First I want to point everyone in the direction of the film Black Swan, which borrows a lot from Snow White. Cabinet des Fees published my review of the film here. I also published a more expanded and polished version in my book Poetry in Motion. Black Swan's protagonist, Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is a goody-goody like our Snow White character seems to be, and she's transformed in the end! Yay! Winona Rider and Mila Kunis play the character aspects that Nina needs to accept or redeem, and Barbara Hershey does a fabulous job as Nina's mother (the Queen in the ballet Swan Lake's terms). So check it out! Lots and lots of mirrors and reflections!
Most illustrations I found did not include the very crucial symbolic clue of the dwarves raising their lanterns to look upon Snow White asleep in the bed. This is a clue to the "enlightenment" role of the dwarves. Like Gullenbursti, they are helping shine light on some aspect of Snow White's inner experience- and then she "awakens"! This is the sort of metaphor we look for in interpreting stories, and dreams, too. As is often the case, when symbolic story is popularized these days, the blanks (in this case the dwarves) get filled in by psychologizing, which is usually OK. However, the symbolic and philosophical depth of the Grimms' lantern-raising dwarves was replaced by a collection of goofy child-like characters by Disney. Snow White teeters between the roles of an orphanage employee and Wendy, with her collection of lost boys.
But those images got me ahead of myself. The overall metaphorical picture of the story as it unfolds in the cottage is that it's all about stuff going on in Snow White's psyche (surprise, surprise). To begin with, we have the symbolism of night:
"When night fell, she discovered a cottage...Everything in the house was tiny and indescribably dainty and spotless."
Like fears and nightmares, these seven guys appear at night, too: "It was completely dark when the owners of the cottage returned." The dwarves are part of the inner dark, which at its most basic means the unknown, the unredeemed, the misunderstood, but also that which we've judged unacceptable, unnecessary, or just plain bad. That everything in the house is tiny says that we're in another reality now. Snow White, like Alice in Wonderland, is not participating with the "real world". She's in a world that's "indescribable", in the story's words, a world that I'm going to call the soul, that aspect of ourselves that connects us with our ethereal beingness and that orders our inner development. The small in fairy tale often refers to the humble, a soul characteristic, the world of the child, and soul-space is described best by metaphor, thus the symbolic story's raison d'etre.
So if you'll go along with me here, this inner soul space cottage is "spotless" because it is always innocent, in a sense. It remains untouched by what happens in the world, really, though it does hold the deep keys to our experiences, in an "indescribable" way. It's an archetypal reality, and the closest experience the average person has with it is the dream world, making Snow White's sleep another indicator. From the soul's cottage "command post", Snow White will make forays into her psyche and learn eventually how to fulfill her needs in a wise and balanced way. She doesn't have to be imagined as a person who's in retreat, necessarily. This work of the soul goes on underground, just as the dwarves toil underground.
"Snow White was so hungry and thirsty that she ate a few vegetables and some bread from each little plate and drank a drop of wine from each little cup."
Snow White first "discovers" (she is said to discover the cottage) that within her soul, there is nourishment and refreshing drink for the thirsty. It's like the Gospel quote "Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall not thirst." Wine is the water of the spirit, what we quite literally call "spirits".
The little portrait at the end of Snow White, where the stepmother burns up in the red hot iron shoes, is part of the dwarf-as-smith archetype that includes both fire and iron. Fire is the primary masculine transformational element, an aggressive, hard-to-contain power that renders all in its path to smoke and ash. The stepmother's anger issues are the focus of films such as Snow White and the Huntsman, where the character is simplified into a perennially and deadly angry character, her anger supposedly based on her fear of aging and death. In the Grimms' fairy tale we're looking at, the protagonist is indeed working on anger management (Stepmother) or the opposite, anger expression, in the case of Snow White. We'll just say the protagonist is finding their way to a balanced and wise relationship with fire element, most obviously described as the Stepmother's hatred of Snow White. She "hated Snow White", her face "turned green with envy", she want to destroy Snow White. That's the bald truth behind the strong expression of anger; we wish to eliminate the target. In animal terms, it's the fierce killing power of the boar, the hunter.The prevalence of firearms as weapons in our world today makes that killing fire aspect rather clear.
"Ilmarinen, worthy brother,Thou the only skilful blacksmith,Go and see her wondrous beauty,See her gold and silver garments,See her robed in finest raiment,See her sitting on the rainbow,Walking on the clouds of purple.Forge for her the magic Sampo,Forge the lid in many colors,Thy reward shall be the virgin,Thou shalt win this bride of beauty;Go and bring the lovely maiden To thy home in Kalevala."
Catch the associations with alchemy("gold and silve"r), with the chakras and their rainbow colors ("See her sitting in a rainbow...Forge the lid in many colors"), with purification/spotlessness/albedo ("Thy reward shall be the virgin")? I'm going to add that the line "Walking on the clouds of purple" is symbolically cognate with Snow White's finally settling to sleep in the seventh bed: "she tried out all the beds...the seventh one was just right." The seventh chakra/energetic center, that which is associated in the chart above with "honors spiritual connectedness", is purple. Now the dwarves' cottage becomes Kalevala, the magical forge of transformation.
There is no set product of Ilmarinen's forging work; in fact, most frequently it's referred to as a cosmic grinding wheel, though a smith doesn't make grinding wheels as far as I know. The reason there's no set product of the god's forge is because the forge and its products are one and the same. The essence of the dwarves' archetype is just that; there is no separation between the creative process and the ongoing transformation of the universe, between the wise and beautiful use of our inner materials and the natural cosmic unfolding. There is no separation between the inner, underground experience and the outer, as well. The archetype of dwarves in Snow White reminds us that we do well to tap into that truth on our human transformational journeys.