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Once Upon A Time...

Described as ‘the greatest fairy tale of them all’, Cinderella ccertainly remains one of the most popular and beloved stories in popular culture.

But while our idea of Cinderella may have been shaped by Disney, Hollywood, Ladybird books or indeed by childhood trips to the panto, the story of the girl who defied circumstances to marry a prince has much older – and much more international – origins.

It seems that every nation has its own Cinderella story.

The Cinderella we know today comes chiefly from the imagination of that great 17th Century purveyor of fairy tales, French courtier Charles Perrault, who included ‘Cendrillon’ in his 1697 book Histoires ou Contes Passé; avec des Moralitéz (roughly translated as Stories from Past Times with Morals).

Perrault was apparently the man responsible for organising the furnishing of the magnificent Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, so perhaps it’s no surprise his Cinderella wore glass slippers.

But Perrault wasn’t the first European writer to chronicle the Cinders story. Half a century earlier in Italy it was included in Il Pentamerone, a collection of fairy tales by the Neapolitan poet and storyteller Giambattista Basile.

In turn, while Basile may have heard the folk tale while out and about in the cosmopolitan port of Naples and put it down on paper, the story in one form or another was already hundreds of years old by that time.

It’s been said the oldest version dates to 1st Century BC Egypt and was recorded by the Greek historian Strabo.

But while Rhodopis and Her Little Gilded Sandals – which tells the story of a Greek slave girl who marries the Pharaoh – features a shoe that unites the two, it lacks the requisite wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters or fairy godmothers which we would recognise as being part of the Cinderella story.

There’s certainly a wicked parent in the 9th Century Chinese story of the hardworking Yeh-Shen who befriends a fish which turns out to be the reincarnation of her mother, killed by, yes, Yeh-Shen’s stepmother.  Later when the young woman loses her slipper racing away from a festival, the king tracks her down and falls in love.

A variation of the wicked stepmother and fish reincarnation of the heroine’s mother also appears in a Philippines folk story.

Staying in the Far East, Korea has the traditional tale of Kongjwi and Patjwi, where Kongjwi’s father remarries after her mother’s death and her new stepmother turns out to be a widow with an ugly daughter (called Patjwi).

Mother and daughter treat Kongjwi with cruelty, and when a rich magistrate decides to hold a ball, the poor girl is left at home – until celestial help arrives to dress her in finery so she can attend after all.

Later fleeing the ball to avoid detection, she loses a shoe in a stream. But the magistrate finds it and vows to marry the woman it belongs to.

And in Europe, in the 19th Century the Brothers Grimm also created their own, unsurprisingly, darker version with Aschenputtel (the Little Ash Girl) in which the ugly sisters mutilate their feet to try and force them into Cinders’ tiny golden slipper.

Closer to home, the traditional Irish folk tale Fair, Brown and Trembling – named after the three daughters of the mythical King Hugh Cùrucha – also has elements of what we recognise as the Cinderella story.

A similar character to Cinderella also features in other countries and cultures including the Algonquin, the story of Nyasha in Zimbabwe and Domitilia in Mexico.

Still, here in the West it’s Perrault’s version which endures and has been retold and recast in books, films, art, dance, music and on stage.

From Rossini’s 1817 opera La Cenerentola – which introduced Dandini for the first time – to Prokofiev’s 1945 ballet; from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s West End musical Cinderella in 1958 (with Tommy Steele as Buttons) to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End musical Cinderella in 2021; and from the 1914 silent movie starring Mary Pickford to magical 1976 British musical film retelling The Slipper and the Rose complete with a Sherman Brothers score to Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Hollywood version, it seems we can’t get enough of the Cinderella story.

Most magical of all for young audiences is the moment the lights go down at Christmas and the Fairy Godmother makes her entrance stage right.

The first pantomime versions of Cinderella were developed in the 1800s, and almost 200 years and many generations of children later, it seems we’re as captivated by its magic as ever. Oh yes we are!

Words by Catherine Jones

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