Origins of Cinderella – Part 2

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Perrault’s Cendrillon or the Little Glass Slipper

Writing in the late 17th century (1697) and for the French bourgeois, Charles Perrault adapted Cinderella to be much more appealing to the (European) child reader. (NB: Among others, there is also a slightly earlier Italian form of the Cinderella tale from 1634, Basile’s Cenerentola, but I’ll save that one for another day).

In Perrault’s version, the fairy tale also takes place within the family household. But the main revision Perrault made when he ‘collected’ the story was to bring the magic of the tale into the foreground. He introduced the figure of the Fairy Godmother, and the appearance of more magic: the Godmother uses her wand to turn a lowly pumpkin into a beautiful coach, mice into horses, a rat into a coachman and lizards into footmen.

She also turns Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful gown and her slippers in this version are not gold, but glass.

The fairy then said to Cinderella, “Well, you see here an equipage fit to go to the ball with; are you not pleased with it?”

“Oh, yes,” she cried; “but must I go in these nasty rags?”

Her godmother then touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world.

Perrault also imposes the Fairy Godmother’s time warning on Cinderella and on the narrative; if she stays past midnight, everything will turn back into its previous form:

Being thus decked out, she got up into her coach; but her godmother, above all things, commanded her not to stay past midnight, telling her, at the same time, that if she stayed one moment longer, the coach would be a pumpkin again, her horses mice, her coachman a rat, her footmen lizards, and that her clothes would become just as they were before.

In this Perrault version, there are also now two stepdaughters instead of one (as in Yeh Shen), and the relationship Cinderella has with them is not so straightforward.

Only the older of the two stepsisters is definitively horrible, while the younger one is “not so rude and uncivil as the older one.” This younger sister is also the one who calls her ‘Cinderella,’ instead of ‘Cinderwench.’

They also consulted Cinderella in all these matters [of getting ready for the ball], for she had excellent ideas, and her advice was always good.

Indeed, she even offered her services to fix their hair, which they very willingly accepted. As she was doing this, they said to her, ‘Cinderella, would you not like to go to the ball?’

‘Alas!’ said she, ‘you only jeer me; it is not for such as I am to go to such a place.’

‘You are quite right,’ they replied. ‘It would make the people laugh to see a Cinderwench at a ball.’

Perrault, trying to laden his tale with teachings about good behaviour, also changed the ending of the story from the one we hear in Yeh Shen.

Instead of banishing the stepmother and stepsisters (and sealing their fate/deaths), he has them beg for mercy and institutes a happy ending for all:

They threw themselves at her feet to beg pardon for all the ill treatment they had made her undergo. Cinderella took them up, and, as she embraced them, said that she forgave them with all her heart, and wanted them always to love her …

… Cinderella, who was no less good than beautiful, gave her two sisters lodgings in the palace, and that very same day matched them with two great lords of the court.

The Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel

Over a century later, the Grimm Brothers (in 1812) also revised and wrote their own version of Cinderella, called Aschenputtel. In this story, we see a shift away from Perrault’s Cendrillon, and more similarities to the Yeh Shen tale.

Most notably, we don’t see much magic in the Grimm Brothers Aschenputtel. There is no Fairy Godmother, and hence no pumpkins turned into coaches, mice turned into horses and so on.

Instead of the Godmother, the Grimm Brothers introduce the character of Cinderella’s mother at the beginning of the tale to act as the mentor/godmother character (who is linked to both the hazel tree and the birds). The fairy tale begins:

The wife of a rich man fell ill, and as she felt her end approaching, she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, “Dear child, be good and pious. Then the dear Lord shall always assist you, and I shall look down from heaven and take care of you.” She then closed her eyes and departed.

Later in the story, Cinderella’s father brings her a twig, which she plants on her mother’s grave. The twig grows into a hazel tree. After she’s prevented from attending the wedding at the castle, the pigeons tell her to ask the tree/grave for help, much in the same way Yeh Shen made wishes to the fish bones on advice of the fish’s spirit:

Just go to the little tree on your mother’s grave, shake it, and wish yourself some beautiful clothes. But come back before midnight.”

