Allison's Book Bag

The Best Known Fairy Tale

Posted on: November 25, 2014

If you had to recount the story of Cinderella right now, you could probably do it quite easily. Evil stepfamily, fairy godmother, a royal ball, glass slipper, stroke of midnight…. Thanks to Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm (and to some extent Disney), these motifs are pretty well woven into our literary heritage.

Indeed, the story of Cinderella is one of our best-known fairy tales, but Cinderella isn’t just one story. Sources disagree about how many versions exist, but SurLaLune states that numbers range conservatively from 300 to over 1,500! Almost every culture seems to have its own version, and every storyteller his or her tale.

One of the most modern, Cinder by Marissa Meyers, features a cyborg. I reviewed it here in 2012. This week I’ll review the next two published sequels, both of which are also based on well-recognized fairy tales, in The Lunar Chronicles. As a prelude, I’m going to share some of the origins of the Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. Save the date: November 26-28!


There are several ancient myths and stories which include a few Cinderella motifs. SurLaLune recommends Graham Anderson’s book, Fairytale in the Ancient World as one of the best published discussions about Cinderella in antiquity. According to SurLaLune, some of the best candidates for earliest Cinderella include Egypt’s Rhodopis, Greece’s Aspasia, and the Jewish Asenath. ALA also states that the tale’s origins may also date back to a Chinese story from the ninth century, Yeh-Shen.


Perrault_CinderellaWhile it’s not known which oral and literary versions of Cinderella inspired Charles Perrault, there’s no doubt he left his literary stamp on the tale when he published it for the first time in Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralités in 1697. When most people think of Cinderella, SurLaLune contends, a version of Perrault’s tale is the one they imagine. His fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage, and glass slippers have inspired countless renditions of the tale since its publication.

According to SurLaLune, Perrault’s fairy godmother is not considered a unique invention, but instead his own interpretation of the magic helper. This interpretation was perhaps inspired by the French literary salons he frequented, especially that of his niece and her friends, both of whom wrote tales with Cinderella motifs.

In contrast, Perrault most likely invented the glass slipper. SurLaLune states that there is no trace of it before his version. The glass slipper has apparently caused much debate over the years, including a prevalent and supposedly erroneous theory that the glass was a mistake, a confusion between the Frenchverre (glass) and vair (squirrel fur). After all, fur slippers are not as fantastical, but instead altogether realistic. Another posed theory is that the glass slipper is an ironic device since it is a fragile thing.


Grimm_CinderellaAlthough the influence of the Brothers Grimm upon fairy tales is immeasurable, Den of Geek notes that their version of Cinderella is not as well known. Back in the early 1800s, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were working as librarians, not a particularly well-paying job. However, the brothers were both keen scholars, and their work gave them both time and opportunity for their own research. The latter led them to put together a collection of folk tales. Their first volume of stories, Kinderund Hausmärchen, contained 86 stories. The Grimms included stories commonly told in other regions of the world if they thought they had German roots somewhere along the line, including rewritten versions of stories thought to be original to French author Charles Perrault.

Their version of Cinderella is considered beloved by those familiar with it. SurLaLune suggests it might also serve as an antidote to Perrault’s version, which featured a passive Cinderella. Indeed, SurLaLune points out, Perrault’s version has served as a rallying point for modern audiences who want to label fairy tales as anti-feminist or teaching outdated values for women.

The Grimms’ version has a strong resemblance to other European versions from the region with doves who represent the deceased mother and serve as the magical helpers instead of a fairy godmother. The version also features two beautiful but horrible step-sisters. When her sisters get their chance to try on the missing shoe, they each cut off different parts of their feet in order to fit into the tiny slipper, but the blood dripping from their shoes gives them away. The prince actually holds three balls – at midnight on the third night, the prince lays a tar trap for Cinderella, which is where she loses her shoe. In the end, the stepsisters’ eyes are pecked by birds from the tree to punish them for their cruelty.


The tale of Cinderella has inspired countless renditions in print, theatre, music, and art. In the literary world, famous children’s writers and illustrators have interpreted Cinderella, including Marcia Brown whose version won the Caldecott Medal in 1955. Most renderings of the story include an evil stepfamily, a dead mother, a dead or ineffective father, some sort of gathering such as a ball or festival, mutual attraction with a person of high status, a lost article, and a search that ends with success. Male Cinderellas appear. Finally, novels based on the Cinderella theme do exist from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine to Cinder by Marissa Mayer.

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