Stretching back centuries with hundreds of variations around the globe, Cinderella is one of our most enduring and popular fairy tales. Though elements have changed throughout time and place, with fairy godmother’s replacing fish, spirits, and trees, the number of sisters varying from one to six, and even Cinderella’s name changing throughout the tales, some things remain in every iteration: a beautiful girl, and a missing shoe.
One of the earliest versions of the ‘Cinderella’ story was recorded by Strabo, a Greek man who lived between 64 BC and 21 AD. The story itself is speculated to have originated even earlier, and hail from Egypt, though this is impossible to verify. The tale tells of Rhodopis, a young woman – sometimes a courtesan – who was bathing in the river when an eagle swooped down and stole her sandal. The eagle later dropped the shoe into the lap of the Pharaoh. Intrigued and fascinated by this occurrence, the Pharaoh searched the land for the owner of the shoe and, upon discovering her, married her. The main similarities between this tale and the modern Cinderella story are the missing shoe, and the royal search for its owner. There is no evil stepfamily, or magical godmother in sight.
Those familiar with the story of Rhodopis may find some elements missing from this tale. A popular version of the story written and published by Olive Beaupre Miller in 1925 retroactively adds in more of the classic features of the Cinderella story – making Rhodopis a slave, mistreated by the other servants of the household, and including a great celebration that Rhodopis was unable to attend – it was during this celebration that Rhodopis lost her shoe by the river. The Pharaoh insisted all who attended the celebration try on the shoe only to discoverer none of them fit. He eventually managed to track down Rhodopis who not only fit the sandal, but also revealed the second.
Jumping forward a few hundred years, another famous version of the tale can be found in ancient China with the story of Ye Xian, which emerged in 850 AD, during the Tang dynasty in the writings of Duan Chengshi. The tale tells of the aforementioned Ye Xian, an orphaned child in the care of her (predictably) wicked stepmother.
Forced into servitude by her stepmother and step (or half) sister, Ye Xian was incredibly lonely, eventually befriending a beautiful fish who would only come to the surface of the pool when Ye Xian visited. When her stepmother learnt of Ye Xian’s friend she was furious. Dressing in Ye Xian’s clothes she tricked the fish to the surface, caught it, and in an additional level of malice, fed the fish to Ye Xian for dinner. Ye Xian gathered the fish bones and put them a safe place. Time passed and a great festival was to be held. Naturally, though Ye Xian’s stepmother and stepsister attended the festival, Ye Xian was left behind. She prayed before the fish bones of her only friend, and miraculously her wish was granted – she was gifted fine clothing and golden shoes.
At the festival, Ye Xian was the envy of all, though fearing she had been recognised by the step-sister, Ye Xian fled early – leaving her shoes behind. The shoes were later sold to a king who was (much like an ancient Pharoah) intrigued by the delicate shoes. He travelled to where the shoes had been sold from, determined to find their owner, and eventually discovering Ye Xian. The two were wed, and Ye Xian returned with the king to his kingdom. Depending on the version of the tale the stepmother and sister were either forgiven for their cruelties, forced into servitude themselves, or buried beneath rocks.
Many more versions of this tale have existed over the years around the globe. The Vietnamese version, the Story of Tấm and Cám also includes an unfortunate child Tấm, who befriends a fish later killed by her stepmother and half-sister, Cám, only to eventually lose a slipper and marry the king. This tale goes into more detail about the cruelties Tấm suffers under her family. It also deals with a darker aftermath, with Tấm killed by her stepmother after her marriage to the king who reluctantly marries her sister, Cám. Tấm is reincarnated in various forms; a bird, a tree, a fruit and finally a human again – reuniting with her husband. Tấm was slightly more vengeful a character than your typical Cinderella archetype – she had boiling water poured over her sister, Cám, burning her alive, and had her remains pickled and sent to the stepmother. The mother was clueless about the true nature of her new delicacy until she reached the bottom of the jar and discovered her daughter’s skull.
