Fairy Tale Friday: The Origin of Crysta K. Coburn’s “Treasure” in Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales

I’ve known Crysta for a few years now, and we are currently working together to put out a Steampunk short story anthology called Cogs, Crowns, and Carriages. But before we became co-editors, she was the brains behind Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales ($1.99 during the month of June!). I invited her to tell us about the inspiration behind her contribution, “Treasure.” Take it away, Crysta!

Once upon a time, I read in a book that the origins of the fairy tale Snow White lay with real fairies. Snow White was a fairy child—a kind of changeling—not a baby born of a human queen at all.

The queen in question and her king are riding in a carriage through the woods one snowy evening dreaming and talking of the child they would one day have together. They describe the baby as having skin like the snow falling outside, raven-black hair, blood-red cheeks, et cetera (you know the drill).

Well, what do you know, but alongside the carriage appears a child of just such a description. The king is delighted and invites the girl out of the snow and into the carriage. As the girl admits to no parents, the king adopts her as their daughter and names her Snow White. The queen is horrified, and rightly so!

Nature—the forest—is, as everyone knows, magical. The king and queen, unsuspecting of the danger, have just conjured from the forest a child. The queen knows that rarely does this turn out well. Magic is unpredictable, and magical beings are capricious. Is it any wonder, then, that she wants this creature—this Snow White, that has charmed her husband, the king—out of her house ASAP? But she can’t simply ask it to leave or show it the door. That might bring down the wrath of the fairies. What to do….

Digging Deeper into Snow White

I can’t recall the name of this book, despite years of searching (and if you know it, or think you know it, please tell me!). I did come across this entry on SurLaLune Fairytales that describes a count and countess riding on a sledge and finding the conjured Snow White, but little is given of its background, and the child is quickly kicked out of the sledge by the countess.

In my research of this tale, I uncovered several versions of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification 709, so my inspiration for my King, Queen, and Princess Treasure (what I have called Snow White in my story) is drawn from more than the recollection of this earlier version.

Punking the Tale

Of course, with the theme being steampunk, I quickly hit upon making Snow White into an automaton, and I renamed her Treasure because naming her after snow no longer made sense. Here, I was actually inspired by an anecdote I once heard about Mama Cass and her daughter Owen Elliot. As the story goes, when Cass was asked about her baby’s father, she responded “She’s my own,” hence naming her child Owen. Thus I have the King in my story naming the automaton Treasure because “she was his dearest treasure.” (Incidentally, Hester in The Scarlet Letter names her baby Pearl for the same reason.)

In some tales, like “The Vain Queen” from Portugal, Snow White doesn’t stay with dwarves, but a single person with special powers. This was the inspiration for my tinkerer Ana, who can fix the Princess Treasure’s maladies until the fateful moment that she can’t. This borrows from the Grimms tale as well as others, such as “The Crystal Casket” and “Bella Venezia,” both from Italy, in which Snow White is brought to the palace, and the unsuspected thing that made Snow White fall as if dead is removed, and she awakens.

Another key aspect of my story that I took from similar versions of the Show White tale is the Queen’s fate, which is a much kinder ending than having her dance herself to death in super-heated shoes, or any other of a number of gruesome ends that come to such wicked women in traditional stories. In “The Young Slave,” another Italian fairy tale (Italians really like fairy tales), the baron’s misbehaving wife is sent back to her relatives. I came across this again and again in stories, which made me wonder if a woman being rejected by her husband and returned, like a defect to the manufacturer, was seen at the time as a fate comparable to—or worse than—death.

Many of our popular fairy tales are ancient in origin (those by Hans Christian Andersen are a notable exception), and there are countless different versions of them spread across Europe and its descendant countries. While it’s tempting to use the Disney versions, I find it so much more satisfying and inspiring to draw from these much older, much more varied stories to create something with solid roots but is new. I hope readers find my story “Treasure” to be interesting and unique in this well-trod landscape.

Further Reading

If you’d like to read more Italian fairy tales, Giambattista Basile collected some of the earliest recorded forms of popular European tales in the early 17th century. The 2015 film Tale of Tales was based on his work.

SurLaLune Fairytales is a fantastic resource for many well-known fairytales from Grimms to Andersen and beyond. Learn the original stories, similar stories from around the world, and purchase collected anthologies.

If novels are your thing, Goodreads has amassed a long list of Snow White retellings.

Thanks, Crysta! I’d also like to add that I recorded an excerpt of “Treasure” during OWS CyCon 2019, so you can give it a listen, too. I used all of my best “fairy tale voices” to give it a life of its own (not unlike Treasure herself). 

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