The tale of Cinderella is one of the oldest and most varied of fairy tales. Whilst the names and circumstances of the characters have changed over time, the key elements of a lost possession and a quest for its owner, as well as a marriage to rise above one’s class-station remain the same. The first record of such a story can be traced back to Greece in the sixth century BCE. In this version, a Greek courtesan named Rhodopis was enslaved in Egypt where she had one of her sandals stolen by an eagle who dropped it in the lap of the pharaoh. The pharaoh took the sandal as a sign and set out in search of its owner; once Rhodopis was found, the pharaoh married her. Another early version of the story is that of Ye Xian from ninth-century China. In this tale, Ye Xian is a young girl who uses the one wish from magical fish bones to create a gown with which to find a husband. Once again, the monarch comes in possession of the heroine’s lost shoe, and goes in search of its owner. When Ye Xian is found, the king decides to marry her, and her evil stepmother is crushed by stones in her cave home. Similar tales can be found across the world, with Europe alone containing more than 500 versions of the story! The version selected for use by Disney was that recorded and published by Charles Perrault in 1697 in France. The following story follows the more grisly narrative recorded by the Brothers Grimm, known as Aschenputtel and published in 1812.
Once upon a time, a rich man’s wife became sick, and when she felt that her end was drawing near she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, “Dear child, remain pious and good, and then our dear God will always protect you, and I will look down on you from Heaven and be near you.” With this, she closed her eyes and died.
The girl went out to her mother’s grave every day and wept, and she remained pious and good. When winter came the snow blanketed the grave, and when the spring sun had removed it again, the rich man took another wife. His new wife brought two daughters into the house with her. To the eye they were beautiful, with fair faces, but inside they had evil, ugly hearts. Times soon grew very bad for the poor stepchild.
“Why should that stupid goose sit in the parlour with us?” The sisters said. “If she wants to eat bread, then she will have to earn it. Out with this kitchen maid!”
They took her beautiful clothes away from her, dressed her in an old grey smock, and gave her wooden shoes to wear.
“Just look at the proud princess! Decked out in all her finery!” the sisters laughed as they led her into the kitchen.
There the pious daughter had to do hard work from morning until evening, getting up before daybreak to carry water, make the fires, cook, and wash. Besides this, the sisters did everything imaginable to hurt her and make her life miserable. They made fun of her, scattered peas and lentils into the ashes for her, so that she had to sit and pick them out again. In the evening, when she had worked herself weary, there was no bed for her. Instead she was made to sleep by the hearth in the ashes. Because she now always looked dusty and dirty, covered in soot and ash, they called her Cinderella.
One day it happened that the father was going to the fair, and he asked his two stepdaughters what they should like him to bring back for them.
“Beautiful dresses!” The first one said.
“Pearls and jewels!” Said the other.
The man then turned to his daughter, “And you, Cinderella, what do you want?”
“Father, break off for me the first twig that brushes against your hat on the way home,” she replied.
So the rich man went to the fair, and he bought beautiful dresses, and pearls and jewels for his two stepdaughters. On his way home, as he was riding through a green thicket, a hazel twig brushed against him and knocked off his hat. Then he broke off the twig and took it with him. Arriving home, he gave his stepdaughters the things that they had asked for, and he gave Cinderella the twig from the hazel bush. Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother’s grave, and planted the twig upon it. She wept so much that her tears fell upon the branch and watered it. It grew and became a beautiful tree.
Cinderella went to this tree three times a day, and beneath it she wept and prayed. A white bird came to the tree every time, and whenever she expressed a wish, the bird would throw down to her what she had wishes for.
Now it happened that the king proclaimed a festival that was to last three days. All the beautiful young girls in the land were invited, so that his son could select a bride for himself. When the two stepsisters heard that they too had been invited, they were in high spirits.
They called Cinderella, saying, “Comb our hair for us. Brush our shoes and fasten our buckles. We are going to the festival at the king’s castle!”
Cinderella obeyed, but silently wept because she too would have liked to go to the festival. She begged her stepmother to allow her to go.
“You, Cinderella?” She said. “You, all covered with dust and dirt, and you want to go the festival? You have neither clothes nor shoes, and yet you want to dance!”
