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Versions of Cinderella from Around the World

Edie McQueen


Cinderella is one of the most popular and ubiquitous fairy tale characters in the world. Her rags-to-riches triumph materialises again and again in cultures across the globe and all throughout time – with each iteration of the well-known story providing something different for readers to enjoy. Whether she’s meekly enduring her hardships or decapitating ogres in the woods, there’s a version of Cinderella for everyone.


It’s impossible to say how many variants of her story have existed in time, with each new storyteller adding new colouring and texture to the classic tale. Here are just some of the stories falling under the bracket of Cinderella narratives.


Painting of people watching a Cinderella theatre production
McGill Library, Unsplash License

Ye Xian

‘Ye Xian’ is one of the earliest iterations of Cinderella. Hailing from T’ang Dynasty China c.850 AD and taken down by Duan Chengshi, it’s surprisingly close in narrative to its modern counterparts for such an old story. It centres on Ye Xian, daughter of Chief Wu, who is subjugated by one of her father’s other wives, a woman who fears she will outshine her own daughter. Ye Xian’s only friend and confidante is a spectacular fish, who assumes a similar role to the fairy godmothers of more recent times; however, her stepmother kills the fish in a jealous rage. Ye Xian collects the fish’s bones, which are imbued with magic, and which provide the beautiful cloak of kingfisher feathers and the golden slippers that allow her to attend the royal ball. Meeting the king, Ye Xian gets the happy ending that we expect from the Cinderella narrative – and her stepmother? Is stoned to death.


La Gatta Cenerentola

‘La Gatta Cenerentola’ – or ‘The Cat Cinderella’, in English – is an Italian story from the 17th century, written by Giambattista Basile in one of the most influential volumes of European literature: The Pentamarone (The Tale of Tales).


It is a story in two halves – take the second and it would be a pretty standard Cinderella trajectory, where a debased heroine wishes on a date tree at the advice of a fairy for dresses to attend the ball and meet the prince, at which point she loses her overshoe. It’s the first half, lost in succeeding deviations, that sets this story apart from the rest, being closer to the story ‘The Juniper Tree’ than any other Cinderella story. It tells of Zezolla’s first stepmother, who she murders at the advice of Carmosina, her kind Governess. Zezolla’s father then marries Carmosina, who soon forgets Zezolla’s aid in raising her position and morphs into the classic wicked stepmother figure we expect from the story.


The loss of an overshoe as opposed to the slipper itself is an interesting detail as it grounds the story in Southern Italy; specifically, it is one of the elaborate pattens worn by high-ranking ladies at the time, an interesting example of a classic feature of the trajectory, the lost slipper, being reworked to be more culture specific.


Cendrillon

It would be remiss not to include Charles Perrault’s ‘Cendrillon’, the blueprint for modern Cinderella stories, in our list. Published in 1697, it tells the story as a modern audience might expect it – Cinderella is sweet-tempered and submits quietly to her subjugation until, with the help of a fairy godmother and a pumpkin, she’s able to attend the ball and win the heart of the prince.


With so many competing narratives – many of which are more colourful, and which even enjoyed more initial success – it might be assumed that a simple story such as this might have fallen out of fashion. However, it’s that very simplicity that makes it ripe for reinvention, with new creatives able to flesh the story out with new ideas.


Finette Cendron

In the same year, also in France, another influential anthology of fairy tales was being published. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s ‘Conte de Fées’ (‘Book of Fairy Stories’) featured the story ‘Finette Cendron’, known in English as ‘Cunning Cinderella’. It’s a hugely different version of Cinderella to Perrault’s. D’Aulnoy’s heroine is abandoned in the woods with her stepsisters, in an opening that is more reminiscent of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ than what the modern reader might expect from a Cinderella story. Instead of a witch in a gingerbread house, the stepsiblings come across a wicked ogre, and it’s only Cinderella’s smarts that stops them from being eaten up. She beheads the ogre, and the narrative reverts to a more traditional Cinderella trajectory.


