Friday, August 27, 2010

With origins that can be traced back to Ninth Century China, Cinderella is probably the most enduring “princess” story of all time, Cinderella has become synonymous with happy endings. Whenever someone’s life takes an unexpected turn for the better, we call it a “Cinderella Story.” Elements of this story have become famous in their own right, such as spells breaking at midnight, fairy godmothers and glass slippers.

Most modern versions of this story are traceable to Charles Perrault, an unsung chronicler of fairy tales who predates the Brothers Grimm by about a hundred and twenty years.

As for my version, I have corrected one problem that I’ve always had with most versions of this story. It is established that Cinderella is a derogatory name given to the heroine by her steprelatives, but no one (that I’ve heard) has ever established what her real name is. I’ve decided to call her “Ella,” but that’s just my opinion. Most versions also never explain how Cinderella got her fairy godmother. If you believe Butch Hartman, creator of “The Fairly Odd Parents”, she got one just because she was hopelessly miserable, but I’ve come up with my own interpretation.

It might be worthwhile to spend a few moments talking about princesses. There is probably no theme more prevalent in fairy tales than princesses or otherwise beautiful girls and the heroes who ultimately marry them. But do you know why the hero gets the princess at the end of these stories? It’s not because she’s a princess, not because she’s rich and beautiful and powerful. It’s not because she has a glittering gown or a golden castle. It’s because she just happens to be the most wonderful girl in the story. It’s the same reason the prince gets to marry the peasant girl in stories like this one: You can be a Princess without being a princess.

nce upon a time and long ago, in a far away kingdom, there lived a wealthy man called Marcus and his wife, Elizabeth. They were kind, gentle and very happy. Elizabeth was fair and graceful and had a great love for all of nature. Most days she would wander the grounds for hours “talking” to the birds and enjoying the flora. The truth is that Elizabeth desperately wanted to have a baby, but was having trouble. But she never gave up hope and she kept smiling and stayed positive.

This is a long extinct practice known as “optimism.”

One day when she was walking through the gardens, she saw a couple of birds fighting over something. It looked like a firefly, which was odd because it was broad daylight, and also the wrong time of year for fireflies. Just the same, it seemed to be suffering, and Elizabeth wasn’t one to judge the choices of others, so she ran over to the birds and shouted “shoo!” and the birds flew away.

“Thank you for your kindness, my dear,” said a voice. Elizabeth spun around and saw that the firefly was gone. And in its place was a lovely old woman in a blue robe with shining blue eyes and a warm, friendly smile. “Those birds would have torn me apart if it weren’t for you.”

“Then you were the firefly?” asked Elizabeth.

“No, my dear. Not a firefly. I’m a fairy.”

“A fairy?”

“Yes. That’s how we travel, you see. By turning into points of light. I was just about to turn back into my usual form when those birds attacked me. Oh, but you rescued me. I must repay the favor. Is there anything you want? Anything at all?”

And of course there was only one thing Elizabeth wanted.

“I would love to have a child. Can you help me?”

“Of course I can,” said the fairy. “They don’t give these magic wands to just anybody, you know.” She waved her wand and touched the tip of it to Elizabeth’s belly. “Your baby will be very special. Blessed. Magical even.” But before Elizabeth could thank the fairy, she was gone.

Soon, Marcus and Elizabeth were blessed with a daughter. She was named after Elizabeth, but quickly nicknamed Ella. The family lived happily for several years, until tragedy struck. Ella’s mother got very sick and passed away. Ella’s father was grief-stricken, but lost himself in his daughter, who with every passing day looked more and more like her mother. Just as fair and graceful and optimistic in the face of adversity.

But as Ella grew up, her father became concerned that she needed a mother. So he soon was remarried to a woman with two daughters of her own, disconcertingly named Goneril and Regan. Ella did not get along with her stepsisters at all. For while she herself was a very good child, Goneril and Regan were spoiled and selfish. And they hated Ella for being so naturally beautiful while they were quite homely. But for her father’s sake, Ella kept smiling and remained happy and optimistic. Of course, this just made Goneril and Regan hate her that much more.

This was the way of things, until tragedy again struck poor Ella’s life. Her father passed away. Now she was all alone in the world except for her stepmother and stepsisters, who, now that Ella’s father was dead, were beginning to show their true colors. Within two days of his death, Ella’s Stepmother had seized control of the estate, and began recklessly spending her late husband’s wealth on clothes and frivolities for her two daughters, who only became more spoiled and horrible.

