By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Cinderella’ is, of course, a classic fairy story, a ‘rags to riches’ tale about a kind-hearted girl who suffers various hardships only to marry the prince of the kingdom. Why is Cinderella called Cinderella? Since she is shunned by the rest of her family (especially the stepsisters), the poor girl sits among the ashes in the chimney corner – hence her cindery name.
The ‘rags to riches’ transformation comes about when Cinders, who wishes to attend the royal ball, has her wish granted and subsequently meets the prince. Although she has to flee the ball and return home – losing one of her slippers in the process – the prince searches for and finds her, thanks to what is perhaps the most romantic shoe-fitting in all of literature. So far, so familiar.
The earliest appearance of the Cinderella story in print was in 1634 in the Pentamerone, a collection of oral folk tales compiled by Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan soldier, poet, and courtier. Here Cinderella is called Cenerentola.
In 1697, French writer Charles Perrault published the story of Cendrillon, a variation on the story. Perrault added several details now intrinsically associated with the story – notably the pumpkin, the fairy godmother, and the glass slipper – to Basile’s version, which already featured the wicked stepmother and the evil stepsisters, as well as the prince figure (though in Basile’s he is a king rather than a prince) who hunts for the owner of a slipper (though it isn’t glass in Basile’s version). Perrault’s version would form the basis of the hit 1950 Disney film Cinderella, which in turn inspired Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action remake.
But in fact the story is even older than these seventeenth-century versions: ‘Ye Xian’ or ‘Yeh-Shen’ is a Chinese variant of the Cinderella story that dates from the ninth century. A detailed plot summary can be found here.
But even this isn’t the oldest version of the story: a tale dating back to the 1st century BC, more than a thousand years before even the Chinese ‘Ye Xian’, is perhaps the earliest of all Cinderella narratives. The story is about a Thracian courtesan, Rhodopis, who ends up marrying the King of Egypt. It even features a royal figure searching for the owner of a shoe, suggesting that it is the progenitor of all later Cinderella stories.
In the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm offered a slightly different version of the tale in Aschenputtel. The Grimms’ retelling of the fairy tale is somewhat … well, grimmer than the Basile or Perrault versions.
At the end of the Grimms’ version of the story, the stepsisters’ eyes are pecked out by birds to punish the sisters for their cruelty towards their sibling – a violent conclusion you won’t find in Disney. In order to try to dupe the prince into thinking they are the wearers of the missing slipper, each of the stepsisters cuts off part of her own foot to make it fit, but the blood that fills the slipper gives the game away. Indeed, the Chinese ‘Ye Xian’ telling of the Cinderella story ends with the stepmother and ugly sisters being crushed to death in their caves by stones. In the Disney film they get off lightly, to say the least.
What’s more, in the Brothers Grimm version of the Cinderella story, the slipper is not glass, but gold. There is disagreement among scholars and commentators as to whether the glass slippers that first appear in Perrault’s version (and, subsequently, in many famous retellings and adaptations of the tale) were the result of Perrault’s mishearing vair (French for ‘squirrel’s fur’) for verre (French for ‘glass’).
The majority of experts reject such a theory. The website Snopes.com states that Perrault intended the slippers to be made of glass all along, and wasn’t acting on an error, while another site suggests that the glass slipper was perhaps ‘an ironic device since it is a fragile thing’, so might be seen as a form of artistic licence.
Interestingly, the ‘error’ theory – that Perrault was not inventing an iconic literary trope but simply mishearing one word for another – appears to have been put about by the French novelist Honoré de Balzac. So, although Perrault added the glass slippers, it was most likely not down to a mishearing (especially since the word vair was not in common use when Perrault was writing) but to creative licence.
Roald Dahl updated the fairy tale of Cinderella in 1982 in his Revolting Rhymes. The most significant Dahlian detail in his verse retelling of the tale comes near the end, when one of the stepsisters replaces the glass slipper with her own shoe. But even though the shoe subsequently fits the sister’s foot perfectly (as you’d expect), the prince declines to marry her and instead – cuts her head off.
The tyrannical prince does the same to the other stepsister, and Cinderella’s head would have been done for too, had her fairy godmother not intervened and saved her – granting Cinderella’s wish to be married to an ordinary husband rather than a prince who would, let’s face it, make Prince Joffrey look like Oliver Twist.
So that’s a happy ending, just not the one you find in traditional fairy tales.
Before the Disney film of 1950, and long before the 2015 Kenneth Branagh remake, there were many film adaptations, the first of which (from 1899) can be seen here.
If you enjoyed this post, you might find something of literary interest in our summary of the curious history of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, 25 great facts about children’s books and our surprising facts about Aladdin and the Arabian Nights.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.