Columns > Published on March 13th, 2015

The Strange History of Cinderella

This month, Disney will release a brand new, live action version of perhaps its most recognizable animated film, Cinderella. This retelling from writer Chris Weitz (Antz, About A Boy) and director Kenneth Branagh (a bit of an acting/directing powerhouse with too many credits to mention) seems faithful to the 1950 original, featuring an overall bright color palette and a light, fanciful tone. This is a departure from the spate of "dark re-imaginings" we've seen in the last few years—Snow White and The Huntsman and Maleficent, for example. But the tale as we know it (i.e., the Disney version) isn't so squeaky clean, and it derives from numerous sources dating all the way back to ancient Greece. Let's deconstruct this patchwork history of Cinderella and source out its most recognizable elements, as well as explore some weirder, nastier bits that have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor.


Cinderella is categorized as a 510 A, the persecuted heroine in the Aarne-Thompson classification system, defined by Wikipedia as such:

The Aarne-Thompson tale type index is a multivolume listing designed to help folklorists identify recurring plot patterns in the narrative structures of traditional folktales...

We all know the basic plot, but just in case some memories are fuzzy, here's a brief recap: 

A young, beautiful girl suffers at the hands of a cruel stepmother and two (or three) nasty stepsisters. They force her to toil day and night and eventually give her a derogatory nickname that reflects her permanent ashy, sooty or cinder-like appearance—i.e., Cinderella. Her only friends are the mice living in the old mansion, which is sad but also endearing and shows Cinderella's kindness to all creatures large and small.

Disney hopes to maintain the very concept of their princesses by upholding Perrault's vision of the character and the story...Nice and clean, like the Disney of the 50s.

One day, there's to be a fancy ball hosted by the attractive and single prince, during which the young stud will try to find himself a lady. Cinderella wants to attend, and even makes her own stunning gown, but the stepmom destroys the garment. Wouldn't want to hurt her own daughters' chances, would she? Alone and sobbing, the grossly abused girl gets a visit from her fairy godmother, who spins some crazy magic and gives her an even better dress to impress the manly prince, plus a pair of implausibly wearable glass slippers. The god-fairy transforms a pumpkin into a chariot and mice into horses, so Cindy can arrive in style. All this for her, so long as she high-tails it out of the ball before midnight, when the magic wears off. Cinderella goes to the castle, charms the prince's pants off (figuratively), but has to flee after losing track of time. No one sees the gorgeous mystery woman change back into a dirty scullery maid, and none's the wiser to her true identity. Except of course that she left one of her glass slippers behind (and it conveniently doesn't dissipate into nothing, I might add). So the charming prince searches the land far and wide, forcing women to try on this shoe in the hopes of finding his would-be wife. The stepmom attempts to thwart Cindy's fitting, it doesn't work out that way, Cindy slips on the shoe, it fits—and if the shoe fits, you must commit—badda bing, badda boom, happily ever after.


Cinderella was based on a real person, Rhodopis, a Greek hetaera (or courtesan) who was rumored to be an acquaintance of Aesop. A slave to Xanthes, her master eventually brought her to Egypt where, depending on who's telling the story, she was freed for a large sum of money by a merchant named Charaxus, or married the King of Egypt (the woman is fascinating and carries with her several tall tales, which you can read about at Wikipedia). It is with the latter rumor about Rhodopis's fate that the earliest version of the Cinderella fable appears. The contemporary Greek historian Strabo relates this fantastic tale (sourced from William Smith and company's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, reprinted on Wikipedia):

It is said that as Rhodopis was one day bathing at Naucratis, an eagle took up one of her sandals, flew away with it, and dropped it in the lap of the Egyptian king...Struck by the strange occurrence and the beauty of the sandal, he did not rest till he had found the fair owner of the beautiful sandal, and as soon as he had discovered her made her his queen.

Variants of this story began to appear throughout the world. The story of  Yeh-Shen is, according to Heidi Anne Heiner, author of Cinderella Tales From Around The World and the website SurLaLune Fairytales, "the oldest known Cinderella tale recorded in China," and indeed the first true Cinderella tale since it features nearly every element of the story with which we're now familiar. Written by Tuan Ch'êng-shih, it was first published around 856-860 AD in Yu Yang Tsa Tsu, or Miscellany of Forgotten Lore. We see the "wicked stepmother"; the plain-looking, equally evil stepsister (here a half-sister); the innocent and kind protagonist, forced to toil but ultimately aided by a supernatural spirit, in this case a guardian fish who grants Yeh-Shen wishes; a celebration during which, it is hoped, the young maidens will find husbands; a magically-fabricated dress and shoes, here gold rather than glass; a desperate search by a king (like in the Rhodopis tale) to find the owner of the exquisite slipper; eventual marriage of said owner and the king, and a happily-ever-after for the abused protagonist. The only difference with Yeh-Shen is that the stepmom and half-sister are banished to the wilderness forever, where they live as unhappily as Yeh-Shen had and are ultimately killed by fiery stones rained down from the sky. You don't see that level of shaudenfreude in a Disney movie, that's for sure.

Sometime around 1475, an unknown author or authors created "The Storie of Aseneth (or Asneth)", a slight retelling of a biblical tale. According to Russell Peck, author of the ongoing project The Cinderella Bibliography, housed within the University of Rochester website,

Asneth...abandons her father and mother’s ways, becomes an orphan, puts on ashes and sackcloth, and prays for seven days. An angel godparent comes to her, bids her rise from the ashes, cleans her, dresses her beautifully in a new linen robe...then gives her a visionary dream which she shares with the prince, Joseph...[Asneth] goes to the gate where she meets Joseph, who is returning to the city. They share their mutual dream and then are married...

