For thousands of years people have been telling and listening to stories. The pleasures of a good story emerge most forcibly from a vividly evoked particularized setting. Details make a world. Some cultures have a strong tradition in storytelling, and the wisdom of people has been handed down through the oral tradition. Alma Flor Ada writes: “all literature begins with the oral tradition, which is the representation of a people’s culture.” (1) But written literature for children had a very different development. While oral folklore lived in the telling, requiring only a voice and an ear, to create a written literature presented different demands for skills and resources. The telling was not enough. People wanted to develop and share a common heritage. In France, Charles Perrault, a French poet and writer, initiated a written literature for children based on the popular tradition. He is known for his collection of fairytales,
Contes de Ma Mere l’Oye
(1697) translated into English, “Tales of Mother Goose.” He was also the author of “Stories of Tales of
Times Past with Morals” (1697). This collection of French folklore included “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Puss in Boots”, and “Cinderella”.
The Grimm Brothers: After early work on medieval German texts, Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) set about collecting German folk tales published in a 1812-14 as Kinder und Hausmärchen . And we also have to mention Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), Danish author, famous for his fairytales. He traveled widely in Europe and wrote novels, plays, and travel books. His international reputation, however, was earned by the 168 fairy tales that he wrote between 1835 and 1872. These include such classics as “The Snow Queen”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Ugly Duckling”.
Every culture in the world has its folk tales and/ or fairy tales. They have been retold so many times, over so many generations, that no one knows who first made up the story. And with each retelling, the story changes because it is practically impossible that different people are able to retell the story in the same way. Each person has also his/her own perception, and that is one of the reasons why the same story is not written or told exactly in the same way. What still remain in each new version are the values. We recognize the cruel and the kind and generous characters and at the end the “bad” character who is (most of the time) punished.
When I was given the opportunity to write this unit I was surprised to find so many similar versions, like Perrault’s and Grimm’s Cinderella, but from a different ethnic background. Each version gives us an interesting snapshot of a particular culture. That gave me the idea to promote cultural literacy and cultural identity with a specific fairy tale that could be relevant to most of the children’s own personal lives, using the characters as models, where basic human needs and experiences could provide the reader/listener with predictable outcomes, at the same time making comparisons of different cultural versions of the same tale , such as the numerous variants of “Cinderella”, possible and worthwhile.
The Cinderella story is a universal one. There are over 400 versions on Europe; however, there is strong evidence that the story originated in China. The tiny shoe or other object to be fitted or recognized suggests that
heroine was of royal birth, one who was cast out of her royal station in life.
known by many different names, then seeks to reestablish her rightful role. The tale surfaces repeatedly in cultures as far apart as Korea, Egypt, and Native America. This story is a part of the literacy heritage of all people.
The first Cinderella story I remember was the European version of Perrault and the Grimm’s telling, which portrayed the stepfamily as cruel and abusive. Both versions have accompanied me all my life. During my adolescence I identified myself with the protagonist because of some personal similarities and our similar sphere; and when my first granddaughter was born, as soon as she was able to understand, and after I read her the tale, we played
over and over again. It was on her own initiative and she never was tired or bored. I was the terrible stepmother, the two stepsisters, the godmother and the prince- all the characters at the same time. Later, when her brother was old enough, he assumed the character of the prince. Probably one of the reasons I chose this fairy tale for my students is because of this enriched experience in my life. It made also a great impact on my granddaughter. She is now 19 years old and successfully studying Drama and Theater at Bard College. I want to believe that because of this fairy tale I probably influenced her decision to study theater and choose it as a career.
For my students it will be also a wonderful experience to read all the different versions. It will encourage children to think and reflect both on the stories and on what they may imply for their own lives. Using the characters as models, listeners can become active protagonists, creating their own life stories. The tales become, in a sense, metaphors that lend strength and direction to one’s own life journey. Through critical reflection, the reader can evaluate and analyze how fairy tale protagonists successfully or unsuccessfully solve their problems. But not only we will be reading and discussing the different versions of
There are other areas of the curriculum content we can explore and integrate in this process. This process involves genuine aspects of history and will engage students in the different cultures, religions, and languages related to where each Cinderella’s version comes from. It will be an amazing journey through many civilizations. In the end it not only will be the Cinderella story but the history of the world that we have glimpsed.