Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Cinderella Stories

Rossini’s terrific opera La Cenerentola is a Cinderella-story like none other. Those who are only familiar with Disney’s Cinderella may find Rossini’s story a bit strange—there’s no fairy godmother, no wicked stepmother no magic, not even a glass slipper. And Rossini is far more interested in the Prince, and the character’s need to find a woman who loves him for himself and not for his riches and rank, than Disney. (The psychology of Rossini’s story, with its nobility slumming it, has much more in common with Disney’s Aladdin than its Cinderella!) But Rossini’s story, written by his friend Jacopo Ferretti, is one of the best bel canto opera librettos, and a perfectly intriguing Cinderella-story.

Scholars in Rossini’s day were delighted to discover that the same stories appeared over and over again in cultures all around the world. People import stories and literature; plus, the really great stories, the ones that express human truths common to all people everywhere, develop simultaneously. Out of the hundreds of versions of the Cinderella story, here are summaries of a few of my own favorites. What are the simple human truths shared by all these versions of the story?

The Charles Perrault Version (France, late 1600s; image: Gustav Doré)

A young woman's father takes on a second wife, a spiteful, scornful woman with two equally nasty daughters, who are as ugly as they are hateful. The new ladies of the house mistreat the heroine, forcing her to cook and clean and calling her names such as “Cendrillon” (Girl of the Cinders, Cinderella). When her stepsisters are invited to an important ball at the palace, Cinderella wishes she could come too; and behold! her wish is fulfilled. For her fairy godmother appears, clothes Cinderella in a fine dress with glass slippers, and turns a pumpkin into a carriage so that Cindrella can make a grand appearance. The prince falls madly in love with her, but she dashes away at the stroke of midnight, afraid that her magic costume will disappear and he will see her as she really is. She leaves him with one of her glass slippers. The prince visits all the young ladies in the country, and recognizes Cinderella because hers is the only foot which will fit the glass slipper. They are married and live happily ever after.

The Brothers Grimm Version (Germany, early 1800s)
Charles Perrault adapted and sanitized a more earthy, brutal fairy-tale which made it into the Brothers Grimm collection in the early years of the nineteenth century. In the German version of the story, Cinderella (“Aschenputtel” auf Deutsch) is accustomed to escaping from the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsisters by visiting the grave of her mother. She plants a twig near the grave, and waters it with her tears until it grows into a beautiful tree. The birds who inhabit the tree befriend Cinderella and help her out.

For example, when Cinderella's stepmother tells Cinderella she must separate some beans and ashes which have been mixed together, the birds fly down and perform this brainless task in a second. The birds give Cinderella her beautiful ball gown, and they help her get her prince as well. When the prince visits Cinderella's home to test the golden slipper on Cindrella's stepsisters, each sister in turn chops off part of her foot so that it can fit into the slipper. Both times, the chattering birds direct the prince's attention to the blood gushing out of his fiancée's slipper, and this gruesome spectacle indicates, in each case, that this woman is not the predestined bride. At the end of the story, when the prince marries Cinderella, the birds fly down and peck out the eyes of the wicked step-sisters.

In Into the Woods, the brilliant fairy-tale musical from 1986, Sondheim and Lapine include the Grimm scene of the step-sisters being blinded by the birds. Image credit: mbrocious.wordpress.com

Rhodopis (Ancient Egypt)

The world’s oldest written Cinderella story dates back to classical antiquity; it was written down by a Greek geographer who was a contemporary of Julius Caesar and Jesus, and seems to take place five centuries before that, during the heyday of ancient Athens. Rhodopis (the name means “rosy-cheeked”), our Cinderella character in this story, was a Greek maiden, kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in Egypt. Her master, a kindly, ineffectual old man, admires her dancing and gives her a pair of rose-red golden slippers, oblivious to the fact his gift only makes Rhodopis even more unpopular among the other servants and slaves in the household. They prevent her from attending a great festival in Memphis, the capitol; instead, she must do all the chores. She is washing clothes down on the banks of the Nile when a falcon, the god Horus in disguise, swoops down and flies off with one of her slippers. The falcon flies to the celebration and drops the slipper in the Pharaoh’s lap. So the Pharaoh takes it as a sign from on high and a clue to whom he should marry. He tries the slipper on every maiden in all Egypt, including Cinderella’s unpleasant fellow slaves, and when it fits Rhodopis’ foot, she becomes his bride. (Illustration credit: Jillian Gillian)

Yè Xiàn (Medieval China)

This version of the story, written down around 850 A.D., tells of a much earlier time, when people lived in caves along the Pacific coast of what is now China. The painting is by Janet Goodchild-Cuffley.

