Cinderella is one of the most retold stories in modern day, finding its way into every facet of media available. But this story has captivated us for much longer, re-shared throughout many cultures and many mediums.
One of the earliest stories to fit the Cinderella motif was preserved in writing as the mythical story of Aspasia of Phocaea. It tells the tale of a young Greek girl who loses her mother at a young age, and whose father works to bring them out of poverty. She dreams of finding love, but is physically disfigured, and believes that she will never rise above her station. However, after dreaming of Aphrodite, and performing a ritual upon herself, her disfigurement fades away to show her true beauty. With new confidence, she attends a ball held by Cyrus the Younger (a Persian Prince and General), who falls in love with her beauty and kindness, and the two are shortly married. This establishes the thematic backbone of the Cinderella story: absentee parents, magical assistance/trial, and the ball where the two lovers meet.
In China, around 850 AD, the poet Duan Chengshi of the Tang Dynasty wrote Ye Xian, who is the daughter of a chief who dies and leaves Ye Xian with her stepmother and stepsister. Her stepmother forces her to wait on the mother and daughter hand-and-foot. Ye Xian befriends a magical fish, but her stepmother kills the creature to keep her step-daughter subservient. But, following the directions of a mysterious stranger, she finds the fish’s bones and uses them in a ritual to secretly attend an important festival. While there, she loses a slipper, which ends up in the hands of the king of an island nation, who wishes to meet the owner.
The king arrives in Ye Xian’s village and has his men search for the owner, but every time someone tries on the shoe, it changes sizes. He eventually finds Ye Xian, and the two instantly fall in love and marry. This story has all the major themes of the more well-known Cinderella with the unloving family; magical assistance from both the fish bones and mysterious stranger; a festival that Ye Xian desires to attend; and an object used to find her identity, the slipper. These, especially the use of a slipper, will continue into the more modern interpretations of Western European origins.
The agreed-upon beginning of the modern Cinderella is Cenerentola, or The Cat Cinderella from the collection of stories in The Pentameron by Giambattista Basile in the 1630’s. As described in the collection itself:
[The princess] Zezolla is taught by her governess to slay her stepmother, and believing that in persuading her father to marry her teacher she would be well treated and held dear, instead is sent into the kitchen: but, by virtue of the fairies, after passing various adventures, gaineth a king for a spouse.
There are many points that separate this story from the previous iterations. For one, this is the first time that a main character is named some version of Cinderella; in this case being “Cenerentola”, or “Cat Cinderella”; which will be repeated in all later renditions. The magical assistance that Cinderella uses is a magic date tree that she received from a group of helpful fairies, and uses the tree to dress herself quickly in elaborate finery by conjuring fine dresses, and attending a neighboring King’s ball in secret. And, as a final difference, the King is able to recognize Zezolla immediately upon his men bringing her in to try the slipper on, which does not often get repeated in later stories.
What keeps them similar, however, also is important. The main character has a widower father, the new wife has children of her own, and the ‘Cinderella’ is forced to work for the family to earn her keep. She also loses a slipper while leaving on the final night, and it is used to be certain of her identity. It is with Cenerentola that the Cinderella themes become firmly established. In the simplest terms, those themes are:
1) unloving and/or absent parental figures, causing strife at home to push the protagonist to desire change in their life;
2) step-siblings that usurp the attention of the protagonist from the parental figures, possibly forcing them into menial labor to ‘earn their keep’;
3) magical assistance or a trial that proves the protagonist’s worth and gives them the opportunity to find freedom from their home;
4) an event that the protagonist wants to participate in that allows them to meet their future love interest, generally a party or ball;
5) an object used to prove their identity later to their love interest.
From there we shift to Charles Perrault. A French writer, and originator of the Mother Goose Stories, he wrote the tale Cendrillon, ou La Petite Pantoufle de Verre; called Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper in English; in 1697. Perrault’s version is often used when adapting the story, as he created many of the more magical aspects of the character. He keeps the widower father who remarries a woman with multiple children, and who quickly falls into the background of the family as being unwilling to make Cinderella feel welcome in her own family.
He also makes Cinderella be the only name that the character is ever known by, eliminating any previous identity that the character could have had. This story is the originator of the fairy godmother turning a coach into a pumpkin and mice into horses, while also turning a rat into a footman and five lizards into lackeys. It is also where the famous slipper becomes a glass slipper, and the warning of all the magic ending at midnight first occurs.
Perrault takes the time to say how “incomparably gentle and kind” the protagonist is in comparison to her stepfamily, which firmly implants the personality that will be seen in the character in the future, even going so far as to have her be sweet to her step family while at the ball where she meets the prince.
For the final of the molders of the modern Cinderella, we turn to the famous Brothers Grimm of the 1800’s Holy Roman Empire, later Germany. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote their version of Cinderella, called Aschenputtel or more directly The Little Ash Girl, in 1812. Aschenputtel veers away from past versions by being more graphically violent, a hallmark of the Grimm Brothers’ writings that fit with the late-Georgian/early-Victorian era they were in.
