I recently signed up to take an online course with iverstiy on ‘The Future of Storytelling’, in the hope that it would improve my ability to structure a coherent yet enjoyable scientific paper. The system itself is pretty simple: lecturers post videos online, you watch them and carry out assignments along with 50,000 other participants that you can communicate with if you so choose. This weeks assignment was to summarise the story that has impressed you the most in your life, and explain why it is special to you. That really got me thinking, because, as a Christian, the obvious answer is the story of Jesus’ life and death, but what I really wanted was a work of fiction, and to me, that story is definitely not a work of fiction.
I eventually decided on Cinderella, which may seem like a juvenile choice, but is actually one of the most ancient and widely told stories in the world. It crops up under many different names in many different countries, but always follows the same formula of downtrodden girl meets Prince after magical assistance, Prince falls in love, girl leaves suddenly and Prince finally finds her after searching the kingdom. The magical assistance may come in the form of a fairy godmother, or a mother that has been reincarnated as a magical fish, but the idea of powerful matriarchal help remains the same, as does the idea of a test to distinguish who is worthy of the Prince’s love, whether it be by glass slipper or singing to make a swing move.
For me, the love affair with Cinderella started with the Disney animated version. It was special to me, because of all the videos my family owned, that was the only one my brother did not try to claim. It was too girly for him to want to watch, so it became my story. The only recurring dream I have ever had is based around Cinderella (make of that what you will), although I never went down the line of wanting to be her. What has really stuck with me over the years is the hope in this story, and the cheerful way in which Cinderella deals with adversity. She is by no means a strong female role model, but the quietness and self-control with which she puts up with her situation is admirable, as is the way that she manages to find just as much joy in scrubbing floors as she does in dancing at a ball.
I think I also particularly enjoyed the stepmother as a villain. This was from the days when Disney villains were truly frightening (like Ursula from The Little Mermaid), and Lady Tremaine was a special case. Unlike the usual villains, she wasn’t a witch or a monster, just an ordinary human being who had decided not to care for her stepdaughter. It was the casual cruelty of her treatment of Cinderella that made her so exquisitely nasty, and that made up for the inevitable sanitization of the story in Disney’s hands. The stepsisters certainly weren’t allowed to cut off their toes to fit into the slipper as happens in the German version, Ashputtel!
Thinking about the effect that this fairy tale has had on my life was a bit of an eye opener. I’ve always been somewhat enamoured with fairy tales and legends, and I think this stems back to my first experiences with Cinderella. I’ve been collecting folk tales ever since, and have always enjoyed how they can be so different in style and content depending on the culture they come from, but all contain the same moral messages.
“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around” – Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
I certainly don’t think that fairy tales should ever be relegated to merely being children’s literature. The themes are too important for that, and having read some of the folk tales gathered by Angela Carter, far too rude for children! Stories have often been thought of as shaping the world around them, and that is never more true than for fairy tales (for a remarkable exploration of this, read Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett). And yes, I’ve included The ‘Tales of Beadle the Bard’ in my collection, because while they may not be folk tales in the purest sense, they encompass the same moral themes that run through some of our oldest and most loved stories. Plus I’m impressed by anyone that can create a working mythology and folklore for a fictional world. OK, so it’s not quite ‘The Silmarillion’, but the stories are good and to the point.
So, thanks to my brother for not wanting Cinderella, and to my mum for scaring me witless with her big bad wolf impressions. You’ve left me with a fascination for fairy tales that I hope will last a lifetime. It’s just a shame that video is now obsolete. I shall have to go and find Cinderella on DVD instead.