Abused and neglected by her own family, a girl stumbles across a magical (or resourceful) way to scrub up incognito and go out partying. Her secret identity is then revealed to a lover by a discarded accessory, and she ends by marrying him, and so getting the better of her erstwhile tormentors. Many of us are only too familiar with this story, but hardly any of us appreciate how long it has lived and how hard it has travelled. Much about it remains mysterious even to the experts.
So it’s best to begin with what you know. If you know Cinderella as the story about the ugly sisters and the fairy godmother (and the glass slipper, the pumpkin-coach, the footmen and coachmen magicked from lizards and rats, and so forth), then the story you’re thinking of is Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre, published in 1697 by a French civil servant with a literary and artistic bent: the famous Charles Perrault, who, in an act of seeming whimsy, passed off the story as the work of his own teenage son Pierre. This story was first translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729, under the title of Cinderilla: or, The Little Glass Slipper.
At least one Cinderella-like story had appeared in print not long before – Finette Cendron by the aristocratic Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville – better known to fairy-tale fans as Madame d’Aulnoy. By the time Perrault and d’Aulnoy were writing, the tale had already migrated from oral tradition into print, at least twice, for, of course, it was not an original literary fairytale but an adaptation of an existing oral folktale. It features in Italian in the 1630s, as La Gatta Cennerentola (“The Cat Cinderella”), tale 6 in Giambattista Basile‘s Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”). Basile was a Neapolitan courtier – that is, an all-purpose fixer, soldier, administrator, hanger-on, social climber and jack-of-all-trades to various Italian princes. He wrote in his spare time, and his work, now known as the Pentamerone, was probably based on the work of now-unknown storytellers around his native Naples. But Basile was not the first to publish a Cinderella story either. The same basic story had already appeared in French in 1558, as a tale of “a young girl nicknamed Ass Hide,” tale 129 in extended editions of Les Nouvelles Recreations et Joyeux Devis (“Novel Pastimes and Merry Tales”), written by another French nobleman and jobbing courtier with literary pretentions, by the name of Bonaventure des Périers. A Strasburg sermon of 1501 refers to the story in enough detail for us to recognise it, but it’s hard to trace an ink-trail before the early 1500s; so before then, in the west at least, the tale was largely, if not entirely, a matter of oral tradition. It belonged to the legions of oral storytellers whose works and authorship were never recorded, for it is one of the sad ironies of folktale study that the privileged editors and collectors nearly always steal the limelight from the real, but less privileged, storytellers.
Relatively few people now read writers like d’Aulnoy or des Périers, and it is Perrault’s truncated (and frankly rather camp) rendition of the tale that has defined the fairy-tale Cinderella of modern western entertainment. How long and how widely had the tale been circulating among the storytellers before that? Undocumented oral tradition leaves very little trace of its passing, and such questions are never easy to answer.
But let’s try.
Before we get started, it’s worth noting in passing that Perrault’s hugely influential Cendrillon did not, apparently, kill off all the oral traditions of Cinderella in the years following its publication. Instead, oral and literate traditions seemed to run in parallel, and to influence each other. The brothers Grimm, for example, include at least three Cinderella-style stories which seemed to exist at least partly independently of Perrault, well over a century after he wrote. These are Aschenputtel, Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). These three stories, as we shall see, are useful points of reference when trying to disentangle the story’s development.
Similarly, even the English – not the world’s most renowned or prolific folktale-talling people – have a good handful of native versions which seem to be similarly independent of Perrault’s Cendrillon. These include Catksin, known from broadsides or cheap popular texts, and from a fragmentary version published in 1890 from one Isabella Barclay’s childhood recollection of a Cornish storyteller working as a servant; it was also tidied up and published by Joseph Jacobs in this version. Tattercoats was also published by Jacobs, and by Mrs Balfour, who presented in in the later 1800s as one of her Legends of the Cars (the Cars being the North Lincolnshire marshlands where she mainly did her research). Cap O Rushes was told in Suffolk in the mid-nineteenth century. A Romany variant, Mossycoat, was told by Taimi Boswell in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, on January 9th, 1915. (The Boswell family were prolific experts in traditional music and storytelling and a lot of the extant record of stories and tunes derive from them.) The Scots – who generally do rather better than the English at folktales and storytelling in general – have Rashin Coatie and Ashpitel. We need labour the point no further, anyway: the story continued to develop in oral tradition after Perrault, and, noting this, we can turn to the story’s earlier history, before Perrault wrote.