A girl named Yè Xiàn loses her father and is raised by her abusive step-mother. The girl takes pity on a beautiful fish she finds one day, and under her care the fish grows bigger and bigger and more and more beautiful. But one day, Yè Xiàn's stepmother kills the fish and eats it. A mysterious man appears out of the sky and tells Yè Xiàn that the bones of the fish will grant her wishes. So she wishes for a cloak sewn from feathers and a pair of golden shoes, and wears her new clothes to a festival. When she gets there, however, she runs into her stepmother, who had told her to stay behind and guard the fruit trees. Yè Xiàn flees so quickly she leaves behind one of her golden shoes. The missing shoe comes to the attention of the ruler of a nearby kingdom, who is astonished by how small it is. (In this culture, women were supposed to have dainty little feet. Sometimes they mutilated their own bodies in pursuit of this ideal.) He has his men find Yè Xiàn and bring her to him, and he makes her his chief wife. Her stepmother and stepsister are killed by a rain of fiery stones. Their burial ground becomes a holy place, and it is said that a young man who prays at this spot will marry the woman he most desires.

The Rough-Faced Girl (Algonquin)

An Algonquin chief had three daughters. The eldest was spiteful and nasty and liked to torture her youngest sister. She burnt her sister's hands, feet, and face with hot cinders so frequently people called the youngest sister "the Rough-Faced Girl" after the many scars on her face. The three sisters heard tell of an invisible man who lived in a lodge by the shore of the lake. The man, it was said, would marry any girl who could see him. The two elder sisters decided to try their luck; they dressed in their finest clothes and introduced themselves to the invisible man's sister, who was the only person in the world who could see him. She took them down to the lakeshore, and when he appeared, she asked the girls if they could see her brother. "Of course," they said. "What is his shoulder strap made of?" she asked. "A piece of rawhide," answered the eldest sister. And with that, she knew they were lying and sent them home. The next day, the Rough-Faced Girl made herself some clothes out of sheets of birch bark, took a pair of her father's moccasins, and went to meet the invisible man. The people in her village gave the ugly creature a hard time, but the invisible man's sister welcomed her and took her down to the lake to meet her brother. "Do you see him?" she asked, when he appeared. "I do, indeed– and he is wonderful!" she answered. "And what is his sled-string?" asked the sister. "It is the Rainbow," replied the Rough-Faced Girl. "And what is his bow-string?" "It is the Spirit's Road—the Milky Way." "So you have seen him," said the invisible man's sister. She took the Rough-Faced Girl home and bathed her, and suddenly all the scars were washed away from her body, her hair grew out again, and she was more beautiful than any other woman. When the invisible one entered the wigwam, the Rough-Faced Girl, rough-faced no longer, was waiting for him, and he took her to wife. (Rafe Martin's beautiful retelling of this story is available at http://www.amazon.com/Rough-Face-Girl-Rafe-Martin/dp/0698116267.)

Vasilissa the Beautiful (Russian)

A Russian fairy-story (illustration, right, by Ivan Bilibin) tells of a girl named Vasilissa, whose dying mother blesses her and gives her an enchanted doll that responds to food, drink, and gentle words. Vasilissa's father remarries, and the new stepmother forces Vasilissa to perform hard labor, in the hopes of breaking Vasilissa's spirit and desecrating her beauty. But Vasilissa is helped by her magic doll, and she remains beautiful while her stepmother and step-sisters grow uglier and uglier. When Vasilissa's father leaves the kingdom on a business trip, the wicked stepmother sends Vasilissa into the forest to ask the evil witch Baba Yaga for some fire. (Baba Yaga, a popular figure in Russian folk tales, is a cannibal who lives in a but that stands on chicken legs. The Dawn, the Sun, and the Evening are her servants, and she rides through the forest in a mortar and pestle, a kitchen appliance used to grind up herbs.)

Baba Yaga keeps Vasilissa with her for three days; each day the witch threatens to eat Vasilissa if she fails to perform some impossible task. The magic doll helps Vasilissa, and eventually the witch lets her go. She gives Vasilissa a glowing skull, which sets fire to Vasilissa's wicked stepmother and her step-sisters. All three burn up, but Vasilissa escapes unharmed. She moves in with an older seamstress, learns the old lady's craft, and becomes the greatest weaver in the world. She sews a shirt so beautiful that it is fit to be worn only by the Tsar himself. When the Tsar sees the shirt, he falls in love with Vasilissa; they are married, and Vasilissa's father, who has returned from across the sea, marries Vasilissa's friend the old seamstress.

Pretty Woman (Modern Hollywood)

Billed as a modem retelling of the Cinderella story, this film (Photo credit: PR Photos, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc) centers around the relationship between a beautiful prostitute, Vivian, and a wealthy executive, Edward. Finding himself completely unable to love any woman, Edward hires Vivian as a female escort, to appear at social gatherings with him and sleep with him for money. A friendly hotel manager, a fairy godfather of sorts, helps Vivian purchase a fancy new wardrobe, and she proceeds to stun everyone in Edward's social circle with her beauty and her happy, carefree personality. (Of course Edward takes her to a performance of Verdi's La traviata, where she has a wonderful experience at her first opera.) By the end of the film Vivian manages to redeem Edward; he gives up his cutthroat career arranging hostile corporate takeovers and enters manufacturing. In the final scene, Edward picks Vivian up in his white limo and the two of them drive off together into the sunset.

If you'd like to share more favorite Cinderella stories, please add them in the comments!

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