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Fairy Tale Origins Of Cinderella

Updated on April 15, 2018
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Folklorist and a story teller who loves to explore myths from all corners of the world.

Arthur Rackham´s illustration for Cinderella
Arthur Rackham´s illustration for Cinderella

Cinderella the beginning

Cinderella is one of the most well-known fairy tales but did you know that the first version of Cinderella comes from ancient China?

First literal version of the story appeared in China in 823 AD. Writer heard it from his servant who was originally from Vietnam. In this story Cinderella was part of the cave tribe. Living in caves was very common among some ethnic groups in ancient Vietnam. Some of the caves had whole Eco-systems inside them including forests and lakes. According to common custom Cinderella´s father had two wife's. Cinderella´s mother passed away when she was a child and few years after that her father passed away too.

Stepmother and two step-sisters were cruel towards Cinderella and she was forced to work as their servant. One day in despair she was crying by the pond and a giant gold fish started to talk to her. Soon goldfish and Cinderella became good friends. Goldfish was always there to comfort her. One day stepmother saw Cinderella hugging the goldfish and got outraged. She ordered the goldfish to be catch and told the chef to prepare a meal from it. When Cinderella heard that fish had been killed her heart was broken. When she was mourning spirit of the mountain appeared in front of her in the shape of an old man. He told Cinderella to pick the bones of the goldfish and hide them into her room. Whenever she would need something all she had to do was to ask that from the bones and the wish would come true.

Love for shoes

There was a great ball coming and Cinderella asked for gown and shoes. Bones granted her wish and she received a beautiful dress that was made of king fisher´s feathers and tiny delicate golden shoes. Cinderella went to the ball. She had great time there but when she returned to her home she had lost other one of the golden shoes.

One of the men in her tribe found the shoe and admired it´s beauty. Man thought that the king himself would appreciate such a beautiful shoe. So he sailed to the neighbor kingdom and represented the shoe to the king. King was blown away by the beauty of the shoe and ordered all his servants to look for the girl who the shoe would fit. King found Cinderella and asked her hand in marriage and they lived happily ever after.

This fairy tale was written down during Tang-dynasty. There was a cruel custom in China to bind women´s feet still in the end of last century but this story was told way before this custom started. However also in this story comes out the admiration for small feet that the Chinese had.

Cinderella travels to Europe

China was trading with Indonesia, Malaysia and India. From these countries story spread to Europe with merchants. First European version of Cinderella appeared in 1630´s in Naples. Story was rewritten by Italian writer and story teller Giambattista Basile. Cinderella was included in his story collection Il Pentamerone stories for the little ones. Name of the book can be misleading. These stories were rancid and meant only for adults.

Story starts the same way as the Vietnamese fairy tale. Cinderella´s mother dies and father re-marries. Soon she finds out that the stepmother is a horrible woman and she and her governess kill her together. Plot gets thicker when next father marries the governess. New stepmother turns out to be even more cruel than the previous one. She also has two stepsisters who make fun of her and force her to sit by the cinders and that is where she gets her famous name Cinderella.

Charles Perrault´s Cinderella

Most famous version of Cinderella was written by French fairy tale author Charles Perrault. Perrault´s "Cendrillion" appeared in 1697. His version has all the famous elements that we all know so very well from the story of Cinderella: pumpkins, clock striking at midnight and above all glass slipper.

Perrault´s Cinderella is not as violent as Basile´s Cinderella. On the contrary she is overly kind and obedient. When she finally ends up marrying the prince she even finds husbands for her evil stepsisters.

Perrault was the official fairy tale writer in the court of the sun king Ludwig the 14th. France was very Catholic country in the 17th century and all fairy tales needed to have moral lessons and nothing suspicious or unappropriated. Perrault´s writing style is vivid and tells a lot about human nature.

"Was she then so very beautiful? How fortunate you have been! Could I not see her? Ah! dear Miss Charlotte, do lend me your yellow suit of clothes which you wear every day."

"Ay, to be sure!" cried Miss Charlotte; "lend my clothes to such a dirty Cinderwench as thou art! I should be out of my mind to do so."

Cinderella of the Brother´s Grimm

In the beginning of the 19th century Brothers Grimm decided to add Cinderella to their fairy tale collection. Grimm´s hesitated first because they considered Cinderella mainly as a French fairy tale. As a result they made Cinderella more fitting to Germanic fairy tale tradition. Grimm´s Brothers Cinderella was no longer daughter of count but she was a daughter of merchant and they did not live in a town but in the rural country side.

Brother´s Grimm version of Cinderella is dark and sadistic. Stepsisters cut their heels so that the glass slipper would fit and during Cinderella´s wedding white doves fly down from the heavens and pick stepsisters eyes turning them blind for the rest of their miserable lives.

Cinderella in folk tales

Folk tale means a story that has been told orally by generation after generation. In many cultures folk tales can be based on myths and legends but what it comes to some of the world´s most famous fairy tales they have also become folk tales. From Europe alone one can find over 500 folk tale versions of Cinderella.

Interestingly enough from Finland and from Sweden there are folk tales about male Cinderella who has an evil stepfather and two stepbrothers and he falls in love to a girl who is way above his social status.

Scene where Cinderella gets her iconic dress was Walt Disneys personal favorite animated scene
Scene where Cinderella gets her iconic dress was Walt Disneys personal favorite animated scene

Cinderella on the big screen

There are over 100 film and tv- adaptations made from Cinderella. One of my favorite movie adaptations is Disney animation from 1950. After the second world war Disney animation studios were out of money and near bankrupt. Cinderella was a financial success and helped the studio to get back to it´s feet.

Disney´s Cinderella is based on Charles Perrault´s fairy tale and movie is quite loyal to the story but Cinderella in the animation is not all that obedient as in Perrault´s story. What is interesting in the animation is that in the halfway of the movie viewer starts to see little changes in Cinderella´s character. She is near the breaking point and the signs of rebellion starts to show.

Lady Tremaine is one of the scariest Disney villains. If you watch any sequels of Cinderella you will see that she does not only want to control the life of Cinderella she also wants to control the lives of her own daughters. Lady Tremaine never shows her true feelings. Can it be possible that she doesn´t have any?

In Roger and Hammerstein musical film from 1997 Brandi played the part of Cinderella.
In Roger and Hammerstein musical film from 1997 Brandi played the part of Cinderella.
Drew Barrymore played Danielle in the movie "Ever After". Movie was based on the story of Cinderella and it was one of the most successful films in 1998.
Drew Barrymore played Danielle in the movie "Ever After". Movie was based on the story of Cinderella and it was one of the most successful films in 1998.

Rags to Riches

Cinderella is one of the most beloved fairy tales still today. It has rich visual world. Pumpkins, fairy godmother, talking animals, handsome prince and the glass slipper. Magic in Cinderella is enchanting. Love does not care about your social status or how much money you have in your bank account or even more importantly love doesn´t care if you have terrible family.

We use the phrase "Cinderella story" to describe person´s against-the-odds journey from rags to riches. Cinderella speaks to people because it is a fairy tale that encourages us to dream and to believe in ourselves, to follow one´s heart and maybe someday those dreams can truly come true.

Fairy Tale Origins: Cinderella

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