Folklorists like Jacqueline Simpson and Katharine Briggs have said, or implied, that the Cinderella story is universal. Cinderella stories, and other stories closely resembling them, have certainly been extraordinarily widespread for centuries. Other scholars feel it’s going beyond the evidence to say that Cinderella is found literally everywhere, for the evidence for its development, while certainly plentiful, is also unwieldy, ambiguous, and incomplete; the tale has not been exhaustively researched in Africa (for example). Also, it is surprisingly difficult to define exactly what a “Cinderella story” is in this respect. It’s tempting to slap the label on any story with an abused and/or disfigured heroine, or one who leads a double life, or has a magical helper. If we do, then the Cinderella story does start to look like it crops up literally everywhere, for these are very widespread narrative motifs. But in that case stories like Snow White (for example) start to look as if they are Cinderella stories, and the whole discussion becomes impossibly vague. To keep things clear, folklorists have tended to define Cinderella and related stories with reference to specific details in a specific order – the persecuted heroine, the magic help, the meeting with the prince, the proof of identity, the marriage, and so forth.
When the major scholar of Cinderella, Anna Birgitta Rooth, was working in the 1950s, Cinderella traditions – in this narrower and more specific range of senses – seemed to stretch along a broad belt from Europe to China, encompassing the Middle East and India: the entire zone of the settled Old World civilisations. Cinderella stories may or may not be found everywhere beyond this vast territory, but they are certainly spread right across it. From it, they have spread to the regions colonised by western states in modern times, where they may or may not have run into pre-existing Cinderella-like stories and blended with them.
Cinderella stories seem to have been this widespread for a very long time. One early and telling clue comes from the work of Strabo, the Greek geographer who came from what is now Turkey and lived around the time of Christ. His huge Geography mentions (among many other things) an Egyptian story of a courtesan, Rhodopis:
… when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis; and while the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap; and the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal; and when she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king.
Other classical authors mention Rhodopis, but the oldest known story which can reasonably be called a complete version of Cinderella is the much later tale of Yeh-Hsien, written around 860 AD in China – when (to put this in perspective), unknown to anyone in China, the future king Alfred the Great was a teenager, thousands of miles away in Anglo-Saxon England.
The tale of Yeh- (or Sheh-)Hsein was told by Li Shih-Yuan, and noted down at his dictation by Tuan Ch’eng Shih. Li was clearly a storyteller with some considerable breadth of repertoire. Tuan describes him as “a cave man of Yung Chow” who knew many of the “strange stories of the south.” Tuan was a keen amateur scholar and a junior government minister from Shantung, and he had been Li’s boss. The Yeh-Hsien story came late to the attention of western scholars, mainly because they did not expect to find Cinderellas in China, and so they didn’t look for them, although there seem to have always been plenty. Japanese folklorists were aware of the story of Yeh-Hsien as early as 1911, but western scholars took scant notice of it until 1932, when R. D. Jameson, a languages professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, gave a lecture on Yeh-Hsien. After that her story was generally accepted in the west as part of the Cinderella mosaic. The story was published by Arthur Waley in Folklore in 1947.
The heroine of Li’s story, Yeh-Hsien, is abused by her widowed father’s second wife, who ends by killing her pet ﬁsh. A mysterious man tells her where the bones of the ﬁsh are buried. At his prompting she prays to the bones, which grant her wishes. In this way she obtains ﬁne clothes and attends a festival, but leaves a shoe behind in her haste to make home before her stepmother notices her absence. The tiny, delicate shoe is found and sold to a distant ruler, who, stricken with desire, embarks on a search for its owner. He ﬁnds and marries her and all ends happily.
