One of the most well-known stories ever written, Cinderella and its
universal tale of the human heart has appealed to young and old for centuries.
Variations on Cinderella's myth appear in folktales in almost every world
culture: she's known as "Yeh-Shen" in China, "The Rough-Face Girl" to the
Algonquin Indians of North America, "Chinye" and "Nyasha" to the people
of Africa, "Tattercoats" in England, and "Cenerentola" to Rossini. While
these versions vary in some degree, the general tale usually centers around
a kind, but oppressed character persecuted by the step-family. Typically,
the father is either neglectful or absent; consequently, Cinderella must
rely on a magical guardian for assistance in achieving her deepest wish.
Scholars disagree as to exactly how many versions of the popular tale exist,
with numbers ranging from 340 to over 3,000 versions, including picture
books and musical interpretations. Although the story doesn't have a singular
author, there are several notable interpreters.
The earliest known version of Cinderella originated in China. Recorded
on paper by Tuan Ch'eng-shih in the middle of the ninth century, this version
centers around "Yeh-Shen," a beautiful young girl whose mother has died.
Raised by a spiteful stepmother, Yeh-Shen's only friend is a fish in the
river near her home. After her stepmother kills her fish, Yeh-Shen is told
by an old man to gather the fish bones and make a wish. She wishes to attend
the spring festival, and she is granted a beautiful outfit complete with
golden slippers. Yeh-Shen loses one of her slippers while running away from
her stepmother at the festival; however, a villager discovers it and it
eventually finds its way to the King. The King searches everywhere for the
rightful owner of the slipper, and when Yeh-Shen puts the magic slipper
on, her clothes are transformed into the beautiful attire from her night
at the festival and the King proposes to her. Although the couple lives
happily ever after, this version of the story punishes the stepmother and
stepsister for their cruelty — they are stoned to death by the villagers.
The Algonquin Indians of North America also created a Cinderella myth
known as "The Rough-Face Girl."
The youngest sister is forced by her two older sisters to tend the village
fire for hours, causing her hair and face to burn from the cinder sparks.
The powerful and magical chieftain is seeking a wife, but he is invisible.
Although both sisters claim to know what the chieftain looks like, he is
visible only to Rough-Face Girl — because her heart is pure and honest,
she is able to see the his image in the forest and the sky. Dressing herself
in a birch-bark dress and worn moccasins, she walks to meet the chieftain.
Her beauty is restored after she bathes in a lake, and she is soon married
to the chieftain.
A West-African interpretation of Cinderella, the story of "Chinye,"
does not focus on marrying a prince.
Chinye is sent by her stepmother into the forest at night to get water.
Animals protect Chinye from the dangers of the forest. On her way home,
Chinye meets an old woman who tells her to go into a hut where there are
gourds on the floor, and she is to take the tiniest, quietest gourd home
and break it. Chinye does as she is told and when she breaks the gourd,
treasures spill out. In a jealous rage, her stepsister finds the house with
the gourds and greedily selects the largest one. She eagerly runs home to
split her gourd open, but instead of treasures, the broken gourd unleashes
a terrible storm. Chinye's stepfamily loses everything. Because they are
too proud to ask for help, the stepfamily moves. Chinye is left behind and
chooses to use her wealth to help her village.
Inspired by a folktale from Zimbabwe, John Steptoe's book Mufaro's Beautiful
Daughters tells the Cinderella story of "Nyasha" as told in African villages.
Mufaro loves both of his daughters, but Manyara is selfish and conceited
while Nyasha is kind and sensitive. Nyasha befriends a magical snake named
Nyoka while working in her garden. Soon the King of Zimbabwe announces that
he is seeking a wife. Both Manyara and Nyasha make the difficult journey
to his city. Along the way, the sisters encounter a hungry boy and an old
woman. Nyasha happily shares her food and is kind to all she encounters
while Manyara refuses to share and is disrespectful. When the sisters approach
the King's room, Nyasha discovers that the king is her friend, the magical
snake Nyoka. Nyoka asks for Nyasha's hand in marriage and her selfish sister
is forced to be her servant.
The British put a slight twist on the traditional Cinderella story
with "Tattercoats." This particular version of the Cinderella myth involves
a grandfather instead of a stepmother, and a Prince who falls in love
before the grand ball.
Tattercoats lives with her grandfather who doesn't care for her. He vows
never to lay eyes on her because his favorite daughter died while in labor
with Tattercoats, so she is forced to beg for food and wear rags. Her only
friend is a boy who tends to the livestock. When the Prince announces that
he will have a ball to choose a bride, Tattercoats and her friend walk to
the palace to watch the procession. Along the way, a wealthy gentleman encounters
them, falls in love with Tattercoats, and proposes to her. She refuses,
but does agree to go to the palace at midnight in order that he may see
her again. When she arrives at the palace in her tattered clothing, everyone
laughs at her. The wealthy gentleman reveals that he is the Prince and selects
her as his bride. Her clothes are transformed into beautiful garments and
her friend becomes a squire.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm retell a less forgiving version of the Cinderella
tale with "Aschenputtel" or "Ash Girl."
The Grimm version, published in 1812, does not include a fairy godmother.
Instead, the heroine plants a tree on her mother's grave. Magical help appears
to Cinderella in the form of a white dove. While some versions of the Cinderella
tale include a happier ending for the stepsisters, in the Grimm interpretation
they become permanently blind after their eyes are pecked out by birds from
In 1697, French author Charles Perrault published Contes de ma Mere
L'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose), a collection of folktales he interpreted
such as "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Cinderella." It
is this version which was immortalized by Walt Disney, complete with the
fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage, and the glass slipper.
In the original story, Cinderella's slipper had been made of fur;
however, scholars think Perrault may have confused vair (French
for "fur") with the word verre (French for "glass"). Perrault
recorded the story as it had been told by storytellers, but added the
magical elements for literary effect. Perrault was also slightly more
humane than many other interpreters — he ends his version of the tale
with Cinderella forgiving her sisters, offering them lodging in her
palace, and finding them two men of the court to marry.
Rossini's Cinderella Librettist Jacopo Ferretti was inspired by Charles
Perrault's rendition of the popular tale. Knowing a fairy tale proved risky
for an opera audience, Ferretti made several changes to Perrault's version,
including the absence of the fairy godmother and the "wicked" stepmother.
Ferretti wrote a preface to the opera, explaining the changes he made to
Perrault's tale: "This ought not to be considered as a crime of disrespect,
but rather a necessity on the stage of the Teatro Valle, and an act of respect
to the delicacy of Romans' taste, which does not tolerate on the stage what
is diverting in a tale told by the fireside."
Regardless of the interpretation, the Cinderella stories examine the
test of the human spirit. "Yeh-Shen," "Chinye," "Nyasha," "Rough-Face Girl,"
and "Cenerentola" all successfully move from victim to heroine because of
their goodness and innocence. Jealousy and cruelty are repeatedly punished.
Cinderella reminds us that compassion and sensitivity will be rewarded.
Boyden, Matthew. Opera: the Rough Guide. 1997.
"Cinderella: A Timeless Tale from Many Lands." Austin Lyric Opera.
"The Composition of LA CENERENTOLA." Dayton Opera.
"Gioacchino Rossini, a Very Brief Biography." from Opera World's website
Opera Broadcast Booth. http://www.operaworld.com
Heiner, Heidi Anne. "SurLaLune Annotated Fairy Tales: History
of Cinderella." 2000. http://members.aol.com/surlalune/frytales.
Lucas, Jennisen. "If the Shoe Fits: An Annotated Bibliography on the Popular
Tale of Cinderella."