The bird then responds by “throwing” her a “gold and silver dress and silk slippers embroidered with silver.” She goes to the wedding, dances with the prince, but manages to slip away before midnight. The third time this happens (on the third day of the celebration), she loses her slipper after the prince tries to trick her by coating the stairs with pitch.

Cinderella is much less of a mystery in the Grimm Brothers’ version as well. The father suspects from the beginning that the beautiful maiden at the festival is Cinderella, but his attempts to prove it fall through. After the prince finds the shoe, he also approaches the father and demands to see the girl who’s foot fits. Both stepsisters try on the slipper and fail, and upon prompting from the prince, the father confesses he has another “deformed” daughter, Cinderella. She tries on the shoe and the prince realises she is indeed the maiden from the ball.

In 1857, the Grimms again revised Cinderella but this time, they also stripped their story of the happy ending, making it much more similar in resolution to Yeh Shen.

Cinderella does marry her prince, but the end of the story ultimately focuses on the fate and punishment of the two sisters:

When the wedding with the prince was to be held, the two false sisters came, wanting to gain favour with Cinderella and to share her good fortune. When the bridal couple walked into the church, the older sister walked on their right side and the younger on their left side, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.

Afterwards, as they came out of the church, the older one was on the left side, and the younger one on the right side, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each of them. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.

The lost slipper

For me, when I look at all of these Cinderella stories, the main element that ties them all together is the motif of the lost (or stolen) slipper.

While the other characteristics of the narrative shift and develop  — the persecuted girl, the involvement of some magic or spirit (eagle, fish, fairy godmother, pigeons), the theme of ‘love,’ the union of marriage — it is the  fatalistic role of the slipper that allows us to trace the origins of Cinderella all the way back to the 1st century and ultimately see where it came from.

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REFERENCES  

‘Cinderella: Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folktale type 510A and related stories of persecuted heroines’ translated and/or edited by D.L. Ashliman: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0510a.html#grimm.

‘Cinderella’ (no. 21) in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. 3rd Ed, Translated by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books: USA 2003, pp79-84.

‘Cinderella And Other Girls Who Lost Their Slippers’ by Amelia Curruthers. Pook Press, Warwickshire: 2015.

‘Rhodopis and Her Little Gilded Sandals: An Egyptian Tale’ from Beaupré, Olive Miller, editor, Fairy Halls of My Bookhouse, Chicago: The Bookhouse for Children Publisher, 1920; accessed via SurLaLune Fairy Tales, 2015: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/cinderella/stories/rhodopis.html.

‘Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story.’ Accessed via http://traditions.cultural-china.com/en/211Traditions8980.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Xian.

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Origins of Cinderella – Part 1

Linguists recently posited that some fairy tales, such as Rumpelstiltskin and Beauty and the Beast could potentially be thousands of years old, a notion I found fascinating.

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Around the same time, reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, I “discovered” that Cinderella wasn’t actually a western/European creation at all; it came from an ancient Egyptian story, and a 9th century fairy tale that originated in China, and this fascinated me, too.

Not because I assumed that other cultures didn’t have their own fairy tales, but because I didn’t realise there were such direct links between these tales and the common Cinderella fairy tale we so readily know and commonly associate with Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers.

Origins of Cinderella

The origins of Cinderella — or The Little Glass Slipper as Perrault called it — can be glimpsed in the ancient, Egyptian story of Rhodopis, first written down by Strabo in c. 1 BC.

And, as mentioned above, in the Chinese fairy tale of Yeh Shen or Ye Xian/Yeh Hsien, which was published, scholars believe, around 850-60 AD.

So, just how similar is Cinderella to these old fairy stories?

Below, I take a look at both of these ancient narratives and in Part 2, go on to discuss how the Cinderella story evolved under Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, who adapted it for western audiences.

Rhodopis 

In Rhodopis, a young, pure Greek girl (who was thought to have been a real life slave some 500 years before, as accounted by Herodotus) works in the town of Naucratis, in ancient Egypt. She goes for a dip in the Nile and leaves her clothes and gilded sandals on the bank.

