- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

Imagine, if you will, the elements of the fairy tale: a glass slipper, a pumpkin that turns into an elegant carriage, a beneficent fairy godmother and, at its center, a destitute girl who triumphs over her wicked stepfamily when she is carried off by a gallant prince.

Cinderella, the world’s best-known and most beloved fairy tale, sounds like the purest fantasy. But if it represents nothing but random invention and fantasy, why has the tale emerged so often over so many centuries in so many languages and mediums and cultural traditions?

The Washington Ballet presents choreographer Septime Webre’s new interpretation of Cinderella tonight at the Kennedy Center, but the rendition Americans probably know best is Walt Disney’s full-length animated movie, “Cinderella,” which met with wide acclaim when released in 1950.

However, the story had been around — in many different tongues, in many different variants — long before Hollywood got its mitts on it. In fact, at least 350 tellings of the tale exist, starting with the one recorded by Tuan Ch’eng-shih of China in the middle of the ninth century. Long before he recorded the tale in writing, the people of his day probably knew oral tellings of it.

In Ch’eng-shih’s version, Yeh-shen, the heroine of the Chinese story, doesn’t have a fairy godmother. Instead, she has a magical fish as a helper. The shoe by which the prince identifies her is golden, not glass.

Around 1697, French author Charles Perrault wrote another famous rendition of the rags-to-riches story. Because Perrault’s book “Tales of Mother Goose,” which contains “Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper,” was translated into English before other versions, this is the telling that was destined to be assimilated into American culture. Perrault’s “Cinderella” includes the now-familiar fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage and animal servants. Most Western renditions, however, have omitted Perrault’s ending, in which Cinderella finds husbands for her stepsisters.

During the 1800s, the Grimm brothers, whose grandfather and great grandfather were ministers in the German Reformed Church, put their own spin on the folk legend, called “Aschenputtel” or “Ash Girl.” Changing many of the elements, they wove spiritual principles into the plot, says Father Ronald Murphy, professor of German at Georgetown University.

When the mother dies, for instance, the father forgets his dead wife almost immediately, whereas the daughter loyally goes to the mother’s grave three times a day and cries. While at the grave, she plants a tree, which could be interpreted as a cross. The tree becomes the source of her magical help when it is visited by a white dove, the Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit.

While the father and the stepfamily overlook the beauty in the heroine, the prince, who serves as a Christ figure, sees beyond the surface of her external appearance. She is the only one with whom he wants to dance. Also, in an act of divine retribution, the stepsisters have their eyes pecked by birds from the tree at the dead mother’s grave.

In “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” the famed child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim made a surprising argument about the value of fairy tales for children. In conventional parlance, a “fairy tale” has come to mean, figuratively, something like a naively optimistic or sentimental flight from a complicated and difficult reality. Mr. Bettelheim argued, instead, that fairy tales teach children the opposite lesson. Their message to children, he wrote, is “that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”

Father Murphy believes the reason the Cinderella story has survived and reappeared in various incarnations over the years is because of its underlying spiritual messages, especially involving beauty. Because everyone feels like an ugly duckling at some point in his or her life, it has given the underdogs of society a source of hope.

“You go from rags to riches from being beautiful internally,” he says. “There is a kind of beauty that is called goodness. … This definition of beauty is one that most American magazines wouldn’t recognize.”

Apart from the fashion statement made in the traditional tale through glass slippers and ball gowns, other important themes include feeling alienated within a family, says Laura Melmed, author of 12 children’s books, including “The Rain Babies,” published by HarperCollins.

“Even if a girl doesn’t have a wicked stepmother, at times she feels her mother is the wicked stepmother,” Ms. Melmed says. “Every kid experiences the feeling of being adopted, as though they don’t belong in their family.”

Similarly, Mr. Bettelheim explains that Cinderella’s hardship is that she must endure the replacement of her “good” natural mother by a “bad” stepmother. In his interpretation, the tale illustrates for both children and parents that the child inevitably passes through a stage in his development toward “true maturity” in which he must see even his own parents “as rejecting and demanding ‘stepparents’” before the image of “the good parents will be resuscitated” in his mind.

In “The Truth About Cinderella,” evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have argued that “Cinderella,” far from being an innocent flight of fancy, has roots that lie deep in the evolution of human psychology. Its archetype of mistreated stepchildren, they believe, has a firm basis in the genetic investment that binds parents to biological offspring. They cite in support, for example, the statistic that a child is 100 times more likely to be abused or killed by a stepparent, who has no genetic stake in the child, than by a genetic parent, who does.

The tale also has, of course, flourished as a paradigm of happily-ever-after, wish-fulfilling romantic fantasy. Even the feminist movement couldn’t kill it, says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. Dreams of being carried away on a white horse by a gallant prince survived what could have been their toughest opponent — the revolution of gender roles in the 1960s.

“There was a generation of women who didn’t want to be associated with this,” he says. “Now there’s a sense that you can bring it back up again, [albeit] with a preface such as, ‘I know it’s old-fashioned, but I still want the Cinderella wedding.’”

Most recently, the archetype has shaped movies such as “Pretty Woman,” starring Julia Roberts as the maiden who works by night as a prostitute and Richard Gere as a workaholic millionaire who turns into a prince.

Even Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” the reality hit of this past television season, fits the bill.

“It’s a pretty seductive story,” Mr. Thompson says. “It’s got so many great elements, abuse and misunderstanding, the perfect spouse that fate is able to put into your pathway, revenge, rags to riches … It’s essentially the American story, even though it didn’t start in America.”

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