Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Red as Blood, White as Snow, Black as Crow: Chromatic Symbolism of Womanhood in Fairy Tales

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Red as Blood, White as Snow, Black as Crow: Chromatic Symbolism of Womanhood in Fairy Tales

Article excerpt

This article is intended as a modest follow-up on a classic study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay In Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, these two linguists showed that despite the proven ability of humans to discriminate thousands of color percepts, "a total universal inventory of exactly eleven basic term categories exists from which the eleven or fewer basic color terms of any given languages are always drawn" (2). This means that, as they put it, such "eleven basic color categories are pan-human perceptual universals" (108).1 To my mind, this conclusion is eerily reminiscent of Vladimir Propp's discovery that thirty-one functions are all that the human imagination needs to produce the myriad extant variations in fairy tales. So the question arises of whether fairy tales use colors, as they use functions, in a patterned way To answer, one must pursue Propp's sort of exploration of fairy-tale universals beyond formalism, in the realm of sensory experience-or, rather, of its encoding in color categories.

Encouragingly, fairy tales make striking use of colors. Max Lüthi once remarked that whereas a[t]he real world shows us a richness of different hues and shadings . . . [b]y contrast, the folktale prefers clear, ultrapure colors" (27). And he gave a well-known example: "Snow White is as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony" (28). While in the following discussion I shall take advantage of the example of the three colors of Snow White, I must part ways with Lüthi's ideas regarding the abstract style of fairy tales, for my purpose is to call attention to the role of colors as concrete semiotic markers. Indeed, in taking up the colors of Snow White (and some of her sisters), I would like to explore chromatic codes as a means to uncover folk notions regarding womanhood.

Basic Chromatic Trio

But how, precisely, does an exploration of chromatic codes regarding womanhood fit with Berlin and Kay's study on basic color terms? Let me backtrack a little. These authors have shown that natural languages encode basic color categories according to a single progressive sequence of color discriminations, so any given category supposes all previous ones. Specifically, they found that if a given language contains only two color terms, these refer to white and black. But if a language contains three terms, then it contains (in addition to the previous ones) a word for red. And so on and so forth concerning-in the following order-green or yellow, then blue, then brown, and finally purple, pink, orange, and gray.

But why would color terms follow such a strict order everywhere? Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, while strengthening the case for a physiological basis of the universal scheme of color categories, also suggested that "colors are in practice semiotic codes" (171). This is why, Sahlins surmises, Berlin and Kay found strong cross-cultural regularities in the foci of basic color categories-for, if colors are to carry meanings, then "hues are socially relevant in their most distinctive perceptible form" (175). In principle, this argument applies to Luthi's observation on the distinctiveness of fairy-tale colors.

In itself, the point that colors are convenient semiotic markers will not surprise anyone who is familiar with traffic lights or with the gender-specific assignments of blue and pink for babies. But, more ambitiously, I wish to focus on Snow White's tricolor pattern as one particular instance of a transcultural basic scheme. Berlin and Kay have shown the primacy of white, black, and red in most color terminologies (21); and, as one might expect, a fundamental chromatic trio tends to convey foundational notions.

Here is an interesting example. Victor W Turner has shown in a classic study that the Ndembu of Zambia possess "primary terms" for only white, red, and black (60, 68). And he suggested these three colors stand for a totalizing tripartite mode of classification. …

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