The stepsisters – who bully and threaten Cinderella throughout with far more violence than Perrault’s counterparts ever do – assume ownership of the ogre’s house, with Cinderella as their servant. But Cinderella secretly attends the same balls that they do, and the prince falls in love with her. When her slipper is left behind, the stepsisters make the long journey out of the woods to try it on, becoming tired and bedraggled in their efforts. Before they can reach the palace, Cinderella overtakes them on a magical jennet, splattering them with mud and racing off to claim her happy ending.


Aschenputtel

No list of different versions of Cinderella would be complete without a mention of the Brothers Grimm. Their 19th century variant is often one of the first that keen readers, eager to explore narratives outside of mainstream anthologies, will come across; many of us can’t help but delight in the blood and gore that gilds the narrative. The fairy godmother is replaced by a tree grown out of the true mother’s grave, and there are no pumpkins in sight, but otherwise the narrative follows the same sort of trajectory as modern readers might expect.


Despite being known for its violence, the story is still comparatively conservative in its religious themes and passive heroine, especially when explored in contrast with stories such as ‘Finette Cendron’ and ‘La Gatta Cenerentola’. But that doesn’t mean that readers won’t squeal with disgust and delight when the stepsisters mutilate their feet to try and fit in Cinderella’s lost slipper.


Rhodipis

‘Rhodipis’, an Egyptian version of the Cinderella narrative, is another contender for its earliest iteration. Having been taken down by the Greek philosopher and historian Strabo in the first century BCE, it has some – but not all – of the defining features of a Cinderella narrative. It’s a short story, focussing on a young woman whose sandal is snatched up by an eagle, who subsequently drops it into the lap of the king. Taken by the strangeness of the occurrence, the king sends men to find the owner of the sandal, who he marries.

The story features perhaps the most famous iconographic moment of the story: that of the slipper test. However, although this narrative predates that of Ye Xian, many scholars consider Ye Xian as the first true Cinderella story, as its narrative is replete with other details that they consider integral to the plot, such as subjugation at the hands of (step)family members and a ball sequence, which the heroine attends in disguise.


The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold

Our final story is the Iraqi tale ‘The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold’. As in Ye Xian, the heroine befriends a magical fish, who aids her throughout the narrative. Instead of a ball, there is a Mehndi party, where a local bride is decorated with henna before her wedding day. The stepmother sends her daughter to go, in the hope that she would be seen by the mothers of handsome sons, but the heroine must stay at home for fear that she would outshine her stepsister. No matter, as her fish helps her to go anyway, and she’s so beautiful that her stepmother can’t recognise her. On her way home, she drops a shoe, which is found by a prince – and the rest is history.


But there’s more to this story. Whereas usually, this point in the narrative would see the stepmother admit defeat, here she intensifies her scheming. Before the wedding, she covers the heroine’s hair in arsenic and lime to make it all fall out, and anoints her with an ointment that smells of carrion. To top it all off, she’s given a strong laxative to ruin her happy ending. But the scheme doesn’t work, and the heroine is merely more beautiful than ever.


Sources

Basile, Giambattista, The Tale of Tales, trans. by Nancy L. Canepa (London: Penguin Classics, 2016)


Carter, Angela ed., Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (Bungay: Virago Press, 2005)


D’Aulnoy, Marie Catherine, The Fairy Tales of Madame D’Aulnoy, Newly Done into English, trans. by Annie Macdonell and Miss Lee (New York: Franklin Classics Trade Press, 2018)


Grimm, Jacob, and Grimm, Wilhelm, The Complete Fairy Tales, trans. by Jack Zipes (London, Vintage, 2007)


Hennard Dutheil de la Rochere, Martine, Lathey, Gillian, and Wozniak, Monika eds., Cinderella Across Cultures: New Directions and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016)


Perrault, Charles, The Complete Fairy Tales, trans. by Christopher Betts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)


Zipes, Jack ed., The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)


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