Cinderella is one of the most recognized stories around the world. The themes from the story appear in the folklore of many cultures. Sources disagree about how many versions of the tale exist, with numbers conservatively ranging from 345 to over 1,500. The tale has its own Aarne Thompson classification which is 510A. The tale always centers around a kind, but persecuted heroine who suffers at the hands of her family after the death of her mother, except when her birth mother is one of her persecuters. Her father is either absent or neglectful, depending on the version. The heroine has a magical guardian who helps her triumph over her persecuters and achieve a wealthy marriage. The guardian is sometimes a representative of the heroine's dead mother. Most of the tales include an epiphany sparked by an article of clothing (usually a shoe) that causes the heroine to be recognized for her true worth.
Inarguably, the most familiar Cinderella tale is the one published by Charles Perrault in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697. When most people think of Cinderella, a version of Perrault’s tale is the one they imagine.
A young woman is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, forced to work as their servant, and usually called by a name associated with ashes or dirty labor. When the stepsisters and the stepmother are invited to a ball (or leave to attend church), they assign an impossible task to Cinderella to prevent her attendance. Usually animals complete the task for her while she receives beautiful clothes from a fairy godmother or other magical helper. She attends the ball (or church) incognito where the prince falls in love with her. She must leave early before her magical accoutrements disappear or her identity is discovered. The same occurs a second and third time with Cinderella losing a shoe as she runs away the third night. The prince acquires the shoe and declares he will wed the woman it fits. Everyone unsuccessfully tries the shoe, including the stepsisters who mangle their feet trying to make it fit, until Cinderella is finally discovered and compelled to try on the shoe. When it fits, she and the prince are married.
There are several ancient myths and stories which include a few Cinderella motifs, but there are not many easily recognizable Cinderellas in the mix. At this time, one of the best published discussions about Cinderella in antiquity can be found in Graham Anderson’s book, Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000). Some of the best candidates for earliest Cinderella include Egypt’s Rhodopis, Greece’s Aspasia, and the Jewish Asenath (or Aseneth).
Rhodopis, an Egyptian tale, is popularly labeled the earliest or first Cinderella story. The tale was first recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the first century BC/AD and is generally considered to be loosely based upon a real person written about by Herodotus five hundred years before Strabo.
The story of Yeh-hsien, also known as Yeh-Shen and Sheh Hsien, is the oldest known Cinderella tale recorded in China. It appears in Yu Yang Tsa Tsu (Miscellany of Forgotten Lore) written by Tuan Ch’êng-shih around 856-860 AD. The tone of the story implies that its readers and listeners were already well-acquainted with the story by the time it was written down. There is no fairy godmother in this earliest known version. A magical fish is Yeh-shen's helper instead. However, a golden shoe is used to identify Yeh-shen to the prince who wants to marry her.
A discussion of Cinderella during the European Middle Ages and early Renaissance warrants a book of its own, for the stories are long, ranging from epics to ballads to legends of saints. The similarities are intriguing although they can be elusive to the casual reader. A discussion of medieval Cinderellas can be found in Cox’s preface to Cinderella accompanied by references to medieval literature throughout her notes in the book. Other studies dwell more on Cinderlads than Cinderellas. Much of the discussion of medieval Cinderellas centers around stories of unnatural fathers—those who want to marry their daughters, an ATU 510B motif—which were not uncommon during this era, especially in saint legends. One of the most comprehensive listings with brief discussions can be found on the internet at the Cinderella Bibliography by Russell A. Peck in the Medieval section.
Although not generally labeled a Cinderella tale, Marie de France’s “The Lay of the Ash Tree” (Le Fresne), from the late 12th century has been frequently compared to the Cinderella Cycle. The story serves as a literary bridge between the ancient tales and those which surfaced during the Renaissance.
Lo cunto de li cunti, overo Lo trattenemiento de ‘peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), also familiarly known as Il Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile was first published posthumously in 1634-6. The book is a collection of fifty tales told within a framework story. Many of the tales are early literary versions of popular fairy tales, two of which are part of the Cinderella Cycle, namely The Cat Cinderella (Day 1, Tale 6) and The She Bear (Day 2, Tale 6). The Cat Cinderella is notable for its murderous, conniving Cinderella, a far cry from the virtuous innocent we know so well. Despite the title’s implications, the book was not intended for a child audience but rather conveyed the “low class” or folkloric entertainment the tales emulated.
