It is one of the oldest tales recounted and it exists in one variant or another in most places in the world. Call it a “goodness rewarded” parable, a “rags to riches” tale or a “damsel in distress” story.
It recounts the same events. A man has three daughters: Two are mean and ugly, the third one (always the youngest) is lovely and kind and is mistreated by the other two. Her mother is dead and her stepmother uses her as a servant. Among the menial tasks assigned to her is the cleaning of the chimney and she is covered in ashes or cinders, hence she is known as Cinderella. Her goodness and beauty are recognized and she is rewarded by a marriage to a Prince who falls in love with her and makes her his Queen.
The oldest version of this tale appeared in China around the year 860. Ye Xian is the good and beautiful daughter who is rescued by a king who marries her. The same legend exists in Vietnam and Indonesia. Remarriages and reconstituted families were even more common in ancient times than today because so many young women died in childbirth and left infants to be raised by other women.
In Russia Cinderella is called Zolushka. In another version she is Vassilissa the Beautiful and Marco Polo is her rescuer. There is a ballet by Prokoviev called: Vassilissa the Brave.
In Germany in the 19th century the brothers Grimm created yet another fairy tale in which the same heroine is Aschenputtel.
The version which we are familiar with originated with Charles Perrault who in 1697 wrote: Les Contes de Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose stories). He also added the Fairy Godmother character (a sort of mother substitute?). Walt Disney’s animated creation is pretty faithful to Perrault’s Cendrillon. (French for Cinderella)
Perrault is also the originator of the “glass slipper” element of the plot which I always found difficult to accept. How could one stand up on glass, let alone dance with shoes made of glass without shattering them? A possible explanation for this is that Perrault was referring to “une pantoufle de vair” which translates as a “squirrel fur slipper” but as the tale went through many copyings, translations and retranscriptions “vair”(squirrel fur) became “verre” (glass). This makes me think of a
miscopying of letters in the genetic code resulting in a mutation of the original which is then repeated in all subsequent versions.
There are kindred stories with slight twists in which one can recognize some elements of the Cinderella theme. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the youngest daughter Cordelia is the good one. Alas she is not rewarded for it. David Copperfield is a gender reversed story in which the young boy whose father is dead, is mistreated by a stepfather.
And then there is Rossini’s opera: La Cenerentola which takes great liberties with the original plot. The Fairy Godmother is replaced by a kindly Godfather. There is no pumpkin coach. The glass slippers become a pair of bracelets and there is no ball, only a supper. The two sisters are a grotesque caricature of womanhood. These changes seem random and unnecessary to me. In a brilliant coloratura final aria, La Cenerentola, in a halo of goodness and almost sainthood, forgives and embraces everyone.
(editor’s note: We’ve attached a wonderful video of Maria Callas singing this aria. The quality of voice and image is remarkably good. Listening to this helped me understand, for the first time, the singular place Callas occupies among divas. I was particularly struck by her composure and preparation during the first part of this as she waits for the moment to begin singing)