bring it back again. Then, I don’t know, a month or two later I just had to have that storybook again. And my mother would say, “Oh my goodness, I’m so sick of reading that story to you!”
So it has been a story that has been with you for many years! What is it in the story that you are drawn to as an adult?
Well, of course, I really liked the Queen. I identified with her, having got to a point in my life when I look into the mirror I don’t exactly feel great joy at all I see there! So that scene with the mirror, when she’s told she’s no longer the fairest in the land, that’s a very dramatic moment as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s the real crux, where the whole action starts.
Can you tell more about the connection you made with the Queen—is it a sympathy for the loss of her beauty?
Yes. I felt that was all she had. And now she was losing that. She didn’t have much inside, you know, I think she was just kind of empty. The way I see it, her only joy is to be considered the fairest of the land, and all the sort of selfish things she can get for herself. I began to wonder, who was the Queen and how was she born? Maybe she was born to a King who loved gold more than his daughter, and he dressed her in gold and made her look beautiful all the time. The only way she was ever going to be cherished, was by being the most beautiful, and that’s how she grew up.
I also felt the mirror had a character.
You saw the mirror having a story?
Yes. I thought of the old saying by (the baseball player) Yogi Berra “I calls ‘em the way I sees ‘em.” I imagined that this mirror had been passed from person to person down through the ages. Maybe the queen was given the mirror when she was sixteen or something. I felt that the mirror really wanted not to have to tell the Queen. He tells women they’re beautiful but at a certain point, he has to tell them, “You’re no longer the most beautiful” Maybe this has been going on for centuries!
Anyway, I had it in my mind that this poor little mirror was saying to himself, “I’m not going to tell her, I’m not going to tell her, I’m gonna lie, I’m gonna lie,” but as soon as she asked the question, his good intention just fell away from him and he couldn’t help it. The truth came out: “No, you are no longer the fairest in the land. It’s Snow White.” I keep seeing this mirror as a male, and I’ve given him a little song:
I tells ‘em the way I sees ‘em
I can’t help it that’s the way I am!
I mirror the world around me
I can’t help it that’s the way I am!
How does the Queen react when the mirror tells her the way it is?
I wrote out some of the Queen’s diary entries. Here’s what she said:
NO! NO! NO! This cannot be true! This morning the mirror told me that SNOW WHITE is the fairest in the land! I nearly broke the mirror but I gritted my teeth and held on. I need that mirror. Soon I will be the fairest once again as I have a plan. Today my husband is going to the kingdom to the west for three whole days. While he’s gone I am going to call in the woodsman and get him to take that bitch Snow White into the woods and kill her. He will bring back her heart and I will eat it. Then we will see who is the fairest in the land. I’ll tell my husband that the woodsman took her into the woods and she got lost—
Three days later. I can’t believe how easy it all was. My husband left on his trip. I wore my golden corset and multi-layered skirt and black diamond top when we said goodbye at the gate. So romantic. As soon as he was gone I called in the Woodsman and told him my plan. He agreed to do as he was told although he didn’t look happy about it. I should do it myself of course, but I’m so soft-hearted I can’t stand the sight of blood. Just now I saw the woodsman and Snow White head out into the woods. My plan will work. I won’t ask the mirror until tomorrow morning, after I’ve eaten her heart.
This is a story that is populated by so many characters—I can see how your lively imagination took hold of it. In your reading of Snow White what would you say was the central wound?
I guess for me it was the loss of the mother. Snow White was born and her mother died shortly thereafter, so she never had her true mother’s love. And then she was subjected to this stepmother who had no interest in her at all, so I picture Snow White as someone who has always been searching for a mother.
If you think of the mother as Mother Earth … I began to see that the Queen was an example of this false sense of separation that is troubling humankind. We’re feeling that we’re above the animals and the earth, we’re separate from them, we can take everything from the earth and not give back, we can have our own things and not worry about anybody else, and I began to realize that the Queen was an expression of that.
