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On 9 August it is National Women’s Day in South Africa. It has historical significance here: women marched to the capitol to protest the pass laws during Apartheid.
Still, it had me thinking about why one day should be set aside to celebrate women. Yes, everyone enjoys a public holiday and whatever celebrations can be thought out. Yet most women live a life of quiet desperation. Much like Cinderella…
Perhaps that is why a Cinderella-type character is so prevalent in folklore?
Cinderella, known in different languages by different names, is the folktale of a young woman who lives in unfortunate circumstances (usually through unjust oppression), that are suddenly changed to be more fortunate (usually through some kind of triumphant reward).
There are hundreds of variants of this folktale. Though the titles and the main characters might be differently named in different languages, Cinderella is the archetypal name in English-language folklore.
It’s a popular story lending its myth-elements, tropes, allusions and plot elements to a variety of modern tales and media. Cinderella has even come to mean someone who has suddenly gone from obscurity and neglect to recognition and success.
Though the oldest European version came from Italy, the most popular was written by Charles Perrault. Disney credited his version as their inspiration for their 1950s animated creation. Glass slipper, fairy godmother and all.
Of course, the Brothers Grimm have their own dark version of this folktale. I like their version better, for a lot of reasons. But mostly that the title character was able to help herself with a bit of magic from nature. Oh, the stepsisters had to cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the shoe… lots of blood. Which of course is gross considering that Cinderella then tries on that selfsame shoe to prove she’s the one…
Check out Into the Woods starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick and even Johnny Depp. It was originally on Broadway and features the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella (among its many storylines).
– Anna Kendrick as Cinderella
Europe doesn’t hold monopoly over the Cinderella folktale. The oldest documented version of the Cinderella folktale comes from China. But there are others too…
The Aarne–Thompson system classifies Cinderella as “the persecuted heroine”. The story of Rhodopis, about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt, is considered the earliest known variant of the “Cinderella” story (published 7 BC), and many variants are known throughout the world.
Cinderella in folktales from around the globe
A version of the story, Ye Xian, appeared in Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang by Duan Chengshi around 860. Here, the hardworking and lovely girl befriends a fish, the reincarnation of her mother, who was killed by her stepmother and sister. Ye Xian saves the bones, which are magic, and they help her dress appropriately for the New Year Festival. When she loses her slipper after being recognized by her stepfamily, the king finds her slipper and falls in love with her (eventually rescuing her from her cruel stepmother).
Indonesia and Malaysia
The Indonesian and Malaysian story Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, are about two girls named Bawang Putih (literally “White Onion”, meaning “garlic”) and Bawang Merah (“Red Onion”). While the two country’s respective versions differ in the exact relationship of the girls and the identity of the protagonist, they have highly similar plot elements. Both have a magical fish as the “fairy godmother” to her daughter, which the antagonist cooks. The heroine then finds the bones and buries them, and over the grave a magical swing appears. The protagonist sits on the swing and sings to make it sway, her song reaching the ears of a passing Prince. The swing is akin to the slipper test, which distinguishes the heroine from her evil sister, and the Prince weds her in the end.
In Indonesia, Bawang Putih is the kind-hearted girl, who suffers at the hands of her evil stepmother and stepsister, Bawang Merah, who is the one that cooks the fish-mother. When the Prince enquires after the singer on the swing, Bawang Merah lies, but is proven false when cannot make the magical swing move. The angry prince forces Bawang Merah and her mother to tell the truth. They then admit that there is another daughter in the house. Bawang Putih comes out and moves the magical swing by her singing. In the end, she and her prince marry and live happily ever after.
