Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Top Seven Cinderella Stories.

No matter where you go, no matter how far you try to run, there’s no escaping it.  The world just loves “Cinderella” stories. 

It’s been said that there are more than 500 variants of “Cinderella” the world over.  The most famous of which, of course, is “Cendrillon” published by Charles Perrault in Tales of Mother Goose in 1697.  It’s this version of the story that was made into a classic romantic ballet and a much-cherished Disney animated movie.  Now Disney is in the process of making a new live-action Cinderella movie.  If you want to read a little bit more about Cinderella in general and the Disney movie in particular, Kristin at Tales of Faerie has recently posted an insightful piece on it.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of “Cinderella”.  The characters in the story always felt a little too passive for me.  I tend to prefer my fairy tales with a little bit more adventure in them.  However, with hundreds of variants worldwide, I figured I had to give this story type another look.  Now, I’ve purposely left Perrault’s “Cendrillon” off this list.  Nonetheless, I present you with My Top Seven Cinderella Stories.

You may not recognize the name “Aschenputtel”, but you probably have heard of this tale.  It’s the Grimm version of “Cinderella”.  Yes, the one with the foot mutilations by the step-sisters and the birds pecking out eyes and all that.  However, it also has the rather interesting bit about the heroine getting her dress and shoes from a hazel tree planted over her mother’s grave.  It also features a pair of step-sisters that are called “beautiful, with fair faces, but evil and dark hearts”, thus breaking from the “ugly stepsister” stereotype that people think is so prevalent (I kind of imagine them being like the mean cheerleaders in pretty much every high school movie).  This was the one that first let me know that all Cinderellas were not created equal.  Yet, it’s still only number seven.

This is by far the oldest Cinderella story on the list.  The story of “Rhodopis” comes from ancient Egypt.  The story revolves around a Greek slave girl named Rhodopis who suffered at the hands of other servants in her adopted home of Egypt.  One day, her master admires her dancing so much that he orders her a special pair of red shoes.  One day while doing her chores, her slippers get wet and she puts them aside to dry.  Just then, the god Horus in the form of a falcon swoops down and picks one up and ends up dropping it in the lap of the pharaoh.  The pharaoh then begins a search for whosoever should fit the dainty little slipper.  You can probably guess what happens.  It’s a pretty good ending for a Greek slave in ancient Egypt.  There’s nothing like a Cinderella that breaks down racial boundaries.  It’s a very important story, but it’s not one of my favorites, so it’s only number six.  Still, it had to make the cut.

5) Cinderella (Armenia)-
I wish I had a better title for this one, but a lot of Cinderella stories are just called “Cinderella”.  This one makes the list just based on pure creepy insanity.  It starts with three sisters living alone with their old mother.  They’re very poor and have no money for food.  The eldest sister suggests they go out and find a way to make money no matter how.  The mother then says “No, don’t do that.  I would prefer you kill me and eat me rather than bring dishonor to this home.”  The youngest sister, of course, protests.  But the older sisters go ahead and do it anyway.  That’s right, these older sisters are cannibals!  And people think the Grimm version is dark!  Truth be told, from the various versions of Cinderella I’ve read, this isn’t uncommon.  The difference is that the mother is usually turned into an animal like a cow or goat before getting killed and eaten.  It’s also a consistent part of the story, mentioned every time Cinderella is asked to attend the king’s feast.  Anyway, the youngest sister abstains from this ghastly feast and gathers her mother’s bones and buries them.  In many stories, this leads to a hazel tree situation like the one from Grimm.  Instead, whenever the Armenian Cinderella needs something, she goes to her mother’s grave and asks, then the objects come up through the ground.  She then has to bury them again when she’s done.  In this version, a wedding feast takes the place of the ball and instead of trying a shoe on people, the king just has the heroine tailed.  I can’t give you a link for this one because it’s not online, but it can be found in 100 Armenian Tales and their folkloristic relevance collected and edited by Susie Hoogasian-Villa.

I don’t know how many of my fellow fairy tale geeks know this (probably a few), but when immigrants from the British Isles came to the US and settled in the Appalachian region of the American South, they brought a number of Old World folk tales and legends with them.  Isolated in the mountains, these tales took on a distinctly regional flavor.  What I love about these tales is that while they’ve been localized, they haven’t been localized completely.  So, they turn the Appalachian region into a magical place where rural American farm boys rub elbows with kings and princesses.  In this version, an old witch-woman takes the place of the fairy godmother and Sunday church takes the place of the ball.  I haven’t been able to find a full version online anywhere.  However, I think the best place to find it is in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase.

Honestly, I could have put all sorts of European Cinderella stories on this list.  This one just struck me because of all the little differences, though.  For one, the wicked stepmother was our heroine Hearth-Cat’s schoolmistress and she actually wanted her father to marry her before he found out how awful she was.  This one also includes the cow as fairy godmother (no mention of the cow really being Hearth-Cat’s mother) and also incorporates the “kind and unkind girls” archetype.  I think one of the things that struck me though was what takes place of the ball.  Usually, it’s either a ball or a festival or church.  However, in this variant, our heroine is off to the races.  I’m assuming they’re horse races, but it doesn’t say.  As someone who lives about a half hour from Saratoga, I’ve often heard about how rich folks would get themselves dressed up and head out to enjoy themselves at the track.  So, this little detail really caught my attention.  In all “The Hearth-Cat” is a European Cinderella story that has enough little differences to build up into something notable.

This is another one where I wish I had a better title.  Every version I see calls it “Indian Cinderella” though.  I believe there may have been a picture book adaptation titled Sootface, though (I just can’t find it).  I picked this one to show how different some of these stories can be while still keeping some of the same themes across cultures.  It doesn’t hurt that this is one that seems to predate encounters with the Europeans.  This one has the usual set-up at the beginning.  There’s a girl who’s treated like a slave by her sisters.  The work her to death, beat her and even burn her face with coals from the fire.  Naturally, there has to be some way for our heroine to escape this predicament, but it’s not the usual way.  There’s no fairy godmother.  There’s no ball.  There’s no leaving a shoe behind.  Instead, there’s a warrior named Strong Wind who is looking for just the right bride.  You see, Strong Wind can turn invisible and only wants a woman who can see him in that state.  To this effect, he asks all prospective suitors three questions.  I won’t give any more away.  The link is in the title.

Okay, so maybe with the popularity of this tale among fairy tale fans, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Also, it’s probably becoming clear that I have a bit of a weakness for tales from East Asia (I think it could be the next great untapped source of popular fairy tales).  There’s just something special about this tale, though.  In this version, the fairy godmother is the bones of a fish with lots of spirit power.  The ball is a festival.  Also, this is one of the older Cinderella stories (I sometimes wonder if that’s what prompted Marissa Meyer to set her book Cinder in a future version of China).  These things aren’t what catapult this story to number one, though.  Mainly it’s just that the setting of pre-industrial China makes a lot of the pieces of a Cinderella story fit together in much more interesting ways.  In this version, the mother and step-mother were once co-wives (there was some degree of polygyny allowed for kings and lords in old, old China).  So, her hatred for her step-daughter is like an old rivalry being carried on from mother to daughter.  Also, the thing about the slipper makes a different kind of sense when you remember how important it once was in China for women to have tiny, dainty feet.  The cultural context adds a whole new element to the story.

So, there you have it: my top seven Cinderella stories.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, though.  The world is just filled with Cinderella stories.  If you have a favorite I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments.  Before I go, I should thank the Folktexts site by D.L. Ashliman for providing me with a lot of my source material.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for a ball.


  1. Another enjoyable post! I knew about the Native American version, but not the Appalachian one - but not surprising. There would have been some remote areas there where people would develop their own versions of everything. Wonder if that book is available in ebook? Your web site of sources is a good one, I know it. I also love Surlalune Fairytales.

