Welcome back to Fantasy Corner! This week, we’re retelling stories that even Disney couldn’t sugarcoat. These are some seriously messed up Cinderella stories.
There are roughly as many versions of Cinderella as there are countries in the world. In fact, if you look at the Aarne-Thompson-Uther categorization—which is a prominent method of identifying international trends or patterns in folktales—Cinderella stories are so prevalent that they have their own category. Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale type 510A covers everything from the classic Perrault Cinderella to some of the weirdest fairy tales you’ll ever read.
We can assume that leaving your horrible family behind, blowing off your chores to go to a ball, and marrying a handsome prince were basically universal fantasies for disaffected young girls a few hundred years ago. And judging by the number of adaptations, not a lot has changed. Most of the older versions are basically interchangeable – girl has horrible stepfamily, girl goes to the ball, girl meets a handsome prince and marries him. Still, not all of these stories survived into the public consciousness, and some were so weird I had to censor the titles.
Everyone knows that fairy tales are messed up. While most of us grew up with the sugary cartoon versions, a quick read through the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault will reveal everything from murder to cannibalism to grisly revenge plots against the wicked stepmothers of the world. Here are three Cinderellas that even Disney couldn’t sugarcoat.
The Fair Vasilissa, a Russian Fairy Tale
On her deathbed, Vasilissa‘s mother gives her a doll and tells her never to let it out of her sight. Her father soon remarries, as is traditional in these stories, to a woman with two daughters. As she grows older, Vasilissa becomes beautiful, and all the young men in the town want to marry her; her stepmother forbids her from marrying while her stepsisters are unwed since Vasilissa is the youngest. Meanwhile, she and her daughters do everything they can to make Vasilissa’s life hell, assuming that hardship will make her less beautiful. They starve her, give her the hardest chores, and make her wear tattered hand-me-downs. Somehow Vasilissa just keeps getting prettier. Her two stepsisters, however, get uglier the more they mistreat her.
One night the stepfamily decides they’re tired of Vasilissa existing in their house and devises a plan to get rid of her once and for all. On a dark winter night, the three girls are working by firelight when the eldest stepsister “accidentally” extinguishes the last candle in the house. Since they need a light, and the other girls are too busy, her stepmother orders Vasilissa to bring fire back from Baba Yaga’s house. If you know anything about Russian mythology, you’ll know that Baba Yaga is a child-eating hag who lives in a hut on chicken legs. Vasilissa goes, carrying the doll her mother gave her.
Baba Yaga invites her in and sets her several impossible tasks. The plan is to eat her when she inevitably does something wrong, but Vasilissa, aided by her mother’s doll, performs all the tasks perfectly. Baba Yaga decides she’s more trouble than she’s worth and throws her out, and Vasilissa steals a skull full of fire from the gate outside Baba Yaga’s house. She returns home and lights the fire, but apparently using witch-fire from a human skull is a bad idea because the entire house burns down. Vasilissa survives, moves in with a neighbor, and—as Cinderellas are wont to do—ends up marrying the Emperor.
The Little Saddle Maid, a Greek Fairy Tale
Three sisters and their mother are spinning wool when one of them has the bright idea to eat the first person who drops their spindle. Maybe they’re starving. Maybe this is some sort of messed up family tradition. Who knows? Either way, the mother drops her spindle three times. The two older girls kill her and cook her, but the youngest sister—our heroine Saddle—refuses to join in. She gathers her mother’s bones, buries them, and smokes them with incense.
After forty days, she returns to the bones and finds coins, dresses, and jewelry. When the sisters go to church, the youngest dresses up in her new finery and goes apart from her sisters. She catches the eye of the Prince and throws money at the crowd before leaving without her sisters—who, naturally, don’t recognize her now that she’s wearing a pretty dress. After a few weeks of doing this, the Prince decides she’s a keeper and marries her. And that’s when things get really weird.
Her sisters get jealous, as sisters in fairy tales are wont to do, and after meeting her son they hide her in a casket and throw her in the river. Saddle escapes when an old woman fishes the casket out of the river and tries to chop it up for firewood. She prays for shelter, and God gives her a magical house where everything moves on its own, Beauty and the Beast-style. One day the Prince goes hunting and stumbles upon her house. They recognize each other; the Princess commands her house to fly them home (which begs the question of why she didn’t just do that in the first place) and they live happily ever after.
Beauty and Pock-Face, a Chinese Fairy Tale
A farmer in China has two wives and two daughters. The daughter of his first wife was incredibly beautiful, and so she was called Beauty. The daughter of his second wife was incredibly ugly, and so they mocked her and called her Pock-Face. You’d be forgiven for thinking Pock-Face is the protagonist, because she’s younger and seems designed for pity, but apparently beauty trumps everything when it comes to heroines. As you’ll soon see, there’s not much else to be admired in, well, anyone in this story. But we start off with a Cinderella setup: Beauty’s mom dies and lives on in the form of a yellow cow. Pock-Face’s mother mistreats her out of jealousy and kills the yellow cow. Beauty gathers her mother’s bones and keeps them in an urn.
One day PF and her mother go to a play, leaving Beauty behind. Beauty bravely defies the stereotype that all Cinderella figures are nice little debutantes, and throws a house-destroying tantrum, breaking the urn that holds her mother’s bones. Out comes a beautiful dress, some fabulous shoes, and (somehow) a horse. Beauty gets dressed and goes off to town, losing a shoe on the way. She offers her own hand in marriage to various male passersby in exchange for finding her shoe. This turns out better than you’d think because she ends up getting married to a nice young scholar. And they lived happily ever after, or so you’d hope.
Everything’s fine until Beauty’s sister, who isn’t doing too well in the romance department, gets jealous and decides to steal Beauty’s husband. She lures her to a well, pushes her in, and somewhat ironically tells her husband that she died of smallpox. Not long after, PF and the scholar get married. Unfortunately, Beauty is still alive, in the form of a sparrow (so PF kills her). When Beauty returns in the form of bamboo, Pock-Face cuts her down and makes her into a mattress. This eventually became awkward, considering PF was sleeping with Beauty’s husband. So she throws it out. An old woman retrieves the mattress and brings it home, and somehow Beauty becomes human again. She kills Pock-Face by deep-frying her in boiling oil and then presents her to her stepmother, who dies on the spot. Then Beauty returns to the scholar and they live happily ever after. Somehow. I think.
There are about as many Cinderella stories as there are disgruntled teenage girls or crappy stepfamilies. I think I might prefer the weird ones, though, because reading the same story eight hundred times can get old. I wonder when we’ll get a Disney adaptation with Baba Yaga in it?
- Vassilissa the Beautiful: Ralston, William Shedden. Russian Fairy Tales. (New York: Hurst & Co., 1873.) Accessed at SurLaLune.
- Little Saddle Maid/Little Saddleslut: Edmund Martin Geldart, Folk-Lore of Modern Greece: The Tales of the People (London: W. Swan Sonnenschein and Company, 1884), pp. 27-30. Accessed at https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0510a.html#saddleslut.
- Beauty and Pock Face: Eberhard, Wolfram, ed. Folktales of China. Desmond Parsons, translator. Folktales of the World. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.) Accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20100308122729/http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/cinderella/other.html.