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“They are equals, but not the same, because when you lose the tension of polarities you lose the tension of life.”
― Joseph Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine
Nota: This post might just as easily go under the forum topics of quotes and also on practical application of mythology to daily life.
The universality of the folktale/fairy tale is shown in part in that a fairy tale from the ‘olden days’ such as “Cinderella” appears cross-culturally, each with their own variations reflecting their own culture. I like the application of this quote by Campbell here, because it embraces how all the different Cinderellas from various cultures are the same (equals) yet not quite the same. They have similar themes and motifs, yet differ in accordance to their cultural differences.
For instance, most of us are familiar with Disney’s “Cinderella,” which was adapted from the French version written down by Charles Perrault and many people are familiar with the German version entitled “Ashenputtle” (German for Cinder-ella or “Cinder-elf”) as recorded by the Brothers Grimm; yet, many people are surprised by the Chinese, Egyptian, and Native American versions of the Cinderella tale, and children are often particularly delighted and intrigued by them. Most children love to explore the wonders of “other lands” or “other worlds,” and tales from other cultures increase not only their knowledge of the world and world culture but their sense of wonder and adventure–which in turn can open furthered curiosity. It is like going “Around the World in 180 Days,” only this time making a quicker trip around the world in a few sittings in a few days.
Sharing multi-cultural Cinderella stories is a wonderful way to introduce or teach multi-cultural awareness for children. It is also a good study for adults who are in the field of early child education and is an enriching story-time for parents to share with their children. Descriptions and illustrations of the Cinderella gown and the shoes in each cultural tale is a fun detail for children to encounter. We see different material, styles, and decor: glass (Disney), golden fabric, or leather sandals.
Most these tales come with an age-appropriate notice in mind, as some contain not only mean stepmothers an stepsisters but extreme violence. In one of the African versions of Cinderella, “The Maiden and the Frog Prince,” a woman posing falsely as the new bride is punished by the groom’s family by being mutilated into pieces. In the Grimm version, the stepsisters are ordered by their own mother to mutilate (cut off) chunks of their feet to fit into the slippers to thus be made queen. In the Native American version, the sisters burn the Cinderella character with sticks at the fires and she is scarred; they then laugh at her that the prince will never want to marry her. In the Chinese tale, Cinderella’s magic helper is a goldfish, then the stepmother kills it, but then Cinderella finds the bones and finds they are still magical.
In all the Cinderella tales mentioned here, a motif of this tale is, in one way or another, the cruelty that Cinderella has experienced within her step-family situation, whether violent physically or emotionally. Again, “equals, but not the same” can apply to the many types of hurt or pain. Some children might feel like they are not treated the same as in sometimes feeling left out in step-family situations and tales such as this helps children identify and deal with/face their feelings. When doing discussions on these tales with children, it is not unusual for some children to share their tales about how they but not their brothers or sisters have to do most all the worst chores like helping take out the trash. Hearing and comparing theirs stories help children see they are not alone and that in most cases the terrible things they have to do like making their bed or taking out the trash are not really much different from everyone else (“equals, but no the same”). However, there could sometimes be the exception of possible actual unfairness/inequality treatment or even abuse).
Many children will see their own culture represented in the tales and feel an excitement of identification with the Cinderella character. Children learn then that Cinderella does not have to always be French, German, or of any particular culture or race; it shows them that any child can be a princess or a Cinderella, and that the universality of the tale includes their own culture too. There are many other cultural tales of the Cinderella theme/motif, from all over the world. Here I have discussed only a few–and there is much more that could be discussed about each of these tales.
In some ways, Cinderella is “divine” as she is magical in the sense that in the Disney version she has magical bird helpers, seems to call her fairy godmother to appear as magical or divine intervention; in the Grimm version, she has the ability to communicate with a magical tree (which is her dear deceased mother’s spirit); in the Native American version (The Rough Face Girl), she is the only one who has the right spirit or magic ability to see the Invisible One who is the mighty prince; in the Chinese version (Yeh-Shen), she is the one who can communicate with the magic fish–no one else. She is then seen to have kindness, intuition, a natural grace, and a spirit to make things work out, come true, to make things happen, and despite a lot of criticism on Cinderella perhaps being too passive as a female character, it yet shows some powers and gives some empowerment to young girls that there is some “magic” of making things happen in the world and that they too could have this “magic” or at least have hope–not necessarily just to win the prince (which the Cinderella tale is also often criticized for) but also to obtain one’s hopes and wishes and dreams for whatever lifestyle or vocation they would like. This makes for another excellent discussion to celebrate oneself and one another in a children’s group to discuss their dreams and see how different people have different career goals yet are all the same in their hopes.
Boys do not have to left out of these discussions as they can identify with the prince or even Cinderella in feeling mistreated at times or having hopes for a happily ever after, too. Another Cinderella tale that can be brought up are those in which the boy is a main character in a Cinderella-like tale. There are many in older folktales in which a son or brother or boy living within a step-family is mistreated also; one such male Cinderella tale of contemporary times is Harry Potter who has to live under the stairs at his Uncle and Aunt’s house, yet he goes from rags-to-riches in a way not the same as Cinderella, but in the magical world of wizardry. His wealth manifests as magic knowledge and powers, and esteem as a hero via his journey.
I have not attempted to include photos of the book covers or any illustration here, but info and ISBN #’s are below for search. Grimm fairy tales and the Disney/French versions are easily found online or in collections of fairy tales.
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China. Retold by Ai-Ling-Louie and illustrated by Ed Young. ISBN: 0-698-11388-8.
The Egyptian Cinderella. By Shirley Climo and illustrated by Ruth Heller. ISBN: 978-0-06-443279-5.
The Rough-Face Girl. Told by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon. ISBN: 978-0-698-11626-9.
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