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Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: Cinderella

“‘O gentle doves, O turtle-doves,
And all the birds that be,
The lentils that in ashes lie
Come and pick up for me!
The good must be put in the dish,
The bad you may eat if you wish.'”

If you do not know the general story of Cinderella, here is a quick summary (skip this paragraph if you do know it). Girl is slave for stepmother and stepsisters (father is usually deceased in adaptations, mother has usually been deceased for a long time). The King and/or Prince of the land throws a ball. Girl is told she can go to ball if she finishes an impossible amount of chores AKA is prevented from going to said ball. With the help of magical (and cute) animals, chores are finished and a dress is started. Magical Fairy Godmother shows up to complete the look and fashion a carriage. Girl goes to ball, Prince falls in love with Girl. Girl must leave ball before the stroke of midnight. Girl loses track of time, rushes out of ball leaving behind one glass slipper. Next day (week, month, depending on the version), Prince travels around the kingdom trying to find foot that fits slipper. Shows up at house of stepmother + step sisters + girl. Stepsisters try to weasel their way into slipper, which doesn’t fit either. Girl is reluctantly brought to Prince and tries on slipper; it fits! They live happily ever after.

Much to my surprise – which, at this point in my Grimm’s Fairy Tales Project, should not be a surprise at all – there are quite a few stark differences between Grimm’s version of Cinderella and the Disney version I’m familiar with (the 1950 film). There is still magic, although in Grimm’s it’s more of a naturalist magic; there are stepsisters and a step mother, but the father and mother are more significant in the Grimm version; and the glass slipper fittings at the end are far less gruesome in Disney’s retelling.

In the Grimm’s version, the story begins with Cinderella’s mother dying. Before she goes, she tells Cinderella: “‘Dear child, be good and pious, and God will always take care of you, and I will look down upon you from heaven, and will be with you.'” Cinderella visited her mother’s grave every day and cried upon it, until winter came. With spring’s arrival, Cinderella’s father took another wife; enter the stepmother and stepsisters.

One day, Cinderella’s father plans to go to a nearby fair. He asks each daughter what they want from the fair, and while the stepsisters shout for clothes and jewelry, Cinderella simply wishes for “‘The first twig, father, that strikes against your hat on the way home; that is what I should like you to bring me.'” So he does, and Cinderella takes the twig to her mother’s grave and lays it there. She starts to weep and before she knows it the twig becomes a beautiful tree. “Cinderella went to see it three times a day, and wept and prayed, and each time a white bird rose up from the tree, and if she uttered any wish the bird brought her whatever she had wished for.

Shortly after, word comes from the King’s palace of a festival being thrown over the course of three days, “to which all the beautiful young women of that country were bidden, so that the King’s son might choose a bride from among them.” This part of the story is familiar: the step-sisters are pleased to go, and Cinderella expects to attend as well, except her step-mother has other ideas. She tells Cinderella “‘I have strewed a dishful of lentils in the ashes, and if you can pick them all up again in two hours you may go with us.'” Cinderella “went to the back-door that led into the garden, and called out,

‘O gentle doves, O turtle-doves,
And all the birds that be,
The lentils that in ashes lie
Come and pick up for me!
The good must be put in the dish,
The bad you may eat if you wish.’

A flock of white doves fly through the window and bide Cinderella’s request. But when she brings the dish to her step-mother, the woman tells her she must now pick two dishes full of lentils from the ashes. Cinderella returns to the back-door and again summons the doves, who pick and peck and return the lentils to their dishes. But again, when the lentils are returned to the step-mother, the woman tells her she still cannot go. By this time the step-daughters are ready so they set off for the festival. Thus, “Cinderella went to her mother’s grave, under the hazel bush, and cried, ‘Little tree, little tree, shake over me, That silver and gold may come down and cover me.'” A bird presents her with “a dress of gold and silver, and a  pair of slippers embroidered with silk and silver.” Cinderella then rushes off to the festival, where she dances with the Prince.

The amount of time that passes isn’t specified, rather, “evening” is when Cinderella decides to leave, of course to the Prince’s disdain. She runs back to her father’s house, followed by the Prince. She fortunately evades him – mostly because she’s clever but also because her father can’t believe she would have danced with the Prince, thus tells the Prince the maiden he is after cannot possibly be Cinderella – and the whole charade is repeated the next night. On the third and final day of the festival, Cinderella dances with the Prince again, but as she escapes, her shoe is caught on pitch laid on the steps by the Prince and is left behind.

The Prince retrieves the shoe, “saw that it was of gold,” and the next day goes to the father “and told him that none should be his bride save the one whose foot the golden shoe should fit.” The eldest step-sister tries the shoe first, and when it doesn’t fit, the step-mother tells her to cut a toe off to make room. She does, the Prince is convinced and they ride off. However, as they pass by the grave of Cinderella’s mother, two pigeons cry out:

‘There they go, there they go!
There is blood on her shoe;
The shoe is too small,
–Not the right bride at all!’

The Prince takes note and returns to the house. The same happens with the younger step-sister – she cuts off her heel – and when the Prince returns again and asks the father “‘have you no other daughter?'”, the father compassionately answers with “‘No…only my dead wife left behind her a little stunted Cinderella; it is impossible that she can be the bride.'” Guess what – the slipper fits! On their ride off, the two pigeons sit on Cinderella’s shoulders, and at the wedding they pick out the eyes of the step-sisters “so they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood.”

