image: Arthur Rackham, 1917
ON A GORGEOUS SPRING day in upstate New York, my friend and I sat in a patch of clover and listened to our four-year-old children play. “I have too many chores,” her daughter was saying to my son. “I can’t go to the ball.”
“I want to be Cinderella,” my son said.
“No. I am. You can be a bird, and help me.”
My friend explained that her daughter was obsessed with the tale of Cinderella, and that they had read the Brothers Grimm version together many, many times.
“Do you read her the part where one stepsister cuts off her toe to fit into the slipper, and the other slices off her heel?” I asked.
“Oh, that part.”
I gathered the answer was no. I have taught fairy tales for several years, so I know the goriest details in several different versions of the Cinderella story, including in “Donkeyskin,” Charles Perrault’s unsettling tale of a princess driven into servitude by the threat of an incestuous father. I told my friend how, in “Donkeyskin,” the feminine accessory that proves the identity of the prince’s true love is not a slipper, but a ring that every woman in the kingdom tries to fit, even if it means shaving off the finger’s flesh until it hits bone.
Whether we think of Disney’s blonde beauty and her pumpkin carriage or Marissa Meyer’s recent recasting of Cinderella as a cyborg in the young adult novel Cinder, we know that there are countless modern retellings of the tale. We recognize a Cinderella story instantly, spotting the ordinary girl who deserves to be a princess in Twilight, and even in that book’s fanfiction offspring, the erotica novel Fifty Shades of Grey. On top of the many modern retellings, there are also a myriad of older versions that we might consider templates: not only Grimm’s “Aschenputtl” (published 1812), but also the Chinese “Yeh-hsien” (recorded circa 850), and Giambattista Basile’s Italian “Cerentola” (published 1634). Any consideration of the story we call “Cinderella” for simplicity’s sake must acknowledge that Cinderella has had a dizzying array of personae over hundreds of years, in several cultures. There is no one authoritative tale of Cinderella, only a hall of mirrors with a different face in each reflection.
One theme that older versions have in common, however, is the cultivation of a strong affinity between the main character and nature. In “Yeh-hsien,” the protagonist is given dresses and jewels by the magic bones of her pet fish. Another Chinese version of the tale, Lin Lan’s “Three Wishes,” portrays women...read more