In western literature, as we all know, Cinderella is the glass-slipper girl: the wistful stepdaughter who is forced to sit in the chimney corner, who attends the prince’s ball in frilly disguise with the magical help of her fairy godmother, and is later sought out by the lovelorn prince, whose only clue to her identity is a hurriedly-discarded shoe.

Let’s be honest: that story’s not very good. Some learned commentators have striven heroically to discern meaningful depths in it. You can judge the success of their efforts for yourself. On this blog, however, we view such attempts with some scepticism, and tend to agree with the reviewer who wisely summed up a recent movie version as “a retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box.”

Curiously, however, in the same review, the same reviewer called the same movie “a traditional tale … well told.” A flatteringly competent telling of a weak story: that sums up the reviewer’s verdict. The reviewer drew this odd conclusion seemingly because he expected little enough from traditional tales – simply as such. But we know better. We know that, when it comes to folktales, you’re best advised to steer clear of the movies, and listen to the folk.

For, if ever a folktale had a secret life, it’s the tale of Cinderella. In the hundreds of known variants of the story, scattered over the world and through time, the heroine has been many things. She has been an orphan child, secretly helped by a wise beast, or magical tree, sent by her dead mother from beyond the grave. She has been a lonely, resourceful young woman running from an incestuous abuser. Sometimes “she” has been a boy, or a brother-and-sister pairing. The only thing she always is, is abused.

The first English version of the glass-slipper Cinderella was Robert Samber’s Cinderilla: or, The Little Glass Slipper, first published in 1729. This, of course, was a translation of a French story which is the basis, not only of Samber’s Cinderilla, but of all the Cinderellas in modern western literature and mass media: Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verrepublished in 1697 by Charles Perrault, a French civil servant. But Perrault was not the first European author to launch Cinderella into print. Shortly before he wrote, Finette Cendron was published by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville (better known, even today, by her aristocratic title: Madame d’Aulnoy). The same tale cropped up in Italian in the 1630s, as La Gatta Cennerentola (“The Cat Cinderella”), tale 6 in Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”), by the Neapolitan courtier Giambattista Basile. Prior to that, the Cinderella story 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”) by Bonaventure des Périers, a French nobleman. And in 1501, half a century before the oldest of these tales was printed, a Strasburg preacher referred to the story in enough detail for us to recognise it by the description. From this we can infer that the story was current in Europe by the later Middle Ages at least.

Modern versions of Cinderella are derived from Perrault – mostly. For print and mass-media versions never killed the story off in oral tradition. Well over a century after Perrault wrote, the brothers Grimm included at least three Cinderella-style stories which seem unrelated to Perrault’s version. These are Aschenputtel, Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”). Over a thousand such versions are now available for systematic reference, and many mysteries about the story and its development remain to be explored. For the story has lived long and travelled hard. It may be going too far to say that the story is known literally all over the world, but it is very widely spread across Europe and the Middle East; India, China and the Far East; the colonial Americas, and elsewhere. Similar stories crop up in the world’s indigenous cultures. Some great variants are included in Angela Carter’s two flawed but essential Virago books of Fairy Tales. Even the English – with their notoriously sparse written record of native folktales – have contributed a good handful of Cinderellas to the record. 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 who worked as a servant; this story was tidied up and published by Joseph Jacobs in this versionTattercoats was also published by Jacobs, and by Mrs Balfour, who included 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. Scottish storytellers, meawhile, were telling the tales of Rashin Coatie and Ashpitel.

Anyone who reads all these versions of the story will quickly discern an odd fact. The glass-slipper fairy-tale is only the second half of the story. Perrault seems eager to imply that nothing of interest happens before the ball, so many modern readers and listeners assume that it doesn’t. But it does. In the lost first half (or halves) of the story, there is cunning, trickery and disguise, double-dealing, anguish, revenge, and death, and also magic, reincarnation, and/or incestuous abuse. And this lesser-known material – let us note – is the oldest part of the story, the historical core of the tale. The ball and the glass slipper are afterthoughts, or elaborations. In moving centre-stage these details have weakened the story and blunted its edge.

This happens a lot.

Early studies of the Cinderella story, 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. But the biggest and most authoritative early study was that of 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) compared over 300 versions of the Cinderella story. Cox made a point which is now a starting-block for Cinderella studies, which is that the mass of Cinderella stories fall into a handful of overlapping but distinct basic types.

