Thursday, October 10, 2019

Cinderella: Ancient Story, Global Tale

The Rough-Face Girl, (1992) retold by Rafe Martin, tells the Cinderella story of a disfigured Algonquin girl who wins the heart of a mysterious being. Illustration by David Shannon.

By Michelle H. Martin, PhD 

[ You can also listen to a conversation on global Cinderella stories between Dr. Martin and Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean on the Seattle Opera podcast

“Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”—Neil Gaiman, author

When you hear the name Cinderella, do the lyrics “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” come to mind, along with doting mice and a kindly fairy godmother? For many viewers the Disneyfication of this folktale has eclipsed its rich global variations, leaving only a weak and toothless residue of these fascinating age-old stories, some of which would make Disney’s fairy godmother blush.

Cinderella tales, according to folklorist and children’s book writer Judy Sierra, “can be found in more parts of the world, told in more languages and in more different ways than any other folktale.” Estimates range from 350 to over 3,000 variants. The Aarne-Thompson index of tale types identifies two main Cinderella structures: one with a jealous and destructive stepmother, which is most familiar to contemporary audiences; and another featuring a father whose incestuous desire for his daughter after the death of her mother motivates the child to flee.

In “Yeh-hsien” (also spelled “Yeh-Shen”), the ancient Chinese Cinderella, the protagonist’s mother dies and her father remarries two wives, one of whom also dies and returns as a fish that comforts Yeh-hsien. Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas, Victoria & Albert Museum.


Folktales emerged from oral tradition, which makes it difficult to identify “the original version” of any tale, but some scholars consider Greece or China the origination point for Cinderella. Yeh-Hsien, an ancient Chinese Cinderella, was first published in the Tang dynasty. Donkeyskin was written by the 17th century French aristocrat Charles Perrault, who was best known for his Tales of Mother Goose stories.

Yeh-Hsien (also spelled “Yeh-Shen”), an ancient Chinese Cinderella first published in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), exemplifies the first type of Cinderella tale. The protagonist’s mother dies and her father remarries two wives, one of whom also dies and returns as a fish that comforts Yeh-Hsien. Through deceit, the remaining stepmother kills and eats the fish. But a magical being tells Yeh-Hsien to pray to the bones, which grant her riches, such as gold shoes, that enable her to attend the ball—in this story, a cave festival. In the end, Yeh-Hsien marries the prince, and her stepmother and stepsister are “struck by flying stones” and die. As with many folktales, justice for the wicked characters is swift, unforgiving, and final.

Illustration from The Sleeping Beauty and Other Tales from the Old French, drawn by Edmund Dulac, 1910.


Donkeyskin, an example of the alternate Cinderella tale type, was written by the 17th century French aristocrat Charles Perrault (1628– 1703), best known for Tales of Mother Goose (1697). A king obtains his wealth from a donkey that poops gold coins. On her deathbed, the queen makes the king promise to remarry only if he can find a woman more appealing than she… and their daughter is the only one he can find. After attempting to dissuade her father from giving in to his perverse desires, the daughter flees for her life, wearing the skin of her father’s slaughtered magic donkey (hence her nickname). She becomes a scullery maid elsewhere and makes a cake into which she bakes her tiny ring for the prince to find. When other women attempt to fit the ring, one scrapes her finger “as if it were a radish,” another slices off a piece of her finger, and a third uses skin-melting liquid. When only Donkeyskin’s delicate finger fits the ring, she wins the prince. Unlike Yeh-Hsien’s evil stepmother, this lustful, incestuous father avoids death by flying stones. Instead, he sees the error of his ways and attends the wedding.

German folklorists Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1863) collected their own well-known Cinderella variant, Aschenputtel. This protagonist gets her nickname from so often being dirtied by ashes while tending the fire. Her father gives her a branch from a hazel tree which, when it grows, holds a magic white dove. Cinderella plants the tree on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears. Her stepmother dumps lentils into the fire’s ashes and says that only once they’ve all been picked out can Cinderella attend the ball. Birds help her find the lentils, the white dove provides the dress, and off to the ball she goes—until midnight, when she leaves her gold-covered shoe behind. When the stepdaughters try on the shoe, their mother advises one to cut off her toe and the other a piece of her heel, for, “Once you’re queen you won’t need to go on foot anymore.” Each time, the doves reveal the fraud. Cinderella’s foot fits perfectly, and, while the stepsisters attend her wedding, the doves peck out their eyes “so they were punished for their wickedness and malice with blindness for the rest of their lives.” We tend to think of folktales ending with “happily ever after,” but that happiness is generally reserved for the good hearted. The wicked get their proper comeuppance.


In Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1987), the prince appears as a little green garden snake before transforming into a handsome brown-skinned young man, and this story emphasizes the importance of respecting elders and sharing what one has with the less fortunate. Illustration by John Steptoe.

Contemporary renditions offer a kinder, gentler sense of justice and, like their predecessors, comment on their time and culture. For instance, in John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1987), a South African version, the prince appears as a little green garden snake before transforming into a handsome brown-skinned young man; and this story emphasizes the importance of respecting elders and sharing what one has with the less fortunate. In Jouanah, a Hmong Cinderella (1996), Jouanah’s mother asks to be turned into a cow because the family cannot survive without one to plow the fields. When the husband remarries, his cow-wife dies of a broken heart. Culturally-specific items like hot rice soup, a bamboo flute, and embroidered clothing give this story a stronger sense of place than many other Cinderella tales have. This is also true of Robert D. San Souci’s Cendrillon (1998), illustrated by Brian Pinkney, a Caribbean version which includes many French Creole words and traditions of Martinique.

Folktales belong to the public domain and therefore require no permissions for reproducing. Widely known, they are perfect for spoofing and fracturing. Prince Cinders (1987), for instance, features a scruffy male Cinderella whose big, hairy brothers torment and abuse him but get punished by being turned into house fairies. In “Cinderumpelstiltskin” or “The Girl Who Really Blew it,” from John Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992), Rumplestiltskin shows up while Cinderella is crying about not being able to attend the ball and taunts her to guess his name. Cinderella can’t be bothered. But when she tells her stepmother and stepsisters about the little man, they change her name to Cinderumpelstiltskin. These amusing retellings of Cinderella comment on popular culture and keep the tales relevant to their audiences. Nearly every culture in the world has a Cinderella story. In all her variations, Cinderella emphasizes the importance of remaining good hearted and patient even in the face of unfair adversity, and when a magic bird or a fairy godmother fails to intervene, taking the initiative to make the life you seek. As you will see in tonight’s production, Gioachino Rossini and Jacopo Ferretti remain true to these same motifs.

Michelle H. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor for Children and Youth Services and Chair of the Master of Library and Information Science Program in the Information School at the University of Washington, where she teaches current and future Children’s Services librarians. 

Cinderella plays Oct. 19–Nov. 1, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Tickets & info: