Oct 24, 2013

If The Shoe Fits - The Tragic & Bloody Tale of Cinderella?

Once Upon A Time

This article begins our "7 Tales in 7 Days" series to commemorate Halloween, which is now just around the corner.  To refresh recollection, what we plan to do is to post one article each day from now until October 31st discussing 7 stories that are often told to children as "fairy tales" or "bedtime stories."  Rather than simply re-telling white-washed, modern versions, we intend to examine the stories' lesser known, sometimes unsual or macabre features.

In some articles, this may involve discussing actual historical events, shadowy legends, or perhaps strange and bygone customs and beliefs.  In others, we may explain terrifying details that have been revamped or completely omitted, for one reason or another, been omitted from more current versions of a particular story.  In still others, as is the case with our first installment, it may be simply to point out the overall tragedy of the tale - that not everyone necessarily lived "happily ever after, as it were."

Cover of "Ever After - A Cinderella Story...
Cover of Ever After - A Cinderella Story

A Cinderella Story

The first story in our series is the story of Cinderella.  I chose to lead with this tale, not because it is the most frightening or gruesome.  There are far worse candidates.  Rather,  I chose it because Cinderella is one of the most widely-known and well-loved children's stories of all time.  At the same time, it is a crazy-quilt tragedy of family dysfunction that is so often held up as the perfect bedtime story for the little ones.

The History Behind The Story

First published in 1697 by Charles Perrault as Cendrillon, Cinderella was also included in a collection of "fairy tales" by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 under the name Aschenputtel, which means "ash fool," literally.

Even older root stories for Cinderella exist throughout the world.  Geographically, they can be found from Europe to Africa, South America and Asia.  In some cases, these root stories date to antiquity.  For example, one Wikipedia article suggests that Cinderella may have its origin in an far older story dating to Ancient Egypt.

Of course, discussing these in any acceptable detail is beyond the scope of this article.  However, for an excellent list of the many adaptations of Cinderella to movies, television, theater and more, please visit the same Wikipedia article, which is quite thorough.

  A Story Of Abuse, Treachery, Schemes And -- Mutilation?

While we think we know what Cinderella is about, the details that come to most of us have been re-written or, frankly, invented.  Thereafter, they have been galvanized in our psyche by mass-marketed Disney cartoons and multiple films, such as the 1998 movie Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore as Cinderella opposite Angelica Houston as the wicked step-mother.

Once upon a time, however, Cinderella was a bloodier tale than any of these modern versions would lead one to believe.  Once one peels away the layers of magic pumpkins and fairy godmothers from the modern versions - and examines, in particular, the Grimm version (no pun intended) - the darkness of the Cinderella story begins to emerge.

At the opening of the story, Cinderella mourns the loss of her beloved mother.  Her father has quickly remarried a evil-hearted woman with two equally malicious children from a previous marriage.  He has little use now for Cinderella, and seems incapable or unwilling to curtail the new relatives abusive behavior toward Cinderella.

In addition, Cinderella is caught up in her step-mother's single-minded and diabolical plot to win her daughters a prize - in this case, marriage to the Prince.  Here the story turns even worse.

After the masked ball, as we know, the Prince goes in search of the woman who fits the fabled glass slipper that has been left behind (incidentally, the slipper is not always glass, depending on which version one reads).  When the step-daughters feet will not fit into the slipper, the wicked step mother demands that her daughters cut their feet to make them fit, knowing they did not.

In response, one daughter cuts off her own toes.  The other cuts off part of her own heel.  They try to tough their way through what would have been disabling injuries.  In the end, each is left a bloody, maimed mess, and the Prince discovers their treachery.  Treachery - more like total insanity.

Side Story - The Bird Symbology In Cinderella

As an interesting aside, not necessarily a scary one, birds figure prominently in many versions of Cinderella.  Again, this is particularly true in the Grimm version.  There, we find Cinderella interacting with pigeons and turtle doves at her mother's grave, making wishes, which the birds would then grant.

In that same version, we also find the wicked step sisters being "called out," as it were, by pigeons who tell the prince in words that the young women's feet were bleeding.  Later, these pigeons put out the step sisters' eyes, rendering them blind for life as a punishment, even as they seek Cinderella's forgiveness.

If you are thinking this is just some childish details added to Cinderella to keep the kiddies' interest, no so fast.  In medieval times, many believed in the existence of a "language of the birds."  This language was thought to be a pure and divine form of communication, also possibly angelic in origin.

Thus, to European readers of Cinderella in the distant past, in particular, these human-bird/bird-human communications may have represented something much more than first meets the modern eye.  For example, are these communications intended to symbolize Cinderella and the Prince's inherent goodness because they could communicate in words with the birds? Why else would the birds go to such lengths to help both Cinderella and the Prince and exact such awful and painful retribution on the step-sisters.

What Became Of The Wicked Step-Mother?

The true architect of evil in Cinderella is the wicked step-mother.  However, in a cruel twist of fate, at least in the Grimm version, nothing particularly bad seems to befall her in the end.  True, neither of her daughters become princesses.  However, given her cruelty, one might think she should have suffered something comparable to what the step sisters endured in the end.
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