The third essay in John C. Wright’s Hugo-nominated collection Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth tackles the enduring question of why small animals help Snow White with her housework.
Yes. It really does.
The author formulates his answer in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics.
No, I’m not kidding.
Wright first explains the four basic answers to any “why” question–the four Aristotelian causes:
- Final cause – the sake for which something is done
- Formal cause – how something is put together
- Material cause – what something is made of
- Efficient cause – the causal chain that produced the event in question
Applied to the question “Why do squirrels, chipmunks, and bunnies help Snow White clean the dwarfs’ house?” each cause yields the following answer:
- Efficient cause – Walt Disney wanted it that way.
- Material cause – Snow White is a fairy tale, and housekeeping animals are fairy tale-stuff.
- (Secondary world) final cause – She used the animals as labor-saving devices.
- (Primary world) final cause – Housekeeping bunnies make the story charming and memorable.
As Wright notes, neither the efficient, the material, nor the final cause provides a satisfying explanation for Snow White’s undomesticated domestics.Therefore, what we’re really after is the formal cause. “We want to know what about having shy and wild deer befriend and love a virginal maiden appeals to any audience whose hearts are fit for fairy tales.“
That Snow White’s animal helpers remain undomesticated is what separates her story from the tales of noble savages like Tarzan, who also receive aid from beasts, but who tame them in the process.
Likewise with science fiction. The absence of a naturalistic explanation for the animals’ behavior grounds Snow White firmly in the realm of fantasy.
Still, Wright affirms, every story in which humans befriend animals–be it a fairy tale, the adventures of a noble savage, or The Island of Doctor Moreau, is appealing because human nature includes a deep longing to be reconciled with the rest of nature. “There is something out there we all want to embrace, and to have it talk to us.“
How, then, does Snow White attract forest creatures to aid her? Wright identifies the reason as her innocence.
“Snow White can cajole the beasts of the wild to aid her housekeeping because she is an image of sweetness and innocence; and one of the most powerful images of innocence, the innocence of Eden, is the image of Nature herself blessing and loving and aiding the unfallen innocent.“
Thus, the author sets out the reason why those with hearts fit to hear fairy tales find Snow White’s animal friends so appealing: “We yearn for the blessing of Nature and communion with her, and this yearning, for reasons only Christians can explain, is a nostalgic one.“