And poor Ella was forced to wear rags and work as a maid in her own home. She cleaned the floors, cooked the food, did the laundry, ran the errands, organized and alphabetized the library, dusted in placed that no one would ever look. They even took away her room, so she was forced to sleep on a cot in a corner by the fireplace where she would get cinders all over her beautiful face. So Goneril and Regan began to call her “Cinder-Ella” and before long, the name stuck, and Cinderella was who she was.

But even now, Cinderella remained positive. She remembered what her parents had taught her about being kind and gentle and that money was not the key to happiness. She knew that something good would come along some day and she just kept hoping every day. And every night, as she was drifting off to sleep, she would look through the tiny window she could see from her bed and a single tiny star would appear in the sky. Cinderella had seen this star every day for as long as she could remember and knew that it was her special star, looking after her. And as long as she saw that star, she could imagine her mother was still with her and she could stay optimistic.

It wasn’t easy, mind you. Her stepfamily seemed determined to crush her spirit. You see, since they were vain and selfish, they couldn’t understand the simple happiness that comes from, say, doing a hard day’s work. Getting things accomplished. Just being proud to be who you are. Some of the happiest people on this earth have nothing to show for it but dirty fingernails and worn out shoes, but good luck explaining that to the likes of Goneril and Regan. So they heaped chores on poor Cinderella and made sure she didn’t have time to clean herself. Not that it mattered, because her beauty shone even through the dirt on her face. And her optimism could not be stopped.

Now, it happened that the prince of this kingdom, who had been away for many years, was coming home. And His Father, The King decided to hold a great party to welcome him back. His Father, The King was getting along in years, and soon the prince would have to step in and take over the throne. Which meant he would need to get married and have a family so that his son could take over the throne…and so on and so forth, which is just one of the problems that comes with a monarchy.

The problem was that the prince, though very charming, tended to be shy sometimes, especially around girls. So His Father, The King felt the need to push him a little. He decreed that there would be a ball the likes of which had never been seen. And, by royal command, “every eligible maiden” was to attend so that the prince could choose his bride. His Father, The King didn’t even particularly care if he loved her; just so long as they got married and had a son.

Obviously, when this news got around, every young lady in the kingdom was ecstatic. Each one thinking that she could marry the prince and be a princess. You have to admit, it’s a pretty tempting fantasy. Maidens from one end of the kingdom to the other began tearing through their wardrobes and putting on makeup and having their hair done…every one except Cinderella.

Because, of course, Cinderella had to help her ugly stepsisters get ready. She had to iron their clothes, and lay out their accessories, and run to the store to buy more of whatever, and sew and mend and raise the hemline so that Regan could show off her legs and lower the neckline on Goneril’s dress and…actually, that’s pretty gross, isn’t it? The proclamation had said “EVERY” eligible maiden, but Cinderella would never find a free moment in which to get ready.

Finally the day of the ball came and Cinderella’s Stepmother and stepsisters left for the castle and Cinderella herself was alone. This was the last straw, she could take no more. She ran out into the garden through which her mother had walked so many times, collapsed onto a stone bench and began to cry. She cried the cry of her lifetime and with each tear she shed, a tiny drop of optimism left her. Because now it seemed as though there really was no hope for her life to get any better.

“Of course there’s hope, my dear.”

Cinderella looked up, but there was no one around. She must have imagined it. She looked to the sky and saw her star, shining bravely and hopefully as it always did, and it lifted Cinderella’s spirits. As she watched, however, the star moved. It left its place in the sky and came to earth, looking less like a star and more like a firefly. In a moment, the firefly was gone and Cinderella saw a kindly old woman in a blue robe, with blue eyes and a warm, friendly smile looking at her.

“Who are you?” asked Cinderella.

“Don’t you recognize me?” asked the fairy. “Your special star? I have been watching over you all your life, my child.”

“I don’t understand,” said Cinderella. And so the fairy told Cinderella the story of how her mother had rescued her from the birds and how, in return, the fairy had granted her wish.   

“You, Little Ella, are that wish,” said the fairy. “I am your fairy godmother.” Cinderella was moved. This was the first time in years that anyone had called her by her real name. But her fairy godmother didn’t stop there. “We’ve got to get you ready for the ball,” she said and with a wave of her wand, everything around Cinderella changed. A big orange pumpkin on a nearby vine became a beautiful carriage. Four passing field mice became four very confused white horses. Her father’s old hunting dog became her father’s old coachman and when she looked at herself, her rags had become a beautiful shimmering ballgown. On her head was a diamond tiara, and on her feet…glass slippers.

