EP 032: If the Shoe Fits

EP 032: IF THE SHOE FITS Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What gruesome sport is favored amongst Princes, and can a glass slipper really carry the weight of a running girl? Today, we're tackling the tough stuff behind one of Disney's shiniest fairytales.    

I make no promises to refrain from foot based humour throughout this episode, but the first limb I’m going out on is the purely metaphorical assumption that you’re all familiar with some iteration of the Cinderella Story. But in just in case, I’ll summarize:

If Disney’s classic is to be believed (spoiler: it isn’t) man meets woman. Man marries women. Women has a child (hereafter referred to as Nice Girl). Women dies. Man goes against all other parts of his nature and marries a complete cow (again, metaphorical. Literal would be the basis of an entirely different sort of story, which I don’t think we have the necessary age restrictions to tell). We’ll call her Stepmother. Stepmother has two daughters of her own, also of the bovine personality type. Man, perhaps exhausted by the presence of all these women, also dies. Stepmother and co. treat Nice Girl with excessive cruelty, despite the fact that she is sweet and kind and very pretty when she gets around to taking a bath. Nice Girl (without the use of illicit substances) is visited by fairy godmother, and given a magical wash, a very poufy blue dress, and some completely illogical footwear. Nice girl goes to ball, meets handsome Prince, runs away at midnight, as instructed, but leaves behind times glass slipper (not as instructed). Handsome Prince retrieves lost footwear, searches the land on the entirely mistaken premise that shoe size is akin to a fingerprint, and finds Nice Girl. They get married and live happily ever after, and nobody (except me) worries about the 6 very confused mice running around somewhere, being mocked by their peers for believing they might once have been horses.   

It’s all very saccharine and neat and enough to make you want to be sick.

Enough to make you sick, but for completely different reasons, is the earlier version put forth by the Brothers Grimm, who many people believe – mistakenly, as it happens – to be the original authors. In their tale, Cinderella is Aschenputtel, or the Little Ash Girl. Her father is not dead, just a weasel, and the fairy godmother is a far more sensible wish-granting tree, which may or may not be the spirit of her dead mother but is, in any case, less liable to break out into random song. The brother’s Grimm might have been livelier than their names suggest, because their ball is a wild three day affair. Aschenputtel doesn’t exactly lose her footwear on fleeing on the third night – rather, the Prince, showing a slightly unattractive jealous streak, smears the staircase with tar, gluing her – and, presumably, everyone else – in place. Later, the step sisters butcher off their own toes to shove them into the lost slipper, but the profusive bleeding tips the Prince off and he begins to suspect that these girls are not playing cricket. Aschenputtel – who seems to demonstrate a quite appalling disregard for personal hygiene, even by medieval standards – shoves her foot into the gory shoe without even stopping to rinse it off. The Prince is apparently into it though, because he marries her immediately. She’s far less forgiving than her Disney counterpart, and has a pair of doves peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. She lives happily ever after – they very much do not.

As an aside, several scientists have put a modicum of thought into the problem of a glass slipper, and have agreed that it is indeed possible, provided that the glass is of a sufficient thickness to take the weight of a running girl, and that the high heel has a diameter of about 2 centimeters. The general consensus is that Cinderella would have been best served by a toe-down running technique – which, funny enough, is actually pretty similar to the way Disney portrayed her, although that probably had less to do with mechanics and more to do with having her look dainty – a quality much admired in women throughout history, though later, thankfully, rejected by ‘the modern girl.’ The Brother’s Grimm, writing at a time not privy to the miracle that is modern Science, had none of these insights, and sidestepped the problem quite neatly – so to speak – by making a shoe of gold.

What many people don’t know is that Cinderella – far from being a semi-trite tale designed to make girls long for handsome, powerful men, or to scare them off of fibbing – is actually one of the world’s oldest fairy tales, and spans several cultures. The oldest oral version we know of is the Ancient Egyptian story of Rhodopis, recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo. The story goes that Rhodopis was a courtesan, who was having a bath one day in a river. She, apparently, was more squeamish about cleanliness than her later counterparts. An eagle, for reasons lost to time, snatched up her sandal and flew straight to Mennefer, where he dropped it helpfully in the pharaoh’s lap. The Pharaoh, much enamored of the size and shape of the sandal, searched the land for the woman who wore it. (Obviously – being Pharaoh – he was too busy to actually search himself. He sent scores of men out, none of whom seems to have questioned his sanity). When Rhodopis was found, she was brought straight to Mennefer and promptly married to the Pharaoh, after which they spent many long years together, happily discussing the arts of cordwaining and cobblery.

