Follow That Slipper: Adventures of a Folktale
Can you imagine a world without stories? Long ago, spoken tales were passed down from generation to generation. These stories became folktales scribed on paper that were eventually printed and published to make books that we still enjoy today. In passing these folktales from person to person and place to place, they’ve taken on the different characteristics of the cultures, times, and customs that they’ve traveled through.
On this International Literacy Day, we’re taking a look at one particularly shapeshifting folktale, Cinderella. Though the name may bring to mind a pumpkin, fairy godmother, glass slippers, and wicked stepsisters, Cinderella has enjoyed hundreds of different variations across the world, going back to BCE times.
The first known version of Cinderella originated in Ancient Greece with the tale of Rhodopis. The story goes that an eagle snatched the sandal of a Greek slave girl while she was bathing and carried it to court. The king, intrigued by the beauty of the sandal, sent men across the country in search of its owner. The rest is happily ever after.
In the 860 CE version out of China, Ye Xian is the daughter of a local tribal leader, who is cared for by a stepmother who abuses her. With the help of her deceased mother (reincarnated as a fish), she gets beautifully dressed up for the local festival and loses her golden shoe when she sees her family and flees. A king from another island finds the shoe, hunts for the owner, and rescues Ye Xian from her cruel stepmother and half-sister.
Several different versions appear in the medieval One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. All have the same theme of a younger sibling harassed by two jealous older siblings—but sometimes the characters are sisters, and other times they are brothers. In one of the stories, “Judar and His Brethren,” there’s no happy ending though. The younger boy is poisoned by his jealous elder brothers.
The first European version was published in 1634 in Italy by a soldier. His version, “Cenerentola,” comes from the Italian word cenere, meaning ash or cinder. Servants back then often had soiled ash on their clothes, from cleaning as well as living in cold basements where they tried to keep warm by sitting close to the fireplace.
In the modern-day An Ojibwa Cinderella by Robert D. San Souci, the flames of the cooking fire singe the main character’s hair and face, earning her the nickname Sootface. But when a mighty warrior challenges only the kindest and most honest woman to be able to see him, she looks upon him and earns his heart.
What other versions of Cinderella or your favorite fairy tale can you find? With a little digging and curiosity, charting the course of a story can be its own cultural adventure.