Which you really wouldn’t think would be very comfortable, but in this case they were the most comfortable shoes Cinderella had ever worn.

“Thank you for everything, Fairy Godmother,” said Cinderella.

“You’re most welcome, Ella. But remember, you must be home by midnight. Because at the stroke of twelve, my magic runs out and everything will be as it was.” Cinderella promised to be home by midnight and rode off for the castle.

By the time Cinderella arrived, the party was in full swing. There were lords and ladies, gentlemen and beautiful women all around but no sign of the Prince. She saw plenty of His Father, The King, however, and got the impression that he was looking for the Prince as well.

Cinderella walked all through the ballroom, looking for the Prince. She was so busy looking, that she didn’t notice the fact that as she passed every head turned in her direction. Men were neglecting their dance partners, guards were forgetting their duties and everyone was asking the same question:

“Who is that girl?”

Even the most beautiful woman at the party (Gladys Miller, three time pageant winner and spokeswoman for Hoffman’s Tooth Powder) had to concede her title when Cinderella entered. In fact, Goneril and Regan looked as well and wondered who she was themselves. You see, they were so used to seeing Cinderella dirty and unkempt, they didn’t even recognize her as their stepsister! Not that they paid that much attention to her anyway, of course.

After a lot of walking and no luck finding the Prince, Cinderella stepped outside on the terrace to get some air. From where she was standing she could see three things. A clock tower in the distance telling her that she had three more hours until midnight. A thrilling panoramic view of the kingdom (she tried, but she couldn’t see her house from there). And a very, very handsome man standing alone in the moonlight. He turned around when he he heard her delicate glass footfalls.

“I’m sorry,” he said, then stopped short when he saw how beautiful she was. “I, er…I didn’t know…didn’t know any-any-anyone else was…was…ya know, here.”

 “No, I’m sorry,” said Cinderella. “I was just looking for the…the…” but she couldn’t stop looking at this man and couldn’t remember who in the world she was looking for. All she knew is that she’d found someone far more worth finding than any old Prince. Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, this man was the Prince—hiding from the rest of the party due to his shyness—but Cinderella had no idea and really didn’t care.

As for the Prince, well, he felt the same way about her. “Would you care to dance?” he said. And dance they did. They danced the night away. Alone under the moonlight while the ball raged inside. The two most sought after people at the party waltzed not a hundred feet from a crowd of dancers all wondering where they were…and they didn’t care. Gazing into each other’s eyes; each one seeing something they had never even dared dream of until now.

And then Cinderella heard the clock start to chime midnight.

“I have to go,” she said.

“But wait,’ said her companion. “Who are you? How will I find you again?”

But Cinderella didn’t answer. She ran down the stairs to her carriage. So fast, in fact, that she lost one of her slippers. She didn’t even have time to go back and get it, she just jumped into her carriage and raced into the night. She got home, as it happens, just in the nick of time. The carriage, the gown, the coachman and the horses all vanished, the mice and the dog ran away, and there was Cinderella. All alone in her rags, surrounded by bits of pumpkin. But with the memory of a perfect evening to sustain her…and one glass slipper on her foot.

Which means, thought Cinderella, that the other slipper probably didn’t disappear either, so he has some clue to find me. Thank you, Fairy Godmother. Thank you for everything.

The next day, all anyone could talk about was the ball. Where had the Prince disappeared to? Who was he going to marry? What was in that punch that was so good? Mango? Maybe guava? What is guava, anyway? And, most of all, who was that mysterious woman who had so captured everyone’s attention? Well, their questions (except the ones about the punch, which was a closely guarded secret of the royal caterers) were answered very soon, for later that same day, His Father, The King issued another proclamation:

The good news was that the Prince had found the woman he wanted to marry. The bad news, of course, was that he had no idea who she was. All he had was a slipper she had left on the stairs on her way out. So he was riding through his kingdom trying the shoe on every maiden in the kingdom until he found the girl whose foot fit in the shoe. And that girl would be the princess. This led to some fairly unpleasant encounters with various ladies of the kingdom, all of whom were desperate to wear the slipper. Upon hearing a rumor that it was rather dainty, many desperate young women bound their feet tightly, trying to make them smaller, and one even cut off her own big toe and heel (ugh!) before learning that the shoe was made of glass and such deception would be easily detected. This young woman started therapy the very next day and eventually lived happily ever after in her own right, but now we should really get back to the story at hand.

