There is a new film in cinemas, and its plot is a familiar one: a young woman is wrongfully mistreated by those around her until, with the aid of a magical companion, she is finally rewarded. Famed folklorists Aarne and Thompson, who classified hundreds of fairy tales in the early twentieth century, called this type of plot ‘510A: The Persecuted Heroine’. Today’s English-speaking audiences, however, are more likely to recognise it by another, less scientific name: Cinderella. And while the tale is currently finding new life onscreen, director Kenneth Branagh’s take on the ancient story is just the latest in a long literary history of unfortunate leading ladies.
The 1950 animated Disney musical, Cinderella, is in part responsible for popularising certain specific elements that have come to be associated with the Cinderella story, elements that Branagh uses to full advantage. In Disney’s version, which is primarily based on the late seventeenth-century French rendition of the tale, Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, the long-suffering heroine is abused by her stepmother and stepsisters until her fairy godmother helps her meet and marry a prince. Perrault’s interpretation, as chronicled in his Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also introduces other now-iconic elements, such as Cendrillon’s pumpkin carriage and the glass slipper she leaves behind after the ball.
Cenerentola, Aschenputtel, Cenicienta, Zolushka—though the heroine’s name changes, the story‘s skeleton remains essentially similar across cultures, with deviations in the smaller details. Were the slippers made of glass, or of another material, such as gold or fur? Did Cinderella magnanimously forgive her stepsisters or, as in the Brothers Grimm version, were their eyes pecked out by birds? Seemingly infinite variations on the classic tale exist in stories around the world, many of which pre-date Perrault’s, some by millennia.
The earliest known Cinderella story dates back to antiquity; Rhodopis, a Greek slave, marries an Egyptian king after a falcon drops her shoe before him. Others may be even older, but these can be difficult to date precisely as many were part of an oral tradition long before being recorded; in one Native American legend, a Zuni folktale, a poor turkey herder’s birds recognise her compassion and help her attend a celebration, only to leave her when she does not return in time. In the story of Ye Xian, a Chinese fairy tale which first appears written in the ninth century, it is the heroine’s dead mother, whose spirit lives on in a fish, that assists her. Many of the rags-to-riches stories compiled in the Arabic text, A Thousand and One Nights, also fit the Cinderella mould.
Whatever it is that has attracted readers, listeners and filmgoers to Cinderella stories for centuries, continues to fascinate; the plot is still tweaked, retold and picked apart, from Gail Carson Levine’s award-winning young adult novel, Ella Enchanted, to, well, 2015’s Cinderella, starring Lily James, now showing at a cinema near you.