Monday, April 13, 2009


The noble's daughter was set to do all the drudgery of the house, to attend the kitchen fire, and had naught to sleep on but the heap of cinder raked out in the scullery; and that is why they called her Cinder Maid.
~from "The Cinder Maid" by Joseph Jacobs
Cinderella is perhaps the most universal of fairy tales, one that has variations in many cultures over the course of several centuries. The experience of having a stepmother was not uncommon in the days when women sometimes died in childbirth and so the story of the "Cinder Maid" resonated deeply with past generations. Today, with the high rate of divorce and remarriage, young people often find themselves living in the same house with a step-parent, which even in the best situations can offer challenges for everyone involved.

On the most basic level, Cinderella is a tale of injustice and suffering inflicted upon an innocent by an older person whose job should have been to nurture and protect. The innocent is aided by forces from beyond this world, leading to final vindication; in this manner the story fulfills the very natural hope of those who have endured any type of material misery or abuse. As is the case with other fairy tales, the older versions are darker and much, more violent, with the triumph of the heroine being the result of struggle, not merely handed to her on a platter. The wicked stepsisters are grotesquely punished in the older tales whereas in the newer renditions they are shown mercy. According to Heidi Anne Heiner of Sur La Lune:
Although a reference to the story exists in 16th century German literature, the next written version of the story comes from Charles Perrault in his Contes de ma Mere L'Oye in 1697. From this version, we received the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, the animal servants, and the glass slippers. Perrault recorded the story that was told to him by storytellers while adding these touches for literary effect. Some scholars think Perrault confused "vair" (French for "ermine or fur") with "verre" (French for "glass") to account for Cinderella's admittedly uncomfortable footwear. This theory has been widely discredited now. Most scholars believe Perrault intended glass slippers as Cinderella's footwear. Perrault's version has a more humane ending than many versions of the tale with Cinderella finding husbands for her sisters. The sisters are left poor, blind, maimed, or even dead in many versions of the tale.

The Grimm Brothers' German version, known as Aschenputtel, or Ash Girl, does not have a fairy godmother. The heroine plants a tree on her mother's grave from which all of the magical help appears in the form of a white dove and gifts. At the end, the stepsisters' eyes are pecked by birds from the tree to punish them for their cruelty. Perrault's version is considerably more forgiving than this version.

The concept of having a fairy godmother calls to mind good friends who have intervened in times of serious need in my own life. In Cinderella the maiden's helper, be it the fairy godmother or the tree on her mother's grave, always has supernatural connotations, suggesting the Divine intervention behind the scenes. Among the many films that have been made based upon the Cinderella fairy tale, my two favorites are the Czech version made in the 70's, and The Glass Slipper starring Leslie Caron.

(Artwork from Art Passions) Share


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

One thing the East bloc states did really fine was retelling of fairytales and folklore - except of course when explicitly Christian content was edited out due to official atheism. Czech fairy tale films are great.

Lauren said...

What great images! Have a wonderful time in New Zealand!