The appearance of this tale is significant for two reasons: one, the transition from a guardian animal to "angel godparent" sets a precedent for all future Cinderella variants (eventually, of course, leading to the familiar fairy godmother); and two, Aseneth's sooty clothing provides the source for the character name modern audiences know—cinder obviously being related to ash (see also the discussion of "Aschenputtel" below).

The oldest European correlative to the Cinderella story appears in The Pentamerone (roughly translated from Neapolitan as The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for the Little Ones), a collection of stories by Italian poet Giambattista Basile, published posthumously in 1634. Titled "Cenerentola," many of the typical elements appear here—wicked stepmother and stepsisters, the abused protagonist (here, Zezolla) and magic slippers. Of particular significance is the appearance of Zezolla's "fairy godmother," who lives in a date tree planted and cultivated by our heroine. Here we see a magical female figure (no doubt inspired by "The Storie of Aseneth") directly linked with nature (the date tree). This proves important because, like Aseneth's angel godparent, a precedent of linking Cinderella to nature springs directly from "Cenerentola."

This combination of natural and supernatural shows up in another Pentamerone story, "The She-Bear," a variant of the Cinderella tale classified by Aarne-Thompson as 510B, unnatural love. While many narrative details are quite different—there are no wicked women here; instead, the protagonist flees her home after learning she must marry her own father(!)—eventually this tale and all its direct siblings end up looking like their older cousin: fairy godmothers, magic gowns, handsome princes, and a search to find the perfect fit (here, generally a ring rather than a slipper). As a means of escape, the godmother figure usually provides the heroine with some kind of animalistic disguise, as with Bastile's tale, in which protagonist Preziosa transforms into a bear, but also in "Donkey-Skin" by Charles Perrault (perhaps the most important figure in this article, as you shall see), in which the princess disguises herself in the titular brown pelt; and of course, in The Grimm Brothers' "Allerleirauh," which features a mantle made of every kind of fur from every kind of animal in the kingdom. This recurrent association of the Cinderella figure with animals no doubt lead to Disney's protagonist eventually befriending mice and birds, with credit also going to the Grimm's "Aschenputtel" (see below).

Perrault's "Donkey-Skin" first appeared in 1695, but his direct contribution to the Cinderella tale appeared two years later in his collection of fairy tales Histoires ou contes du temps passé (otherwise known as Mother Goose Tales). Heidi Anne Heiner states that the author's "influence over the popularity of Cinderella cannot be overstated," as the details he added to the story "have inspired countless renditions of the tale in print, theatre, music, and art since its publication," including the much-beloved Disney film. Perrault's "Cendrillon" features numerous "firsts": mentioning the godmother as a fairy, a pumpkin transforming into a carriage, mice into horses, glass slippers (as opposed to gold), the midnight cut-off for the godmother's magic, and the protagonist losing track of time and fleeing the ball before the spell breaks, which leads to her losing one of her slippers. 

Indeed, the Disney version is more or less a direct adaptation of "Cendrillon," with the added element of Cinderella's animal friends. This lighter and more fanciful take ignores the tale's historically darker elements (save for the abusive stepmother and sisters). It also overshadows the second most popular rendition, the Grimm Brothers' "Aschenputtel" (translated as Ash-Fool), which is the proper (and much more gruesome) descendent of Yeh-Shen, appearing nearly two hundred years after Perrault's tale. Here we see the reappearance of a magic tree, which grows from the grave of Aschenputtel's biological mother, whose ghost serves as the "fairy godmother" figure. Throughout the narrative, our heroine also receives assistance from a pack of heavenly doves, the only Grimm element to carry over into Disney's retelling. These birds prove most  useful during the climactic shoe-fitting scene: the stepsisters mutilate their large feet (one cuts off her toes, while the other slices off her heel) in order to fit into the slipper, and the doves alert the prince to the dripping blood. Afterwards, as punishment for their treachery and abuse, the doves peck out the stepsisters' eyes. The lesson here, as with Yeh-Shen, is this: be kind and charitable in all your doings, and you will live happily ever after; but act with cruelty and greed, and you will suffer tenfold. 

Granted, Disney would probably never venture into territory that violent, but the company's avoidance of an adaptation incorporating Cinderella's darker elements does raise an eyebrow, considering their willingness to do so with other properties. If I might offer a theory: when someone says the phrase "Disney Princess," which of the many characters wedged into that categorization comes to mind first? Undoubtedly, its Cinderella. With that in mind, I believe Disney hopes to maintain the very concept of their princesses by upholding Perrault's vision of the character and the story, in which the greatest rewards are showered on Cinderella and the wicked women are left with scraps, without suffering any serious repercussions for their awful behavior. Nice and clean, like the Disney of the 50s. If it's true that keeping old Cindy in the traditional princess box represents the company's attempt to maintain that spiffy image, then we need a dark retelling of Cinderella—or rather, a direct adaptation of "Aschenputtel"—now more than ever. (The closest thing we have is an episode of Jim Henson's The Storyteller called "Sapsarrow," which is a hybrid of Cinderella and the Grimm's "Allerleirauh," in which the titular character's animal friends clamor onto her body to form a living fur disguise. More like this, please).  

Are you excited to see Disney's new live-action Cinderella, or would you like to see something more akin to the Grimm Brothers' twisted but ultimately truthful vision? What are some of your favorite strange histories of other popular fairy tales?

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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