Despite its quirky elements, this tale has endured in popularity since it first was recorded two thousand years ago. That original story was Rhodopis, etched into record by the Greek historian Strabo in the 1st century B.C., about a Greek slave girl who loses a shoe when an eagle snatches it and drops it into the lap of a king. The king searches for the owner of the shoe and marries her.
Since then, the kernel of the Cinderella myth has enjoyed hundreds, if not thousands, of versions—from classic folk tales to ballets and opera, from musicals to movies. It’s been parodied and deconstructed (i.e. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s dubious Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella); it’s been a G-rated animated bit of Disney confection, and a violent fairy tale in other parts of the world. Almost every culture has its own version, and because the myth is handily adaptable by any culture, it has endured like perhaps no other fairy tale in history.
Perhaps the second-oldest recorded story employing Cinderella archetypes was Yeh-Shen, a Chinese fairy tale from the 9th century. A younger daughter (Yeh-Shen) is forced to work as a servant after the death of her father, but is befriended by a magic fish. The fish is killed by her cruel stepmother, but Yeh-Shen uses its bones to conjure magic—including a beautiful gown and golden slippers to wear to a New Year’s ball. She meets the prince and after much searching, he finds and rescues her.
One of the earliest European versions was Cenerentola, by Giambattista Basile, was published in 1634. Cenerentola is a young girl badly used by a wicked stepmother and stepsisters, and it features magical transformations, a missing slipper, and search by a prince.
Charles Perrault is believed to be the author, in the 1690s, of our “modern” 300-year-old Cinderella, the French Cendrillon. Written in 1697, it was enormously popular, thanks no doubt to Perrault’s addition of such magical elements as the transmogrifying pumpkin, the fairy godmother and the iconic glass slippers. In the end, the wicked stepsisters are forgiven, but their fate is not as benign in other versions.
Another popular telling, “Aschenputtel,” came from 19th century Germany by the Brothers Grimm, where the magic is wrought by a wishing tree and a white dove, not by a fairy godmother. The virtuous daughter is given the name of “Aschenputtel” (Ash Fool) by her cruel stepsisters—who are ultimately neither forgiven nor allowed to go their merry way. The sisters try cutting off parts of their feet to squeeze into the glass slipper, with the dripping blood give away their treachery. Not content with mere maiming, the Grimm brothers’ white dove blinds the sisters after the wedding. Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods also employs this gruesome element.
Perhaps more gruesome still are international versions of Cinderella that only bear passing resemblance to the English language standard. In the Vietnamese version Tam Cam, Tam boils her stepsister alive and then tricks her stepmother into eating her. In a Korean version, Cinderella is drowned in a river by her stepsister, who disguises herself to marry the king. After the king finds out, he puts the stepsister to death and feeds her to the unknowing stepmother. It’s understandable why Disney chose a more benign version of the story when animating his film for children.
Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola borrows from the Perrault version but blazes its own path, doing away with the wicked stepmother role, and instead installing a wicked stepfather as the antagonist. There is little violence but amusing interplay in various scenes involving mistaken identity. No one perishes in the end, and all is forgiven.
As the Cinderella story landed in the latter half of the 20th century, it received some makeovers. A 1978 TV musical Cindy was set in Harlem and featured an all-black cast, with songs that reflected the era’s racial and cultural struggles. The 1998 film Ever After starred Drew Barrymore and allowed Cinderella to be strong-willed, intelligent and well-read—not passively waiting for rescue. And 2004’s A Cinderella Story, starring Hillary Duff, has achieved cult status by breaking so firmly with the fairy tale’s elements: she outwits her foes while realizing her dream of a higher level of education to change her life situation.
Cinderella may graduate or marry, and evolve over time, but to those of us who have loved the fairy tale in all its incarnations since we were children, her story is timeless.