To western ears, the most striking detail of this story – as a Cinderella story specifically – is the nature of the magical helper: not a fairy godmother, but a dead fish. We’ll come to that in a minute. But there are one or two other equally odd details in the story of Yeh-Hsien which don’t seem to add up. For some unstated reason, she sleeps in the yard, with her arms around a tree. One might conclude from all this that cave-dwelling storytellers like Li Shih-Yuan just couldn’t dredge up a coherent plot (or that Tuan Ch’eng Shih couldn’t transcribe one). But the reality – it has been suggested – is probably both more complex and more positive than this, as becomes apparent when we compare Li’s story with other versions of Cinderella, recorded from oral storytellers down the ages. For instead of Perrault’s fairy godmother, these other versions similarly contain what seem to be more complete and coherent accounts of the details of the magical animal helper and the mysterious tree – details which are garbled almost to the point of incoherence in Tuan’s record of Li’s story.
This suggests – to reiterate a bit – that Li’s story was already old when he was telling it, for the story’s seemingly rather ramshackle condition might suggest great age. Other details in the global distribution of the story’s varying details seem to bear this impression out. As these other versions suggest, or state, the girl’s favourite tree, and her wonder-working pet animal (with its magical bones), are not merely bits of fairy-tale glamour. They have a specific and very poignant point. The magical helpers are successive reincarnations of the girl’s dead mother. The story is about the grief and sense of abandonment felt by an orphaned child.
The point is muffled in Perrault, but it comes through very sharply in the Grimms’ Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). There is a hint of the same idea in Aschenputtel.
Taken together, then, Cinderella stories of this kind make up one of two basic strands of the western Cinderella: the story of an abused orphan, helped from beyond the grave by her dead mother. A favourite version of mine is given by the Victorian folktale-writer Andrew Lang and cited from Karelia – the Arctic area around the border between Russia and Finland.
However, another, rather separate strand of the western Cinderella tradition is represented by the Grimms’ Allerleirauh and the English (or Cornish) Catskin. In these stories there is no help from beyond the grave – in fact, no magical help at all. Following her mother’s death, the girl’s troubles derive, not from her stepmother, but from her widowed father. The problem here is that he is possessed by the sickening desire to marry his own daughter. (You can imagine the uncomfortable, foot-shuffling silence that would have fallen on the literary salons of pre-revolutionary France if Charles Perrault had left that detail in.) In Allerleirauh, the girl – evidently unable to simply refuse her royal father outright – demands a series of ever more impossible wedding-dresses: gowns of the sun, moon and stars, and, in the end, a cloak made of the fur of all kinds of animals. The relentless king provides them all. In desperation the girl then packs up the marvellous wedding-dresses and escapes, wrapped in the cloak of all kinds of fur. Reduced in this way to a nameless and beastlike state, she takes a humble job in the palace kitchen of a neighbouring kingdom. In order to go to the feast, she furtively breaks out her secret stash of wedding-dresses, and always leaves the feast early to make sure she is found at work, still wrapped in her cloak. The story proceeds more or less in the familiar fashion through disguise and double-dealing to recognition and the happy ending.
A more muted variation on this theme, represented by the English Cap O Rushes, has the father testing the limits of his daughter’s love in rather less psychotic terms, by simply asking her how much she loves him. He then finds fault with her answer (in Cap O Rushes, she tells him she loves him like salt) and banishes her, and the girl’s adventures begin. This, of course, is the story which forms the basis of Shakespeare’s King Lear, derived from the same body of British legend which spawned the tales of King Arthur, with Cordelia as the Cinderella character and Regan and Goneril making a very effective pair of ugly sisters.
The major study of the story, The Cinderella Cycle, was published in 1951, and written by the Swedish folkorist Anna Birgitta Rooth. It allows us to imagine something of what might have happened to the story in the centuries before and after Li’s story of Yeh-Hsien. Rooth based her conclusions – as folklorists of her vintage tended to do – on the enormously far-reaching and painstakingly detailed study of the story in hundreds of versions collected from oral tradition, mostly during the nineteenth century and after. She concluded that the oldest form of the story was the animal-helper type – the one represented in western tradition by tales such as the Grimms’ Little One-Eye. By the time Li Shih-Yuan was telling the tale in China the mid-800s AD, Rooth argued, the Cinderella story in this ancient form was already old enough to have split into more than one distinct regional tradition as it radiated outwards from an unknown nucleus of origin. Rooth does not (I believe) speculate as to the tale’s ultimate point of origin, as implied by this account, but, interestingly, a glance at the map of the world might suggest India. In any case, by the Middle Ages, one tradition (Li’s version, in effect) was still active across the Far East. Another, some distance away in the Middle East, had already produced some very old stories. By the later Middle Ages this branch of the tradition had spread into Europe in two distinct movements, one carrying the story into Southern Europe, and another into Eastern and Northern Europe, reaching Iceland around the thirteenth century.
