Some fairy tales attract retellings the same way spinning wheels attract blood. Storytellers in every medium simply cannot resist them. Look at ‘Cinderella’. The story has been retold over and over with astonishing frequency. There are novelisations (e.g. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, shall I go on?), a plethora of short stories, films (Disney’s blue ballroom-gowned princess of the dressmaking mice, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After). In the new TV series Once Upon a Time she gets magically transported to another world along with the entire population of the land where fairy tales come true. She gets Rumpelstiltskin back for blowing up her fairy godmother by capsicum spraying him in his own shop, but she still finds her Prince Charming in the end, and a very special pair of shoes.
So what is it about ‘Cinderella’ that keeps drawing everyone back? What is it that fascinates us so about the girl in the glass slippers?
I think maybe it is because at heart, we understand this story. We’ve lived it. Everyone has been lonely in their lives – lost, abandoned, underappreciated – someone kicked us out of the way and took over what we thought was ours, someone pushed us into the ashes and forgot we were there. Even the luckiest person in the world must have longed for a fairy godmother to conjure some stardust into their life at one time or another. It’s a human thing. Every country in the world has a Cinderella. She’s everywhere from China to Germany, Russia to Jamaica. There are even male Cinderellas, complete with wicked stepbrothers and eligible princesses – though oddly enough, not usually fairy godmothers.
That’s why for this post I’m doing something a little different. Instead of reviewing just one fairy tale, I’m reviewing three – a triptych of variations on a very familiar story that can made new again at the wave of a wand. Or a pen.
Version 1: Sarah Winyan
This Jamaican fairy tale is in my 1985 reprint of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses, which is falling to bits from being read too many times. It opens with a sad little girl sitting under a tree while two birds gossip together over her head. Her name is Sarah Winyan and everything for miles belongs to her, but her parents are dead and all she has is a vindictive stepmother who keeps in rags and misery. Sarah Winyan sings of her troubles on her way home and is unfortunately overheard by the stepmother, who goes kind of crazy. She summons up a devil in the shape of a huge shaggy dog and calls it Tiger. If he tears Sarah Winyan to pieces, the stepmother promises, she will give him gold, and what’s more, she’ll come to dance with him on the Lord of Hell’s mountain. The devil’s pretty clever though. He knows he’s dealing with a tricky customer, so he makes her sign a contract agreeing to his terms. When their deal is struck, he sets off into the dark woods after Sarah Winyan.
The little girl is trying to gather wood. She looks up and sees a pair of burning eyes in the night behind her. Terrified, she scrabbles her way up a tree to hide – not very successfully. As the devil looks up at the ragged little thing, however, he takes pity on her. By the terms of his contract, the little girl now belongs to him, which means he can decide not to kill her if he wants. So instead of tearing her apart he leads her safely away into the woods – though he hates her singing too and makes her stop.
Meanwhile the stepmother is busy with her spell book. She conjures a coffin and the image of Sarah Winyan inside it, then arranges a funeral for the girl she’s sure is now dead at Tiger’s claws. While she’s hamming it up with the weeping and wailing, though, a pair of foresters called Aldred and Oti are picking apart her story. They’ve only just heard Sarah Winyan singing in the woods, so how can the little girl be dead? They go back in search of her and hear her whispered song like the words of a ghost. But she’s alive all right, crying beside a fire in the depths of the wood while Tiger sleeps on her lap. When she sees the brothers she eases her way out and Oti seizes his opportunity, shooting Tiger with a silver bullet. The devil leaps from his shattered body and roars off to the fake funeral, where he snatches up the stepmother and whisks her off to Hell. Sarah Winyan is reinstated in her grand house with Aldred and Oti as her friends and protectors. The story closes on her happy new song as Lady Winyan. If there’s a prince in this girl’s future, he’s coming to her, not the other way around.
