Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Little Ash Girl: what lies beneath the story of Cinderella





I remember this recorded version of Cinderella much more vividly than the Disney movie. For one thing, it's strung together by the music from Prokofiev's ballet, one of my favorite orchestral pieces. It's weird, because the music must have made an impression on me in my childhood - as much as the story, at least - but it sort of faded out of my mind until a couple of decades ago, when I stumbled on the ballet music again and felt my scalp prickle from the stirring of memory.

This record, or records (two 78 rpms) gracefully incorporated the quirkily gorgeous Prokofiev ballet score. The narrator might as well have shut up and let the music tell the story. Listening to it as an adult, there is a certain edge, a pleasing tartness in the music that cuts the sweetness, and a real sense of irony, of tongue-in-cheek. Cinderella is almost - not quite, but almost - a madcap figure, a sort of puppet acting out her fate because "that's how the story goes". Then there are those stepsisters, nasty spinsters spinning their nasty webs. In a TV version of the ballet, one of the stepsisters was around 180 pounds, twice the size of the standard ballerina, and took her pratfalls with good humor (though it was obvious she was a very good dancer). In contrast, the other stepsister was a menacing rack of bones.



Once you start digging into the deeper layers of fairy tales, you find yourself gasping and floundering. There is just too damn much "meaning", too many layers, and some versions are wildly conflicting. The earliest Cinderella story was some Sumerian thing from the Fourth Dynasty (or whatever), and the story involved fish. It took place on boats and in tombs. How could the two be linked? I was also surprised to find that the Grimm brothers, known for telling stories too gory and disturbing for children, were known to sanitize these primal folk tales to make them more palatable (and sell more books). But even their cleaned-up versions are so shocking they are almost in poor taste, at least for children.

With Cinderella, the Grimms were somehow connecting us to a stranger, older and darker story (and much longer - each of these fairy tales would fill a  book) than the stereotypical and sugary version we have today. A fairy godmother? Not a chance. That would make it too easy. Here is how Aschenputtel (Cinderella in German, which literally translates as the nasty nickname The Ash Fool) gets her gold-and-silver ball gown:

As no one was now at home, Cinderella went to her mother's grave beneath the hazel-tree, and cried,

"Shiver and quiver, little tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me."

Then the bird threw a gold and silver dress down to her, and slippers embroidered with silk and silver. She put on the dress with all speed, and went to the wedding. Her step-sisters and the step-mother however did not know her, and thought she must be a foreign princess, for she looked so beautiful in the golden dress. They never once thought of Cinderella, and believed that she was sitting at home in the dirt, picking lentils out of the ashes. The prince approached her, took her by the hand and danced with her. He would dance with no other maiden, and never let loose of her hand, and if any one else came to invite her, he said, "This is my partner."






Right away, I think of My Fair Lady, and how no one recognized the "draggletailed guttersnipe" Eliza Doolittle because Henry Higgins passed her off as a Hungarian princess. It's such a direct hit that it makes me shiver. G. B. Shaw was no fool, knew his fairy tales, and knew how to hit a nerve.

So is the Ash Girl's ball gown a disguise, or something else? Perhaps her grimy sackcloth was some kind of veil, and the shimmering gown she took from her mother's grave a reflection of her deeper self. It literally turns her into someone else, or back into the person she was meant to be - someone even her family doesn't recognize. The storyteller plays with identity here in a way which is downright spooky.

There's no stroke-of-midnight in the story, but Aschenputtel must beat a hasty retreat after the ball. She hides in a pigeon-house or something - what an odd place to hide! In this strange version there is more than one ball - one version claims, "the Prince had three balls", which I thought was pretty funny. So she must return to the graveyard for a new dress each night.

Cinderella's dead mother figures large in this story, as do those enigmatic white birds. Where Disney got all those mice is anyone's guess. I could find no pumpkins here either. There is a controversy around the slippers, whether they were made of glass or not (the Grimms seemed to think not), and some versions even suggest they were made from fur. It's hard for us to picture our heroine clomping around in comfy bedroom slippers at the ball. But let's press on.




Next morning, he went with it to the father, and said to him, no one shall be my wife but she whose foot this golden slipper fits. Then were the two sisters glad, for they had pretty feet. The eldest went with the shoe into her room and wanted to try it on, and her mother stood by. But she could not get her big toe into it, and the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, "Cut the toe off, when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot." The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the king's son. Then he took her on his his horse as his bride and rode away with her. They were obliged, however, to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried,

"Turn and peep, turn and peep,
there's blood within the shoe,
the shoe it is too small for her,
the true bride waits for you."






Then he looked at her foot and saw how the blood was trickling from it. He turned his horse round and took the false bride home again, and said she was not the true one, and that the other sister was to put the shoe on. Then this one went into her chamber and got her toes safely into the shoe, but her heel was too large. So her mother gave her a knife and said, "Cut a bit off your heel, when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot." The maiden cut a bit off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the king's son. He took her on his horse as his bride, and rode away with her, but when they passed by the hazel-tree, the two pigeons sat on it and cried,

"Turn and peep, turn and peep,
there's blood within the shoe,
the shoe it is too small for her,
the true bride waits for you."






