A Cinderella story: the origins and enduring appeal of the rags-to-riches princess

In China she is Ye Xian, in France the Ash-Tree Girl. With a story stretching back beyond the 5th century, we look at where Cinderella came from and the lessons she continues to teach

Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello is the latest star to take on the role of Cinderella in Amazon Prime's reimagining of the classic tale. Courtesy Amazon
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Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello is the latest star to take on the role of Cinderella, putting her own spin on the fairy tale legend in Amazon Prime Video's Cinderella.

The all-star film, which will be released on September 3, features Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver and James Corden in a new version of the enduring classic, with Cinders forced to choose between her love for the dashing Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) and a desire to strike out on her own as a businesswoman with her boutique, Dresses by Ella.

Featuring Billy Porter as the "fabulous godmother”, Amazon's version is the latest in a long line of tales about the young woman who, treated badly by her wicked stepmother, beats the odds to become royalty.

The story of Cinderella reached Europe in the 1600s, but the tale is much older, going back beyond the fifth century to the heroine Rhodopis, in whose story the glitzy glass slipper we know and love is a humble sandal.

Cinderella’s origins story

Although the first literary version of the tale appeared in Europe in 1634, when Italian poet and writer Giambattista Basile published his collection of fairy tales in Pentamerone, the tale dates back, verbally, to beyond the fifth century.

In this early version of the beloved tale, recorded by Greek philosopher Strabo in his book Geographica, Cinderella is the beautiful Rhodopis, a Greek courtesan living in Egypt, and the glass slipper a sandal dropped into the lap of the king by an eagle.

The modern version known to most took shape in 1697, when it was published in French author Charles Perrault’s book Histoires ou contes du temps passe. An adapted version then appeared, titled Aschenputtel, in the famous Grimms’ Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

From China to Malta: Cinderella around the world

Cinderella stories exist in many countries across the world, all with different names for the protagonist and varying types of magical help. The underlying message of someone achieving success against the odds remains the same.

The ancient story of Aspasia of Phocaea, which originated in Persia, is thought to be an early Cinderella story, while another variant is the Ash-Tree Girl from 12th-century France, which involves twin girls separated at birth who both fall in love with the same nobleman. In Malta, the famous heroine is called Ciklemfusa, an orphan girl who works as a servant at the palace. She marries her prince after transforming for the evening with the help of an enchanted ring.

A Chinese version of the tale concerns Ye Xian, a young girl with a mean stepmother, with the story appearing in Duan Chengshi’s Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang from about 860. In it, the fairy godmother is a fish who is the reincarnation of Xian’s late mother, while the glass slipper is a shoe made of light gold.

The moral of the story

In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system, which classifies characters in folklore and fairy tales, Cinderella has been given the designation “Tale Type 510A: Persecuted Heroine".

Cinderella, in her many guises, has always been a tale of overcoming poor or humble beginnings to triumph over adversity and naysayers. It also perpetuates the wicked stepmother trope that appears in other fairy tales, including Snow White and Hansel and Gretel.

The original medieval European and Asian Cinderellas were plucky and smart, as they tip-toed through patriarchal society. It wasn’t until the Brothers Grimm started tinkering with the story that the themes of kindness triumphing over evil were pushed to the fore, rendering Cinders somewhat passive and voiceless.

The beauty of the tale is that it can constantly evolve with the times. And feminist writer Rebecca Solnit’s 2019 picture book, Cinderella Liberator, ends not with Cinderella marrying her prince, but rather opening her own business, a bakery. The prince gives up his title to become a farmer, and they live happily as best friends.

As Cabello gets ready to slip her foot into the glass slipper, here are seven other stars who have played Cinderella …

1. Anna Kendrick

The Oscar-nominated actress portrayed the fairy tale princess in 2014’s Into the Woods. The all-star musical featured Chris Pine as her prince and Mamma Mia! star Christine Baranski as her wicked stepmother.

2. Julie Andrews

The Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music star took on the rags-to-riches role back in 1957, in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella. A made-for-TV movie, it was watched by more than 100 million people on US network CBS.

3. Brandy Norwood

The singer and actress took the title role in Disney’s 1997 eponymous version of the tale, which featured the late Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother.

4. Drew Barrymore

The actress, who now hosts her own TV talk show, played Cinderella in 1998’s Ever After: A Cinderella Story, which was set during the Renaissance. “I came across this story that said: 'The Grimm Brothers had it all wrong, that Cinderella rescued herself’,” she told Elle. “And I thought, 'Rescue yourself? That’s who I want to be, that's who I need to be in this life’.”

5. Hilary Duff

Disney star Hilary Duff turned the tale into a modern love story, transporting it to a California high school. In 2004’s A Cinderella Story, Sam Montgomery (Duff) works hard at her stepmother’s diner, while yearning for her prince, popular high-school jock Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray).

6. Selena Gomez

With many other female Disney stars having taken on the role, in 2008 it was Selena Gomez’s turn. The actress and singer popped up in Another Cinderella Story playing high schooler Mary Santiago. Her dreams of singing stardom are quashed by her wicked stepmother, played by Glee’s Jane Lynch.

7. Lily James

The English actress starred as Cinderella in Kenneth Branagh’s lavish 2015 Disney live-action film of the same name. Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden played the prince and Cate Blanchett the wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine in the box-office hit. James told Entertainment Weekly of her version of the famous character: “She’s not sitting around dreaming of Prince Charming or thinking of a castle. She’s strong and she’s making her own choices.”

Updated: August 29, 2021, 12:31 PM