However, because Cinderella kept asking, the stepmother finally said, “I have scattered a bowl of lentils into the ashes for. If you can pick them out again in two hours, then you may go with us.”
The stepmother thought that Cinderella would never complete the task in time, but that it would keep her from asking to go. But Cinderella went through the back door into the garden and called out, “You tame pigeons, you turtledoves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help to gather: The good ones go into the pot, the bad ones go into your crop.”
Two white pigeons came in through the kitchen window, and then the turtledoves, and finally all the birds beneath the sky cam whirring and swarming in, and lit around the ashes. The pigeons nodded their heads and began to pick, pick, pick. And the others also began to pick, pick, pick. They gathered all the good grains into the bowl. Hardly one hour had passed before they were finished, and they all flew out again.
Cinderella took the bowl to her stepmother, and was happy, thinking that now she would be allowed to go to the festival with them.
But the stepmother said, “No, Cinderella, you have no clothes, and you do not know how to dance. Everyone would only laugh at you.”
Cinderella began to cry, and then the stepmother said, “You may go if you are able to pick two bowls of lentils out of the ashes for me in one hour,” thinking to herself She will never be able to do that.
Cinderella went through the back door into the garden and called out, “You tame pigeons, you turtledoves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help to gather: The good ones go into the pot, the bad ones go into your crop.”
Two white pigeons came in through the kitchen window, and then the turtledoves, and finally all the birds beneath the sky cam whirring and swarming in, and lit around the ashes. The pigeons nodded their heads and began to pick, pick, pick. And the others also began to pick, pick, pick. They gathered all the good grains into the bowls. Before a half hour had passed they were finished, and they all flew out again.
Cinderella took the bowls to her stepmother, and was happy, thinking that now she would be allowed to go to the festival with them.
But the stepmother said, “It is no use. You are not coming with us, for you have no clothes, and you don’t know how to dance. We would be ashamed of you.”
With this, she turned her back on Cinderella and hurried away with her two proud daughters.
Left alone in the house, Cinderella went out to her mother’s grave beneath the hazel tree, and cried out:
“Shiver and quiver little tree, Throw gold and silver down to me.”
Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver. She quickly put on the dress and went to the festival.
Her stepsisters and her stepmother did not recognise her. They thought she must be a foreign princess, for she looked so beautiful in the golden dress. They never once thought it was Cinderella, for they thought that she was sitting at home, in the dirt, looking for lentils in the ashes.
The prince approached her, took her by the hand, and danced with her. Furthermore, he would dance with no one else. He never let go of her hand, and whenever anyone else came and asked her to dance, he would say, “She is my dance partner.”
She danced until evening, and then she wanted to go home. But the prince said, “I will go along and escort you,” for he wanted to see to what family the beautiful girl belonged.
However, she eluded him and jumped into the pigeon coop. The prince waited until her father came, and then he told him that the unknown girl had jumped into the pigeon coop.
The old man thought, Could it be Cinderella?
He had them bring an axe and a pick so that he could break the pigeon coop apart, but no one was found inside.
When they got home, Cinderella was lying in the ashes. A dim little oil-lamp was burning in the fireplace. Cinderella had quickly jumped down from the back of the pigeon coop and had run to the hazel tree. There she had taken off her beautiful clothes and laid them on her mother’s grave, and the bird had taken them away again. Then, dressed once more in her grey smock, she had returned to the ashes in the kitchen.
The next day when the festival began anew, and the rest of the household had gone again to the festivities, Cinderella went to the hazel tree and said:
“Shiver and quiver, little tree, Throw gold and silver down to me.”
Then the bird threw down a much more magnificent dress than on the preceding day. When Cinderella appeared at the festival in this dress, everyone was astounded by her beauty. The prince had waited until she came, and instantly took her by the hand and danced with no other. When others came and invited her to dance, he said, "She is my dance partner."
When evening came and Cinderella wished to leave, the prince followed her and wanted to see which house she went into. But she sprang away from him, and into the garden of the house. Therein stood a beautiful tall tree on which hung the most magnificent pears. She clambered so nimbly between the branches like a squirrel that the prince did not know where she had gone. He waited until her father came, and said to him, "The strange maiden has escaped from me, and I believe she has climbed up the pear-tree."
