Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Andrew Lang once suggested that the story of Cinderella could be understood only by races whose members wore shoes. It was a 19th-century remark. The appeal of her tale (as we know) is not tied to attire, no matter how resonantly symbolic it may be (in some versions she is identified by a Ring). Over the 1000 or more years it has been told, the heart of the story has remained unmodified: a young girl loses her mother and is stripped of her name and position; in her new debased role (see Debasement) – though never during the time she is dressed in a deceitful Glamour of fabulous clothing – she is recognized for who she truly is, and is redeemed.

The first written version (circa 850-60) comes from China, and was best recorded by Arthur Waley in Folk-Lore, in 1947. Young Yeh-hsien's mother dies; her father takes (or promotes) another to fill her place; the new mother treats her badly, arranging for her own daughters to supplant her. In her degradation, Yeh-hsien is consoled by the Spirit of her mother, which has entered a fish, which the wicked stepmother soon finds and kills; but Yeh-hsien finds its discarded bones, which now protect her. At the next festival she appears in glittering array and infatuates the local warlord, though she loses a shoe in escaping her vile sisters; the king of a nearby island is sold the shoe, and in his longing to find its owner has all the women of the land try the shoe on, but it fits only Yeh-hsien, who becomes his chief wife. According to Iona and Peter Opie, in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974), flying stones kill the stepmother and her children; according to Marina Warner in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairytales and their Tellers (1994), they are stoned to death. Either way, Cinderella comes into her own.

Several hundred versions of the story exist in Europe alone, as demonstrated by Marian Roalfe Cox's Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants (1893). In the first to appear in print, "La Gatta Cenerentola" ["The Cat Cinderella"] in the Pentamerone (1634-1636) of Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), young Zezolla murders her stepmother (who has supplanted her mother) but is further humiliated by yet another usurper, whose six daughters lord it over her; in the end, however, the result is the same. The most famous version of the story is that by Charles Perrault in the Histories or Tales of Past Times (coll 1697), in which the mother is long dead from the first, and a Fairy Godmother is introduced, along with the glass slipper and the pumpkin that turns into a coach. It is a highly literary version, and its conceits proved irresistible, not least to Walt Disney (see Cinderella [1950]). The underlying story remains the same: a young girl is cast into the dust, where she will remain forever, despite moments of false glory, until a genuine Recognition of her true worth and Story, which can happen only when she is dressed in ashes and rags. Padraic Colum's The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes (1919) illus Dugald Stewart Walker is a Twice-Told version.

Because of the universal application of her tale, Cinderella is one of the more effective Underlier figures in modern fantasy; and the felt antiquity of that tale – when properly told – elegantly opens a sense of Time Abyss that may deepen and haunt otherwise uninspiring fare. Over and above the numerous Twice-Told and Revisionist-Fantasy versions of the story, there are many fantasy novels whose recognition scenes in particular evoke echoes of the dramatic revelation of Cinderella's real place in a renewed world. Novels which echo the plot in more specific ways include Ru Emerson's Spell Bound (1990), Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Other Cinderella, With Due Acknowledgements to All the Earlier Versions (1958) and David Henry Wilson's The Coachman Rat (1987). [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.