A Tale as Old as Time?

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is based on Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” but what about “Cendrillon” itself? Going back far enough, the answer ultimately lies outside the world of literature, in folk culture. Long before they were first written down, folk tales circulated orally, passed from one generation of storytellers to another; in this form, they doubtless predate the invention of writing itself. While some modern fairy tales were invented relatively recently, the Cinderella story is very old indeed. The earliest extant written version, recorded by an Ancient Greek geographer named Strabo in the first century B.C.E., is set in Egypt: An enslaved young woman named Rhodopis is bathing by the Nile when an eagle swoops down from the heavens and carries away one of her sandals. Upon reaching the city of Memphis, the eagle drops the sandal into the lap of the Egyptian king, who is so taken by the shapely form of the sandal that he orders his soldiers to search the entire kingdom for the maiden from whose foot it came. Rhodopis is found and brought before the king, and they are married.

Folk tales, then, are truly ancient. They are also highly unstable. As they are embellished in each new telling, and as they hop from village to village, culture to culture, individual stories accumulate countless variations, some small, some more significant. We can recognize in the Egyptian sandal the glass slipper it later became, but what happened to the eagle? For a story as popular as Cinderella, in fact, thousands of variations have been recorded. If we wish to trace the story across time, then, it can be helpful to focus our attention on just the essential components of the story: In other words, what is the unchanging core that makes the plot tick?

Fortunately, 20th-century folklorists have already done much of the work for us. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, a vast catalog of folk tales from across the globe (it is named after the scholars who invented and refined it), Cinderella is categorized as a “Type 510” (or “Persecuted Heroine”) story. Tales in this category can be boiled down to five essential components: 1) a mistreated heroine, who 2) receives supernatural assistance, 3) meets a prince, 4) must prove her identity, and 5) marries the prince at the end. Even so, it’s the variations that makes any given version memorable. “Aschenputtel,” a German version of the Cinderella story, features a particularly gruesome twist at the end: The stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in their attempts to fit the fateful glass slipper. This version was made famous by the Brothers Grimm, folktale collectors who included it in the first edition of their Children’s and Household Tales­ in 1812.