As soon as they heard this, of course, Goneril and Regan realized that they had another chance to marry the prince. So they put Cinderella to work, trimming and cleaning their best dresses to wear when the Prince arrived. Cinderella, however, was distracted because she had finally realized that the Prince was who she had been dancing with all night! All she had to do was try on the slipper (which had literally been made just for her) and she could live happily ever after.

Later that day the Prince arrived with the glass slipper. Cinderella’s Stepmother presented Goneril and Regan to him as her “only two daughters,” and they both tried on the shoe. Of course, it didn’t fit either of them (despite Regan’s insistence that her foot had swelled overnight due to a bee sting) and the Prince thanked them for their time and prepared to leave.

It was just at that moment that Cinderella appeared. And when the Prince saw her, of course, he didn’t need to try the slipper on her foot because he knew at once who she was. But, he had promised that the maiden whose foot fit in the slipper would be his bride, and he had to follow through on his promise, or else His Father, The King would never forgive him. So he invited Cinderella to sit and asker for her foot, which she gave happily…but before he could slip it on, Cinderella’s Stepmother grabbed the slipper and threw it angrily to the ground where it shattered into a million pieces. “I will never let you become a princess before my real daughters!”

Cinderella was crestfallen, the Prince was devastated and Goneril, Regan and their mother were chuckling wickedly amongst themselves. All hope seemed lost, and it looked as though were were on our way to one of those unhappy endings until a tiny speck of light flew into the room. The same speck of light that had flown down from he heavens the night before and granted Cinderella’s dearest wish now flew to her ear as though it were whispering something.

“What?” said Cinderella as her fairy godmother spoke to her. “Why, you’re right! Excuse me, please,” she added to the Prince. She ran up to her bedroom and quickly returned, tightly clutching something wrapped in a towel. She walked up to the Prince and unwrapped the towel: inside was the other slipper! Of course, now there could be no doubt who that mysterious lady had been and Goneril, Regan and their mother just stood there, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with shock as the Prince, with great tenderness, took her foot in his hand, slid off her shoe and slid the glass slipper on. A perfect fit!

Cinderella and Her Prince married at once. Her hope and optimism had finally paid off (and it does, far more often than you probably think). Now she lived in the palace with the man she loved. Her face was no longer covered in cinders and, though she did some light cleaning from time to time, she never had to slave away sweeping the floors and polishing the silver anymore.

As for her steprelatives, Cinderella…sorry, Princess Ella took pity on them and, using her new clout as princess, had their house restored to its former glory, so that they could live comfortably…but far, far away from her! And that is why everyone involved lived happily ever after.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Cinderella (1950) Walt Disney’s enduring masterpiece which introduced the phrase “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” to Cinderella’s legacy and gave us the song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”
  • “Hey, Cinderella!” (1969)(TV) An early Jim Henson special which featured Kermit’s first appearance as a frog (before that, the puppet was just a non-descript green…thing)
  • “Faerie Tale Theatre” (TV) Jennifer Beals is the princess, Matthew Broderick is the prince and Jean Stapleton is the Fairy Godmother
  • “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Sapsorrow” (TV) This alternate version of the story depicts a young girl in disguise as a scullery maid who dresses up every night of a three night festival only to leave her slipper behind on the third night. British comedy duo French and Saunders are her sisters.
  • Cinderfella (1960) In this “gender-bended” version, Jerry Lewis is “Fella” a loveable goof who woos a beautiful princess with the help of his fairy godfather (Ed Wynn) and goes from a “people” to a “person.” In my opinion, Jerry’s best movie ever.
  • Ever After (1998) This version of the fairy tale jetisoned the traditional details of the story, but stays true to the spirit of the original. Starring Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston and Dougray Scott
  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (2002)(TV) Adapted from the novel by Gregory Maguire (who also wrote “Wicked”) it tells the story from the perspective of one of the stepsisters. Stockard Channing stars as the stepmother
  • The Slipper and the Rose (1976) Enchanting musical fable with songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers (“Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” “Winnie the Pooh” et al) features Gemma Craven and Richard Chamberlain as two soulmates on opposite ends of the social spectrum
  • “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” (1957)(TV) The great songwriting team adapted the story for this made-for-TV musical which originally starred Julie Andrews. It was remade in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren in the lead, and again in 1997 for ABC’s ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ starring Brandy and Whitney Huston

NEXT WEEK: “The Bremen Town Musicians”

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