The repetition of rhymes, incantations and spells is an indispensible part of this kind of storytelling, usually in threes (the "turn and peep" shows up three times). Characters come and go as if through a revolving door, in and out of reality. The mystical significance of birds can't be overemphasized in this version, particularly the two white pigeons, who play a more active role than many of the humans. 

All sorts of analysts have tried to figure out the slippers. Some say they are representative of female genitalia, which I don't really get (though they do get bloody in a way which suggests the female fertility cycle). Shoes allow one to walk in public, be mobile, go forth. Dance. In contrast to the slippers (whatever they're made of), there are also big heavy wooden clogs, low-status peasant shoes,  made for those who toil in the dirt.

Walk a mile in my shoes. The old woman who lived in a shoe. If the shoe fits. . .

He looked down at her foot and saw how the blood was running out of her shoe, and how it had stained her white stocking quite red. Then he turned his horse and took the false bride home again. "This also is not the right one," said he, "have you no other daughter." "No," said the man, "there is still a little stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the bride." The king's son said he was to send her up to him, but the mother answered, oh, no, she is much too dirty, she cannot show herself. But he absolutely insisted on it, and Cinderella had to be called.









































I can't help but feel this is a reference to virginity, an absolute must for marriage, particularly to nobility. To marry, and particularly to "marry up", one absolutely had to be pure. The mother seems to be saying in so many words that her daughter is too "dirty" to be considered. And her own father is calling her a "little stunted kitchen-wench", a mere leftover from his first marriage - "wench" being a term for a "loose woman". Is this why white doves swirl and flutter around the story as proof of Aschenputtel's unassailable virginity?

She first washed her hands and face clean, and then went and bowed down before the king's son, who gave her the golden shoe. Then she seated herself on a stool, drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe, and put it into the slipper, which fitted like a glove. And when she rose up and the king's son looked at her face he recognized the beautiful maiden who had danced with him and cried, "That is the true bride." The step-mother and the two sisters were horrified and became pale with rage, he, however, took Cinderella on his horse and rode away with her. As they passed by the hazel-tree, the two white doves cried,

"Turn and peep, turn and peep,
no blood is in the shoe,
the shoe is not too small for her,
the true bride rides with you."






There's so much here that I can't begin to get into it!  Bloody shoes, false brides, hazel trees and white pigeons which have somehow, mysteriously, become doves. And dead mothers, and a maiden's tears having the magical power of  healing and summoning. Sliding her foot into that slipper does have a sexual feel to it - the perfect fit - casting off virginity and stepping across the threshhold into womanhood. Of course this version is a translation from the more stolid German, so some expressions may have been extensively reworked. The magic incantations were probably quite altered, as they had to rhyme, scan and make sense. But all those bleeding, chopped-up feet - . Isn't this a desperation to escape one's station in life, to move on up or social-climb, even at the cost of being able to walk? Only Aschenputtel has the grace to hold off and allow the Prince to recognize her face. Yes, her face - not her foot.

I skipped the part where the Prince sets a trap for the Little Ash Girl by spreading pitch on the stairs of the ballroom (so at least one of her furry slippers will get stuck). I skipped the nastiness of the stepmother throwing lentils into the ashes on the floor, each grain of which Aschenputtel must pluck out by hand (probably digging into the skin on her knees). And when did ashes become cinders? Cinders are almost like live coals, not quite burned out, and quite dangerous. Don't get a cinder in your eye.




I also stumbled on a version in which the stepsisters were actually beautiful, but deadly. In other words, they were beautiful to look at but had nasty personalities. I've always had a lot of trouble telling little girls that "ugly" characters in fairy tales are "bad", and "beautiful" ones are "good". Just what does that mean? How much effect does it have on the average impressionable girl?

At any rate, my beloved 78 rpm version has no amputated toes, nor does Prokofiev's. But the ending of the Grimm version is a killer. The magical doves have alerted the Prince to Aschenputtel's true identity:

"Turn and peep, turn and peep,
no blood is in the shoe,
the shoe is not too small for her,
the true bride rides with you."

And when they had cried that, the two came flying down and placed themselves on Cinderella's shoulders, one on the right, the other on the left, and remained sitting there. When the wedding with the king's son was to be celebrated, the two false sisters came and wanted to get into favor with Cinderella and share her good fortune. When the betrothed couple went to church, the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them. Afterwards as they came back the elder was at the left, and the younger at the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness all their days.










































Yoicks! Blindness all their days! This isn't very merciful, is it? Very forgiving? But it interests me that the Little Ash Girl doesn't have to do any of the dirtywork - the white doves are her unlikely agents of revenge. Even a symbol of peace is full of hidden menace.

Though we often hear that these stories are too ancient to trace down to their roots, somebody must have thought of them, started them at some point in antiquity. Versions swirled around and were added to and (obviously) sanitized, but then it all sort of hardened, like the glass slipper. So even this relatively-modern Grimm tale of blindness and bleeding feet is about as far away from the Disney version as it gets.

FOOTNOTE! More on the glass/fur controversy:

The illustrated Antique Fairy Tales book sums up the argument in a footnote:

“There is no doubt that in the medieval versions of this ancient tale Cinderella was given pantoufles de vair – i.e. [slippers of] fur … probably [from] a grey squirrel. Long before the seventeenth century, the word vair had passed out of use… Thus the pantoufles de vair of the fairy tale became, in the oral tradition, the homonymous pantoufles de verre, or glass slippers.”





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