In the Malaysian version, it is Bawang Merah and her mother Mak Labu (“Mother Gourd”) who are good, while her half sister Bawang Putih and her mother Mak Kundur (“Mother Wintermelon”) are evil. Both mothers were the wives of a poor man, and upon his death Mak Kundur seized control of the household and forced Mak Labu and Bawang Merah to do all the chores around the house. One day as Mak Labu was fetching water at the well, Mak Kundur pushed her into it, and Mak Labu turns into a gourami. In this version, Mak Kundur killed the fish and fed it to Bawang Merah who learns of her mother’s fishbones in a dream and finds them with the aid of some ants. Bawang Merah gathers the fish bones and buries them in a small grave underneath a tree. When she visits the grave the next day, she is surprised to see that a beautiful swing has appeared from one of the tree’s branches. When Bawang Merah sits in the swing and sings an old lullaby, it magically swings back and forth. In this version, Mak Kundur knows the Prince, and lies when a royal guard enquires after the girl on the swing. Bawang Merah sings and it is she whom the Prince marries at the end of the story.
Another version similar to the Chinese, Malay, and Middle Eastern versions, also exists in the Philippines, known as Mariang Alimango (“Mary the Crab”). María is ill-treated by her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, and she is aided by the spirit of her dead mother that reincarnates as a crab, hence the title. The stepmother discovers the crab and after cooking and eating it, María buries the shell and remains, and her mother’s spirit again returns to serve as her “fairy godmother”. The slipper-test is also present, and María wins the heart of the prince during his coming-of-age celebration.
In the Vietnamese version Tam Cam, Tam is mistreated by both her father’s co-wife and half-sister, who stole her birthright by winning a wager of fishing unjustly proposed by the stepmother. The only fish that was left to her was killed and eaten by her step-family, but its bones served as her protector and guardian, eventually leading her to be the king’s bride during a festival. The protagonist however, turns into the antagonist in part two of the story, by boiling her stepsister alive and then fooling her stepmother into cannibalism by feeding her her own daughter’s flesh.
There is a Korean version named Kongjwi and Patjwi. It deals a story about a kind girl Kongjwi who was constantly abused by her stepmother and stepsister Patjwi. The step-family forces Kongjwi to stay at home while they attend the king’s festival, by asking her to repair a leaking jar. A toad assists with the jar, and an ox brings her clothes for the festival. The motif is same, concerning also a king falling in love with her. But some minor details have changed because this fictional story is taking place in Korea. That includes the slipper’s details and the usual festivals that happen in the Cinderella stories.
West and South Asia
Several different variants of the story appear in the medieval One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights, including “The Second Shaykh’s Story”, “The Eldest Lady’s Tale” and “Abdallah ibn Fadil and His Brothers”, all dealing with the theme of a younger sibling harassed by two jealous elders. In some of these, the siblings are female, while in others, they are male. One of the tales, “Judar and His Brethren”, departs from the happy endings of previous variants and reworks the plot to give it a tragic ending instead, with the younger brother being poisoned by his elder brothers.
Aspects of Cinderella may be derived from the story of Cordelia in Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s Historia Regum Britanniae. Cordelia is the youngest and most virtuous of King Leir of Britain‘s three daughters, however her virtue is such that it will not allow her to lie in flattering her father when he asks, so that he divides up the kingdom between the elder daughters and leaves Cordelia with nothing. Cordelia marries her love, Aganippus, King of the Franks, and flees to Gaul where she and her husband raise an army and depose her wicked sisters who have been misusing their father. Cordelia is finally crowned Queen of Britain. However her reign only lasts five years. The story is famously retold in Shakespeare‘s King Lear, but given a tragic ending.
The Cinderella story as we know it now is largely the product of the simpering 1950 animated Disney film: companionable mice, a fairy godmother who doesn’t question her only ward’s decision to go to a strange party solo, and an incredibly tiny-footed heroine, so miniature in the tootsies I’ve always doubted her ability to stand. The Cinderella story is so enduring that it’s even been remade as a live-action version with Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother, out this March. But, frankly, the filmmakers are missing a trick: if they wanted to seriously pull in theatre goers with a tale of gore, inexplicably helpful foliage, far too many lentils and bird-armies, they should have gone back to the fairytale’s original source — mainly, the Brothers Grimm.