While she’s swimming, one of the sandals is stolen by a bird, which in most tales I’ve found, is an eagle or a falcon.

The bird drops the shoe into the lap of the Pharaoh or King, who takes this as a sign from the Gods and is instantly captivated by the girl whose foot could fit into such a tiny slipper.

He sets out to find her, but doesn’t have much luck until a scribe tells him to go to the Sphinx at dawn, where a beautiful maiden can be seen every morning. He does so, and realises that Rhodopis is the one he’s been looking for.

He approaches her and shows her the slipper. She puts it on and also reveals she has the other, matching slipper. The King is delighted and asks her to be his Queen. She agrees, and goes on to rule over Egypt by his side.

In this tale, it’s obvious that many elements have trickled down into today’s telling of Cinderella, namely the breaking down of class borders. Like Cinderella, Rhodopis is a lowly, persecuted girl — in many versions, the tale incorporates the detail that she is a courtesan (slave/prostitute) and others show her being teased by other girls because of her appearance.

While the narrative of the lost slipper remains, the key difference in Rhodopis is the absence of the ‘festival’ or ‘ball.’ The ending, however, is a similarly happy one: the King finds Rhodopis and they marry and live happily ever after.

Yeh Shen or Ye Xian/Yeh Hsien

In the Chinese story of Yeh Shen, we see much more similarities that lead us to the modern version of Cinderella. Unlike Rhodopis, Yeh Shen shifts the story away from the world of slavery and prostitution and into a family setting. There’s also a little more magic in the Yeh Shen version, and we’re introduced to the archetype of the mentor/godmother here, reflected in the spirit.

Yeh Shen is a young Chinese girl with a wicked stepmother and a horrid stepsister. She is forced to carry out lowly chores around the home.

In her despair, she befriends a fish in the local lake. But upon discovering this friendship, the stepmother grows angry. She captures the fish, cooks it and serves it for dinner. However, a male spirit (presumably of one of her ancestors) appears and tells Yeh Shen to bury the bones of the fish and that if she asks, it will be able to grant her wishes.

When the New Year festival arrives, the stepmother and stepsister prohibit Yeh Shen from attending; she is to stay home and clean the house. But, desperate to attend the festival, she makes a wish to the fish bones and suddenly finds herself in a beautiful gown and the infamous golden slippers.

Yeh Shen goes to the festival, but leaves in a rush when she suspects she has been recognised. And and as we all know, in her haste to leave, she loses one of her slippers.

The slipper is eventually found by a poor man, traded, and brought to a nearby King who (like the king in Rhodopis) is enthralled by the thought of a girl with a foot so small it could fit into the shoe (in Chinese culture, the practice of foot binding and having small feet is often a symbol of beauty and status). The King goes in search of the slipper’s owner, but unable to find her, puts the shoe on display in his kingdom.

Yeh Shen eventually comes to take her slipper back and is instantly suspected as a thief. She is brought before the King and relates her tragic story, and the King quickly realises that she is the one he has been searching for.

At the end of the tale, Yeh Shen and the King marry. And we learn that the stepmother and stepsister are banished from the kingdom and eventually killed by a shower of stones.

In this Chinese story, the narrative elements that come to make up the Cinderella tale are clear. Characters like the stepmother and stepsisters are present and equally as horrible, the ballgown and shoes are magically bestowed upon her after she makes a wish, and she attends a festival, where she loses her slipper in the process, and so on.

The themes of transcending class barriers and the rise of the servant girl to a status of royalty still remain; and this is theme we continue to see in many other fairy stories, such as Snow White, the Goose Girl and Rapunzel.

It’s a little unclear exactly how (other than through oral storytelling in general) these ancient tales passed down through time and subsequently spread from one culture to another, and how the Yeh Shen story in particular became embodied in the western canon (if anyone has any ideas or knowledge on this, please share!).

Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at how Perrault and the Grimm Brothers further evolved the Cinderella tale and adapted it into the common story we know so well today.

Continue Reading > Origins of Cinderella – Part 2

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