Aschenputtel, like with Perrault’s version, implants the idea that Cinderella is “good and pious”. Like with Basile’s version, it is a magic tree that helps Cinderella slip away to the ball, although instead of a date tree it is instead a more applicable European hazel tree that Cinderella planted “[at] her mother’s grave…weeping so bitterly that the tears fell upon it and watered it, and it flourished and became a fine tree.” The Grimm brothers were also the originators of the helpful animal friends, as they assist Cinderella in household chores so that she is able to make it to the ball.
The greatest difference between Grimm and their contemporaries is that Grimm stories did not shy away from more violent plots. When the slipper is being tried on by the stepsisters, their mother, desiring her daughters to marry wealthy and be cared for, hands them a knife and tells them to “cut the toe/ankle off, for when you are Queen you will never have to go on foot.” While this seems to convince the prince for a moment, as he tries to leave with each girl he is alerted that something is amiss by Cinderella’s bird companions calling out to him:
“‘There they go, There they go!
There is blood on her shoe;
The shoe is too small,
-Not the right bride at all!’ ”
The contemporary Cinderella has been adapted in a myriad of ways, but by far the most popular have been through animations, movies, and books. Going through every animated version of Cinderella would be an essay unto itself, but it is important to focus on the most famous one: the 1950 classic by Walt Disney Productions.
Of all the historical versions, it lifts the most from Perrault’s rendition. Leaning heavily into the magical side of the story, it took the fairy godmother, glass slipper, and midnight time limit and immortalized it for future generations, making it often seen as the definitive modern version of the story. It helped bring the themes from centuries back to a new audience, allowing for many creations to follow that might never have existed otherwise. It also helps establish the personality of the Cinderella character: she is kind, ever-helpful and forgiving of those who trespass against her, and this sweet disposition is what earns her the attention of the prince, and freeing her from her cruel home. This solidifies the character as the princess archetype, being kind and well-put-together in all situations, no matter the hardship inflicted on her.
Into the Woods, one of the more recent film adaptations, blends multiple fairy-tale stories together to create a new plot. It clearly leans on the Grimm Brothers’ style, having the step family lose their eyes to vengeful birds and cutting their feet to fit the slipper. This uses the darker style of writing to actually create a hopeful tone, and the realization that what you wish for might not fix all your woes. It also modernizes the old stories to allow for them to be easier to understand. This Cinderella is bolder than other versions, being willing to speak her mind to those around her, and actively seeks her happily ever after that she has earned through hard work and her willingness to still be kind to those around her, no matter how she has been treated.
However, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is one of the most innovative takes on the Cinderella narrative. It keeps all the major themes; cruel stepfamily/absentee parental figures, magical trial, and event to allow the love interests to meet; and adds extra elements that give it originality in the form of the main character being magically forced into obedience instead of simply being humble and pious. While not technically being called Cinderella, Ella of Frell is still the same character that has been established by past stories, a kind heroine that is not broken by the trials she has gone through, and still manages to be gentle to the people around her. She also shows strength of character, in that she uses her ingenuity to get out of situations that other characters might try brute strength, such as in an encounter with hostile ogres. This evolution of the character can be related to many criticisms against Cinderella in the past as her being passive.
Cinderella is an ancient archetype, so why is this story still loved by modern audiences? The most prevalent characteristic that has persevered through each and every adaptation is that the Cinderella character, no matter her hardships and trials, always manages to better her life and achieve happiness without letting what has been done to her destroy her or change who she is at her base.
Cinderella is a story that is fluid, and is able to shift and change as needed with the times. Because the themes are specific but flexible, adaptations can take them and bend them to the shape they need for their story. Each retelling adds something to the personality of the Cinderella character that is passed on to the next version, giving the character more and more agency and drive with each edition. But, at the core, the character still remains a kind and loving soul who gets a happy ending, and a way out of her misfortune.
There is something about the character of Cinderella that is recognizable to us no matter the name or shape that the story takes that reaches out to us and demands notice. The idea that if we are just able to keep ourselves going through hardship without losing our sense of self, we will be able to find our fortune and happy ending, is something capable of transcending time.
Kai Van Ginkel is a Midwesterner who is often seen with a book in hand. A Graduate of College of St. Mary’s with a degree in Writing and Literature, they are an editor with a passion for fairy-tales and the subversion of old stories. They are an Anthology Editor for Lupercalia Press, and can also be found reading and reviewing books at Sleeping Dragon Reviews, or on twitter @KaiVanGinkel
Art by Sako Antonyan, website here
More Reading on the Historical Cinderellas:
Anderson. “The Cinderella Story in Antiquity.”
“Cinderella--Ye Xian--China Ancient and Modern.” slps.org
Charles Perrault. “Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper.” Short Story.
Giambattista Basile. “Sixth Diversion - The Cat Cinderella.”
The Grimms. “Cinderella.” Short Story.