Different scholars have different ways of labelling these types, but they describe the same basic range of stories. It’s worth noting them in a little detail. Firstly, there is the basic Perrault-style Cinderella – the girl who goes to the ball several times in several outfits, and is tracked down by a lost token (No. 510A in the ATU tale-type index). Secondly, there is a story of a girl who does something similar to this, but without magic help, while running disguised from an abusive father who may be trying to rape her. This harsher and less magical tale-type is indexed as 510B in the ATU system; in the Grimms’ collection, it appears as Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”); most of the English Cinderellas listed above seem to fall into this category, although the examples linked above avoid any mention of rape. Thirdly, there are stories of an abused girl (or boy) who is helped by a magical beast and/or tree; in the ATU index, this type is numbered 511. This third type may involve the trip to the ball (or equivalent), but it need not. It appears in the Grimms’ collection as Einäuglein, Zweiäuglein und Dreiäuglein (“Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes and Little Three-Eyes”), and by Scottish storytellers it is told as Rashin Coatie. The variety of folktale forms is as infinite as creative genius can make them, and many recorded tales fall between these categories or fail to fit them precisely, but in very broad terms the categories hold good wherever the tale has been told.

If Cox sorted the tales into types or categories, the next major study tried to explain how these broad types developed. Anna Birgitta Rooth’s 1951 The Cinderella Cycle took in around seven hundred variants of the tale. Among the oldest was a story which the Greeks and Romans knew. Strabo, a Greek geographer from what is now Turkey, who lived around the time of Christ, wrote a Geography which mentions (among other things) an Egyptian story of a courtesan, Rhodopis:

… when she [Rhodopis] 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.

However, the oldest known story which can reasonably be called a complete version of Cinderella is the tale of Yeh-Hsien, written around 860 AD in China. The tale of Yeh- (or Sheh-)Hsein was told by Li Shih-Yuan, and noted down at his dictation by Tuan Ch’eng Shih. Tuan, the writer describes Li the storyteller as “a cave man of Yung Chow” who knew many of the “strange stories of the south.” Tuan himself was a junior government minister; he had previously 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 it. It was published in English by Arthur Waley in Folklore in 1947.

The heroine of Li’s story, Yeh-Hsien, is abused by her stepmother, who ends by killing her pet fish. A mysterious man tells her where the bones of the fish are buried. At his prompting, Yeh-Hsien prays to the bones, which give her fine clothes, so that she can attend 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.

With one important qualification (which we’ll come to in a bit), the story of Yeh-Hsien is a straightforward example of the basic old animal-helper type, examined by Cox and Rooth and indexed as ATU type 511. The fish is the “fairy godmother” or magical helper; in other versions of type 511, the function is fulfilled by a bull, goat, sheep or other animal. Stories of this type often seem to imply, or state, that the wise beast is an emanation of the girl’s dead mother, continuing to watch over her lonely and struggling child even in death. This link between the dead mother and the magical helper is made more explicit in an Egyptian version recorded by French scholars (in French), where the orphans – brother and sister, in this case – plead with the cow: “O Cow, be kind to us as our mother was kind to us.”

— Ô vache, sois bonne pour nous comme notre mère était bonne pour nous.
Et la vache leur donnait de bonne nourriture …

The link is made even more explicit in the Scottish Rushen Coatie:

A queen with a daughter died. On her deathbed, she told her daughter that a red calf would come to her, and she could ask it for help.

In the Russian “Wonderful Birch Tree,” in which the mother is turned into a sheep and slaughtered by the evil stepmother, and counsels her daughter before dying:

“Eat you neither the meat nor the broth that is made of me, but gather all my bones, and bury them by the edge of the field.”… She [the daughter] did not touch the soup, but she carried the bones to the edge of the field and buried them there; and there sprang up on the spot a birch tree — a very lovely birch tree.

Rooth argued that this tale of the dead mother’s magical help was the original core of the story. Her evidence was the present-day distribution of tale-types and details, to which folklorists look for clues regarding the long-term development of the story. At first, she said, there wasn’t even a marriage at the end: a dead mother sends miraculous help to her orphaned child, in the form of a wise beast and/or a magical tree … and that’s it. Even the marriage episode, which ends so many forms of the tale, was a later addition. Rooth believed that the story in this form first took shape somewhere in Asia, long before it was first recorded in writing. It then spread outwards. One tradition spread towards China and the Far East, eventually producing the story of Yeh-Hsien. Another spread in the opposite direction, through an important pivotal point of transition in the Middle East. Only after all this had happened did the earliest extant texts enter the written record. The Middle Eastern versions of the tale then spread to Europe from the south-east through the Balkans.

Rooth believed that the story’s route into Europe was complex and many-stranded. She found the old animal-helper tale spread across Europe in its unaltered form, leading to the examples we have mentioned, such as Little One Eye… and Rashin Coatie. But she also argued that the storytellers of long ago had already cut-and-stitched the animal-helper tale to another originally separate tale, which was also Eastern in provenance and was rather similar to the Rhodopis legend. This story told how a beautiful but mysterious woman is identified by means of some item which she has discarded while leaving a feast or public festival. By such means the old storytellers created a new story as a composite of two old ones, and, for the first time, Cinderella got to go to the ball – so to speak. You will already have noted that the story of Yeh-Hsien is actually an example of this composite type (I told you there was a catch about the Yeh-Hsien story as an example of the animal-helper type). However it happened, the newer composite story now spread into Europe from the Middle East, just like the older one, leading to tales such as the haunting Norwegian Kari Trestakk (“Kari Woodencoat“). If Rooth is right, the glass-slipper Cinderella would seem to derive from this form, having retained nothing of the animal-helper section, beyond the vague premise that the girl is suffering abuse at home, at the hands of her family, or step-family.

However, as we have seen, a still more radical development took place at the Middle Eastern crossing point, leading to the later, darker and more realistic complex of tales represented by the Grimms’ Allerleirauh (“All-Kinds-Of-Fur”), and by the more muted stories of overbearing fathers, linked above. These more muted forms often revolve around the famous motif of the father who demands that his daughters declare how much they love him – and then punishes the youngest daughter for answering the question honestly, by telling him (for example) that she loves him like salt. The common theme running through these stories is father-daughter love gone bad. The daughter often gets scant assistance from her dead mother either – in fact, there may be no explicitly magical or supernatural element to the story at all. The girl tends to flee her father and trust to luck, and the stories then proceed more or less in the familiar fashion through disguise and double-dealing to recognition and a (more or less) happy ending. The story of king Leir, which forms part of the Matter of Britain and inspired Shakespeare, is, of course, a story of this type, with Cordelia as the Cinderella character and Regan and Goneril making a very effective pair of ugly sisters.

Rooth’s argument therefore defines four basic versions of the story, in the west at least, besides Perrault’s glass-slipper Cinderella. Oldest is the basic animal-helper type, revolving mainly around the magic tree. Next is the composite type, in which the girl with the animal helper ends up going to the ball in disguise. Last come the more realistic tales of a loveless and/or abusive father. If Rooth is right, the earliest forms of the story involve an element of witchlike, almost shamanic magic which gradually fades from later versions. The action of the later versions is more rationalised; the characterisation is more rounded; and I personally suspect that it’s no coincidence that these versions seem to have entered Europe via the old, settled, literate, urban civilisations of the Middle East, which already had long traditions of philosophical scepticism towards old myths and primitive superstitions – traditions which are part of their legacy to the modern world.

So Cinderella is not really a story about going to a ball at all – simply as such. It’s a story about survival. It’s about living by your wits, in worlds where friends are strange and few, but love can be stronger than death. It is usually very hard to know who told any particular version of a folktale, when or where or why. Often they were told to very mixed audiences in a wide variety of settings. But if you want my guess, the essence of Cinderella – the core of emotional energy which enabled the story to endure and spread with such extraordinary prodigality – is a woman’s account of coming of age in an inhospitable, harshly patriarchal world. It recounts the threats and opportunities confronted by girls and young women: the elemental quality of mother-love; the risk of abuse in the workplace and the home; the tactical value of keeping up appearances; the search for a marriage partner. The tale recounts these things with the authoritative voice of one who has learned them all the hard way, supportively addressing a listener who hasn’t – yet. In this respect it may be noteworthy that many of the stories’ original tellers were older women – and so, of course, were the two major scholars of the tale whose work I have cited at length in this post.

Small wonder, then, if such a story has been rendered down to “retrograde fantasy” for children in the worlds of literature, learning, and lights-camera-action, to the point that many who inhabit such worlds have sincerely forgotten that Cinderella was ever anything else. Official and public arts and media are still not that glad to hear a genuinely authoritative female voice; particularly not from an under-privileged background. Such a voice is Cinderella’s, so the editors went to work on it early and thoroughly, and they are busy still today. The signs were all there in Charles Perrault’s work: Perrault passed over the more recent and realistic tales, and selected a supernatural story of a kind which his readers were probably already predisposed to regard as fairly pathetic; he then went on to render it actually pathetic by cutting-and-pasting a genteel fairy godmother over any lingering memory of actual wild enchantment, and pimped what was left with winsome stylings like pumpkin coaches and lizard footmen. We have lived with the results for three centuries, and respected interpreters of the fairy tale have solemnly claimed to find meaning in the “retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box.” Perhaps they have. But “a traditional tale … well told”? For that, nowadays, we must dig a little deeper. If we do, we can unearth some dark, forgotten, and sometimes terrible treasures.

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. Not very practical – but, then again, Perrault wasn’t planning on actually wearing the damn things himself … was he?

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