Could Fairy Tales Be Based on True Stories? cover

Could Fairy Tales Be Based on True Stories?

Ever After sells the possibility that Cinderella was a completely true fairy tale and reminds growing girls that they don’t need a prince to save them.

Part 4 in the More Modern Fairy Tales Series

I have such love for this iteration of an old story we all know. Ever After (1998) sells the possibility that Cinderella was a completely true fairy tale. I love the idea that all our stories could be real, and this film gave me hope that maybe, somehow they were, even though I knew it was fiction.

Ever After: A Cinderella Story Movie Summary

The story opens with the Grand Dame asking to meet with the Brothers Grimm to talk about their version of Cinderella, which she did not find to be satisfactory. This is because her ancestor was the real Cinderella and the Grand Dame shows the brothers her glass slipper.

She tells a tale centering around women: complicated jealousies because Danielle's father, Auguste, loved her more than anyone, including his new wife. The Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Danielle’s stepmother) isn't a rich woman anymore but pretends to be by hawking her late husband's possessions to a neighbor and blaming the servants for theft. We are also shown how women were made to compete for status during this period of time.

Prince Henry features as a side character, a boy who can't see his own potential as a ruler or as a man. He needs the mouthy, well-read Danielle to guide and challenge him. Her path crosses Prince Henry's when she first hits him with an apple as he steals her beloved late father's horse. The same day, Danielle dresses up as a courtier (which is illegal since she is now a servant in her stepmother's home) to save a fellow servant from being sold.

Stolen Hearts and Broken Hearts

The stepmother is a vicious, conniving woman who is trying to seat her daughter, Marguerite, on the throne. Marguerite did not benefit from her mother's attention, becoming a volatile, spiteful young woman whose pretty face does not match her ugly inside. Her other daughter, Jacqueline, is made fun of for being fat all because she likes food. She's also the only descendant of nobility who is kind to Danielle.

Prince Henry doesn't want to marry a Spanish princess so his father strikes a deal with him. In a few days' time, during a ball, he may announce his marriage to the lady he chooses. Otherwise, the original betrothal will be upheld. The Baroness and Marguerite lobby hard but it is Danielle who fools him by dressing up in courtier clothing and steals his heart. There are several competing storylines, but the prince finds out she's a servant via her stepmother publicly humiliating her. He turns his back on Danielle when she tries to explain and breaks her heart.

Danielle saves herself from imprisonment by a man she's sold to. Prince Henry comes back, sheepish and apologetic for his actions. Then Danielle gets her revenge on her horrible stepmother and stepsister by marrying in secret and shaming them in front of all their peers, sending them to work in the castle as servants for the rest of their lives.

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Grimm's ‘Original’ Cinderella Tale

Ashputtle is a variation of Cinderella’s name in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s story from 1812, which was Aschenputtle. The beginning of the Grimm’s story opens with Ashputtle's biological mother's tragic death. The father remarries and the ugly stepsisters are pretty in face but ugly at heart; the stepsisters are portrayed as ugly in later iterations of the fairy tale. This approach of disability and ugliness meaning evil or denoting some kind of malicious intent with appearance, is both incorrect and offensive.

The father brings gifts. The first daughter asks for fine clothes, the second wants pearls and diamonds, and Ashputtle desires one thing: a sprig of whatever hits his hat first. The humble desire of Ashputtle and greed of the sisters alludes to Shakespeare’s King Lear, which most likely influenced this story. Ashputtle takes the hazel sprig to her mother's grave and her tears water the tree. A little bird comes, nests, then brings the young woman whatever she wishes for.

To go to the ball, Ashputtle has to pick out all the peas from an ash heap within two hours, which her bird friends help her with; then somehow, more peas come into the picture and once again, the birds help her. But even though she completes the task, she ends up not being able to go anyway because she has nothing to wear. She cries under the hazel tree but the birds bring her a beautiful dress and silk shoes.

A Golden Ratio

Ashputtle hides from the prince when he begins looking for her after the ball: first, behind a hazel tree, then a pear tree, and on the third night, she leaves a gold slipper behind. This progression of three comes up in many other tales as a kind of golden ratio: one isn’t enough, neither is two, but three is perfect, whatever it may be.

The prince goes around with the shoe and almost takes each of the stepsisters in turn with him, who cut off their toes to fit the tiny shoe, but a very nosy, loud bird alerts the prince of their deception and of the blood filling up the shoe. When Ashputtle tries it, it fits perfectly, and the bird sings that she is truly the one he is searching for; it perches on her shoulder and Ashputtle takes it with her new home.

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Cinderella is One of the Most Retold Stories of All

Unfortunately, we cannot tell exactly how the very first Cinderella story was told because it was not likely written down at the time, but almost every culture has one, nevertheless. Much of the "original" Grimms tale owes itself to the birds that Cinderella befriended. The Grimm story shares a lot of allusions with later tales; Cinderella, then, might be the blueprint of them all. Nature also plays a more significant role in Grimm's tales in general, compared to other versions. It was Charles Perrault's earlier version of the tale in 1697 that gave us the motifs we know and love: glass slippers, a fairy godmother, pumpkins and mice into a coach/coachmen, etc.

Cinderella is the "core of western fairy tale canon", meaning that we understand fairy tales and their structure through this story. It has become one of the most recognizable tales ever told down to the tiniest details (notably the glass slipper). The rags-to-riches idea appeals to capitalist audiences because her virtue is rewarded. Cinderella is also one of the most retold stories in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale-Type (or ATU) Index, a tool that folklorists use to map out the progression of a tale's ancestry. Several hundred variants exist of 510A, which is Cinderella‘s identification in the ATU as a wonder tale. As American folklorist, Stith Thompson, puts it:

“a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and is filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land … the characters and motifs of fairy tales are simple and archetypal … and include magical helpers, often talking horses, or wild animals, or birds.”

We Don’t Need a Prince to Save Us

Ever After is folkloresque in that it uses the concept of a story that sounds true enough to be real, which is then told as a real story in a fictional setting for a movie. A tale that endures, in my opinion, because the idea of rags-to-riches/power is deliciously irresistible in a world where many are struggling to pay rent or put food on the table, virtuous as they are. Anyone would want to be rescued from that but the endurance of Ever After is that although Danielle falls in love and becomes queen, she ultimately saves herself. She is brave and true, even in the face of despair.

Many fairy tale films that were made around this time don’t have the same staying power in public memory, but this one reminds us growing girls that we don’t need a prince to save us, especially when many fairy tales say otherwise. The “fairy tale” dream always ends in American culture, but our convictions and values should never fade.

References

Ever After, dir. Andy Tennant. 1998.

Hallett, Martin and Barbara Karasek. 2018. Folk and Fairy Tales.

Le Duc, Amanda. 2020. Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space.

Thompson, Stith. Reprint 2022. The Folktale.

Foster, Michael Dylan, and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. 2015. The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World.

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