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Aschenputtel by Alexander Zick

Alexander Zick illustrated Cinderella with the doves, inspired by the Grimms’ version. (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I mentioned in a post entitled “How the Bear lost its Tail,” published on 4 August 2015, I pressed the “Publish” button instead of the “Save Draft” button. As a result, I published an incomplete post. The above image was also published before the post was complete.

The Brothers Grimm

  • Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812)
  • Cinderella “the persecuted heroine” AT type 510
  • the lesser success of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812)

(Unless otherwise indicated, links refer to a Wikipedia entry.)

I reread my post and did not modify it substantially. However, I introduced the Brothers Grimm: Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859). In 1812, they published Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) or Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the hope of finding cultural similarities between the inhabitants of German-language lands, a quest that did not prove altogether successfully, but created a discipline, first named folkloristics.

It is in this regard that mentioning the Brothers Grimm was essential. The Brothers Grimm’s goal was to find cultural similarities between the yet-to-be unified German-language lands, an undertaking which required them to go from town to town and hamlet to hamlet collecting folklore. As I wrote above, this huge effort proved a lesser achievement than they had anticipated. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was a bestseller, but it would eventually come to light that the tales of Germany had variants in other countries.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th century, a new discipline evolved, which could be called the above-noted folkloristics, and would lead to the development of related disciplines such as ethnology, linguistics, archaeology, all of which could be included under an umbrella discipline we know as anthropology: the “study of humanity,” to quote Wikipedia. (See Anthropology and History of Anthropology).

The Aarne-Thompson Classification System

In the case of the Brothers Grimm’s collection, it led to an international classification of types and motifs which was first published in 1910 by Finnish professor Antti Aarne and which would become the Aarne-Thompson Classification System. For instance, Cinderella had variants and different titles in various lands, but Cinderella is AT type 510: “the persecuted heroine.” There was universality to a large number of fairy tales, fables and other folktales. It was as though these had travelled from Europe to the Orient and vice versa as Venetian Marco Polo and other merchants traced the silk road.

As for their specificity, it resided in the variants, either the type (i.e. tail-fisher) or the motif (i.e. the severed tail).


Kinder und Haus: Märchen, volume one of Grimm’s Fairy tales, 1812


Grimm’s Fairy Tales contains a Cinderella, entitled Ashenputten. We have a coarse stepmother, her two insensitive daughters who belittle Cinderella, a father who brings the two stepsisters the gifts they wish for, birds who provide Cinderella with the clothes she needs, three girls: the stepsisters and Cinderella, a three-day celebration, the slipper, and some mutilation, the removal of a toe and that of a heel. I doubt that mutilation would be allowed in a 17th-century French-language fairy tale, a time when bienséances (decorum) was observed in the literature, the theater in particular, of France.

In the German-language Ashenputten, we do not have a fairy godmother, nor a carriage, nor the fateful 12 o’clock, nor an extended search to find the owner of a glass or vair slipper, a mere slipper in German-language lands. Finally, the prince asks the father if perhaps he does not have a third daughter. The plot of Ashenputten is basically the same plot of as the 700 BCE story of Rhodopis “about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt” (see Cinderella, Wikipedia). However, Ashenputten differs from Charles Perrault‘s Cendrillon if only because it is a more intimate variant of Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, which is not irrelevant, and because it features birds. So there is both specificity and universality between Cendrillon and Ashenputten. Fairy tales are “‘arrangements’ d’arrangements.”[1]

Origins: the oral and written tradition and Literature

We have just seen that the plot of Cinderella is rooted in Rhodopis, a 700 BCE written story. In more recent centuries, this ancient tale has been the story of Cenerentole, written by Neapolitan Giambattista Basile (1566 – 23 February 1632). (See Cinderella, Wikipedia). But the tale was also written by Charles Perrault in 1697, at the end of the Grand Siècle, the age of Louis XIV.

In France, Cenerentole became Cendrillon and it is one of Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Tales of Past Times), except that Giambattista Basile’s Cenerentole had already entered a “learned” tradition. Basile himself had introduced Cinderella into the “learned” (i.e. written) tradition. In Charles Perrault, however, Cendrillon was transformed into literature, a major transformation. Charles Perrault (12 January 1628 – 16 May 1703) was an affluent bourgeois, a perfect honnête homme (a gentleman), a frequent guest in the finest salons, and a writer.

A parallel can be drawn between Charles Perrault and La Fontaine, as both men transformed the material (the learned tradition) that constituted their sources into literary works of art and, in the case of La Fontaine, into masterpieces. I doubt, however, that Basile and Perrault knew Cinderella had been a work of literature as Rhodopis. It had perhaps returned to the oral tradition when Basile wrote his Cenerentole, in the early part of the 17th century.

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm were philologists who attempted to create a past for the nascent Germany. Most civilizations created a mythology, a pourquoi tale. This process is now known as anamnesis (anamnèse), remembering, but not the religious anamnesis. They retrieved the folklore of German-language lands believing these lands shared a national heritage. Their project did provide the German-language countries with a past of its own. Although the plot of their stories were basically the same as in other countries, there were variants and these variants could not be could not be considered as inconsequential. Variants matter.

Cenerentole, Cendrillon, Ashenputten and Cinderella are rags-to-riches narratives rooted in a story written as Rhodopis in 700 BCE and classified as AT type 510, “the persecuted heroine,” in the Aarne-Thompson Classification System. More than two thousand years had passed.


Yet, such is life. Humans have always hoped for salvation even though their fate seems inescapable. That wish is universal, so it is not in the least surprising that the people inhabiting German-language lands should have adopted and molded an Ashenputten. They needed her.

Charles Robinson illustrated Cinderella in the kitchen (1900), from

Charles Robinson illustrated (art nouveau) Cinderella in the kitchen (early 1900s), from “Tales of Passed Times” with stories by Charles Perrault.


But let us return to our animals. We don’t know how a Reynard the Fox episode, the Tail-Fisher, went from Europe to the Black population of Georgia, US where Joel Chandler Harris wrote them down as Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings (1881), using an eye dialect. I have suggested in an earlier post that deported Acadians, the Cajuns, told the Blacks of Georgia the tales they knew, before leaving for Louisiana, still a French colony in 1755, or before walking back north to the Atlantic provinces of Canada. Other tales, however, were brought to America by slaves packed like sardines in the hull of a ship.


Sources and Resources


[1] Marc Soriano, Les Contes de Perrault, culture savante et traditions populaires (Paris : Gallimard, coll. ‘Tel’, 1977 [1968]), p.76.

Pletnev plays Tchaikovsky

Aschenputtel by Alexander Zick

Aschenputten by Alexander Zick

© Micheline Walker
8 August 2015