In her seminal collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Chilhood, Jane Yolen discusses the "changeling life" of fairy tales as they travel from teller to teller, country to country, and century to century. Here she reflects on Cinderella in her various guises:
"The story of Cinderella has endured for over a thousand years, first surfacing in a literary source in 9th-century China. It has since been found from the Orient to the interior of South America, and over five hundred variants have been located by folklorists in Europe alone. This best-loved tale has been brought to life over and over so many times, no one can say for sure where the oral tale truly began. But as Joseph Jacobs, the indefatigable Victorian collector, once said of a Cinderella story he printed, it was 'an English version of an Italian adaptation of a Spanish translation of a Latin version of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic translation of an Indian original.' That is certainly an accurate statement of the hazards of folk-tale attributing: each reteller has brought to a tale something of his or her cultural orientation. The Chinese admiration for the tiny 'lotus foot' is preserved in the Cinderella tale, as is the 17th century European preoccupation with dressing for the ball.
"But beyond the cultural accoutrements, the detritus of centuries, Cinderella speaks to all of us in whatever skin we inhabit: the child mistreated, a princess or highborn lady in disguise bearing her trials with patience, fortitude, and determination. Cinderella makes intelligent decisions, for she knows that wishing solves nothing without the concomitant action. We have each of us been that child. (Even boys and men share that dream, as evidenced by the many Ash-boy variants.) It is the longing of any youngster sent supperless to bed or given less than a full share at Christmas. And of course it is the adolescent dream.
"To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most cherished dreams and makes mockery of the magic inside us all -- the ability to change our own lives, the ability to control our own destinies.
"In the oldest of the Cinderella variants, the heroine is hardly catatonic. In the Grimm 'Cinder-Maid,' though she weeps, she continues to perform the proper rites and rituals at her mother's grave, instructing the birds who roost there in the way to help her get to the ball. In 'The Dirty Shepherdess' variant and 'Cap o' Rushes' from France, '...she dried her eyes, and made a bundle of her jewels and her best dresses and hurriedly left the castle where she was born.' Off she goes to make her own life, working first as a maid in the kitchen and sneaking off to see the master's son. Even in Perrault's 17th-century 'Cendrillon, or The Little Glass Slipper,' when the fairy godmother runs out of ideas for enchantment, and was at a loss for a coachman, 'I'll go and see,' says Cendrillon, 'if there be never a rat in the rat-trap, we'll make a coach-man of him.'
"The older Cinderella is no namby-pamby forgiving heroine. Like Chesterton's children, who believe themselves innocent and demand justice -- unlike adults who know themselves guilty and look for mercy -- Cinderella believes in justice. In 'Rushen Coatie' and 'The Cinder-Maid,' the elder sisters hack off their toes in order to try and fit the tiny shoe, and Cinderella never stops them. Her telltale birds warn the prince:
Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There's blood within the shoe;
A bit is cut from off the heel
And a bit from off the toe.
"Does Cinderella comfort her maimed sisters? Nary a word. And, in the least bowdlerized of the German and Nordic variants, when the two sisters attend the wedding of Cinderella and the prince, 'the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.' Did Cinderella stop the carnage -- or the wedding? There is never a misstep between that sentence and the next. 'Afterwards, as they came back, the elder was on the left, and the younger on the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickeness and falsehood, they were punished with blindess all their days.'
"Of course, all this went into the Walt Disney blender and came out emotional pap. In 1950, when the movie Cinderella burst onto the American scene, the Disney studios were going through a particularly trying time. Disney had been deserted by the intellectuals who had championed his art for some time. Because of World War II, the public had been more interested in war films than cartoons. But with the release of Cinderella, the Disney studios made a fortune, grossing $4.247 million in the first release alone. It set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is 'off in a world of dreams.' It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled.
"Poor Cinderella. Poor us. The acculturation of millions of boys and girls to this passive Cinderella robs the old tale of its invigorating magic. The story has been falsified and the true meaning lost -- perhaps forever."
If you'd like to know more about the history of Cinderella and it's many variants, my essay on the subject is online here: Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass.
Pictures: The Cinderella art above is by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Ruth Sanderson, Liiga Klavina, Jennie Harbour, Charles Folkard, Harry Clarke, Mary Blair, and Loek Hoopmans. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the pictures to see them.) Words: The passage above from "Once Upon a Time" by Jane Yolen, published in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text above are reserved by the author and artists.