Cinderella is a classic rags to riches story. We all know how it goes in Disney’s retelling; a fairy godmother appears to a beautiful yet downtrodden kitchen maid, and transforms her animal friends and nearby objects into a carriage and chauffeurs to get her to the Prince’s ball. Cinderella effortlessly charms the Prince, before disappearing at midnight, when her pumpkin carriage will turn back into a regular old pumpkin.
However, the Prince is so enchanted by this mysterious girl that he can’t bear to be without her, and searches the land with the glass slipper she left behind until he finds her again, and proposes to her. This pretty much exactly follows the French tale of Cendrillon by Charles Perrault in 1697, which is probably the most well-known Cinderella story.
But did you know the story dates back to 7BC, and has had hundreds of variations in many cultures around the world? Here’s a few of my favourites.
Ancient Greece: Rhodopis (“Rosy Cheeks”)
In ancient Greece, Cinderella was known as Rhodopis, and her sandal was stolen by an eagle when she was bathing. The eagle dropped this onto the king’s lap, and, stirred by the beauty of the sandal and the strangeness of its appearance, he sent his men to find the woman who wore the sandal for him to wed.
Great Britain: Cordelia (coeur de lion, heart of the lion)
Cordelia is widely said to be derived from the eponymous story in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and retold in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Cordelia was the youngest and most virtuous of the three daughters of King Leir of Britain (yep, it was spelt differently in this story), and due to the fact she could not lie to flatter his ego, she received nothing when her father divided up his kingdom between his children. However, Cordelia marries her love, Aganippus, King of the Franks, and flees to Gaul where she and her husband send an army to depose her wicked sisters. Cordelia is crowned Queen of Britain, but her reign only lasts 5 years. Needless to say, Shakespeare’s spin on the story had a tragic ending.
China: Ye Xian
The story of Ye Xian appeared in around 860. It tells the story of a hardworking and kind young girl who befriends a fish. Little does she know, the fish is actually the rebirth of her mother! The fish is killed by her stepmother and sister (there’s a running theme of evil step-relatives in Cinderella’s story, no matter where you look), but Ye Xian saves the bones, which turn out to be magic. They help her dress for the New Year Festival, but she loses her slipper in her haste to get away when her stepfamily spot her. However, the king finds her slipper and falls in love with her, eventually rescuing her from her cruel stepmother.
Elsewhere in Asia, the Vietnamese take on this story (The Story of Tam and Cam) follows the same plot, but features a long battle with her mother and half-sister after Tam marries the king.
Italy: Cenerentola (“ash and cinder”)
Again, this Cinderella variation features a wicked stepmother, evil stepsisters, magical transformation, a lost shoe, and a prince on the hunt for the girl who wore it.
This time, the story follows Zezolla, the daughter of a prince, who is looked after by a beloved governess. The governess, with Zezolla’s help, persuades the prince to marry her, then brings six bullying daughters of her own to the fold. The governess’ daughters abuse Zezolla and force her to work as a servant in the kitchens, thus becoming Cenerentola, as servants during that time were known to be covered in ash due not only to their cleaning work, but also because they were forced to live in cold basements, and curled up by the fire for warmth.
The prince goes to the island of Sinia, where he meets a fairy who gives him presents of a golden spade, a golden bucket, a silken napkin, and a date seedling for his daughter. The girl cultivates a tree from these gifts, and when the prince holds a ball, the fairy from the tree dresses her in splendour. The king falls in love with her (the king from Sinia, not her grandfather!), but Zezolla runs away before he can find out who she is. Twice, Zezolla escapes the king and his servants. A third time, the king’s servant catches one of her slippers, leading the king to do a shoe test for everyone in the land. Luckily, the king doesn’t have to spend hours going through the line up of thousands of women with the same size feet (it always worries me that Cinderella is the only one whose foot fits the slipper – does she have huge feet? Or tiny trotters?! Who knows!), as the slipper jumps from his hand onto her foot, and he happily marries her. The fact she continually escapes the king and his servants reminds me of another Cinderella story, which brings me to…
Germany: Aschenputtel (“ashfool”) – the Grisly Disney entry
Other than Disney’s version (and arguably King Lear, though many don’t realise it’s a Cinderella story), the Brothers Grimm’s Aschenputtel is probably the most well known Cinderella story.
In true Brothers Grimm style, there’s the grisly twist we’ve come to expect from the seemingly innocent stories that inspired beautiful, singing Disney princesses.
Aschenputtel starts with a plague in the village, and a wealthy gentleman’s wife lying on her deathbed. She tells her daughter to remain good and kind, because if she does, God would protect her. She then dies, and her daughter visits her mother’s grave every day to grieve her.
A year goes by, and the girl’s father marries another woman with two daughters from a previous marriage. They are all beautiful, but with wicked, cruel hearts. The stepsisters steal their new sibling’s fine clothes and jewellery, and force her to wear rags. They banish her to the kitchen, and give her a new name; Aschenputtel, or “ash fool”. (What charmers!)
Aschenputtel is forced to work from dawn until dusk, with the cruel sisters deliberately making messes for her to clean. However, the girl remains kind and good as she had promised her mother, and continues to visit her grave and pray that her circumstances might improve.
One day, her father visits a fair, and promises his daughters gifts of luxury. Similar to the original story of Beauty and the Beast, the evil sisters request pearls and diamonds, whilst the story’s selfless namesake asks for something that won’t cost her father anything, which in this case, is the first twig to knock his hat off on the way.