A similarly old version comes from China, and is the story of Ye Xian. It’s also an oral story – like all folk tales – but was set down in about 850 CE during the Tang Dynasty dynasty, in the compilation Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang.

Ye Xian is born in a small village, to a chief and his wife. According to local custom, the chief – Wu – had two wives, and each had given him one daughter. Ye Xian’s mum pops her clogs shortly after her birth, and Wu takes up the parenting baton. She is, naturally, much prettier than her half-sister, and much better at pottery, so her dear old Dad showers her with love and praise, while the rest of the family – presumably feeling slightly overlooked, get their noses out of joint.

This is unfortunate, since Wu takes the plague and pegs, and a new chieftain is elected in his place. His remaining wife sends Ye Xian out to work, and becomes the OG evil stepmum. Fortunately, Ye Xian is able to take comfort in the fins of her newfound bestie – a ten foot long golden fish in the nearby lake. When her stepmum finds out that Ye Xian is not, in fact, completely and unutterably miserable, she is furious, and eats the fish. Undeterred, Ye Xian buries the fish bones in four pots underneath the four corners of her bed. On the night of the New Years Festival, she is left behind to clean the house, but the fish’s spirit clothes her in a sea-green gown and a pair of golden slippers. The fish warns her not to lose so much as one shoe – which, after a night of dancing with all manner of hopeful young men, is exactly what she does. The slipper is found by a local farm worker and traded to a succession of people until it eventually ends up in the hands of the King. What, exactly, the King needed a golden slipper for we shall, sadly, never know. He places it in a pavilion and when Ye Xian comes to retrieve it, she is hauled before the court to explain herself. The King shows great interest in her struggles, and even greater interest in her dainty feet, and marries her.

Her stepmother and sister turn on each other in a quarrel that is so violent it causes the roof to cave in, and they are both buried alive.

There are a couple of alternate endings to the Chinese fable, one of which has the King turn out to be somewhat rapacious, abusing the fish-bone powers until they would no longer yield any magic. The prince turning out to be less-than-charming isn’t an unheard of trope in ancient stories, but its not common in the various iterations of this particular one, which is more focused on how radical escape from circumstances can be achieved by a change in class through marriage. The word Cinderella has come to connote a person whose qualities are hidden by misfortune and then rediscovered. In modern times, this isn’t ALWAYS because of marriage or love, but it’s usually hidden in there somewhere, if you look hard enough.

One of the only examples of a Cinderella who decides that maybe the upper echelons aren’t all they’re cracked up to be comes in the form of a poem by Roald Dahl, which may, incidentally, be even more gruesome than any of its ancestors.

His stepsisters are a little more industrious, and one of them swaps out Cinderella’s shoe for one of her own, after Prince Charming leaves it carelessly on a crate of beer. When she tries it one, of course, it fits, but the Prince doesn’t take it particularly well:

The Prince went white from ear to ear.
He muttered, ‘Let me out of here.’
‘Oh no you don’t! You made a vow!
‘There’s no way you can back out now!’
‘Off with her head!’ The Prince roared back.
They chopped it off with one big whack.
This pleased the Prince. He smiled and said,
‘She’s prettier without her head.’

Then up came Sister Number Two,
Who yelled, ‘Now I will try the shoe!’
‘Try this instead!’ the Prince yelled back.
He swung his trusty sword and smack
Her head went crashing to the ground.
It bounced a bit and rolled around.

In the kitchen, peeling spuds,
Cinderella heard the thuds
Of bouncing heads upon the floor,
And poked her own head round the door.
‘What’s all the racket? ‘Cindy cried.
‘Mind your own bizz,’ the Prince replied.
Poor Cindy’s heart was torn to shreds.
My Prince! she thought. He chops off heads!
How could I marry anyone
Who does that sort of thing for fun?

Just then, all in a blaze of light,
The Magic Fairy hove in sight,
Her Magic Wand went swoosh and swish!
‘Cindy! ‘she cried, ‘come make a wish!
‘Wish anything and have no doubt
‘That I will make it come about!’

Cindy answered, ‘Oh kind Fairy,
‘This time I shall be more wary.
‘No more Princes, no more money.
‘I have had my taste of honey.
I’m wishing for a decent man.
‘They’re hard to find. D’you think you can?’

Within a minute, Cinderella
Was married to a lovely feller,
A simple jam maker by trade,
Who sold good home-made marmalade.
Their house was filled with smiles and laughter
And they were happy ever after.”

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