    Your Portuguese story sounds a bit like the Italian version, in which the stepmother is actually her SECOND stepmother, her governess, who persuades Cinders to murder the first one so she can marry the father, then brings along her own daughters nobody knew about before.

    The story of Rhodopis is told by Herodotus and I vaguely recall the slippers wee made of fur, which was later mistranslated into French as "verre", hence the glass slippers.

    It's interesting to compare the Grimm and Perrault versions; in the Perrault, the stepsisters are forgiven and marry gentlemen of the court. But Aschenputtel is a lot less passive than other Cinderellas. There's a wonderful novel by Aussie author Sophie Masson, Moonlight And Ashes, based on Aschenputtel. In fact, I'm rather a fan of fiction based on folktales. You might perhaps consider a post on the subject some time if you haven't already.

    1. The Appalachian folklore is most famous for its Jack tales (much like the English have a lot of Jack stories). Jack even finds his way into stories the Europeans left him out of. So, look for both Grandfather Tales and Jack Tales, both by Richard Chase. Fun books. They even have a version of the Robin Hood legend in there, but according to the Appalachian version, Robin learned how to shoot a bow and arrow from the Indians (Native Americans, actually. But the book uses the old term).

      Anyway, Sur La Lune is good. It's where I found out about the Armenian one and what book to find it in.

      As for fairy tale fiction, I post on that sometimes under the heading of "Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report". However, I'm lousy at keeping up with new fiction. On the other hand, Heidi over at Sur La Lune has a real knack for it on her blog. I will keep that title in mind, though.

  2. Oh, yes, forgot to mention, I love the English version, Tattercoats.

  3. II really need to get my hands on a copy of the Grandfather Tales soon, they seem pretty interesting. Can't say much about Ashpet, since I haven't read it.
    Anyway, here's my personal list of favourite Cinderella stories, most are the same stories you picked for your list, but I did add two of my own:

    7. Hearthcat

    Hearth-Cat deserves it's spot on my favourite Cinderella list as well, because of the typical bizarreness that eastern-european fairytales tend to have. My guess is, because they were collected relatively late and not "cleaned" like the Grimm or Perault versions.The "race" gives it its own unique feel and I love that Hearth-Cat flat out lies to her stepsister instead of meekly and obediently telling her what to do only for the evil sister to stupidly screw it up anyway, like in "Mother Holle" for example. As for the porridge with honey/porridge with gall... that seems like it's either a hollow motive or the fairytale is *aware" that it's a metaphor - which would be kinda mindblowing, since fairytales love being overly literal. Usually stories like this would include a passage about how on the first day the stepmother made her porridge with honey, on the second day with water and on the third with gall or something similar... The murder seems better justified than in some other Cinderella stories, but still seems exaggerated. And although I love me some wackyness, the story in some places simply seems too incoherent, so Hearthcat only makes number 7.

    6. Der Aschenpüster mit der Wünschelgerte

    "Der Aschenpüster mit der Wünschelgerte" is agerman fairytale, not from Grimm's fairytales, but from Ludwig Bechstein's book "Deutsches Märchenbuch". I'll add either a link to an english version or the whole synopsis tomorrow, as I couldn't find an english translation yet. The heroine in this tale isn't abused by her stepmother or sisters, but instead quite the spoiled brat (the reason why it's so low on the list), who manages to waste her rich father's whole wealth by asking for a silver and a gold dress and a branch, that can fulfill every wish (the "Wünschelgerte"), her father even gives his soul to the wizard who owns the Wünschelgerte and dies shortly after. So now that she's own her own and without money, she needs to solve her problems alone for the first time in her life (the all-powerful Wünschelgerte doesn't come up as often as you'd think) and use her wits to make her Prince Charming fall in love with her... She decides the smartest way would be to work at his court - while dressed as a man.
    The story has some neat elements, like when she tells the prince on the ball, who abused her earlier when she was in disguise by chucking a boot at her, that she's from the kingdom "Boot-throw". The ending is a little weak, but I still hope I'll be able to provide an english version, so I won't spoil anything.