The man goes on his way, and returns with all the gifts he promised. He gives his daughter a hazel twig, which she plants over her mother’s grave, and waters with her tears. It grows into a glowing hazel tree, and when Aschenputtel prays under it, a little white bird comes to her and grants her wishes.
Meanwhile, the king decides to hold a festival so the prince can choose from all the beautiful maidens in the land. Aschenputtel begs to go with her sisters, but her stepmother refuses on the grounds that she has no nice dresses or shoes to wear. When Aschenputtel still doesn’t take no for an answer, the woman throws a dish of lentils into the ashes, and says she can attend if she picks every single one up in 2 hours. (Doesn’t this happen to Feyre in A Court of Thorns and Roses, thinking about it?)
Aschenputtel accomplishes this task in less than an hour with the help of her dove friends, but her stepmother only doubles the task with a huge portion of lentils, which Aschenputtel clears up in no time. The stepmother, getting tired of trying to break her spirit, runs away to the festival with her daughters and husband, leaving the crying girl behind.
However, Aschenputtel goes to the grave and asks to be clothed in silver and gold. The white bird delivers, and she goes to the feast. Similarly to the story of Ye Xian, this is said to be her dead mother helping her daughter from beyond the grave.
The prince dances with Aschenputtel, and when the sunset comes, she asks to leave. The prince escorts her home, but she jumps inside the pigeon coop to elude him. The prince asks her father, who has come home early, to chop the coop down, but she has already escaped.
The next day, she appears in even finer clothes, and the prince falls in love. When sunset comes, he tries to accompany her home again, but she climbs a pear tree to escape him. Again, her father chops down the tree at the prince’s request, but she’s nowhere to be seen.
On the third day, Aschenputtel appears in slippers made of gold, and the prince is so determined to keep hold of her (creep) that he smears the stairway with sticky pitch, which one of her slippers sticks in.
The prince says he will marry the girl whose foot fits the shoe, and goes to Aschenputtel’s house again. He tries the slipper on the eldest stepsister, who has been advised by her mother to cut off her toes to fit in Aschenputtel’s shoe. (Just the usual motherly advice really; my mum’s always telling me to do this if they’ve run out of stock in my size at the store…oh wait, no!)
The shoe fits, and the prince rides away with her, only to be told by two doves from heaven that there is blood on his bride-to-be’s foot. Outraged, he takes her back to the house and asks to see the second sister. She cuts off her heel to fit in the shoe, and when they ride away, the same thing happens again.
The prince returns to the house yet again, and Aschenputtel’s father says the only other girl is a kitchen-maid, and one who he fails to mention is his daughter at that. (He also refers to her as his “first wife’s child” and not his own).
When Aschenputtel appears, the prince recognises her, and asks for her hand in marriage. At the wedding, her stepsisters serve as her bridesmaids, hoping to charm their way back into her good books, but as they walk down the aisle, the doves fly down and strike an eye for each of them. When the wedding ends and the prince and Aschenputtel leave the church, the doves fly again and strike the sisters blind as a lifelong punishment for their treachery.
Family meet ups must be hella awkward…
Other variations of Cinderella
As you can see, from this post and the others in my Grisly Disney series, it tends to be the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen that provide macabre twists to the fairy tale plot lines.
However, whilst all versions of Cinderella’s story vary, there’s a few things that stay the same in every version.
- Cinderella herself: the Aame-Thompson classification system for folk tales classifies her as a type 510A, or a “persecuted heroine”, which she is in every retelling
- Villains: In some versions, her father is more active in humiliating his daughter, as opposed to being under the thumb of a wicked wife. However, most known versions feature a female persecutor, whether this is her stepmother or her stepsisters.
- Handbags and gladrags: There is always a ball of some sort, though sometimes there are up to three across the variations I’ve come across. There are also many variations like Ye Xian and Aschenputtel that include assistance from a dead mother, from Joseph Jacobs’ The Cinder Maid to the Finnish story of The Wonderful Birch.
- Talking animals: This isn’t just a Disney invention! There were animal companions in Aschenputtel and Ye Xian, but they actually talked in retellings such as Katie Woodencloak, Rushen Coatie, Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, The Story of Tam and Cam, and The Sharp Grey Sheep to name a few.
- Midnight curfew: Cinderella isn’t always strictly to return home by midnight before the magic disappears; sometimes she wants to get home before her family, has been spotted by her family, or is simply tired. (Girl after my own heart).
- Cinder’s shoe: It’s not always a glass slipper. In fact, that’s only in Charles Perrault’s version, which Disney seems to have gone off. In terms of identifying items, Aschenputtel’s slipper is gold, but other retellings feature anklets, rings, bracelets, circlets, and even a squirrel fur slipper! The last one comes from Perrault’s version, which, in its original French says “pantoufle de verre” (glass slipper), but somewhere along the line, it was mistakenly written as “pantoufle de vair” (squirrel fur slipper)! There’s also a disturbing whisper that “trying on the fur slipper of the maidens in the land” is an innuendo and it’s sexual thing for the prince…(vom!)
- The happily ever after: For the most part, Cinderella lives happily ever after with her prince, but various versions have seen her stepsisters punished; the stepsisters turning Cinderella into a dove on her wedding night; the stepmother switching her daughter for the true bride, etc.
There’s so many variations of this tale – I hadn’t even realised! Way back in 1893, there was a book produced called Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants, so I dread to think how many there are now. Certainly too many for one blog post, that’s for sure!
What’s your favourite retelling? Do you prefer the grislier versions or the Disney-ified ones? Have you spotted anything in popular culture nowadays that echoes the story of Cinderella?
Let me know in the comments!