The father thought, Could it be Cinderella? and had an axe brought to cut down the tree, but no one was in it. And when they at last got into the kitchen, Cinderella lay there amongst the ashes, as usual, for she had jumped down on the other side of the tree, had taken the beautiful dress to the bird on the little hazel-tree, and put on her grey smock.
On the third day, when the parents and sisters had gone to enjoy the last day of the festival, Cinderella once more went to her mother's grave and said to the little tree:
"Shiver and quiver little tree, Throw gold and silver down to me."
And now the bird threw down to her a dress which was more splendid and magnificent than any she had yet received, and the slippers were golden. When she went to the festival in the dress, no one new how to speak for astonishment. The prince danced only with her and if anyone invited her to dance he said, "She is my dance partner."
When the evening came and Cinderella wished to leave, the prince was anxious to go with her, but she escaped from him so quickly that he could not follow her. The prince had planned for this, however, and had ordered the whole staircase to be smeared with pitch, and there, when she ran down, had the maiden's left slipper remained sticking. The prince picked up the slipper, and it was small and dainty and all golden. The next morning the prince went to his father with the slipper and said to him, "No on shall be my wife but she whose foot this golden slipper fits."
When news of the prince's declaration spread, the two sisters were glad, for they had pretty feet. The eldest went with the shoe into her room and wanted to try it on, and her mother stood by. But she could not get her big toe into it, for the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, "Cut the toe off; when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot."
The maiden cut off her tow, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the prince. Then he took her on his horse as his bride and rode away with her. On their way to the palace, they were obliged to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat two pigeons who cried:
"Turn and peep, turn and peep, There's blood within the shoe, The shoe is too small for her big feet, The true bride waits for you!"
Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was streaming from it. The prince turned his horse round and took the false bride home again, and said she was not the true one, and that the other sister was to put the shoe on. Then this one went into her chamber and got her toes safely into the shoe, but her heel was too large. So her mother gave her a knife and said, "Cut a bit off your heel; when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot."
The maiden cut a bit off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the prince. He took her on his horse as his bride and rode away with her. But when they passed by the hazel-tree, the two pigeons perched on it cried:
"Turn and peep, turn and peep, There's blood within the shoe, The shoe is too small for her big feet, The true bride waits for you!"
The prince looked down at her foot and saw how the blood was running out of the shoe, and how it had stained her white stocking. Then he turned his horse and took the false bride home again.
"This also is not the right one," he said, "have you no other daughter?"
"No," said the man. "There is still a little stunted kitchen-wench my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the bride."
The prince said he was to send her up to him, but the mother answered, "Oh no, she is much too dirty, she cannot show herself!"
He absolutely insisted on it, and Cinderella was to be called. She first washed her hands and face clean, and then went and bowed before the prince, who gave her the golden shoe. She seated herself on a stool, drew her foot out of the heavy wooden clog, and put it into the slipper, which fitted like a glove. When she rose up and the prince looked at her face he recognised the beautiful maiden with whom he had danced and cried, "That is the true bride!"
The step-mother and two sisters were terrified and became pale with rage; he, however, took Cinderella on his horse and rode away with her. As they passed by the hazel tree, the two pigeons cried:
"Turn and peep, turn and peep, No blood is in the shoe, The shoe is not too small for her, The true bride rides with you!"
And when they had cried that, the two birds came flying down and placed themselves on Cinderella's shoulders, one on the right, the other on the left, and remained sitting there.
When the wedding with the prince had to be celebrated, the two false sisters came and wanted to gain favour with Cinderella and share her good fortune. When the betrothed couple went to church, the elder was at the right side, and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye of each of them. Afterwards as they came back, the elder was at the left, and the younger at the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye of each. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.
To learn more about the origins of fairy tales, visit the From Rags to Witches: the grim tale of children's stories exhibition in the Weston Gallery, D H Lawrence Pavilion, Lakeside Arts.
Written by Harriet Clark.