    1. I'm sorry I split this in so many parts... probably I should just start my own blog^^ But sice so many of your picks ended up in my list as well, publishing it as my own content didn't feel right.

      5. Rhodopis

      I only read Rhodopis today, even though I heard about about an egyptian story that featured a shoe being found in the nile before... The racial discrimination gives a really interesting touch and was enough to immediately get my attention. You usually don't expect commentary like that from a fairytale.
      The animals *do* really stick out like a sore thumb but I guess even in Ancient Egypt people knew that the heroine needed animal sidekicks to keep the kids from getting bored^^.
      Except for that it sounds like something that could actually happen- which is surprising enough to lad it a spot on my list: A hawk steals a shoe, the Pharaoh finds it and thinks it's a sign from the gods that he should marry the woman who the shoe belongs to - whether it is really an omen or he only believes it to be one, doesn't matter for the logical integrity of the story - he finds her and marries her, despite the social and racial differences, because he doesn't want to upset the gods. Not exactly romantic, but who cares? She's rich now. :P (As realistic as it is, the loveless marriage is the major detractor for me)That the shoe *only* fits her is the only element that stretches the suspension of disbelieve (even the animals seem lesslike magical helpers and more like actual trained animals - except for the hippo maybe), but since that was during a time when all shoes were custom-tailored it doesn't seem *as* odd.
      As for the lack of the helpful spirit of her mother: This element is of shamanistic nature: The soul of a human lives on in a "spirit animal" (a cow or goat) and later a plant (hazelnut tree/birch...). Egyptians believed in an afterlife that the souls of the deceased were confined to. So my theory is that since the element couldn't be localized (like the mother merely watching over her daughter from heaven in "Aschenputtel"), they were dropped and replaced with the Egyptians own religious believes.

      4. Conkiajgharuna (the Little Rag Girl)

      The Little Rag Girl, can be read here:
      The story starts with an ill-treated girl, getting food and advice from a magical cow (probably the spirit of her dead mother) and continues with the "kind and unkind girl" motive. The giver/punisher in this version is a devi, which means extra points for awesomeness. The role of the Godmother is split up between the cow and a kind neighbor. Having someone help the girl by mundane means is an interesting variation of the motive, but the creativity is what really sells this story for me (For example when the stepmother tells Rag girl to fill a trough with tears and the kind neighbor simply throws a lump of salt in water) and some of the phrasings are really well put. ("Here is a loaf; eat of it, give to every wayfarer, and bring the loaf home whole.", "Who would give that sun darkener such robes?" ) The reason why the story isn't higher on the list are awkward racism and the reason that the prince falls in lover with her, but once again I don't want to spoil anything.

    2. 3. Tattercoats

      Wonderful story, but it *is* a little creepy that the prince only fell in love with Tattercoats, because of the goose herder's Sailor Moon Villain-style mindcontrol.^^ If it weren't for that, Tatter coats would be on spot number 1.
      Also I always found the ending really harsh with the old man still caught up in his grief... He never seemed like the bad guy, just like an motionally disturbed man who could've been helped if psychologists existed in the Middle Ages. However the scene where his hair needs to be cut has alot of symbolic value and left a deep impression on me.
      But the tale is not just heartbreaking. To me it always seemed *really* sweet, that the prince just casuall chats with the girl and the goose herder without the slightest hint of arrogance - to the point where he didn't even metion that he was a prince and that he was not ashamed to invite that dirty girl in ragged clothing to his ball. He's one of the few princes on this list who seems like a good catch, not only because of money and status, but personality wise, too. He's the most charming Prince Charming that I read about so far and that's the reason "Tattercoats" makes my list.