Version 2: Vasilissa Most Lovely
This Russian fairy tale comes from the same collection and is probably my favourite Cinderella story, for Baba Yaga and her horsemen if nothing else. A merchant’s wife falls ill and gives her daughter a very special doll with the promise that if she is ever in trouble, all she must do is feed the doll and it will give her aid. With that the mother dies and her predictions of trouble come true, because the father shows predictably poor judgement and marries an extremely unpleasant type with two daughters of her own. The three gang up on little Vasilissa, but since her father is away so much on business he doesn’t seem to notice. Luckily for Vasilissa, she has her doll, and it’s everything her mother promised. When she’s sad, it comforts her; when she’s overworked, it does her tasks for her.
And so Vasilissa grows up, a beautiful young woman surrounded by suitors, while her stepsisters get ignored. Their mother is furious. “We do not marry the youngest before her elder sisters!” she screams, and sets to plotting how she can get rid of the girl. One night when her husband is away, the stepmother sets the three young women to work knitting, lace-making and spinning by the light of a single candle. When it goes out, they are left in total darkness. The stepsisters insist they must finish their work and Vasilissa is sent off to borrow a light from a neighbour. But the only neighbour awake at this hour of the night is Baba Yaga the witch who is more likely to eat anyone daring to disturb her evening than lend them a candle.
Vasilissa doesn’t know what to do. She’s shut out in the dark and won’t be allowed back inside until she returns with a light. So she feeds her doll a bit of biscuit and abracadabra, it lights up like a lamp! For some reason, probably because she wants to keep her doll a secret, Vasilissa uses the light not to get back into the house but instead to find a path through the forest to the witch’s house. In between the trees comes riding a horseman all in white, followed soon after by a rider all in red. Neither stops to help Vasilissa. In fact, she has to walk for so long that it is almost nightfall again by the time she comes to Baba Yaga’s hut and frankly all she wants to do then is turn around and walk away again. The place is surrounded by a fence of human skulls and as Vasilissa stands there, shivering, a horseman all in black comes riding past. As though his passage is a signal, the skulls blaze with sudden light.
Then Baba Yaga herself, riding a mortar and pestle down through the sky, returns home and sniffs Vasilissa out from the trees. The girl is terrified, of course, but comes forward with curtsey and asks for a light. She’s come all this way, after all, and it’s not like she can back out now she’s actually here. The witch is amused. She decides to put Vasilissa to work and if she’s satisfied with the results, she may give the girl a light. Or she might eat her. Who knows? Not the best job offer ever, but Vasilissa serves up a dinner that isn’t herself and listens politely while the witch lists her a set of impossible tasks. No sooner is the witch asleep than Vasilissa is pleading with her doll for help. Its advice is to sleep and see what happens. Vasilissa has little choice but to obey.
And it’s good advice, too, because when she looks around her in the morning the tasks are already done. All that’s left to do is make dinner that evening when Baba Yaga gets home. The witch is surprised and pleased with her new employee’s success, but she’s not ready to give up that light yet. Another day passes – another set of tasks are completed by the doll. On the third night of Vasilissa’s stay Baba Yaga’s mood turns conversational and Vasilissa dares inquire after the identity of the three horsemen she has seen riding through the forest outside each day and night. The white horseman is Dawn; the red is Sun; and the third is Night. All three are Baba Yaga’s faithful servants, which is a really scary idea when you think about it. The witch has a question of her own. She knows she has asked the impossible and yet Vasilissa has succeeded. How? Vasilissa explains it is the blessing of her mother and the witch is disgusted. She won’t eat anything blessed. Ew! She doesn’t forget their bargain, however. Vasilissa is given a skull lamp and is sent home.
The girl’s been missing for days and what started out as a ploy to get her eaten has become a curse, for no light will last in the stepmother’s house. Even a skull lamp is better than nothing and they bring it inside. That’s a decision they will soon regret. The skull leaps from the table and chases the stepmother and her daughters upstairs, downstairs, all over the house and out into the dark forest. They are never seen again. Baba Yaga does not, after all, appreciate being disturbed. The merchant comes home to find his daughter alone with her doll. He learns his lesson, taking her with him next time he departs, and in the course of their travels she meets the young Tsar, who falls in love with her. From a sad little girl with nothing on her side but a doll, she becomes Empress of all Russia. And maybe, just maybe, one day she’ll have a daughter of her own, who will carry a very special doll everywhere, just in case she meets a witch someday. You can never be too careful.
