Hi folks and welcome to another instalment of Fairy Tale Fridays! Today I want to talk about Cinderella. The most famous version of the tale is the Charles Perrault incarnation which Disney adapted in 1950. I thought it would be more interesting (and darker) to look at the Brother’s Grimm version today.
Fairy tales, and in particular, Grimm’s fairy tales were supposed to be teaching stories. As such there is often religious imagery throughout, the characters often pray to God and though there is magic, good people tend to be Christian people. Cinderella’s character is pious and that is what results in her happy ending.
Some Background Information
Author: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm
Published: 1857 in Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales)
Fairy tale tropes featured: Evil stepmother, neglectful father, magical birds
Folktale type: 510A
This version of the story starts off in a way familiar to most readers: the death of the mother, remarriage, a neglectful father, horrible stepmother/stepsisters. Soon after her father’s remarriage, Cinderella is made to live like a servant and told to earn her place in the household. She wears a grey bed-gown and wooden shoes and sleeps amongst the ashes, leading to her German nickname ‘Aschenputtel‘.
One day Cinderella’s father goes to the fair and asks what his daughters would like him to bring back. The stepsisters want beautiful dresses, pearls and jewels of course. Cinderella oddly requests that he bring ‘the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.’ This happens to be the branch from a hazel bush which she then plants at her mother’s grave and weeps over. It grows into a tree which she visits, weeps at and prays over daily. Sometimes Cinderella wishes for things that a bird sitting in the branches provides her.
The King throws a three day festival and invites ‘all the beautiful young girls in the country’. Cinderella is made to help her stepsisters get ready but her stepmother keeps throwing impossible tasks at her to complete before she is allowed to go. Despite the help of pigeons, turtledoves and other birds to complete these tasks in time, she’s not allowed to go and is left alone while her family attend the festival. Cinderella goes to her mother’s grave and sings a song beneath the hazel tree:
‘Shiver and quiver, little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me’
The bird throws a gold and silver dress and Cinderella goes to the festival. She looks beautiful and is mistaken for a foreign princess. The prince dances with her and her only and no one suspects a thing. Cinderella leaves that night and the prince attempts to follow her home but she manages to slip away. This repeats the next day of the festival with Cinderella wearing a more beautiful dress and on the third day where her dress is even more beautiful and where she wears golden slippers. On the third night however, the prince smears the staircase with sticky tar and one of Cinderella’s slippers is left behind. The prince declares that the wearer of the golden slipper shall be his wife.
The prince searches for his future wife and eventually the stepsisters try on the shoe. The first stepsister’s foot is too large and her mother tells her to ‘cut the toe off; when thou art Queen thou wilt have no more need to go on foot.’ So she cuts her toe off, slips her foot in and rides off with the prince until they pass the hazel tree and the birds begin to sing, telling the prince that this is not his true bride and to check her foot – it is b l e e d i n g. He returns with the first sister and somehow, the prince manages to get tricked again by the second stepsister who cuts off part of her heel to squeeze her foot into the shoe. Again the birds give away the deception.
Finally, Cinderella is able to try on the shoe and it fits like a glove. The prince looks up at her and finally recognises her as the true bride. As with all good fairy tales, this one ends in a wedding to which strangely enough, the stepsisters are invited. Here the birds systematically peck their eyes out as punishment:
‘And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived’
And those are the last lines of the story. And they all lived happily ever after?
Father: Often the father is written as absent or dead. This version is worse. He allows abuse to happen in his own home and when asked whether he has a third daughter he replies no. He states ‘there is still a little stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the bride.’ Live parents are so unsympathetic.
Cinderella: Cinderella doesn’t have much character. Although she does manage to sneak to and from the festival three times by herself, all we know about her is that she is pious and good. This is entirely the point of course, her piety is what sets her free, but she is just not interesting.
The prince: Not the brightest bulb to say the least. Why can’t the prince character ever recognise the girl he has danced with all night (and in this case for three nights)? He functions more as a device to rescue Cinderella from the situation rather than act as a heroic figure.
Hazel tree: The Hazel Branch is a legend from Children’s and Household Tales, and describes how this branch can protect against snakes. In Celtic lore hazelnuts are believed to give wisdom and inspiration.
Piety: The story opens with Cinderella’s dying mother telling her to be ‘good and pious’ and then God will protect her. This version definitely supports the idea that her inherent goodness allows her to escape her situation.
Magical tears: I think Christian piety has a role to play here too. Cinderella cries and prays over the grave daily and that allows the hazel branch to become a tree.
Magical animals: The birds are the real MVPs in this tale. They help Cinderella with her tasks and are able to conjure dresses out of nowhere and then warn the prince about her stepsisters’ deception. Without these birds, Cinders would still be sweeping ashes.
Happily Ever After?
For Cinderella, yes. She escapes her abusive family (in which no one is redeemable) and gets to lead the cushy life of a Princess from here on out. However the punishment is skewed towards her stepsisters rather than her parents seems a little unfair but neglectful and cruel parents are a staple of fairy tales and I think it’s a modern reading that requires an equal amount of poetic justice.
Featured image is My Cinderella On Disney BG by snowsowhite on Deviantart. All quotes are from the Wordsworth Library Collection of The Complete Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm.