As a new film version of one of the most famous fairy tales of all time is about to hit cinema screens, Blufashion has investigated the origins and many versions of this wonderful story.
The famous fairy tale of Cinderella is best known for the film made by Walt Disney in 1950, which in turn is based on the story penned by Charles Perrault. But in fact, there are many versions of the Cinderella story—some with particularly gory details—and they come from very, very far away.
It is most likely from ancient Egypt or China, and people from various time periods have told and retold it over the years. However, the theme of the justice of destiny is common to all versions, and Cinderella’s tale is one of recompense and of a dream that interrupts a life of misery and oppression.
Here is the history and evolution of one of the most popular fairy tales in the world.
At the Pharaoh’s Court
The oldest known version has been traced back to Egypt during the XVI Dynasty, and the ancient Egyptian tale of Rhodopis (or Rhodope) is considered to be the oldest literary Cinderella archetype.
In this ancient version, Rhodopis (or “pink cheeks”) is a beautiful foreign slave with light skin. The other slaves make fun of and mock the young girl while forcing her to perform all of the most humiliating work. One day, the Pharaoh invites the populace to a great feast, but the slaves stop Rhodopis from joining.
The god Horus, appearing as a falcon, steals the poor girl’s slipper while she is doing laundry by the river and drops it into the Pharaoh’s lap, seducing him with the incident’s divine nature.
He then goes in search of its owner, and after many attempts, he reaches Rhodopis and takes her as his wife.
The Tiny Foot: A Chinese Legacy
Around the ninth century, the character can be traced to China in the story of Ye Xian (or Yeh-Shen). One of the elements passed on from this Chinese version is the protagonist’s minute feet, a sign of nobility and prestige in Chinese culture.
Ye Xian is an orphan who finds comfort in a friendship with a beautiful fish, who is actually the reincarnation of her mother’s spirit.
Her stepmother kills and consumes the fish, but the hero buries its bones, which later transform into lovely clothing, jewelry, and a pair of golden sandals that Ye Xian wears to attend the significant annual spring festival.
One of the sandals ends up in the hands of the king of a nearby country, who, drawn in by the shoe’s diminutive size, seeks out the girl and marries her.
The ancient Chinese fable emphasizes the fact that the protagonist has “the smallest feet in the kingdom”, and in the later versions that lost this premise, the prince’s motive for trying to find just one girl who can wear the shoe becomes unclear.
The Italian Origins
Giambattista Basile is the author of a collection of stories, Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Tale of Tales or the Entertainment of Children, also known as the Pentamerone), from 1634–1636, which contains many fairy tales that later became famous through subsequent reworkings.
The story that Basile told, titled La Gatta Cenerentola (The Cinderella Cat), served as one of the sources (or the main source) of inspiration for Charles Perrault when he created his own well-known version.
In Basile’s story, the heroine, called Zezolla, is persuaded to kill her stepmother by her embroidery teacher, breaking her neck by slamming a large chest on her head.
Zezolla’s father then marries the embroidery teacher, who proves even worse than the first stepmother, relegating Zezolla to the role of servant and giving her the nickname Cinderella Cat.
Perrault’s Regal Version
Charles Perrault (1628–1703) was a learned scholar and author of The Tales of Mother Goose (Contes de ma mère l’Oye), a small collection of eleven fables, including Little Red Riding Hood and The Sleeping Beauty.
Perrault’s version is the best known, not least because it went on to form the basis of the Disney movie. As an intellectual at the court of the King of France, Perrault purged Basile’s version of it of its crude, violent aspects in order to make it more suitable to the refined and elegant climate he found himself in.
Perrault’s Cinderella has the qualities of a queen: she is sober, temperate, and kind-hearted, bearing her misfortunes with patience and eventually forgiving her tormentors.
Only in this version (and in that of Disney) is the shoe made of crystal, a detail that may have been the result of confusion between two French words with similar pronunciations: “veire” (vair, fur from a small ermine-like rodent used in shoes) and “verre” (glass).
The Bloody Gaze of the Brothers Grimm
The story, according to the Brothers Grimm and Aschenputtel, dates back to 1812. The Cinderella in this adaptation is noticeably more human and lacks the noble dignity of Perrault’s counterpart. She frequently laments her situation, cries, and makes demands.
The ending is also completely different, as the greater need for justice is expressed in the reward of the innocently persecuted girl and the harsh punishment of the guilty sisters.
Other differences from the Perrault’s version are as follows:
- The stepsisters are beautiful but with “ugly hearts.”
- The prince tries to stop Cinderella from running away by smearing the staircase of the royal palace with tar.
- The spirit of her mother appears in the form of a hazel tree.
- Cinderella goes to the ball for three nights.
- The shoe she loses as she flees on the third night is made of gold.
In this version, the stepsisters are taught a brutal lesson: they first mutilate their feet in an attempt to make the shoe fit, and then, during the wedding between Cinderella and the prince, doves pluck out both their eyes to punish them for their wickedness.
Cinderella: Disney’s Masterpiece
The animated film from 1950 is based on Perrault’s version and is the most elegant and dreamy retelling of the story. In the Disney movie, Cinderella is a twenty-year-old girl who is beautiful, humble, and selfless.
Cinderella only attends the ball once in Disney’s telling of the story, as opposed to twice or three times in Perrault and the Grimms’ versions.
Moreover, the mice, which are so characteristic of the Disney version, have a very marginal role in that by Perrault and only appear when the pumpkin is transformed.
The ending has been sweetened in comparison to other alternatives, as after discovering that the shoe belongs to Cinderella, the prince marries her, but there is no punishment for her stepmother and stepsisters.
A Flesh and Bone Cinderella
This March will see the release of a live action version of the Disney animation directed by Kenneth Branagh. It will star Lily James (from Downton Abbey) in the role of the unfortunate orphan, Richard Madden (from Game of Thrones) in the role of the prince, Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.
Following a precedent already established in Maleficent, these new versions explore developments closer to contemporary sensibilities: “The film features an evolution that affects all the characters, reminding us that existence can’t just be seen in black and white,” says Branagh.
We eagerly await the arrival of this new Cinderella on cinema screens to find out what else this ancient story has in store.
This story first appeared on Swide by Jonathan Bazzi Art & Culture; Contributor.
Iskra Banović is our seasoned Editor-in-Chief at BlueFashion. She has been steering the website’s content and editorial direction since 2013. With a rich background in fashion design, Iskra’s expertise spans across fashion, interior design, beauty, lifestyle, travel, and culture.