Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2012 Cinderella – Part One

 Edmund Dulac

Miss Cox’s Garden

As soon as I started my research for this month’s blog, I came across Cinderella, Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants, by Marian Roalfe Cox (1893). Miss Cox, a self-educated, reclusive folklorist, pioneered studies in folklore morphology (the study of folklore and fairy tale structure), easily outclassing her fellow folklorists in this approach in both volume and content. She is really little known, although other scholars have drawn on her research, including Alan Dundes in his Cinderella, A Casebook.

The introduction to Miss Cox’s book was written by the highly respected Andrew Lang. I believe it is the oddest introduction I have ever encountered. It is seventeen pages long: for the first four pages, he all but dismisses the work at hand, then spends the next thirteen pages ranting about what Joseph Jacobs and Emmanuel Cosquin said about his theories at the latest Folklore Congress in 1891.

For us folk and fairy tale addicts who have not joined FFTA (Folk and Fairy Tales Anonymous) and who are subject to bouts of deja vu, it is people like Marian Roalfe Cox, and her fellow proponents of morphology (Vladimir Propp, Antti Aarne, and Stith Thompson et al), who have come to our rescue to say, “No, you are not crazy, you have read this before. They are called variants and here are the patterns they fall into.” (The above mentioned heroes also share in common names that are nearly impossible to remember how to spell.)

In the case of Cinderella, Miss Cox identifies three patterns. The “Ill-Treated Heroine” is the one with the shoe. In this motif the heroine, once of a higher station, has fallen to servant status. With the aid of a helper—mother’s spirit or fairy godmother—she becomes, for a short time, presentable for a ball or to attend church. She returns to her state of poverty, but not before leaving behind a token that her future husband uses to reclaim her. At the end of the story, if this is a Charles Perrault tale, the heroine’s tormentors share in her good luck, but are now beholden to her. If this is the Brothers Grimm, their eyes are plucked out.

In the second variant, the “Catskins-like” versions, the heroine has fallen from grace when she flees from the designs put upon her by her father, designs often of sexual intent. In the actual Catskins story, she disguises herself by blackening her skin and wearing a robe of animal skins. She brings with her three magnificent gowns, used to make herself presentable to royalty. She appears alternately as a mysterious noble woman and as a maid cleaning up the ashes in the kitchen, until discovered and married to the king.

The “Cap O’ Rushes” (King Lear) pattern is very similar, except that the heroine has been cast out for saying she loves her father as meat loves salt, her father not thinking that sufficient praise. After his daughter’s travail and rise, he is invited to attend the royal wedding, the identity of the bride unknown to him. The heroine arranges to have the wedding feast served unseasoned. In the middle of the meal, the father bursts out crying, confessing his error in judgment. The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily.

Keeping those story patterns in mind, we approach the tales prepared to recognize and draw comfort, rather than confusion, from their sameness. Others have done the hard work of classifying the tales. I like to think of Miss Cox tending her formal Victorian flower garden, her zinnias all in a row, as we bees flitter from bloom to bloom drawing what nectar we will.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2012 Cinderella – Part Two

 Elenore Abbot

Three Dresses

The three hundred and forty-five Cinderella-like stories that Marian Cox identifies as being related draw some of their similarity from a pool of images: a maiden disguised, working in the kitchen, peeking into the great hall, losing a shoe in her retreat.

One of the images common to this group of stories is the wearing of three dresses. In “Cinderella,” both Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions, the heroine, on three successive evenings, is dressed in gowns of precious materials, each dress grander than the one she wore the night before. Although her stepsisters are at the ball, they do not recognize her. Perrault makes a point of this by having Cinderella sit with these women and share oranges and citrons with them without their recognizing her.

In “Catskins” the heroine blackens her skin, which is more convincing to us as a disguise, but in “Cap O’ Rushes” she wears a dress and a headpiece made of reeds to cover her real dress and her hair, unafraid that her natural beauty will show through and give her away. Even when she is the center of attention at her wedding, her father still does not recognize her until she reveals herself.

Does this suggest that clothes have transformative properties? The special clothing of the maidens has better than usual origins.

In “A Sprig of Rosemary,” a tale I blogged about earlier, the heroine is given three articles of clothing stored inside nut shells (for the purpose of trading rather than to wear herself). She receives a mantle from the sun, a petticoat from the moon, and a gown from the stars.

Let’s take a closer look at “Catskins.” Besides her animal-skin robe that she hides behind, she had her father acquire for her three gowns: one as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and the third as sparkling as the stars.

This sort of thing keeps happening in many of the variants, and the celestial connection between the clothes and their luminary counterparts is pretty clear.

We can even measure the degree of magical powers in the gowns from story to story. Catskins got her gowns from her father. Not too magical. She has to go to the elaborate length of blackening her skin, then cleaning herself before going to the ball, in order not to be recognized. Cinderella’s gowns are completely magical, and she boldly sits with her stepsisters unconcerned, apparently understanding her transformation.

I am going to avoid the temptation to say that these women are defined by their clothes (also turning a deaf ear to Mark Twain’s comment that clothing makes the man; naked people have little or no influence in society). I’ll suggest these magical gowns are transforming the maidens into beings beyond their former selves. Are they, perhaps, changing from maidens into adult women?