I was taking a course in Indian Ayurvedic medicine not long ago and they were talking about the concept of ahamkara which is what Indian philosophy refers to as that false sense of separation. Thousands of years ago, people saw ahamkara as a prime source of evil in the world.
Today we’re even further along the path of a false sense of separation.
When I realized that I began to see that little Snow White was more like the interconnected web of all existence. She was that part of ourselves that is very innocent and related to the earth, the animals, the plants. At first, I thought the Queen was much more interesting, that Snow White was kind of stupid. But then I suddenly saw that she was very sympathetic. In her innocence, she was much more connected with everything else than the Queen.
Snow White is driven into the woods, which I saw as significant because that’s like nature, really raw nature. There she is able to hide and find her strength.
I’ve done a lot of yoga, and Reiki and therapeutic touch, and we’re very conscious of the chakra system. So suddenly it occurred to me after I had been working with Snow White for several weeks, that there are seven dwarves and there are seven chakras. And I thought, isn’t THAT interesting? Maybe, these seven dwarves are the seven chakras, the energy points in the body. They care for and keep her alive in the forest.
I named all the dwarves according to their chakras, from the root to the crown. I thought that it was particularly interesting that when Snow White tries out all the beds, the one that she chooses is the seventh one, crown chakra, the mystical one. That bed fits her best.
So do you see Snow White experiencing a reconnection. Is she healing the wound created by a false sense of separation?
I think so. We have less of a sense of connection than there used to be. Older cultures had a lot to say about these things. They could connect with the plant spirits, the animals spirits, find out what they needed to know by going into deep meditation or trance. They would get a lot of information that we shut ourselves off from as a result of our separation and superiority to the animals and plants and everything else.
When I look into Snow White I see that humankind is in the state of semi-death. We’ve got a poisoned apple stuck in our throat, and until we cough it out, and really reestablish our interconnection with everything—with each other, with the earth, the plants, the spirits and so forth—we’re just going to be lying there in this limbo.
In the story, there was a big bump and I just wonder if humanity is going to get a big bump, and maybe that will help reconnect us.
When you look at the prince and his role in the healing, what do you see there?
I don’t know as much about him. He certainly has his own story. It seems to me that he too is part of an interconnected web and he definitely feels that connection with nature and animals and people. He’s that kind of a person. When he sees Snow White, he sees she’s obviously the one for him, but she’s dead. And he wants to take her to the castle with him to have her there just so he can look at her!
It’s kind of extraordinary that he brings back this comatose young woman in a crystal coffin!
Yes, and the dwarves are very reluctant to let her go. Yet, somehow, he’s able to persuade them that he’s trustworthy and he’s not going to do anything bad to her. I think, definitely, that’s the way it’s supposed to be read. He doesn’t have some bad idea that he’s going to take her back and exploit her. I think he just wants this beauty to be with him.
How would you say you were altered by your experience in the story? What changed for you from the time you went in and the time you came out?
I think it’s just a feeling of great gratitude and happiness that we have these old stories and that you can see much deeper into them than I originally thought. I had heard about telling stories and myths before, but it never really appealed to me somehow. But then I found how deep it’s possible to go. You can find aspects of yourself, of the world, of everything in these stories. They speak to many generations and they speak at a different level than we really know. The story says one thing on the surface, and yet it is saying something else on another level. That can be very upsetting, or very satisfying, but it’s very fundamental. We need to be reminded.
Ilene Cummings fell in love with theater at age sixteen when she appeared in “June Mad” at the Bellingham Theater Guild in Washington State. She has since appeared onstage in close to sixty productions and assisted with many others, many of them at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto. She is currently at work writing her one-woman show tentatively entitled, “We're All Interconnected.”
Ilene is a long time member of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto where she was a Lay Chaplain for five years during which she performed many weddings and memorial services. She continues her active membership there and delivers the occasional sermon to the congregation (www.firstunitariantoronto.org)