Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Article: Discussing NPR's "A Girl, A Shoe, A Prince: The Endlessly Evolving Cinderella"

Cinderella illustrated by Katerina Shtanko
All illustrations in this post are from the book shown above
First of all I want to say: GO READ THIS ARTICLE by Linda Holmes for NPR. The whole thing. I want to discuss it a little and wish I could just copy it all and paste it here, but you'll have to do with teasing extracts until you go eyeball the whole piece yourself. It's a wittily written, guide through Cinderella's transformations from one version to another. Still not convinced? It starts like this:
"Woman gives birth to a gourd." 
This is the opening to the description of an Italian variant of the Cinderella folk tale — or, really, a relative of one of its relatives — taken from a book called Cinderella; three hundred and forty-five variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap o'Rushes, abstracted and tabulated, with a discussion of mediaeval analogues, and notes, written by Marian Roalfe Cox and published in 1893. In this version of the story, the heroine is born inside a gourd and accidentally abandoned in the forest — understandable, given that her mother has just brought forth a squash from within her person, and the last thought she's entertaining is probably, "Hey, I'll take that with me." 
Our heroine is discovered by a prince, who finds the talking gourd and takes it home. If nothing else, perhaps it has a future in show business. At some point, she presumably emerges from it — the details offered in the book about this particular folk tale are limited — and she becomes a servant... 

The tale is, of course, Zuchinetta, one of Cinderella's many, many ancestor-cousins. The immediate reaction when I bring this version up? "So pumpkins.. not such a new concept then?" (Perrault, you sly little writer you! Gourd, pumpkin... not such an out-of-the-blue choice after all, was it, Sir?
Cinderella was always a gourd girl... (I know - it almost hurts it's so bad..)

Then Holmes discusses the variation that includes a little chewing out of the relatives... sorry. That's chewing ON relatives.. (yikes):
One begins with Cinderella, her two older sisters and their mother agreeing to a whimsical bet: First one to drop her spinning spool will be eaten by the others. When Mom proves clumsy, the sisters indeed eat her. (A deal's a deal?) Cinderella decides not to eat her mother, but to wait until the killing and eating is over, then bury her mother's bones. You know, out of respect. Fortunately, her mother's bones turn into coins and beautiful magic dresses. It's no fairy godmother, but you don't look your mother's gift bones in the ... mouth, I suppose.
Ba-dum-bump. OK, so Cinderella wasn't always such a "gourd girl". And this isn't the only version in which she does some.. less than "good girl" things.

It's not really that far a leap from bones to an oft-visited grave, though, is it?

But for all the weirdness and downright "heck-no!" factor in the more gruesome variants, Holmes explains how, somehow, Cinderella, the basic story, is still recognizable and remains as durable as ever.
From there she goes on to discuss what a Cinderella story actually is and discusses one of those things I wish more people understood: the great differences in how people use language with regard to fairy tales - something which mixes up a lot of messages. For example, the use of the word "fairytale" (wish fulfillment/idea state) is completely different from the phrase "fairy tale" (a wonder tale) which, now that people are once again looking back to see where these stories came from is beginning to get mixed up with "folktale" (a traditional tale or legend that's considered false or based on superstition) all over again. Holmes discusses how the phrase "Cinderella story" is actually a different entity altogether from discussing "the story OF Cinderella" (or a Cinderella tale-type) and 'why' and 'how' they're an interesting reflection of the time period in which they were made (including all those spins and spin-offs).

All of this is walked through step by step with much humor, pithy historical recaps and some interesting social commentary until she ends up at... Captain America. Yes. The super hero. Like this:
If it's just a rescue of a deserving underdog from an ordinary life and delivery to an extraordinary one, then... to be honest? — Captain America is Cinderella. Lots of our current stories are. What is a fairy godmother, after all, that isn't also present in the idea of being bitten by a spider and gaining the ability to climb buildings? What is that pumpkin coach but ... the Batmobile? And not to return to the tone of cannibalism and murder, but what consideration of unloved pop-culture girls whose evil mothers won't let them to go dances is complete without Carrie? 
Too far afield? Sure. But this is folklore, and it doesn't end, it just takes new forms...

This is why I feel it's important to follow fairy tale news. Not that I will be posting on SpiderGodmother or the BatPumpkin anytime soon, but maybe this will help people understand how some of us see fairy tale connections EVERYWHERE. Sometimes they're overt (I try to put those here in the blog, to point out conscious uses of the tales) but mostly they're not (and sometimes I might nod in that direction as well) but the point is, tales are being told - and retold - continuously. We influence them just as much as they continue to influence us.

How did Holmes get from gourds to pop-culture edginess being (possibly) just another version of another fairy tale? You'll have to go read it, but she ends on one of my favorite subjects. To continue from above (emphasis in bold is mine):
It isn't as if folklore goes up to 1900 and then stops, and everything after that is "pop culture." The production is different and the financing is different, but the appeal of stories that overlap and wind together, and the appeal of stories told and retold in different forms in different voices and variations, is not only a function of greed. It's also a function of instincts to tell and share and revisit stories you've heard before, not because they're new, but because they're not.

Now go read it all. It makes you feel extremely glad (and possibly a little ahead of the curve), to know that we love one of the most cultural defining and describing (and predicting!) subjects of all time: FAIRY TALES.


  1. This was a fantastic article! Made me laugh several times, but so many really good points in there too!

  2. It's a good thing you won't be posting about the Spider-Godmother or Batpumpkin any time soon.

    As you well know, that's my job. :p