Charles Perrault’s influence over the popularity of Cinderella cannot be overstated. His fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage, and glass slippers have inspired countless renditions of the tale in print, theatre, music, and art since its publication.
While we can only conjecture about which oral and literary versions of Cinderella inspired Perrault, there is no doubt he left his literary stamp on the tale when he published it for the first time in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697. Perrault, influenced by the French salons and the fairy tale writers of the late seventeenth century, added descriptive flourishes, romance, and humor to the story.
While the events in his tale are not unique, Perrault most likely invented the glass slipper—there is no trace of it before his version—perhaps as an ironic device since it is a fragile thing and perhaps as simply genius creative license for it has become the iconic symbol of the fairy tale, even surpassing Perrault’s transformed pumpkin carriage as shorthand for the story. The glass slipper has been the cause of much speculation and debate over the years, including a prevalent, albeit erroneous theory, that the glass was a mistake, a confusion between the French verre (glass) and vair (squirrel fur), since fur slippers are not as fantastical, but altogether realistic. In 1841, Honoré de Balzac popularized, perhaps even created the theory, and it has remained popular ever since despite many inherent issues within it, such as its dismissal of Perrault’s own adept literacy. The theory also negates Perrault’s interest in the fantastic and magical, discounting his brilliant creativity. Although the translation error theory has been dismissed by scholars since the 19th century, it continues to appear in popular media all too often today.
Perhaps the most regrettable element of Perrault’s Cinderella is her level of passivity. The known Cinderellas that preceded her were less passive, as are most of the lesser known variants from all around Europe which postdate her. His Cinderella is rewarded for practicing goodness, obedience, and patience by primarily waiting to be rescued, often in tears. She does little else to help herself. Her character has served as a rallying point for modern audiences who want to label fairy tales as anti-feminist or teaching outdated values for women. And yet the majority rules, so Cinderella, in this iteration, remains the most popular when there are literally hundreds of others to choose instead.
Perrault’s fairy godmother is also his own interpretation of the magic helper, not a unique invention, but another element dosed with his storytelling flair, one certainly rounded out by the French literary salons he frequented, especially that of his niece Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon and her friends, including Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy. Both of these women wrote tales with Cinderella motifs, “The Discreet Princess; or the Adventures of Finette” and “Finette Cendron.” All of these tales were originally published within a few years of each other, but their exact timelines and the extent of the collaborations between the authors are unknown. However, their existence illustrates the popularity of the Cinderella motifs during this period in history.
Germany is the country of the Brothers Grimm and their Kinder- und Hausmärchen, one of the best known fairy tale collections in the world. While the influence of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm upon fairy tales and folklore is immeasurable, their Cinderellas are somewhat less familiar than those of Perrault. Their Aschenputtel is beloved by those familiar with it, perhaps as an antidote to Perrault’s version. Aschenputtel has a strong resemblance to other European versions from the region with a tree planted on her mother's grave and doves that serve as the magical helpers who represent the deceased mother, instead of a fairy godmother. At the end, the stepsisters' eyes are pecked by birds from the tree to punish them for their cruelty. Perrault's version is considerably more forgiving than this version.Their version is really a composite of several similar tales they collected from tellers as well as literary sources.
In modern times, the tale of Cinderella has inspired countless picture books, musicals, novels, and dreams of little girls. I have included some of the versions on the Tales Similar to Cinderella Page. Versions of the tale have been collected and printed from Egypt, Vietnam, Japan, Chile, and the Algonquin Indians, to name a few.
I also recommend these three external sites for additional information about the tale:
Cinderella Project at the University of Southern Mississippi
Cinderella Stories collected by D. L. Ashliman
Cinderella Bibliography by Russell A. Peck
Cinderella Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass by Terri Windling
(no external link available at this time)
Editorial note: Cinderella's continuing popularity is evident through the SurLaLune website. The Cinderella area of the site receives over twice as many visitors as any other tale on a daily basis.