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Fairy Tales
A closer look at those familiar yarns
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Kevin Yee

Cinderella, Part Two

Last time out, we showed how the basis for the Disney story can be traced to Perrault's version, though some details were altered for the film, such as having only one night at the ball instead of two. Disney did lift significant parts of the Grimms' version, however small and subtle the details seem to be.

I challenged you to find what was in the Disney movie but not in Perrault's story. Since we've established that the mice came from Perrault, did you hit upon the other helpful critters -- the birds -- as something from the Grimms? They are. In order to grasp the full importance of the Grimms' contributions, however, well have to look at how the Grimms' story as a whole differs from Perrault's.

The Cinderella story is absent from the Grimms' 1810 manuscript, which recounts the stories as they heard them; so we have no access to the peasant version of the tale. It first appears in the 1812 first edition under the title Aschenputtel -- a rare instance where the title means exactly the same thing as the Perrault story. While the story is recognizably similar to Perrault's version, there are essential differences: the sisters are expressly said to be beautiful, though they have black hearts. Disney picks up this detail from the Grimms and revisualizes it for film as ugly sisters.

There is no fairy godmother in the Grimms'. Cinderella's real mother also dies here, and Cinderella plants a tree on her grave. The mother's spirit inhabits this tree, and fulfills the function of the fairy godmother by providing the garments for the ball.

Promo art  Disney
Promo art Disney

The mother's spirit is arguably also contained in two white pigeons that assist Cinderella with her chores a fact picked up in the Disney movie with the helpful mice (mentioned in Perrault as the horses for the coach) and birds that assemble her dress and otherwise cheer up her dreary existence.

When it comes time for the ball in the Grimms' version, there is not one, not two, but three full nights of dancing. Each time, Cinderella gets her dress and shoes by appealing to her mother's tree, returning them back after each night to change to her ash- covered clothing. Significantly, there is no midnight deadline for her return -- if you read the Grimms carefully, you see that Cinderella chooses to go home around midnight. This is the same logic we saw in Perrault; she is leading this prince on, because she wants him to fall in love with her and discover her at home, where he will be forced to accept her as she really is.

The prince, suitably worked up just as she wanted him, decides to get crafty. He orders the staircase to be covered with pitch, so that she should become stuck in it if she flees once more at midnight. On the third night, she does flee, and her golden slipper becomes entangled and she is forced to leave it behind. He then canvasses the countryside searching for the one who fits the shoe -- a detail that Disney leaves out in favor of the Perrault version. A prince has a country to run, he can't be bothered by this, so he delegates authority and sends his representatives. But the Grimms, who usually try to portray the mystery of love at first sight, send the prince himself to find the maiden.

Promo art  Disney
Promo art Disney

And so the prince arrives at Cinderella's house, where the sisters try in vain to get the slipper to fit. Here the story veers radically away from Perrault's retelling, for the Grimms insert some violence here to punish the wicked sisters. The stepmother, in her zeal to secure the rich and powerful prince as a son, instructs her daughters to cut off parts of their feet to get the slipper to fit. Thus, the prince rides off with one who has a bloody heel, returns when the pigeons warn him, and then rides off with the other minus her big toe, until the birds again warn him.

Is this prince an idiot with a foot fetish or what? Hasn't he been dancing with the mystery girl for three nights? Is he only watching her feet? By the way, in case you're wondering about the small slippers, they are symbolic of aristocracy. Those with small feet are the privileged who do not have to toil in the fields, where feet spread and enlarge. Many Asian cultures thus prize small feet, leading to an entire subculture of foot- binding.

At last Cinderella comes over to the doltish prince, cleverly washing her face on the way over so he will recognize her. After the shoe fits, he looks up and recognizes her face (finally!) and leads her away. This is where the first edition ends. By the second edition, the Grimms decide to punish the sisters, however, and the white pigeons peck out the eyes of the evil stepsisters.

Promo art  Disney
Promo art Disney

The increased violence of the ending was likely inspired by the ending to Snow White, where the evil queen was made to dance in hot shoes until she died. But the reciprocity between the two stories doesn't stop there: the stepmother's situation in Cinderella, which is part of the story and not a Grimms addition, probably gave the Grimms the idea to change the mother in Snow White into a stepmother.

The Disney version leans more toward the Grimms by not mentioning express kindness toward the sisters after Cinderella maneuvers her way into the prince's heart. But some parts of the Disney version, as was the case in Snow White, were invented for the movie. The mice, barely mentioned as needed for the pumpkin coach in Perrault, are expanded into full-fledged costars of the film, up to half of which involves Tom- and- Jerry antics with the household cat, Lucifer.

Ah yes, Lucifer. He is essentially the fourth antagonist facing Cinderella (after the stepmother and two sisters), and his name obviously connotes the devil. By association, therefore, the stepmother is made into an evil figure, more evil than she had been with either Perrault or Grimms. In all versions of the story, note that the threat is from older women -- the stepmother -- rather than from men. Men in general are pretty ineffective in fairy tales, and usually absent. Remember the peasant nature of the stories beginnings (older women telling morals to younger, usually female children), and the message becomes clear: don't be misled by the strong appearance of men, for you cannot count on their help.

Cinderella as a heroine is an exception to the rule, for she is able to help herself out of her nasty situation -- that she as an aristocrat finds herself in dire straits is itself a message: even if you're rich, you're not safe in the world. Thus, if you want to get ahead in the world, you must rely on yourself, no matter your circumstances. Both Perrault and Grimms show a girl who seizes control of her situation by leading the prince on.

Promo art  Disney
Promo art Disney

Ever hear of a Cinderella complex? It refers to waiting for your prince to come someday. Oddly enough, that's a song from Disney's Snow White, not Cinderella, but never mind. The important part is that it implies a passive female controlled by men and fate. Well, ironically enough, Cinderella in the stories does not have a Cinderella complex! She controls the situation and in a way controls the men, who are shown as stupid (the prince), hormonally-driven (the king) creatures who are unreliable and usually absent (the dead father). Women are on their own.

Even more unusual, the girl conquers by being good. Usually the peasant tales preach a message of deviousness -- do what it takes to get ahead -- but Cinderella is able to overcome all with some luck, some subtle mind control, and a healthy dollop of good- heartedness. Witness Perrault's moral that follows the story:

Moral: Beauty in a woman is a rare treasure that will always be admired. Graciousness, however, is priceless and of even greater value. This is what Cinderella's godmother gave to her when she taught her to behave like a queen. Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can do anything.

Another moral: Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.

Perrault notes that you might require luck, but at all times it is important to be gracious. Disney imports this moral into his version, for the screen Cinderella attempts to find the good in all creatures around her, even the vicious Lucifer. While to modern audiences the Disney Cinderella appears to conform to a post-war feminine ideal (kind, gracious, forgiving, domestic, passive, at the mercy of luck and men), in fact the movie is paying a good amount of lip service to its source material in Perrault.

A good number of you have brought up folklorist approaches (instances of similar stories across the world) and modern retellings of these tales (I predict more than one e-mail about the recent movie Ever After). Please hold those thoughts -- I'm getting there. The modern retellings, it turns out, are just as interesting as the literary source material, but for different sociological reasons.

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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