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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Cinderella, Part One

Welcome back, class.

So you've read the previous columns, and think you've got a handle on this fairy-tale source material, right? You recognize the pattern: peasant tales emphasize survival skills and reflect the harsh reality of the world around them, while the Grimms and Perrault both reflect their own worlds in their versions of the tale. Cinderella's probably no exception. Perrault probably inserted stuff from his life as a courtier, right? If there's a stepmother, the Grimms changed it from a real mother to avoid the nasty implications, right?

Well, no. I'm afraid it's not quite that simple -- there's no magic bullet formula that you can simply apply here. With Cinderella, we are dealing with source material supposedly from Perrault, but there is good reason to look at the Grimms also. And, as we shall see, for both Perrault and the Grimms, Cinderella is an exception to the rule about fairy tales and their peasant messages.

The Cinderella storybook is available through Amazon

The Disney movie begins with credits that list Perrault by name as the inspiration: "Walt Disney's Cinderella, based on the story by Charles Perrault." However, it's not that simple. The larger trappings of the story are indeed transplanted wholesale from Perrault, but there are important nuances of the story that clearly trace their roots back to the Grimms.

The Perrault story, entitled Cendrillon, literally does mean "cinder- ella," or Little Cinder. The name comes from the two stepsisters (actually the older one calls her Cinderwench), because the girl is forced to sit amid the chimney cinders and soot.

The story you remember is probably pretty close to the Perrault version: an aristocratic family loses its matriarch, the father remarries but then dies, and the remaining girl is absorbed into a family where she is abused rather than loved by her stepmother and stepsisters. Her fairy godmother appears in the nick of time to give her a dress and a pumpkin coach -- complete with mice as horses -- so she can attend the ball, where she loses a slipper in her hurry to be home by midnight. The prince then initiates a kingdom-wide search to find the owner of the slipper, whom he will marry.

I'm sure you remember Drisella and Anastasia, the two stepsisters in the Disney version. Downright plain, if not outright ugly, right? Actually, this was not the case in the Perrault version. We're not told what the sisters look like, only that they are haughty and shallow like their mother. And only one has a name: Charlotte.

Naturally, Perrault's version contains telltale signs of the author's courtly experience. Consider the emphasis on fashion and decorum as the stepsisters prepare for the ball:

And I, said the youngest, shall have my usual petticoat; but then, to make amends for that, I will put on my gold- flowered cloak, and my diamond stomacher, which is far from being the most ordinary one in the world.

They sent for the best hairdresser they could get to make up their headpieces and adjust their hairdos, and they had their red brushes and patches from Mademoiselle de la Poche.

Patches were fake moles used by the aristocracy to cover blemishes -- not something the Grimms will bother recounting in their version!

The glass slipper also comes from Perrault. In 1697, when the story was put to paper, glass was an extremely expensive item to produce, and only the Venetians were doing it. Thus, it was literally worth more than gold by weight, and these slippers represented the most costly possible fashion accessory.

The Grimms would later make the slippers silver and gold in their version, as they couldn't understand why Cinderella would wear such unconscionably dangerous footwear, since glass was breakable, widespread, and cheap by then. Amusingly, one translator even assumed Perrault's story contained a misprint, and that he meant to say the slippers were made of vaire (fur) rather than verre (glass), since glass slippers made no sense from his modern perspective. I'm rather tickled by the image of Cinderella arriving at the ball wearing fur slippers!

Remember the king in the Disney version, so excited to see grandchildren that he sets up the ball for the prince? Seemed a harmless enough fellow. Compare that with Perrault's rather more randy king: The king himself, old as he was, could not help watching her, and telling the queen softly that it was a long time since he had seen so beautiful and lovely a creature. I've warned you that Perrault's stories drip with the sexual seductions so common in courtly life!

There are a couple of other important distinctions between Perrault and Disney. Most glaringly, the ball lasts two days in the original story. On the first night, Cinderella returns home promptly and on time, successfully evading her pursuers. She returns the second night and only when she loses track of time does she rush away, and thus lose her slipper.

Or did she lose it? Modern translations seldom get the actual French correct: "elle a laissa tombˇ the slipper" -- she lets it fall as she descends the staircase. Yup. This is no dumb peasant girl. She knows that she's got to get the Prince to find her as she really is -- a slave to her family -- and accept her on that basis. The dropping of the slipper is thus a calculated move in the Perrault story, but not in the Disney version.

Lastly, the Perrault story ends with a denouement oddly missing in the Disney version:

And now her two sisters found her to be that fine, beautiful lady whom they had seen at the ball. They threw themselves at her feet to beg pardon for all the ill treatment they had made her undergo. Cinderella took them up, and, as she embraced them, said that she forgave them with all her heart, and wanted them always to love her.

She was taken to the young prince, dressed as she was. He thought she was more charming than before, and, a few days after, married her. Cinderella, who was as good as she was beautiful, gave her two sisters lodgings in the palace, and that very same day matched them with two great lords of the court.

One would expect that in the Disney world, where all is good and things end happily ever after, the sisters would be forgiven. If you watch carefully, though, there is no mention made whatsoever of the sisters or the mother at the movies conclusion; they are simply forgotten after Cinderella is revealed as the owner of the slipper. There's a reason for this, though, and it boils down to the existence of the Grimms' version.

In the next installment read how the Grimms version influenced the eventual Disney movie. Before you click on that link though, why not pick up the Disney movie from your local rental store and see if you can spot what is featured in the movie that was not in Perrault? Chances are, those details came from the Grimms.

Cinderalla - Promo art © Disney
Promo art © Disney


Grimms - published their fairy tales in 1812 / 1814, with an unpublished and unedited collection of raw stories in 1810

Perrault - published his tales in France, 1697.

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