Cinderella: A Brief History

The Cinderella story is one of the most immediately recognizable of all fairy tales. It would be nearly impossible to compile a comprehensive history of the tale, with its precursors going back to the first century BCE, when Greeks living in Egypt told of a girl who attracted a king with her shapely sandal. Chinese storytellers recorded a version sometime during the Tang dynasty (618–908) in which the main character loses a shoe on her way home from a royal party. Other interpretations are told in countries across Asia, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Korea, and Vietnam.

Cinderella seems to have made her way to western Europe during the Renaissance. In an early version, the character of Zezolla in Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone—a collection of fairy tales published in Italy around 1635—is aided by a fairy living in a date tree. In this iteration one can clearly see the roots of the story that is so recognizable to modern western audiences beginning to take shape. Some 60 years later, Charles Perrault, in his Cendrillon (1697), added several familiar details, creating the foundations for the now-traditional Cinderella story: the fairy godmother, the pumpkin-turned-carriage, and the story’s most iconic feature, the glass slipper. In contrast, the Brothers Grimm’s grisly German version, which appeared in print in 1812, featured its protagonist, “Aschenputtel,” losing a golden slipper and salvation coming from doves in a tree.

As Cinderella’s popularity continued to grow, adaptations appeared in opera houses across Europe, including Jean-Louis Laruette’s Cendrillon (Paris, 1759), Niccolò Piccinni’s La Buona Figliuola Maritata (Bologna, 1761), Nicolas Isouard’s Cendrillon (Paris, 1810), and Stefano Pavesi’s Agatina (Milan, 1814). Some of these versions, like Gioachino Rossini’s well known La Cenerentola of 1817, dispense with the fairy tale’s magical elements, featuring instead the help of good and wise human beings rather than that of a fairy godmother. Massenet’s opera Cendrillon dates from the last years of the 19th century; in the 20th, the Cinderella tale inspired a ballet by Sergei Prokofiev and a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others. The character also supplied part of the storyline of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. Cinderella has appeared in films and cartoons involving everyone from Georges Méliès and Walt Disney to Jerry Lewis and Elmer Fudd, and versions of the character have been played by the likes of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Brandy, Drew Barrymore, Anne Hathaway, Selena Gomez, and Lily James. The Cinderella story has had tremendous resonance for audiences across the world and throughout the centuries. A sweet fantasy of mystery and magic, it is also a classic demonstration of the triumph of virtue.