Tuesday, August 10, 2010

WRS Ralston on Cinderella

Found in "Cinderella: A Casebook", W.R.S. Ralston's Cinderella examines a number of versions of the fairy tale in order to find the common themes and meaning.
1. The dead, helpful mother. In Ralston's words: "Its earlier scenes appear to have been inspired by the idea that a loving mother may be able, even after death, to bless and assist a dutiful child." This may surprise a fan only familiar with the Perrault/Disney versions of the tale, where the dead mother is hardly mentioned, and a fairy godmother does all the work. But earlier versions of the tale almost all have a mother who dies but whose spirit is embodied in a tree (Grimms), a cow (Servian), a doll (Russian), a fish (ancient Chinese), her bones (Greek), and more. (Ralston does not mention the Chinese version).
Elenore Abbott

2. A means of recognition. The shoe is not actually essential to the recognition, but even as far back as the story of Rhodopis (1st century A.D.) she is found by her golden sandal. The glass slipper was never part of the tale until Perrault. Before then it was often gold or another costly, beautiful material, but Cinderella may also have been recognized by a lock of her golden hair, or other indicators. Ralston: "the lost slipper...seems to be...merely one of the methods of recognition by which the stories of brilliant beings, temporarily obscured, are commonly brought to a close."

3. Formula: Unjust degredation-temporary recognition-temporary degredation-permanent recognition. By following this general formula, that is how we connect the Donkeyskin tales to Cinderella. The degradation is caused not by a cruel stepmother, but by a "hateful marriage," often to her father, from which the heroine must escape. Interesting contrast b/t the two tale families: "Cinderella's promotion is due to her dead mother's watchful care. Rashie-Coat's degradation is consequent upon her dying mother's unfortunate imprudence" (yet again, the power of the birth mother from even beyond the grave is essential to both stories). Ralston cites several stories in which the Donkeyskin character escapes by sinking magically into the ground, and others in which she hides behind ugly animal skins, or some kind of wooden cloak or covering.
And in all of these, the hiding female takes on some form of humble servitude. However, to those that villainize fairy tales that seem to imply that a female's salvation is only to be had through domestic work and therefore women are only good for the kitchen, Ralston adds "Just as her counterpart, the golden-locked prince of so many tales, becomes a scullion at court..." so the fact that she is female does not condemn her to servitude-the fact that she is the main character means there has to be tension and excitement and some unfortunate circumstance to rise out from. Ralston mentions tales from Germany, Norway, and Russia in which the male hero follows the same formula (although the Russian male Cinderella is recognized not just for looking beautiful, but for heroics in battle, recognized by the scarf the Princess tied on his arm). And in all the male Cinderella variants, great emphasis is put on the fact that his hair is golden.

To further increase the connection between Cinderella and Donkeyskin, in Afanasyev's Russian story, the heroine escapes from a hated marriage, disguised in a Swine's Hide, and is revealed after dancing at the ball and losing a shoe on the third night which could fit only her. The slipper also reveals Norway's Katie Woodencloak, but most Donkeyskins are recognized by their royal clothes.
Ethel Franklin Betts

Once we see the common ground shared by Cinderella tales, we can start to wonder where the tale originally came from and what it means. Ralston mentions the nature myth theories (everything good is the sun, or day, always in battle with night) and the historical theories (the tales remain from pagan practices, such as the hated marriage). Ralston points out that certainly, historical customs will appear in old tales, and so might mythological beliefs be a possible interpretation of tales. Ralston warns the reader not to be too dependant on any one theory. I almost get tired of hearing all the theories of the supposed original meaning-what of the story simply being entertaining and the plot having its own merit? Sun worshipers may have seen Cinderella as the sun, but that wouldn't make it any more the source than we who like to see ourselves as Cinderella and our mean boss as the stepmother, or any other personal applications.

And Ralston, in combining all the universal elements of the tale, never talks about the significance of clothing. In all the variants of Cinderella and Donkeyskin, she is ultimately recognized when she wears beautiful clothes, and merely dressing like a servant and getting a bit greasy is enough to make her completely unrecognizable. It's sort of like Clark Kent vs. Superman-we're supposed to believe that Lois Lane has no idea that one is the other, sans glasses? I like to think that peasant women used to believe that they were each the most beautiful woman ever seen, but they were forced to wear simple clothes, and that if they ever got the chance to wear the clothes of a Princess, they too would be found to be beautiful beyond belief. Can anyone else think of an explanation as to this very materialistic theme that tends to get ignored by scholars, though it's probably the most universal?

PS-Blogger spellcheck is sexist. It highlights "female's" as misspelled, but among the options of correct spelling are "fem ale's" and "Male's"-yes, Male's is capitalized.

One more thing-Ralston has a quote comparing the historical life of the fairy tale to the Cinderella tale itself which is cool: "Long did it dwell beside the hearths of the common people, utterly ignored by their superiors in social rank...At length there arrived the season of its final change, when, transferred from the dusk of the peasant's hut into the full light of the outer day, and freed from the unbecoming garments by which it had been disgigured, it was recognized as the scion of a family so truly royal that some of its members deduce their origin from the olden gods themselves." (Revealing, Alan Dundes points out, his own belief in the mythological origins of fairy tales, which are now remnants of old myths).

1 comment: