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  • By David B. Gosselin

Review: Snow White and the Widow Queen by Jonathan Pageau

Snow White and the Widow Queen is the first of eight fairy tales in a new series by the master of symbolism and modern icon carver, Jonathan Pageau. As the first of eight stories dedicated to revisiting the classic fairy tales that have enchanted the Western imagination for centuries, Pageau’s retelling of Snow White reminds us of the timeless nature and function of all great fairy tales. Rather than contemporary “how to” guides or self-help manuals offering tricks and tips on self-actualizing and “getting what we want,” fairy tales remind us of the unchanging and immortal wisdom each of us needs and without which none of us can live. They contain the kind of immutable wisdom that guides any civilization dedicated to cultivating Beauty, Truth and Goodness — and not one without the other — in all its forms and among all its citizens. As the poet Robert Frost once put it, such stories are, like poetry, “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”

By offering the kind of timeless wisdom that resonates with both the heart and mind, readers of fairy tales are made wise to the ways of the world without ever becoming disenchanted by them. Instead, such tales leave us with intimations of the transcendent and unchanging realities which one may be acquainted with in even the earliest years of life. These stories instill and awaken in children — and therefore all of us — the ability to discover and viscerally experience a taste of the timeless wisdom available in any age. Indeed, fairy tales instill their wisdom in us even before we can grasp it fully and consciously. However, like all transcendent Truth, once there, it patiently awaits us, ready to be discovered at any time and in any place.

And this is the secret of every great fairy tale: through its enchanting images, it places in our hearts the simple and indivisible Truth, which need not be forgotten even amidst the greatest adversity or complexities of life. Such reminders may often be the only thing that allows us to escape the seemingly infinite latticework of our own disenchanted lives or the clever designs of a darkly enchanted world.

Such is the power of all great fairy tales.

Weaving the complexities of life into magically simple tapestries which the imagination can grasp at once and forever, fairy tales afford children (and the child within each of us) the opportunity to drink from the musical founts of eternal wisdom — which no number of lifetimes can exhaust. They allow us to do all this during what Plato considered the most important part of any education: the beginning — a beginning which every adult, one hopes, may be fortunate enough to remember — especially in those times when life itself appears most devoid of its magic.

Fairy tales remind us that such magic is never lost, only forgotten.

Thus, Plato in his final and longest dialogue, The Laws, begins by emphatically observing that the stories we tell our children are the most important part of any education, with later drama and theatre festivals simply allowing citizens to remember (given men are prone to forgetting) what they had once upon a time already known. Through drama and theatre, the simple Truth which we as children imbibed is recalled and elaborated, allowing us to continuously reap and cultivate its immortal fruits.

Such was the place envisioned for sacred stories and tales by Plato in his last fictionalized Republic of Magnesia, described in detail in The Laws. There, he harkened back to the ancient Egyptian tradition of consecrating its foundational stories and myths in the form of sacred rites and rituals. Such customs served to impart their timeless wisdom to the society’s most divine inhabitants — its children—and at the most important stage of any education: the beginning.

So, here we have Jonathan Pageau, a renowned carver of traditional icons retelling a classic fairy tale for children in our twenty-first century, freshly forged, written, and worded in our very own modern vernacular for our very own modern age. And yet, they still contain the same quintessential wisdom and impart the same quintessential lessons. Further, we find Snow White and the Widow Queen recast with its own set of original, vibrant images and pleasing literary flourishes which are guaranteed to weave their magic all over again.

As the Widow Queen herself ironically reminds us, “Beauty, my dear, is the most dangerous weapon.” Upon hearing this, Snow White replies, “Beauty is not a weapon,” then bites the golden apple and falls into a poisonous slumber.

The passage reminds us that while Beauty in its highest form always serves to beautify our instincts, whether those of love, ambition or any other desire, and to awaken our hearts to the noble and good, it may also be weaponized. Whether in the case of literature, architecture, music, dance or any other form of human poesis; whether in the Ancient Greek times of sophistry or our own contemporary age of simulation and simulacra — the “beauty” described by the Widow Queen can indeed be weaponized and used to create titillating spectacles and pleasing imitations, but never deliver the real thing. As the case of Snow White reminds us, we should never forget the sacred lessons of our sacred stories — where the real thing lies — lest we too fall into a poisonous sleep.

The beauty of Snow White and the Widow Queen reminds us to stay awake, yet dream, and always treasure our sacred wisdom. Its charms foster the discernment that allows us to distinguish between the fruits which our souls will always deeply need and desire and those poisonous imitations offered in their stead — which abound in every age — and which always inevitably lead to the same disenchanting slumber.

Like all great fairy tales, Pageau’s Snow White and the Widow Queen reminds our childlike hearts that Wisdom and Goodness, Beauty and Truth, Justice and Courage will always desire and need each other — and will always remain simple, however infinite the details. Therefore, we would do well to cultivate them right from the start, beginning with our own classic fairy tales. In doing so, we would also be naturally heeding one of Christ’s own simple injunctions: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (Mathew 18: 2-5)

While forgetting the simple and magical Truth is easy as we grow into the world, Pageau’s latest fairy tale reminds us that it is just as easy and magical to remember.

David Gosselin is a poet, writer, and translator living in Montreal, Canada. He is the founding editor of The Chained Muse. His epic in iambic blank verse, Athena, appears in New Lyre Magazine - Winter 2024. His ongoing sequence of philosophical poems, "Journey Through Mountains" is an ever-expanding series, currently consisting of 25 visions, which he periodically posts and reads on his Substack, Age of Muses.

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