• Lauren Straley

Cinderella In Tennis Shoes: The Evolution of The Fairy Tale

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

Castle nestled on a mountain with a waterfall.

Fairy tales have always inspired cultures, interwoven in oral narrative traditions and cultural practices that span thousands of years. Passed through many lips, in varying tongues, and penned in several countries these tales excite and fascinate us.

When you think of a fairy tale, what comes to mind? A young girl, a handsome prince, insurmountable odds, dresses that glitter, talking animals, a wicked step-parent, and a happy ending? Our modern day interpretations would lead us to believe that this list is the backbone of most of these tales.

But what is left when the glitter fades? The origins of many of our modern fairy tales have complex roots, ones that often feature violent and cruel acts. Where do these stories come from and how have they continued to leave a mark on society?

Once Upon A Time

Fairy tales are said to have originated in the ancient oral storytelling tradition. In ancient times, the tales would not have been looked at through the same mirror as we see them today. For example, these stories were not told to entertain children, rather they were meant to embody a message important to societal rituals and customs. The intricacies that exist among cultures can account for the many versions of (what we deem) ‘classic’ fairy tales.

Before we go further, I’d like to point out some terminology that will come in handy when thinking about the history of fairy tales.

Myth: A story which is often believed as true, that resembles a sacred belief or ritual of a society, and features inhuman, supernatural, immortal, or heroic protagonists.

Legend: A tale passed down through generations that is thought to be historically accurate and features an extraordinary human as the protagonist.

Fairy tale: A story of magic and wonder, a fairy tale takes an unlikely and unassuming person to rise up and become its hero.

Fairy tales, as many stories, have a predictable arc one that is recognizable from tale to tale. Here is a list of elements that can be found throughout many fairy tales.

  • They tend to be short. Before the 17th century, the term could apply to novel length work, but modern fairy tales are often a few pages maximum.

  • These stories tend to be familiar and rely on the combination and recombination of plots, characters, devices, and images. For example, many fairy tales feature a forlorn, young, poor, pretty female lead. Many also have animal sidekicks who can talk. One of the most ubiquitous devices though is the use of magic and wonder.

  • Acts of imagination and magic drive the plot. These stories also allow for supernatural agency. For example, would Cinderella have made it to the ball without the magic of the fairy godmother?

  • Happy endings are a staple.

Not Just Sugar and Spice

Fairy tales often have a grim historical past. Take for instance, Cinderella. Disney took this character and made her into a child’s dream: a young, impoverished girl rising above her station to marry the love of her life and live happily ever after. This classic rags to riches tale is popular among American audiences. But who was Cinderella and where did she come from?

A statue of a young girl sits among the blooms.

Researchers say that over 500 versions (written and oral) exist featuring this classic Disney princess. The first comes from Greece in the 6th century BCE as Rhodopis, a courtesan. The story goes that an eagle took one of her shoes and flew across the Mediterranean to place it in the lap of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Inspired by the gesture as a sign from the heavens, the king travels far and wide, finds Rhodopis and makes her one of his (many) brides. (Not exactly happily ever after.)

While the story of Rhodopis came first, many attribute the first version of Cinderella to the ninth century Chinese tale, Ye Xian. This story charts the journey of Ye Xian, a poor girl in search of a better life. She finds magical fish bones and is granted one wish, in which she decides to make a beautiful dress in hopes of winning male attention to find a husband. At an event, Ye Xian loses a shoe and her royal suitor finds and marries her.

Europe also wanted to add to the collection of Cinderella stories that populated the world. The one that bares the most striking resemblance to the modern version comes from 17th century Italy and is called Cenerentola. Its heroine, Zezolla, is strong-willed and quick thinking who does not want to marry the king. She escapes his advances at 2 balls, but at the 3rd, the king traps her and prevents her from leaving. Ultimately, he gets what he wants and the two marry.

By the time the French got their hands on this story, they made it into the classic Cinderella story we know and love and the man responsible was Charles Perrault. He is often credited as the father of the fairy tale. It was Perrault’s version, riddled with the glass slipper, pumpkins, and fairy godmother that would be told and adapted for the next 400 years.

With Cinderella’s tour through Europe, Germany also had the chance to get their version out into the world. The Grimm brothers collected German fables to preserve their history and one of the most famous is called Aschenputtel. This story is much darker than the rest. Most notably, the heroine’s step sisters take drastic measures to attempt to make the missing shoe fit, by mutilating their feet. One cut off her big toe, the other sliced a chunk of her heel. If that wasn’t bad enough, on Cinderella’s wedding day doves peck their eyes out during the ceremony leaving them permanently blind.

The history of Cinderella is rich and complex. It offers a unique perspective on the growth and adaptations of such a story from the lens of different countries, cultures, and time periods.

In A Land Not So Far Away

A little closer to home, the story of Cinderella lives on in many modern film adaptations. Filmmakers and audiences alike are captivated by the narrative devices and tropes found in this tale. So strong is the interest that the most film adaptations of this story have occurred in the past decade. Here are some examples:

  • A Cinderella Story: If The Shoe Fits (2016)

  • Cinderella (2015)

  • Once Upon a Time (2011)

  • A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song (2011)

  • Another Cinderella Story (2008)

  • Enchanted (2007)

  • The Prince and Me (2004)

  • A Cinderella Story (2004)

  • Ella Enchanted (2004)

  • What A Girl Wants (2003)

  • The Princess Diaries (2001)

  • Ever After (1998)

There are 12 adaptations on this list, and this is just filtered for movies based on Cinderella! If I looked into other fairy tales, the list would go on for pages and pages until you stopped reading.

This list goes to show that modern audiences crave the stuff of fairy tales. We want to know more about them and can’t get enough of seeing the girl get the guy and live happily ever after.

But we cannot forget the origins of these beloved tales. They offer new insights into the stories we think we know so well, and hopefully cause us to think more deeply about the role they play in each society that encounters them.

"Star light, star bright,

The first star I see tonight;

I wish I may, I wish I might,

Get the wish I wish tonight."

A shooting star dances in the night sky.

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