Rehearsals are well underway at the California Ballet studios for our next big production: Cinderella! To be presented at the San Diego Civic Theatre on May 5th and 6th, Cinderella will close out California Ballet Company’s 44th season. Trust us, you don’t want to miss this fabulously whimsical romp, so CLICK HERE for more information, or to buy tickets.
With this big ballet on our doorstep, we wanted to take a look at the history of the story of Cinderella. Where did it come from? How did it get so well known? How many versions are there?
We all know the story of Cinderella. A young woman is horribly put upon by her step-family. She’s a slave in her own home, forced to cater to her family’s whims. The prince of the kingdom has reached marrying age, and is being forced to hold a grande ball that will be open to all the eligible maidens in the kingdom. Of course, the heroine’s step-sisters immediately begin to make preparations to go to the ball, and the poor young serving girl is left behind. She prays to her fairy godmother to be allowed to attend the ball, and is rewarded with a beautiful ball gown, an enchanted carriage, and slippers made of glass. At the ball, the prince falls in love with her, but the spell providing the heroine with her apparel and ride breaks at the stroke of midnight, and the young woman flees the palace. While running away, she loses one of her enchanted slippers. The magic for some reason holds, the slipper remains, and the prince begins searching the kingdom for the mysterious beauty that fled from his ball, forcing every maiden to try on the slipper. The prince eventually discovers his love in grungy servant’s clothing when the slipper fits perfectly.
Familiar story, right? Did you know that even this familiar version varies widely? For example, in some versions Cinderella prays not to her fairy godmother, but to a tree that’s grown over her mother’s grave and a white dove brings her the shoes and dress. Sometimes the step-family is described as “fair of face, but vile of heart” and other times they are just plain ugly. Sometime’s Cinderella’s father is alive and negligent of his daughter’s needs, and other times he’s dead. In one instance, the step-family gets their eyes pecked out by the Cinderella’s birds at the end of the story! Nonetheless, the core of the story remains the same in all these versions: girl is miserable, girl prays for help, girl meets boy and runs away, boy finds girl, they live happily ever after.
Now, most of you are probably familiar with the animated version of this fairy tale that puts the heroine in an iconic blue ball gown. Undoubtedly, this version has made the story of Cinderella more than famous today. But, did you know that the story of Cinderella not only popped up for the first time thousands of years ago, but it also has many, many, many different versions spanning dozens of different cultures? It’s true!
The first appearance of our heroine may be attributed to the ancient Egyptians! The first written record of the tale appeared in Greece during the 1st century B.C. It described a girl in ancient Egypt who’s shoe is stolen by a passing eagle. The eagle takes the shoe to Memphis and drops it in the lap of the Pharaoh. The king is so overcome by the beauty and daintiness of the slipper that he orders a search for the maiden! Of course, this story was part of the tradition of oral storytelling long before it was ever written down. There are other histories from ancient Greece that describe the maiden of this story as a slave who is freed by the king. The similarities leads some scholars to attribute this story as the first appearance of our little cinder girl.
Fast forward almost a thousand years, and in 860 A.D. the first version of the story to closely resemble what we know today appeared in China. The story of Ye Xian tells the tale of a young woman whose mother is killed by her stepmother and step sister. Her mother is reincarnated as a fish who helps the maiden prepare for the New Year’s festival. At the festival, she is discovered by her step-family and loses her shoe as she runs away. The kind discovers the shoe and falls in love with the maiden.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
A story similar to the Chinese version exists in the Philippines, except that the mother is reincarnated as a crab.
There is a version in Vietnam a well, where a maiden is fooled out of her birthright by her step-family. The rest of the story follows the same plot with a festival and a king and a slipper, but this time the story ends with the CInderella character boiling her stepsister alive and then feeding her to her unwitting stepmother! Gruesome, huh?
Of the Eastern versions of the story, the Korean version is the closest to what Americans and western culture recognize as Cinderella. There’s a fairy godmother figure, a celebration at the royal palace, and a slipper!
Lots of you have probably heard of Scheherazade’s Aabian Nights. This collection of stories is best known for Aladdin, Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor. But there are also several middle-eastern stories in the collection that are particularly reminiscent of Cinderella. There are several stories dealing with a younger sibling being put-upon by older siblings. The interesting thing is that there are even Cinderella stories in this collection that feature a man and his evil brothers, giving the story a new twist. Arabian Nights is worth reading for its own merits as a cultural classic. But for you Cinderella enthusiasts out there, it’s a must. Give it a read, see if you can figure out which stories are connected with our favorite fairy tale.
“That’s all well and interesting,” you say, “but where does the story we know come from?”
Well, a very popular version of the story is attributed to the Brothers Grimm. Dating from the 19th century, many of our fairy tales were made famous by the pair of brothers: Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Frog Prince, and more. Of course, amongst those fairy tales is Cinderella, originally called Aschenputtel (the Brothers Grimm were German.) The story is almost identical to what we now know with a step mother, two step sisters, a prince, and a slipper. There a few differences, however. This is the version that has the wishing tree instead of a fairy godmother. The stepsisters are gorgeous instead of ugly, they also get their eyes pecked out by birds at the end of the story. The biggest difference is that the prince’s ball lasts not one night, but three! The first night Cinderella appears in all silk, and runs away at midnight. The second, all silver. On the third night, she is dressed in gold, and the prince is prepared for her to run away. He smears pitch all over the palace stairs, Cinderella gets stuck, and loses one of her golden – not glass – slippers. The rest of the story is the same.
Well, that’s closer to what we know. The Grimms brothers, however were simply rewriting a story that had already existed for 200 years! The story that we know best, as made famous by a mouse, was written by a man named Charles Perrault. This is the first time that the story appears in Western Culture (that is to say Europe.) There is a fairy godmother, a pumpkin-carriage, mice that turn into horses, an evil and ugly step-family, and of course a glass slipper! This version first appeared on the scene in France, 1697. The French fairy tale would go on to inspire rewrites (by the Brothers Grimm), ballets, movies, cartoons, and more. This is the version that we are all familiar with, and story behind California Ballet’s version.
Charles Perrault is the man the invented the Fairy Tale. Mother goose? Her name was Charles. Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots – they all belong to Perrault!
That’s a brief history of a fairy tale that spans centuries, continents, cultures and hearts. We all love Cinderella, and now you know a little more about it.
Isn’t it amazing how many cultures throughout history have told the story of the little cinder girl, her evil family, and the ever-present hope of a better life? China, Egypt, Korea, Vietnam, the middle-east, Germany, and France – they all have this story as a part of their cultures! Perhaps there’s a deeper moral to be learned by Cinderella other than to be good and kind and not lose hope.
The more important lesson is that all of these cultures across all of these centuries have something in common – people aren’t really all that different, are they? We all want to hope and dream that even in the face some bad times, there is always the hope for something better on the horizon.
May 5, 2012 at 7:00pm
May 6, 2012 at 1:00pm
San Diego Civic Theatre
For tickets and information call 858-560-6741, go online to www.californiaballet.org/season/cinderella, or CLICK HERE!
**some information in this post is credited to wikipedia.com and California Ballet’s Teacher’s Sourcebook.