And from this twin western strand derive tales of the Allerleirauh/Catskin type (driven by incest) and the Cap O Rushes/King Lear type (driven by the father’s question) – and this is the immediate root of the modern Cinderella. Hints of an animal helper often remain in these later strands of the western tradition, but they generally seem less central to the action. Finally, in effect, Charles Perrault took one of these later stories, cut the first half out entirely (along with any disturbing hint of incest and/or necromancy), dropped in a nice friendly fairy godmother to paper over the resulting cracks, and pimped the remainder with equally homely stylings like pumpkin coaches and lizard footmen. By such means, today’s default Cinderella was born. And, whether or not Anna Birgitta Rooth was exactly right in her reconstruction of the story’s development, it’s clear enough that the modern Cinderella cuts an offputtingly insipid figure when set alongside her less famous older sisters.
Scholars admit that, overall, their study of Cinderella folktales has been uneven. The story has undergone strange periods of neglect, punctuated by some extraordinary and groundbreaking studies. Early studies such as those of W. R. S. Ralston in 1879 tended to the then-fashionable view that the story was a broken-down memory of ancient pagan myth. Most recorded folktales derive from oral traditions of modern times. There is no evidence to connect any of them directly to ancient myth, beyond a general similariity of content. But there is some plausibility in the idea that they are expressions of the mythic imagination – that, in their own diminished way, they scratch some of the same mental itches as great creation myths.
But the biggest and most authoritative early study of the story was made by Marian Roalfe Cox, who published her findings (to international acclaim) in 1893, under the snappy title of CINDERELLA: Three hundred and forty-five variants of CINDERELLA, CATSKIN, AND CAP O’ RUSHES, ABSTRACTED AND TABULATED, WITH A DISCUSSION OF MEDIAEVAL ANALOGUES, AND NOTES. Cox’s 600-page study (now out of copyright) crunched a huge range of separate versions of the Cinderella story; she was the first to conclude that there were at least three basic forms of the story – in effect, the Cinderella type, the Catskin/Allerleirauh type, and the Cap O Rushes type (as I have described them above in parallel with the magic animal/plant versions). Around 1970, the eminent American folklorist Archer Taylor was lamenting the fact that Cox’s work had failed to inspire further research; it was followed by a generation of silence. Then the silence was broken in spectacular fashion when R. D. Jameson introduced the story of Yeh-Hsien to western scholars, and then, in 1951, came Anna Birgitta Rooth’s The Cinderella Cycle, which took in around seven hundred versions of the story. Rooth’s huge study (which, sadly, I have found hard to track down) remains pretty essential reading, but it is not the last word on the story; over a thousand versions are now available for systematic reference by scholars, and many mysteries about the story and its development remain to be explored. For if ever a folktale (or a folktale heroine) had a secret life, it’s Cinderella.
Postscript: The Glass Slipper
If you’ve read this far in the hope of finding out whether Cinderella’s glass slipper was really made of glass, apologies, and congratulations on your persistence. There is a popular theory that it was ermine; but in fact the answer is yes, it probably was glass after all. The ermine theory is grounded in the fact that “glass slipper” in Perrault’s French is pantoufle de verre, and verre sounds like vair (“ermine”), so possibly Perrault (or someone) misheard the word. This is quite a sensible suggestion really. After all, ermine really was used to make shoes. Glass slippers are rare in oral traditional versions of Cinderella. They occur in only six of Marian Roalfe Cox’s 345 versions. Some of these versions are not French, so the confusion could not have arisen independently in these stories, and we can be confident that the storyteller meant glass. But this may show the influence of Perrault’s version in which the mistake would already have been made. Also, fur slippers are obviously more practical than glass ones.
But in fact there is no actual evidence to support the view that Perrault mistook the word. French was his first language, after all. More to the point, marvellous glass objects – not only shoes but mountains, trees, towers and the like – are common enough in folktales to make it needless to explain away the glass slipper. Folktales aren’t sensible, and this sensible suggestion lacks purchase. Glass it is.