We all know the story of Cinderella, but have you heard the much darker Brothers Grimm version of the classic fairy tale that features mutilations and vengeful birds?
The most popular version of Cinderella is the French Cendrillon (1697) by Charles Perrault, which is the version the animated Disney movie is based on. Perrault added the pumpkin and fairy godmother to his adapatation of its Italian predecessor from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1634). But it’s a classic ‘persecuted heroine’ story that has actually been told for hundreds of years in one form or another all across the world. One of the earliest known versions telling the tale of Ye Xian is from China as early as 860! It makes sense that the story should have originated from the Orient, where small feet are historically a bigger desirable trait than in the West.
Grimm’s gruesome re-telling
But my favourite version is slightly later, and far more gruesome Grimm’s version – Aschenputtel (1812). In this version, poor Cinderella didn’t just have to do all the cleaning and in filthy rags while being taunted by her stepsisters. Her stepmother also subjects her to pointless, morale-breaking tasks: when Cinderella asks to come along to the ball, her stepmother pours a bowl of lentils into the fireplace and mockingly tells her she can come along if she picks them all out of the ashes nice and clean.
Mother’s ghost thwarts the stepmother’s evil
Luckily in this tale Cinderella, being so virtuous and pure, is helped by enchanted animals. You see, once when their wealthy father went to market and asked all three girls what they wanted him to buy them, the stepsisters asked for dresses and jewellery. Cinderella only asked for a seed. She planted this seed at her mother’s grave and, nurtured by her tears, it grew into a beautiful hazelnut tree which she prayed at every day. Every now and then a white dove would make the dreams she wished for come true.
So when faced with the impossible task of picking a bowl’s worth of lentils out of the ashes, she goes to the garden and calls out to the doves and all other birds in the sky to help her sort through the mess. The stepmother can’t believe she has completed the task so quickly and orders her to do it again with two bowls of lentils, and once again the birds flock to help her. The stepmother of course doesn’t stick to her word, takes the sisters and leaves without her.
Cinderella then beseeches the hazelnut tree again, this time to shower her in gold and silver. A sparkling, wondrous dress and shoes are dropped from the sky by a dove and she hurries to the ball.
In this version the shoes are golden, not glass. Perhaps this seemed too unlikely in this re-telling from the French version, or perhaps the Grimm’s were aware that the original shoe in the tale was actually made of fur – ‘vair’ in French, which evolved into the same-sounding and more elegant option of ‘verre’ – glass.
Bloody shoes and mutilated feet
The rest of the Grimm’s version is fairly similar to Perrault’s, until you get to the shoe-fitting where things get a bit bloodier. The sisters are pleased that the prince’s hand in marriage will be guaranteed by this shoe because they apparently both have nice feet, so it’ll be a shoe-in (haha!).
But when it doesn’t fit the first sister, her brutal stepmother grabs a knife and tells her to cut her big toe off – ‘kindly’ explaining that when she’s the princess she won’t have to walk around anyway. When the prince leaves with sister number one, they ride past the hazelnut tree, where the doves call out to him in unison: there’s blood the shoe, the true bride is still at home. And sure enough he can see the blood seeping out of the top of the shoe.
Sister number 2 undergoes the same ordeal, except mother now demands she cut off her heel. And once again blood spews out and the doves betray her. Only Cinderella’s foot fits and the doves praise them as she and the prince ride to the castle.
Attack of the Birds
The final gruesome judgment comes at Cinderella’s wedding, where the two evil sisters try to schmooze their way into the court’s good graces. But when they get to the church the doves peck out both of their eyes, punishing them for their falseness and cruelty for the rest of their lives.
And the moral of the story is…
What I love about this version of the story is that the bullies get their comeuppance without Cinders even having to do anything. It is her mother’s agents, the doves, who exact vengeance on the, whilst Cinders keeps her cool and never stoops to their level. She’s portrayed as smart and patient and she plays the long game to get the ultimate win. Although you might think her a cowardly doormat, I like to take the fact that she doesn’t stop her mother’s doves from mutilating her step-sisters at her own wedding as her quiet way of getting revenge on them.
In contrast the popular Perrault version has the stepsisters fall at her feet when they see the shoe fits her and Cinders graciously forgives them. She then not only arranges lodgings for them at the castle but also matches them up with rich husbands! This ending really annoys me because it rewards the bullies. Whilst the moral Perrault adds at the end says that grace is more important than beauty, which is fair, he also blesses the ungracious, cruel stepsisters with wealth and fame. I don’t think that’s a good lesson at all, in fact for me it perpetuates the trope that women have to be relentlessly sweet and forgiving, regardless of how much they’ve been wronged, which robs them of the heroic act of vanquishing evil. That’s why grisly Grimm’s version gets my vote every time.
What do you think about the gruesome Grimm’s version of Cinderella in comparison to Disney?
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