She’s been with most of us our whole lives, from watching a Disney adaptation, to the many variations Hollywood frequently churn out. And she’s been in the lives of people for a longer time still, from the French tale of little Cendrillon and the glass slipper and her pumpkin-turned-carriage, to the Brothers Grimm tale of lentils in the fire and ugly step-sisters chopping toes off to fit into a golden shoe. It’s, quite simply, a story which has lasted hundreds of years and hasn’t dulled in the minds of popular imagination. The story of the poor servant Cinderella, who finds her prince and reward in life after years of abuse, is a story that has lasted into the twenty-first century.
A common thing to hear concerning the Disney version of Cinderella is that it’s a much tamer, Disney-fied version of the ‘original’ Cinderella tale, which is actually a misconception. If comparing to the Brothers Grimm tale of Cinderella, where the shoe Cinderella leaves behind is full of blood and her step-sisters chop off their toes and heels, then yes. It is much more tame. However, the Grimm Brothers didn’t write the ‘original’ Cinderella, and although Charles Perrault didn’t either, his does pre-date the Grimm’s collection.
The version Disney based theirs on was one of the most popular versions of Cinderella, written in French by Perrault in 1697, called Cendrillon. In his version, the pumpkin, fairy-godmother and the glass slippers made their appearance. The Grimm brother’s Aschenputtel, however, she wears gold slippers and her night at the ball is given to her, not by a fairy-godmother but a wishing tree growing on her mother’s grave and her step-sisters are not forgiven, but have their eyes pecked out by birds. But where do these stories come from?
The earliest known telling of Cinderella follows the story of Rhodopis – a hetaera in Ancient Greece. Her actual story is mentioned by Herodotus, who mentions she was a slave of Iadmon of Samos. In the story, told 500 years later, Rhodopis is bathing when an eagle snatches her sandal and flies it over the king, dropping it in his lap. Amazed by the strangeness of the occurrence and beauty of the sandal, he demands that the woman who owns it be found. When Rhodopis is found, she becomes his wife.
There’s something inspiring across the ages about a poor servant girl, abused and mistreated by family, achieving prosperity, through her kindness and good nature. It’s why it has lasted the years, been retold again and again in a number of variations – and why Disney itself has made two separate versions. Newer variations, like the 1998 Ever After, portray one step-sister as more concerned for Cinderella and nicer towards her. The 2015 Cinderella even gave some screen time, identity and motive to the Prince, although not the same motive as the Grimm’s prince, who decided to trap Aschenputtel on the steps to the palace which causes her to leave a shoe so he can find her.