Version 3: Ashputtel
This is the German version, taken from the Dean & Son Ltd. volume Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A rich man’s wife dies and less than a year later he remarries, bringing home a stepmother for his young daughter and two pretty stepsisters. Yes, they’re described as being ‘fair in face’, but don’t be fooled. In behaviour at least, they’re as ugly as it gets. The little girl is turned into a drudge in her own house while her father does…nothing. At. All. Unlike Vasilissa’s dad, he’s not even a merchant, so it’s not like his neglect can be explained away on absence. He just doesn’t care enough to intervene.
Pretending everything’s okay, he sets off to the fair one day and promises to bring a present home for each girl. The eldest asks for fine clothes, the second asks for pearls and diamonds, and the youngest – by now so dirty and downtrodden she is known only Ashputtel – asks for the first sprig to brush against his hat on his way home. Me, I’d have asked for a one way carriage ride out of there, but Ashputtel is a sentimental little thing and she gets what she asks for. Planting the sprig on her mother’s grave, she waters it every day with her tears until it becomes a fully grown tree where a bird comes to build its nest and watch over her.
Now the king of this particular country gets it into his head to hold a three day long feast, at the end of which his son will choose a bride. Ashputtel’s stepsisters are terribly excited by their invitation and insist on her help to get ready. When she begs her stepmother to let her accompany them, however, she is told to sort peas out of the ashes, which is a mean and slightly noncommittal way of saying Not A Chance. But Ashputtel has a secret weapon. Is it a fairy godmother? No, actually, it is a whole host of birds who fly in through the kitchen window to do the task for her. Denied her excuse, the stepmother backpedals abruptly and says Ashputtel can’t go anyway.
Is that going to stop her? Certainly not! Ashputtel has no mice, but the bird from her tree manages to rustle up a gown of gold and silver, along with a pair of spangled silk slippers. She looks so beautiful that even her sisters don’t recognise her. The king’s son dances with her all night, but instead of letting him see her home she slips off and returns to the cold ashes undetected. The next night, and the night after that, she returns to the palace to dance the night away with the increasingly smitten prince. She won’t tell him who she is and when he tries to follow her, she gives him the slip outside her father’s house, leaving only a slipper behind. The prince announces he will marry whichever lady the shoe fits. Ashputtel’s sisters actually do have beautiful feet, but they can’t make the shoes fit. That’s not enough for this stepmother, however. She takes a knife and cuts off a bit of her eldest girl’s foot to make it small enough. Because, you know, who needs to walk when there’s a crown up for grabs?
It doesn’t work. The prince is fooled, no one said royals had to be smart, but as he is departing he passes under Ashputtel’s tree and a little bird warns him of the deception. Nothing daunted, the stepmother tries it again with her second daughter, and is again foiled by Ashputtel’s bird. The prince decides that surprise, surprise, the stepmother can’t be trusted, and asks Ashputtel’s father instead whether there are any other girls in the house. The answer is “Only a little dirty Ashputtel…the child of my first wife; I am sure she cannot be the bride”. Oh, you think so? The prince has her called in and of course the shoe, which by now must be soaked in blood and totally disgusting, fits first try. Without her having to cut anything off. The prince finally recognises her and whirls her onto his horse. Passing under her tree, the bird confirms the matter once and for all and alights on Ashputtel’s shoulder to join her in her new life as the prince’s bride.
There is a version of this in which the stepsisters lose not only parts of their feet, but also – at the beak of Ashputtel’s bird – both eyes. I do not like this version. I believe it was Charles Perrault who first replaced the bird with a fairy godmother and the spangled silk by glass; it was also Perrault who decided Cinderella should forgive her stepsisters instead of taking bloody revenge in the good old Grimm tradition. Some people resent the ‘sanitisation’, but I think that’s sort of missing the point. This is a fairytale that adapts to fit its listener, whenever and wherever it is told. Once there were killer doves. Then there were dressmaking mice. Now there’s a Cinderella who’s taking on Rumpelstiltskin with capsicum spray. There’s room enough for them all in the Cinderella family, room enough for the Vasilissas and Sarah Winyans and so many more. You haven’t seen the last of the girl from the ashes.
In fact, I don’t think you ever will.