The change is not sudden; it comes and goes three times, each event progressively grander in some way. The maidens are rather coy, not giving themselves away too quickly. With the celestial bodies’ influences, maybe there are stars in their eyes. Notice the pattern of ups and downs, from being perfect in appearance and the center of attention to returning to the kitchen, back to drudgery and sitting among the ashes.

Sounds like dating to me.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2012 Cinderella – Part Three


 Cypripedium reginae The Botanical Magazine, 1793
Tokens and Keys

I am strolling through Miss Cox’s flower garden and cannot help but notice her row of lady slippers just beyond the fairy ring in the lawn. Cinderella’s glass slipper comes to my mind. The glass slipper, as far as I know, was Charles Perrault’s invention, though there have been many a lost shoe before it, but nothing quite so exotic.

Footwear is well represented in folklore, fairy tales, and other stories: “The Red Shoes,” “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and “Puss in Boots,” to list a few. But this is not what I am thinking about.

I am now looking at her roses. They come up so often in fairy tales as tokens of love. Perrault’s glass slipper is a token. So are the other shoes and slippers in the other Cinderella tales, but a glass slipper, a fanciful item, best exemplifies its token nature.

The glass slipper represents Cinderella in her transformed state, even as she slips back to her lower status. The slipper embodies all the glamour of Cinderella at the ball. I use the word “glamour” in its broadest sense: as a spectacle and as a spell. (Glamour: Enchantment; a supposed influence of a charm on the eye, causing it to see objects under an unreal semblance; hence, anything that obscures or deceives vision, physical or mental; fascination; charm; witchery…Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia.) The prince claims this token, a small remembrance of the beauty that has slipped away. There is something satisfying about the slipper remaining after all else has lost its glamour.

In “Catskins” and “Cap O’ Rushes” the token is usually a ring that is the heroine’s or has been given to her by her beloved. The ring comes back to the suitor in his food, often a bowl of soup or gruel (gruel, if he is lovesick and pining away). While the ring/food connection is vague, the heroine is invariably in the kitchen as some sort of wench, giving her the opportunity to give these little gifts.

Now I’m sitting on a stone bench under an arbor of wisteria. Before me stands a stone table. Upon the table lies a leather-bound book complete with leather strap and a lock. I reach into my pocket for the key.

All the tokens I’ve thought about are also keys, used to unlock the mysterious identity of the beauty who fled the dance before it ended. The reason for her flight may not be clear. Perrault’s Cinderella must leave by midnight before the glamour ends. The other variants usually do not have that limitation. Although we are not told, we sense it is the heroines’ timidity, or uncertainty, that drives them back into hiding.

Without the token, without the key, the prince or the king would not have the means to reveal the heroine’s identity and declare their marriage. She does not quite have the strength, or confidence, or magic to break the pattern she has fallen into. The token is the key to her happiness.

I reach out, take the leather book in hand, and turn the key in its lock. Out fly pixies, like a swarm of bees that scatter themselves though the garden, hiding in moments under the lady slippers, the zinnias, the roses, even the tiny bluebells. I needn’t count the pixies. I trust there are three hundred and forty-five of them.

Your thoughts?

8 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2012 Cinderella – Part One

  1. Fascinating, as always. I was with you until you got to your interpretation of the significance of the tokens, the keys. Here’s my theory: The keys are indeed meant for opening the way to a blessed marriage. But I see them as more a test for the husband-to-be than a way out of the ordeal for the bride-to-be. Very often the token is almost overlooked. When seen and recognized, there’s often a little 3rd degree questioning: How did you (of all unlikely wenches) come to be in possession of this treasure. We wait in suspense for him to recognize her for what and who she really is. In a world where women are chattel, if a marriage is to be blessed with balance, that recognition of her innate riches is essential.

    $.02 from me. Thanks again, Charles, for peeling under the layers.

    megan hicks
    (I don’t know if this is what was recently suggested we do whenever we respond to a fellow blogger’s posts, but I’m going to post the url of one of the blogs I contribute to:

    • One of the beauties of fairy tales is how the listener will come up with their own perception of meaning. Because of the structure of these tales (third person objective narrator usually) we really don’t know what is inside the heads of the characters. We see what they do. We hear what they say. In the end we are left to decision what the story intends. What does that shoe mean? For some listeners it may be just a shoe (not possible).

  2. Thank you for this wonderful overview Charles. Just tonight I told the Chinese variant, Yeh Shen. The audience is always amazed when I share how many variants there are of this well-known “Disneyfied” tale.

    You have done a beautiful job, as always.


  3. Charles, I love your consideration of the celestial dresses! I could not help but think of something that is a familiar sight here in south Texas: Our Lady of Guadalupe, standing on the crescent moon, stars upon her cloak, and the radiance of the sun (or a very large halo) emanating from behind her, shining all around, transformed, perhaps, into a being beyond her former self. The imagery is wondrous!

  4. I’m impressed, I need to say. Actually hardly ever do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you may have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the difficulty is one thing that not enough individuals are talking intelligently about. I am very comfortable that I stumbled throughout this in my search for one thing regarding this.

    • Well thank you, and my apology for the slow response, this one slipped by me. Yes, I am very conscious of informing and entertaining at the same time. It is part of the role of a storyteller, I think.

  5. Great post on a fascinating subject. Rhodopis, the slave girl (The Egyptian Cinderella) is one of my favourite cinderella stories. It is always well received when I tell it (by kids and adults alike). JB:-)

  6. FYI. I just ran across (but have not read, yet sounds interesting) “Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us”
    by Rachelle Bergstein

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