Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass

by Terri Windling

Illustration by Jennie Harbour
Once upon a time there was a rich merchant who had a lovely wife and daughter. But the wife died, and in time, the merchant took a second wife. Now this woman was also fair of face, but cruel and hard inside her heart, and she had two wicked daughters whom she favored above all things. She dressed these two in silk and lace and fed them on white cake and cream. Her step–daughter she clothed in rags and fed with scrapings from the bottom of the pot. The child became their scullery girl, and slept in the ashes of the hearth for warmth. She soon grew thin and filthy, and they called her Cinderella. . . .

So begins one of the most famous stories of all time, "Cinderella" (or "Arne–Thompson tale type 510A," as the folklorists note it), a tale which is found in diverse cultures all around the globe. In English–speaking lands, there are few indeed who would not recognize this classic tale. We've all grown up with the wicked step–mother, the cheerless hearth and the slipper of glass; these images have become an indelible part of childhood for us all. Yet the "Cinderella" we know today is subtly altered from the Ash Girl tales handed down for at least a thousand years. Our modern "Cinderella" is a simple (and simple–minded) rags–to–riches story: the tale of a timid, passive girl whose lovely face wins her the "happy ending" of a wealthy marriage. How did the feisty Ash Girl of ages past turn into the feckless creature of the Disney film and countless modern picture books? To examine this, we must go back to the oldest written versions of the story.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by
Edward Burne Jones

The earliest text we know was recorded in China in the 9th century, although the scribe, Tuan Ch'eng Shih, implies that the story is old even at this time. Yeh–hsien, the Chinese Cinderella, is described as "very intelligent, very clever" and "good at making pottery on the wheel." Her mother dies, and then her father as well, leaving her with the father's co–wife and her daughter, both of whom mistreat Yeh–hsien. Her only friend is a magical golden fish, who appears to her in the pond. The step–mother discovers this source of comfort and promptly kills the fish. Yeh–hsien recovers the bones from the dung heap, and hides them in her room. The bones are magic, and the fish continues to help her even after death, providing the food and drink and warmth that Yeh–hsien's family denies her. When the girl is left behind on festival day, the bones provide her with clothes: a cloak of kingfisher feathers and tiny golden shoes. Running home again, the girl loses a shoe. It is picked up and sold to a warlord, who begins a massive search to find the woman the tiny shoe will fit. (This, remember, is a culture in which tiny feet were then so highly prized that the brutal art of foot binding was practiced on highborn women.) Yeh–hsien reveals herself and becomes chief wife in the warlord's household. The step–mother and step–sister are subsequently stoned to death — but their grave, "The Tomb of the Distressed Women," becomes a local shrine.

It is not until many centuries later that the tale makes its written appearance in Europe. Giambattista Basile's Italian "Cat Cinderella," published in Naples in 1634, is one of the earliest extant western versions of the story. Basile's "La Gatta Cenerentola" tells the tale of a rich widower and his lovely daughter, Zezolla. The widower marries a wicked woman who subsequently mistreats the child. Zezolla complains to her beloved governess, who gives the girl the following advice: "When your father leaves the house, tell your step–mother you would like one of the ragged old dresses she keeps in the big chest. She'll open the chest and say, 'Hold the lid.' While she is rummaging around inside, you must let the lid fall suddenly so that it breaks her neck. When she is dead, beg your father to take me for his wife, and then we shall both be happy." Zezolla carries out these rather startling instructions, and her father marries the governess. At this point, the conniving woman reveals she already has six daughters of her own, and then proves to be even more abusive than Zezolla's first step–mother. The girl is reduced to sleeping in the ashes of the hearth along with the kitchen cat, and finally, losing even her name, becomes the Cat Cinderella.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Jennie Harbour

Our heroine is aided by the "fairies of Sardinia," whose favor she gains through her own quick wits. The fairies give her a magic date tree, from which she requests magnificent clothes in order to attend the local feast–day, where she dazzles a neighboring king. On the third feast–day she loses her shoe, and the story continues in a familiar vein — but this Cinderella clearly revels in her cleverness and trickery. It is not a gentle or particularly moral tale, and was never meant for children's ears. Basile recounts "La Gatta Cenerentola" in a prose both earthy and florid, rich with double entendres and filled with the ribald puns so loved by the readers of his day.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Although the Cat Cinderella is the most complete of the old European Ash Girl stories, Straparola and others published earlier tales which partially resembled "Cinderella" as we know it. None of the surviving variants matches the age of the Chinese story above, leading some scholars to speculate that the "original" tale (whatever that might be) must have come from the Orient. Wherever the tale began, it certainly succeeded in spreading itself around the world, adapting from culture to culture, from teller to teller, yet keeping its essence intact. In 1883, English folklorist Marian Roalfe Cox published a compilation of three hundred and forty–five variants of Cinderella (and the related tales Catskin and Cap o' Rushes, as well as "Ash Boy" variants), abstracted and tabulated, with a discussion of medieval analogues. In 1951, Swedish folklorist Anna Birgitta Rooth published her Cinderella Cycle; she drew upon over seven hundred versions of the story. The German version, "Aschenputtel," was recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. It begins with the usual death of the mother and the entry of a wicked new wife and her two daughters into the household. The step–child is sent to live in the kitchen, where she is forced to cook and scrub and is subjected to further abuse. The father goes off to a fair and asks each daughter what present she would like. The step–sisters choose clothes and jewels; Ash Girl asks for the first twig that brushes against his hat. She plants this twig on her mother's grave and it grows, from the bones, into a magical tree. The tree can give her whatever she wishes, but Ash Girl waits, and bides her time. There are no talking mice, no pumpkin coaches, no twinkly little fairy godmothers — just a stoic, clever girl in a cruel household, aided by the potent magic of the dead.