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales: Cinderella

Not the Godmother, pumpkin carriage, glass slipper, sans blood and gore tale you’re familiar with? SAME. This version I am referring to with that description is Disney’s, which is commonly associated with a version of Cinderella written by Charles Perrault in the late 1690s (Cendrillon – see EXTRAS below). So let’s talk about the differences.

First of all: Cinderella’s father. I actually prefer the Disney versions in which he has died, leaving Cinderella alone with her stepmother and stepsisters. At least in those I don’t have extra pent up frustration over how Cinderella is treated. Her father (in Grimm’s version) is simply compliant to the whims of his new wife, and can’t bring himself to believe that Cinderella would be the beautiful maiden with whom the Prince danced. My naive, shielded point of view was taken aback by the father’s lack of interest in Cinderella and her well-being, but his status (as a rich, married man) is obviously what mattered here.

Second: religion and devotion making the impossible possible. The miraculous lentil-picking birds, the dress appearing out of thin air, the watchful eyes of those same birds; all were actualized because of Cinderella’s devotion to her mother and her final resting place. This particular omission in Disney/more current versions of Cinderella is the most interesting to me. Magic is substituted for such devotion: the Fairy Godmother comes to the rescue – undeservedly, no. But in Grimm’s story, the positive rewards Cinderella is given feel more deserved because we are shown how much she loves her mother; ultimately, we are shown her heart and not just her circumstances.


*The following has been added after my reading of Rapunzel.*

I’ve decided that the Fairy Godmother image/icon/representative is quite a clever conglomeration of the natural, personal, and whimsy magic in the Grimm’s Cinderella. The original religious aspects that were eliminated with the modern, magical Fairy Godmother are represented there in her title, as is the memory of Cinderella’s mother. While the Fairy Godmother is painted as a cutesy character, her purpose is much more profound. I wish I had thought more deeply about this, but sometimes it takes another version of an idea for me to take my head out of the sand. 

Self-deprecation aside, and whether or not modern interpretations of Cinderella meant to, the use of the Godmother figure to represent the original magic of the tale is something I can definitely stand behind. Thanks, Rapunzel


And I have to mention the gruesome end of the step-sisters. If there was ever a great example for teaching children why not to be wicked or misleading, this is it.

By the time the above version of Cinderella was published in the original 1812 Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (which became the complete edition – that I have now – in 1857), and even before Charles Perrault’s version, the story was already many centuries old. It is traced back to a Greek character named Rhodopis, whose sandal was snatched up by an eagle and dropped on the lap of a king. Rhodopis is the name of a real woman who lived several centuries before the story was recorded, but it has no relation to Cinderella (other than the woman’s name), so I’m not going to say any more about the actual Rhodopis – I’ve linked information about her below if you are interested.

Between Rhodopis and Grimm’s Cinderella, there are a few documented French, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese variations, which reflect their respective cultures and ways of life. Infidelity (French), historic landmarks (Japanese), and dynastic influence are just some of the elements that make the “Cinderella story” both a regional and global wonder.

I’ve recently been more interested in adaptations, retellings, variations, what have you of folklore and myths, and although the few such things I’ve read have led me to ponder “What is gained?” through a recent retelling or adaptation, throughout this Grimm’s Fairy Tales project I’ve been a lot more focused on “What is lost?” in recent adaptations.  I’m not puzzled by why my thoughts in this series have this focus: I’ve considered these Fairy Tales as the ultimate jumping off point. The start. This is true, but it is only true for me. I have to keep reminding myself – until the notion becomes permanent – that these tales have an origin outside of this tome; that’s why they are there in the first place!

I’m not sure how interesting this revelation is to you, reader, since looking at it now I’m inclined to say Duh, Kelsey! But since it arrived during this post and this series, I feel inclined to include it. I also feel incredibly overwhelmed with the history I am discovering, but fortunately it’s not a soul-crushing overwhelm. New doors, windows, walkways, and gardens are being opened and laid before me, and I finally feel comfortable? confident? saying this undertaking of mine is one of great passion.

Be sure to tell me which Cinderella story (or stories) you’re most familiar with, and of course, which are your favorites. As always, share any other thoughts you have, and be sure to check out the EXTRAS I’ve linked below.

Up Next:
Extras:

5 thoughts on “Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: Cinderella”

  1. The Grimm’s Cinderella is a lot more deserving of good fortune than the one we’re more familiar with.

    I don’t know how familiar you are with pantomime, but Cinderella is a very popular one. The step-mother and ugly stepsisters are usually played by men and the prince is played by a woman. It’s played for laughs, so it’s a long way from the world of the Grimms.

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    1. I agree with you!

      I am familiar with pantomime, but not in relation to Cinderella. I wonder if I could find some performances on YouTube…
      Thank you for your comment!

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  2. I must have read this as a child because this is the story I’m familiar with rather than the Disney version. A few years ago Scottish Ballet did a fabulous version – a kind of mash-up of ballet and pantomime – and based on this version. They turned the toe and heel cutting into gory comedy, and we all hated the Ugly Sisters so much by7 that stage that we cheered and jeered each time they hobbled across the stage from then on… 😉

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    1. Oh that sounds so fantastic! I really feel like I’ve missed out by only knowing the Disney version – I would love to see a stage performance of Grimm’s version. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

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