      2. Aschenputtel

      Aschenputtel is the classic. It's so high up on my list, mostly for nostalgic reasons. As a kid I loved that Aschenputtel at least decides to act herself, instead of leaving everything to her godmother.Now that I'm older I also appreciate it for different reasons: You really feel the connection that Aschenputtel had to her mother and even though the Grimms made some attempts to portray her father in a better light, in this story it's made clear that he is not simply oblivious to Aschenputtel's fate, but apparently doesn't really cares for his own daughter (in this version*he* is the one who tells the prince that the only other woman in the house is not worth his time and calls her a "Butte" (a mentally retarded child), which means Aschenputtel really has *no* loving person left in this world. The Grimms got the harsh truths of reality down pretty well... It's a truly moving story and will always hold a special place in my heart. I like to pretend the ending doesn't exist though. Bettelheim claimed that it's important for a child to know that the stepsisters got punished and I'm no fan of the "instantly forgiven" variant Perault used, but imho knowing that her sister is married to the Prince now is punishment enough.

    3. 1. Indian Cinderella

      The "Indian Cinderella" Story really is my favourite, since I read it in English class in 7th grade. The version in my school book left out the burn scars, but when I reread the story years later the haircutting and face-burning were the elements that got at me the most. These sisters apparently did all they could to *disfigure* the heroine and make her seem like she's not right in the head. Once again, the harshness really gets to you. However the poetic ending is simply beautiful. It was my favourite part when I first read it and still always manages to make me smile.

      PS: A small request, If anyone could help me, I'd be really grateful: As much as I love Yeh-Shen, I can remember another chinese Cinderella story that I also read in school and that I actually prefer... but the details are pretty hazy. In the story the evil stepmother/mother tries to starve Cinderella, however this was in the "old days", when peole only ate the husks of rice, thinking the rice grains were inedible pits - at least that's what the fairytale tells us ;)*. Cinderella then is tought by the Godmother-equivalent of the story (I think it was a taking animal as well), that she can cook and eat the "pits". She does so and becomes even more beautiful then she was. When her (step)mother asks her why she is so healthy and beautiful now, she pretends that the reason is that she stopped eating. Her (step)mother and (step)sisters try the same and starve. You might be noticing that the whole "prince" subplot is missing from my synopsis... That's because my memories about this tale are really scrambled and I'd be very thankful if someone could give me a tip on how to find it. Googling "chinese Cinderella" only brings up Yeh Shen.

      PPS: I can't say much about the Armenian Cinderella either since I don't know that one. However it seems very similar to the greek tale "Little Saddleslut" (, which also features the cannibalism of the mother and the daughter gaining her dresses right from the grave. The ending really gets off the rails and doesn't really make sense to me (why would the prince steal a spoon?), which is why I wouldn't put it on my favourites list. It is however one of the few Cinderella stories that doesn't end with the marriage, so I would recommend giving it a read.

  4. One of my favorite Cinderella stories is the Hungarian version. It is similar to the Grimms' version at first. Hamupopke is abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. She is forbidden to go to Mass, but birds help her go three times. In a copper, silver, and golden dress.

    Here's where things get interesting. Hamupipoke's father has finally gotten tired of his daughter's mistreatment and sends her to live with a widow. The hag turns out to be worse than the stepmother and keeps the girl imprisoned in the basement.

    Instead of a slipper, the prince simply has all the local girls brought to him to find Hamupipoke. Eventually, he rescues Hamupipoke from the widow, and simply recognizes her as she is.

    Realizing that he can't bring Hamupipoke to court in her rags, he leaves her near a well to bring her back nicer clothes. While he is gone, a jealous group of witches, who want the prince for themselves drown Hamupipoke. One of the witch-girls tricks the prince into thinking she is his bride and marries her.

    At the wedding party, Hamupipoke (who has survived) exposes the witch-girl as a false bride, simply by revealing her story, and the prince recognizes her unaided. The prince has the witch-girl burnt to death, the stepmother thrown in prison, and the stepsisters publicly shamed. He marries Hamupipoke, and bizarrely marries the widow to the father (I have no idea might be a translation error....)

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