More on Cinderella


Grimm Fairy Tales

Fairy tales today are static things on a page (or a DVD)—frozen museum pieces—but they should be understood as the stories that mothers, grandmothers and nursemaids tell their children at night, cuddled together under blankets, vaguely remembered from their own childhood and modified for the circumstances and personalities of their tiny audiences. I don’t know of any culture without such stories, and I don’t believe there could be one. Why are these stories so important to societies . . . and to the individual? Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment says, “. . . more can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child’s comprehension.” He quotes Schiller, the German poet: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”

Why do these truths need to be hidden?

Cinderella exists in almost all cultures. The tale seems to have been written down for the first time by Strabo, a Greek historian, in the first century BC (with a rose-gilded sandal), and in China by Tuan Ch’eng-Shih in 860 AD. The first European version to be recorded dates to 1635, Basile’s Cat Cinderella.

The two versions with the greatest modern impact were those by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—with very different endings for the step-sisters! It should be noted that Perrault’s story, which is the basis for most common in circulation today, was, despite being the older, a sanitized and literary rewrite of the oral tradition with elements added as well as eliminated, while the Grimm version was much closer to that oral tradition.

Some elements are common to most of the Cinderella stories, but only two are common to all: a heroine who is debased and mistreated, and finally recognized by means of a slipper.

Still, most Cinderellas have: a good, downtrodden ash girl who was generally of noble birth but displaced by her step-mother and abused by her step-sister or step-sisters; a dead or un-involved father (though in some European stories Cinderella must flee because her father wants to marry her); a festival, party or ball to which the step-sisters may go but the ash-girl who is beautiful and has small feet may not; magical intervention; a Prince (or King or Mayor or Pharaoh) seeking a bride who finds the slipper and goes looking for its owner; and, of course, Cinderella marries the prince/king/Pharaoh.

The magical intervention is interesting. The most familiar for us is the fairy god-mother (Perrault), but in the Brothers Grimm tale Cinderella’s helpers are two birds in a tree which grew from Cinderella’s mother’s grave (& interestingly partially preserved in the Disney version). Tuan Ch’eng-Shih, (and Donna Jo Napoli in her incredible retelling of the tale, Bound) have the Cinderella character helped by a fish which is the reincarnation of her mother and is killed and eaten by the step-mother, but provides finery and the embroidered slippers. In the Egyptioan version a magical eagle carries the heroine’s sandal to the Pharaoh.

Maybe more tomorrow.


4 Responses to “More on Cinderella”

  1. 1 Karen

    I have the Basile version if you would like it.

    I think it’s interesting that Cinderella stories are one of the very few early fairy tale forms that have an active female–usually it is the male that goes out into the world, or a cross dressing woman in most Basile stories. That being said, it isn’t Cinderella’s industriousness or good heart that are actually rewarded in the end, but her beauty and the magic of another being. I suppose there is a counter argument that could be made regarding the fairy’s (bird’s, etc) motivation for rewarding the girl, but as often as not even this creature is more moved by her distress and beauty rather than her goodness. Thoughts?

    • I think what the listening child hears is that she has been recognized for her true inner value and for having endured through the suffering. And the birds, of course, (as well as the fish and really the fairy godmother) represent a mother’s love, which is love that does not need to be deserved.
      As to your other point, quite a few female-centric works are among the most-recounted and reworked today:Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel (stretching the point a bit), Sleeping Beauty, Beauty & the Beast . . .

      • 3 Karen

        Snow White is awoken by the prince, and punished for her beauty. Rapunzel is loved sight unseen and spends years wandering blindly, Sleeping Beauty makes its own point–she’s sleeping, and in the second half is nearly eaten by an ogre until the prince rides in at the perfect moment. Beauty and the Beast is actually good.

      • All three have the girl’s emerging sexuality as underlying themes. The difference is that B&B is about the girl’s own fears while Snow White & Sleeping Beauty have to do with her ambivalence toward her mother’s response to it as well.

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