See, in English, Cinderella has two written parents: Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, published in 1697 in his Tales Of Mother Goose (yes, Mother Goose was a dude), and the Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel, which came out in their fairytale compendium of 1812. It’s a popular story across many cultures, with China’s own Yeh-Shen folktale, for instance, replacing the fairy godmother with a fish. One academic’s managed to track down 345 versions of the story, written down and spoken. As a species, it seems, we really like good girls going to balls in disguise.
Go check out the rest of the article – you’ll really get a kick out of it.
Of course, a story is only as good as its villain. In most of the folktales, the antagonist somehow kills the source of the protagonist’s good fortune (the fish, the crab, etc.). But usually the MC is kept in “her place” by the sheer will of the villain (usually the stepmother): think Lady Tremaine in the original Disney version where she locks Cinderella in her room. That woman was absolutely terrifying. Especially those eyes…
Though she was scary then, I think she has a sophisticated grace along with her usual scariness in the newest Disney version of Cinderella. But perhaps that’s just Cate Blanchett being awesome…
In the musical Into the Woods, Prince Charming is a bit of a villain: “I’m charming, not sincere.”
Going from there, I wrote a flash fiction piece alluding to life married to him. Go check out Lights and tell me what you think.
So, Cinderella can be any downtrodden woman who rapidly goes from neglected to beloved? That’s great.
Pretty Woman (starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) is a great modern version of this tale (no magic involved).
Ever After starring Drew Barrymore is always a favourite if you like your stories historical and non-magical.
A Cinderella Story (starring Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray) is a sweet teen movie retelling the tale.
The best book retelling this classic tale I’ve recently read is Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George. The supposed benefactress to the Cinderella-character is really villainous and just plain mean. I enjoyed how the author turned this tale on its head.
And I’m sure there are many other movies, books, musicals and TV shows that have a Cinderella element somewhere.
With that in mind, I decided to try my hand at a Cinderella story without any magic whatsoever.
Usually the Cinderella character has to be saved by a man. The feminist in me decided that this needs to be remedied. Sure she needs saving, but can’t she do it herself? With that in mind, I wrote Just Deserts. I broke this short story up into five chapters of around a thousand words each.
In chapter one, The Shoes, she finds the perfect shoes and catches a glimpse of a man who will change her life. I knew that the Jimmy Choo’s I found were perfect for Kayla – not only are they the Cinderella edition, but they are everything she’ll never normally wear.
In chapter two, Twisted Sisters, her sisters and her relationship with them are shown and the reason for buying the shoes are revealed. Making an entire chapter about her sisters was to show exactly how important they are to her. This chapter gives a glimpse into Kayla’s world.
In chapter three, Magical Make-Over, Kayla goes to a spa to get a make-over so she’ll look her best to showcase her dress. Getting a make-over is standard in all Cinderella stories. Though there’s not much wrong with Kayla, getting pampered is something foreign to her and thus a perfect chapter to see into her head.
In chapter four, A Night to Remember, Kayla goes to the ball. And the night is indeed memorable. And the ball… Well, what’s a ball without a little drama? And music from Boyzone… (Yeah, Kayla and Kieran’s song is “No Matter What”.)
In chapter five, No Matter What, everything in Kayla’s life is resolved. As for the resolution: Kayla had issues that didn’t really need a white knight to sort it out.
I entered Just Deserts into Wattys2016. It climbed the chicklit category to #593 by the 6th of August and has been staying comfortably there ever since.
“Kayla tentatively touched the door handle of the boutique shoe store. She was trembling all over. This was it. This was her big chance. But… She closed her eyes and took a calming breath. No backing out now. She straightened her shoulders, pulled the door open and stepped inside.”
– Just Deserts, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading this tale. Comments can be left here or on Wattpad – I always appreciate feedback. Do you love a good Cinderella story? Can you think of any folktales involving the myth-element of Cinderella that should be added to this article? Do you have a favourite villain in a Cinderella story? Any thoughts on this subject you’d like to share?
*Images not my own. Got them from either pixabay, morguefiles, unsplash or from Google images where they link back to their original sites.*
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