Friday, May 24, 2019

"Cinderella" by The Brothers Grimm



Illustration by Arthur Rackham

While the Grimms weren't averse to modifying old folk tales to suit the tastes of their contemporary audience, they also weren't intentionally using those stories to train children, unlike Charles Perrault. So where Perrault's Cinderella is a gracious and inspirationally kind character, the Grimms' version has a more combative relationship with her persecutors.

Perrault's stepsisters are vain and selfish, but they aren't particularly vicious toward Cinderella. They're uncaring without going out of their way to be mean. That's not the case in the Grimm version, where the stepmother especially lives to make Cinderella's life harder. She purposely dumps beans in the fireplace ashes, for instance, and makes Cinderella pick them out. When Cinderella begs to go to the ball, the stepmother sets impossible tasks as conditions for her permission, then reneges when Cinderella completes them. Because of this, we're allowed to feel okay about the violent end that the stepsisters come to in Grimm. They chop off parts of their feet to try to fit into the decisive slipper and then at Cinderella's wedding, birds peck out their eyes. These are the same birds that have aided Cinderella through the whole story, so at worst, she's complicit in the maiming. At best, she doesn't exhibit the forgiveness that Perrault's heroine does.

The birds are important to the Grimms' story and they're something that Cinderella herself seems to control on some level. There's no fairy godmother in Grimm; that's all Perrault who wanted to reward Cinderella's kindness by giving her a kind parent to replace her deceased mother. The Grimms sort of do that too, but in a darker way, as you'd imagine. In Grimm, Cinderella's mother is more directly active through her own grave site.

The Grimms' version borrows an element from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's 1740 fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. (I don't know that Barbot de Villeneuve was their direct inspiration, but the similarity is clear.) In Beauty and the Beast, Belle's father takes a trip and asks his daughters what he can bring back for them. Belle's vain sisters demand clothing and jewels, but Belle humbly requests a single rose (and only when her dad insists that she ask for something). Of course, it's how he gets that rose that creates all the trouble for the family.

Cinderella's dad does the same thing and the stepsisters ask for the same clothes and jewelry. Cinderella copies Belle by asking for a plant, but it's a weird one. She wants a branch from the first tree to brush against her father's hat on the trip. He complies and Cinderella takes the branch to the backyard and plants it in her mother's grave where it grows into a tree. White birds nest in the tree and grant Cinderella wishes. They help with the impossible tasks created by the stepmother and they also provide Cinderella with the three, increasingly elaborate dresses she wears on consecutive nights to the prince's ball.

None of this is ever explained, but there's clearly magic at work. The difference between Perrault and Grimm is that the Grimms' Cinderella doesn't wait for another character, the fairy godmother, to come and help her out. This Cinderella is active. And possibly a witch.

Again, there's no explanation given for any of this in the story, but Cinderella is so specific about what she wants and how she goes about getting it. The only thing that makes sense to me is that she's planning it. She asks for the branch, plants it in her mother's grave, and then uses the tree - possibly with the aid of her dead mother's spirit - to rescue herself and take revenge on her stepsisters. Super cool and spooky. I'm betting there's not a film version that takes that approach.

Thanks to the Disney film, which took most of its inspiration from Perrault (even giving him a credit in the opening titles), Cinderella is often accused of being a lame, reactionary character. But that's not at all true in the Grimm version. The point of their tale isn't a moral lesson about gracious perseverance. It's a dark story of revenge inspired by the journey that children take as they grow and are ultimately separated from their parents. Cinderella's childhood was defined by doting, praising parents, but that died with her birth mother. She holds onto the spirit of those times though to help her through the more critical, demanding mother that she has to deal with as a teenager or young adult.

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