Cinderella: The Real Story

So this is the second in my series of ‘real’ fairy tales. The first European telling of ‘Cinderella’ was written by Giambattista Basile in the early 1600s and was originally named ‘The Cat-Cinderella’. Roughly half a century later Charles Perrault created his ‘Cinderella’, and then the Grimms, at some point between 1812 and 1857 created another, much darker, version.

When we think of ‘Cinderella’, we probably think of Disney – the pumpkins, the mice and the fairy God-Mother – but the original tale was really quite different.


The Italian tale published in 1634 told the story of a widowed Prince and his beautiful daughter, Zezolla, who is treated poorly by her evil stepmother. Zezolla continually complains to her governess how awful her stepmother is, and so the governess, Carmosina, convinces her that if she kills her stepmother, she will become her new mother and love her dearly. Without question Zezolla decapitates her stepmother using a wooden chest and, after a little persuasion, her father marries Carmosina. During the celebrations a pigeon speaks to Zezolla and tells her she can wish upon the pigeon of the fairies should she ever be in need. It soon becomes apparent that Carmosina has been keeping a large secret; she already has six daughters of her own. The Prince soon loses interest in his own daughter and she becomes known as Cat Cinderella.

Not long after the marriage the Prince is summoned to Sardinia, the land of the fairies, and asks each of his daughters what they would like him to bring back for them. Each asks for material objects but Cat Cinderella asks for nothing but a recommendation to the pigeon of the fairies, and should he forget, he will not be able to return. Of course, predictably, he does forget and finds his ship won’t move. It is not until a fairy comes to the master of the ship in a dream that the message is passed on and his memory is jogged. So, the Prince goes to the fairy’s grotto and the beautiful fairy thanks him for his daughter’s remembrance. In thanks, she gifts him a date tree. The Prince returns home and Cat Cinderella is overjoyed with the tree. After four days it has grown and a fairy appears out of it.

The King is to hold a festival and Cat Cinderella wishes to go. Like magic, the tree gives her a beautiful dress. She dances with the Prince all night but runs away at the end of the night. The King sends a servant to follow her but Cat Cinderella throws coins and he stops to pick them up. Cat Cinderella gives her dress back to the tree just in time for the stepsisters to come home full of praise for the beautiful mystery guest. This story repeats itself twice more, the second time Cat Cinderella gets six horses and footmen to accompany her and she distracts the servant following her with pearls and jewels. The third time, she receives a golden carriage with a whole host of staff to support her. This time the servant is ready and follows the carriage but Cat Cinderella orders it to go faster and loses a slipper. The servant takes the slipper to the King who suggests holding a banquet and inviting all the women to try it on. However, none of the women’s feet fit. He announces that everyone must return the next day and not a single woman is to be left at home. The Prince mentions Cinderella and the King encourages him to bring her along. Of course, the slipper fits and he immediately puts a crown upon her head. In the end the stepsisters return home angry and upset.


The Grimm’s version of the tale (about two centuries later) is a very different affair. In this story it is the birds directly that help Cinderella and grant her wishes. They live in a tree planted on her mother’s grave and are meant to be Cinderella’s mother reincarnated. Another difference is Cinderella’s methods of escape; she climbs trees and disappears into a dovecote after one night. The end of the story, in true Grimm fashion, is violent and shocking. When the King brings the slipper to Cinderella’s home the first stepsister cuts off a toe to make the slipper fit. The King is overjoyed but as they ride away the birds sing the truth about what she has done. The King returns to the house and the second stepsister (there are only two in this story) cuts off a part of her heel. They ride away but, as before, the birds sing and the King returns. When the slipper fits Cinderella the birds sing that he has found the right person before pecking out the stepsister’s eyes. All very savage if you ask me.

It is Perrault’s version of the tale (c.1634) that we know best. He is the creator of the fairy-God-Mother, the pumpkin and the six white mice. The ending is also far more child-friendly; the evil stepsisters beg for forgiveness and Cinderella is kind – she ensures they both marry rich Lords. Much better.

So, as you can see, ‘Cinderella’ has changed a great deal over time. Which one do you prefer?


2 thoughts on “Cinderella: The Real Story

    • Yes the old Italian and French tales were shared amongst adults as post-dinner entertainment. A lot were probably improvised and made up on the spot from lots of different tales, hence why many have similar plots.

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