Jul 27, 2010

Fairy Tale Origins - Part XI
Cinderella, Part Two

For part one, go HERE

When someone talks about a “fairy tale ending” they’re almost always referring to the story of Cinderella. How many little girls dream of rising up and becoming a beautiful princess? And who doesn’t want to live happily ever after?

This story has been told across cultures for thousands of years before being made into numerous Hollywood movies. The identity of the Fairy Godmother changes often, and in fact she first showed up in Perrault's version, along with the pumpkin coach and the mice attendants which were all used in the Disney version.

One thing the early versions have in common, is that they revolve around the death of the true mother and the entrance of the wicked step-mother with her own daughters. The step-child is treated like a slave, while the step-sisters live in luxury. There is no fairy godmother to save the day, just the powerful magic of the dead.

Some scholars believe Perrault confused "vair" (an Old French word for "ermine or fur") with "verre" (Old French for "glass") when describing Cinderella’s shoes. Of course a prince looking for the owner of a “glass” slipper is very different from a prince who’s looking for the girl with the perfect “fur” slipper. Perhaps the prince wasn’t so noble after all. Other scholars believe that the tiny glass slipper can be equated to a small vagina, symbolizing virginity and the midnight curfew a taboo on pre-marital sex.

As with most fairy tales, the father is an ambiguous figure at best. Is he so blind that he can’t see what’s being done to his first daughter? Or does he just not want to cause disharmony in his new household? Yet he is the underlying, organizing principle. Without the absent father, there would have been no conflict, and therefore no story, much as in Snow White.

It’s not surprising that the Victorians preferred Perrault’s version of the fairy tale. It was a gentler, more elegant story. Cinderella is more virtuous, and less clearly self-motivated. The step-sisters are not obsessively cruel, merely vain and selfish. Not only does Cinderella forgive them in the end, she also finds husbands for them.

At its heart, Cinderella is a story concerned with relationships between women: between Cinderella and her mother; between the step-mother and her daughters; and between Cinderella and her step-family. It is not to her father that Cinderella turns for help — help must come from another source, such as the mother's ghost or the bones of a fish; a giant stork in a Javanese version; a talking doll in a Russian variant; the king of the frogs in an African version; or from spiders, eagle–women and spirits in Native American renditions.

Like most fairy tales, not only has the story changed subtly over the years, so has the character of Cinderella herself. She began as an intelligent, clever girl who overcame great hardships before she received magical assistance. Even then she needed to keep her wits about her to reach her happily ever after. Unfortunately, by the time Disney made his animated version in 1949, Cinderella had devolved into a long-suffering, passive character who would have been lost without her fairy godmother and little animal friends.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Cinderella fairy tale is the lie it perpetuates in the “happily ever after”. The term “fairy tale” itself has come to refer to a lie or fanciful untruth and Cinderella is no exception. “They lie to us by reducing our dreams to simplistic formulas that empower no one, neither those who wait for Happily Ever After to arrive on the back of a shining white horse, or those who seek it in a pretty face. By contrast, the oldest Ash Girl tales use simple language to tell stories that are not really simple at all. They go to the very heart of truth. They've spoken the truth for a thousand years.” From Terri Windling’s Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass.

We all would like good to triumph, evil be punished, and justice prevail. Our sense of justice and fair play is rewarded in the story of Cinderella. She is treated badly by her step-mother and step-sisters but, though they seem to be in charge and “winning” at the beginning of the story, they are relegated to misery and disappointment at the end. Those who treat others badly do not prosper in fairy tales.

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