I think it’s safe to state: Cinderella is one of the most well-known fairy stories of all time. Who hasn’t been touched by the poor orphan who’s terribly exploited by her mean step-mother and step-sisters but whose spotless goodness and integrity will be rewarded as she ends up marrying the prince of her kingdom?
The dominant version of Cinderella has of course been told by Disney. Like any other fairy tale, it is a construct of numerous versions that have travelled over borders and across time. As a result from folklore, the tale has been passed on through oral story telling before it was first written down. However, what is so fascinating about the history of Cinderella is that almost the entire tale has survived- not only hundreds but thousands of years!
The earliest version of Cinderella traces back to 6th century BC. It is the story of Rhodopis, a Greek courtesan who married the king of Egypt. The story was written down by the Greek philosopher and historian Strabo around 5 centuries later. According to the tale, Rhodope took a bath when her sandal was carried off by an eagle and taken to the Pharaoh of Memphis. The Pharaoh vowed to marry the owner of the tiny shoe and sent his troops to search the country for the unknown sandal owner. Rhodope is found in the city of Naucratis and brought to Memphis to become the wife of the king.
The next version I came across takes us to China, to the Tang dynasty in 850. It is the story of Yeh-hsien. As in other versions, her mother dies. However, it’s not really an outsider that steps in as her mother but her father’s second wife- polygamy was no big deal back then. Yeh-hsien comforts herself by befriending a golden fish that one day appears in their pond. Yet, the nasty stepmother or co-wife quickly discovers Yeh-hsien’s secret friend and kills it. She eats the fish and hides its bones. A magician of some sort tells Yeh-hsien about her step-mother’s sin and urges Yeh-hsien to hide the bones in her room. Whenever she wants for something, she has to wish for it and it will appear- from that day on she did no longer suffers hunger nor thirst. One day, her step-mother and sisters leave for a ball and Yeh-hsien wishes for a golden attire to follow them in secret. Unfortunately, they recognise her and as Yeh-hsien flees, she loses one of her golden shoes. A local warloard finds the extremely small shoe and orders all the women to try it on. Yeh-hsien reveals herself with her magical fishbones and tries on the shoe, whereupon she becomes the new “chief” wife of the king. Her step-mother and step-sisters are not only left behind- but stoned to death. The locals feel sorry for the wicked mother and sisters and construct them a grave, entitled “The Tomb of the Distressed Women.” This story gives already a lot more to digest than the well-known Disney version.
Next, we take a huge leap in time to the 17th century in France. We’re talking about Charles Perrault’s story of Cendrillon– and finally, we can analyse the meaning behind Cinderella’s name. I guess at least the latest film that was released by Disney in 2015 made the etymology quite plain, for cinder obviously refers to the fact that her face is smeared with ashes from her daily hard work. In French, cinder means “cendre” and in German it translated to “Asche”; thus Aschenputtel in Grimms’ collection.
In Perrault’s tale, her father marries a new woman after his former wife’s death. Of course, the new step-mother and step-sisters are illtreating the lovely Cendrillon who accepts all of it very meekly. It is also explicitly mentioned that her father does not dare to counter his new dominating wife. Perrault also firstly introduces a fairy god-mother to assist Cendrillon. However, unlike Disney, Cendrillon actually helps her godmother by proposing that they could transform a rat into the coachman for her carriage that will take her to her ball. Also, in the French tale, Cendrillon goes several times to the ball and even interacts with her step-sisters giving them oranges and lemons from the prince. In the end, she even forgives her sisters for their degrading behaviour. As the new queen, she allows them to live with her and her prince in the castle.
In their collection of tales from 1812, the Grimm Brothers have somewhat stripped Aschenputtel of the little autonomy that she possessed in earlier tales. The tale opens at the deathbed of Aschenputtel’s mother who urges her child to stay a good person- a quality that confines her to meek acceptance and passivity. The affection of her mother remains the only human love in the tale. Aschenputtel’s father is alive throughout the entire tale but never intervenes when his daughter is so terribly exploited by his new wife, nor is there a fairy god-mother to help her. Instead, her animal friends and the magic tree that Aschenputtel plants on her mother’s grave are in charge of her fantastical transformation.
There are two somewhat gruesome aspects about the Grimms’ version. First of all, they ask the reader to dispose of their feminist lens once and for all, for the prince is an exemplary patriarch. During the ball he orders every other interested man to go away since Cinderella is dancing with him- and him alone. He also twice mistakes the step-sisters for Cinderella. Again, her animal helpers need to intervene and tell the prince to fetch the right bride. The Grimms also added some bodily mutilation into their tale. The first sister cuts off her big toe to make the glass slipper fit and the second sister squeezes her heel into the shoe until blood seeps from it. The final horrific ending has been cut out in some versions: at Cinderella’s and the prince’s wedding, doves haunt down her step-mother and sisters and peck out their eyes.
I don’t know if you noticed but in all of these tales the shoe is a crucial trope- it is the determinant of whom the prince marries. Many scholars have discussed the sexual connotations behind Cinderella’s tiny foot and her glass slipper that is said to have the length of the Duke’s index finger. Marina Warner for example notes that “it promises that what is hidden and not known can be beautiful if beheld in the right spirit” (Beast 204). A far more provocative interpretation holds that finding the right foot to the shoe hints at Cinderella’s virginity and thus her appeal to become the prince’s righteous bride. Another huge point of feminist criticism is Cinderella’s meek passiveness- which according to critics has been maximised in the early Disney film version from the fifties.
I would say that Disney made up for their somewhat sexist faux-pas with their newer re-writing from 2015, starring Lily James as Cinderella and of course the unforgettable Helena Boham Carter as her fairy godmother. Cinderella and the prince meet each other as equals, as it were, on horseback in the woods prior to the ball. Their love relationship is much more developed and in the end, one could question if Cinderella’s foot did really impact his choice that much or if it was just more of a symbolic move from the prince’s side.
I hope you enjoyed this brief but eye-opening history of Cinderella. If you have any good re-writing recommendations for me, please comment below.
Alright my friends, I wish you a fantastic week,