Illustration by Frederick Hall

When the King's ball is announced, Ash Girl boldly asks for permission to go. Her step–mother empties a dish of lentils into the hearth, saying, "First you must pick the lentils out of the ashes within two hours. If you succeed, perhaps you'll go to the ball. If you fail, I'll beat you black and blue." The girl calls down the birds from the sky to come to her aid and finish the work. They do so, and the task is fulfilled, but the step–mother will not relent; she tosses two bowls of lentils into the hearth, saying, "Pick them out again within one hour." The birds come again at the Ash Girl's bidding; she fulfils her task, but to no avail.

Illustration by John Batten

"You're much too filthy and ragged," the step–mother says as she leaves for the ball. Undaunted, Ash Girl requests a golden dress from the tree on her mother's grave. She goes to the ball and dances with the prince, and yet conceals her identity from him (although there has been no magical injunction compelling her to do so). Twice she slips away from him despite his attempts to follow her home. Her father, oddly, makes an appearance here — he suspects her tricks and tries to catch her out, acting enraged, even violent now. The third night the prince resorts to a trick of his own — he covers the stairs with pitch, and one of her silver slippers sticks fast. The Prince proclaims he will marry whichever girl the tiny slipper fits. The first step–sister cannot fit the shoe, until her mother hacks off her big toe. The prince takes her away as his bride, but as they pass the grave the birds cry out: "Look! Look! There's blood in the shoe! The shoe's too small! The right bride is still at home!" Now the second step–sister tries on the shoe, and it fits — once her mother hacks off her heel. Once again the birds warn the prince he has the wrong girl, and he returns and finds Ash Girl at last. The pair are married — while on the wedding day birds peck out the step–sisters' eyes.

Illustration by Batten

Illustration by John Batten

In "Rushen Coatie," a Scottish version of the tale collected one hundred years ago, the dead mother comes back in the form of a cow to feed her starving child — until the suspicious step–sisters discover this and have it killed. The animal's bones retain the potent magic of the dead woman, providing the girl with clothes so that she can go to church and meet her prince (i.e: her ticket, in older societies, to life beyond the family walls). Many versions of the tale throughout the world contain this ghostly element: the bird or cow or cat or hound containing the dead mother's spirit, contrasting the strength of the first mother's love with the second mother's wickedness. Fairy tales, Marina Warner has pointed out (in her brilliant study From the Beast to the Blonde) often reflect the particular conditions of the society in which they are told. "The absent mother," she writes, "can be read as literally that: a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother's successor. . . . When a second wife entered the house, she often found herself and her children in competition — often for scarce resources — with the surviving offspring of the earlier marriage.

Illustration by Dulac

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

"This antipathy seethes in the plots of many 'Cinderellas', sometimes offering an overt critique of social custom. Rossini's Cinderella opera, La Cenerentola, shows worldly–wise indignation at his heroine's plight — in her case, at the hands of her stepfather, Don Magnifico, who plots to make himself rich by marrying off his two other daughters, ignoring Cinderella. Tremendous buffoon he might be, but he treacherously pronounces Cinderella dead when he thinks it will help advance his own interests. And when she protests, he threatens her with violence. Dowries are at issue here, as they were in Italy in Rossini's time; sisters compete for the larger share and Don Magnifico does not want to cut his wherewithal three ways. As it was gradually amassed, such corredo (treasure) was stored in cassoni, which were often decorated with pictures of just such stories as 'Cinderella'."

The Rossini opera is unusual in casting a man in the step–parent role. Yet the primary male in other tales — Cinderella's natural father — is an ambiguous figure at best. "The father," writes Angela Carter (in her story "Ashputtle" or "The Mother's Ghost"), "is a mystery to me. Is he so besotted with his new wife that he cannot see how his daughter is soiled with kitchen refuse and filthy from her ashy bed and always hard at work? If he sensed there was a drama in hand, he was content to leave the entire production to the women for, absent as he might be, always remember that it is his house where Ashputtle sleeps on the cinders, and he is the invisible link that binds both sets of mothers and daughters in their violent equation."

This is a women's story, concerned with relationships between women: between Cinderella and her mother on the one hand, the second wife and her daughters on the other. Yet, as Carter is quick to point out, the father is "the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absent father there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict." In every version of the story I have read, the father casts a remarkably blind eye over the circumstances of his household. He quickly disappears from the story both emotionally and literally. It is not to him that the Ash Girl turns — help must come from another source. From the mother's ghost or the bones of a fish; from a giant stork in a Javanese version; from a talking doll in a Russian variant; from the king of the frogs in an African "Cinderella" collected in Hausaland; from spiders, eagle–women and spirits in Native American renditions.

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