Eventually, versions of the story made their way back to Europe, appearing in 1634 the writings of an Italian named Giamattisa Baslie in his collection of folktales. In this story, just as the Cinderella we know is given her name for sleeping in the ashes in the kitchen, Baslie’s protagonist is given the cruel nickname, Cenerentola – translated into English as Cat Cinderella. Uniquely, his story includes the name of the girl before she gains the humiliating nickname. In the story a princess, Zezolla, is unhappy beneath the power of her wicked stepmother and finds comfort in a kindly governess.
Under the governesses instigation, Zezolla kills her stepmother, and her bereaved stepfather marries the governess. Soon after the wedding the governess reveals herself to have six daughters of her own and to be far crueller than the original stepmother. Zezolla was eventually pushed out of her father’s affections and relegated to the kitchen, referred to only as Cat Cinderella. Aided by a fairy queen and a magical tree which gifts her with clothing, jewellery, and a fine horse, Zezolla attends a ball, loses a shoe and eventually marries a king.
Variations of this tale continued to spread across Europe, with the Brothers Grimm publishing their own famous version in 1812 with ‘Aschenputtel’ (Ash Girl). The tale also includes a tree, this one growing from the girl’s mother’s grave and watered with the child’s tears. Aschenputtel was known for her virtue, kindness, and beauty but was poorly treated by her stepmother and two stepsisters – while modern interpretations paint them as ‘ugly,’ they are described in the Grimm tale as pretty, but with ugly dispositions and an ugly end. Both sisters attempted to cut off parts of their foot to fit in the famous slipper (one her heel, one her toe) and later had their eyes pecked out by birds for their cruelty to their half-sister.
One of the most influential and well-known versions of Cinderella is, of course, the popular Disney adaption of the tale. While the film is sometimes said to be a retelling of the Brother’s Grimm story, sanitised for its child audience, the film actually shares more in common with Frenchman Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the story. It is Perrault’s version which includes the famous fairy godmother who helps Cinderella attend the ball, as well as a pumpkin coach, rat coachman, lizard footmen, and mice horses. It is also in this version of the story that we see Cinderella’s famous glass slippers. In previous version of the tale, the slippers, shoes, or sandals are more often described as either gold, bejewelled or uniquely small. The reason for this change is debated – some arguing that this is a mistranslation with Perrault intended to describe the slippers as made of fur (vair) with others arguing that he did indeed mean glass (verre).
In Perrault’s version Cinderella – or Cendrillon – attends two balls, dancing with the prince at both and only losing her slipper at the second. In the Disney adaptation, Cinderella attends only one ball before losing her famous shoe. Once she was married to the prince, Cinderella’s sisters apologised earnestly for their actions towards Cinderella and begged forgiveness. Cinderella gave it easily and her sisters were given lodging in the palace, and even found good marriages of their own to fine lords. While Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ does not quite go that far, the sisters certainly found a happier end than many stepsisters that appear in these tales – with no rockfalls, karmic servitude, or messy amputations.
As well as adapting an incredible old tale, Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ is also thought to have had a massive impact on the future of Disney – ensuring that the company had one. Disney released the film in 1950, at a time when they were experiencing financial difficulties. The production of ‘Cinderella’ had been a gamble for the company, costing almost $3 million to produce. and it’s thought that if the film had failed it would have spelled the end for Disney. Fortunately, the film was a rousing success, earning $8 million and many positive reviews. The film was followed by two animated sequels and a 2015 live action, which cost $95 million to make and earnt over $500 million – a staggering increase on both the animated films costs and earnings.
With its enduring popularity there are many more books (‘Cinder’, ‘Ella Enchanted’ and ‘Geekerella’ to name a few), films (including ‘Into the Woods’, ‘A Cinderella Story’, and ‘Ever After’) and even TV series (such as ‘Once upon a Time’) that take inspiration from the Cinderella story. And while each adaptation tells the story in it’s own way, as history has shown, the heart of the tale remains recognisable.
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