Heroines of the ashes

Lars 5 Assepoester

Cinderella versus Assepoester

Everybody knows Cinderella. Who did not grow up with the story with the wicked stepsisters and the glass slipper? What you should know however is that the version you learned as a child is only one of 700 variations of the story that are available worldwide.1 Dutch children grow up with a story called Assepoester instead of Cinderella. What is the reason of that and does it mean that the story is different from the rest?

The Cinderella story probably originated in 9th century China, and variations of the story about the poor girl with delicate feet and a coarse stepfamily are found all over the world. In Russia, for example, the story is called Chornuska. That name comes from the word chorna, which means dirty and black.2 All the names under which the fate of the pour girl is filed are closely linked to each other and so are Cinderella and Assepoester. If we want to get to know the two girls better we have to take a closer look at the three versions that made the story popular in the Western world.

In 1697 the book Contes de ma mère L’Oy written by the French courtier Charles Perrault first appeared. The book is better known under the English name Stories of Mother Goose and it delivers the blueprint for a lot of popular fairy tales. Perrault was a civilized and literate man, a member of the Academie Francais, who probably collected and edited some folktales to amuse his children before they went to sleep.3 The collection contains a story called Cendrillon and there Perrault presents a Cinderella to fall in love with.

In Perrault’s story the heroine is made to live in the kitchen by her stepmother and stepsisters. There she lives amongst the cinders and is therefore called Cendrillon which the English scholar Andrew Lang translated as Cinderwench.4 One of Cendrillon’s stepsisters is less coarse to her and lovingly calls her Cinderella.5 Cinderella bears her fate with fortitude and wit. When Cinderella’s stepsisters prepare to go to the ball Cinderella helps them with their hair “and dressed them perfectly well”. Cinderella even jokes about her own apparel and the ludicrous idea of going to the ball herself.6

When the stepsisters leave the house to go to the ball, the fairy god mother arrives. But Cinderella is not going to be totally dependent on that. When the fairy godmother is out of her wits when the coach is without a coachman and there is nothing available to enchant into one, Cinderella jumps out of the house exclaiming: “I will go and see if there is not a rat in the rattrap we may make a coachman out of him.” A little while later Cinderella triumphantly returns with a living rat in her hands that is turned into a fat, jolly coachman.7 We all know that fairy-tales have a happy ending, but we might be surprised that in Perrault’s story that includes the stepsisters. When they ask Cinderella for forgiveness: “Cinderella took them up, as she embraced them, cried that she forgave them with all her heart, and desired to always love them.”8

Are you still there? Well, it took me a moment to recover from sheer ecstasy. Perrault wrote the story to amuse so he probably sugar-coated the folktale a bit. He also added an explicit moral message: “Beauty in a woman will always be admired. Graciousness however is priceless and of even greater value.”9

Perrault’s stories became widely read and in 1730 the first Dutch translation appears. From then on a new translation follows at least every twenty years.10 For people that were not too keen on reading cheap leaflets that told the story in a couple of pictures and a short text became available in the early nineteenth century.11 The name of Cinderella is translated as Asschepoetster or Assepoester which roughly means something like ‘she who cleans the ashes’. For our English readers: it is pronounced something like Awsepooster. And to our adolescent readers: I know that that sounds a bit like Awesome Poopster but there is really no point in that.

Fairy tales got popular and were meant to amuse and moralize. With the rise of the Romantic Movement fairy tales started to be taken much more seriously though. The romantics went out to discover the authentic spirit of their nation by collecting the folktales that were told. The most famous of these romantic collectors were the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In 1814 the first edition of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen appeared and that contained a Cinderella story that was much darker than Perrault’s version.

In the story Aschenputtel (which can be translated as the bride of the ashes) the stepmother and stepsisters are plain evil: “they hurt her feelings, mocked her and dropped peas and lentils into the kitchen ashes so Aschenputtel had to sit down and sort them out. And there was no bed for her; she had to rest in the ashes.”12 There is no room for hypocorisms or fairy godmothers in the grim world of the Grimms. Aschenputtel finds relieve at a tree that grows out of the grave of her deceased mother were she spends her time crying and praying. The birds that inhabit the tree collect the peas and lentils out of the ashes for her and provide the garments to wear to the ball.

But Aschenputtel does have something in common with Cinderella: her delicate feet (remember the Chinese origin of the story?). In the Cinderella story the foot has to fit in a glass slipper, but in the Grimm’s story it is a slipper of golden fur. That does give the stepsisters an opportunity to make their own feet fit in: the one by cutting off her toes, the other by cutting off her heel. And if that is not enough, at Aschenputtel’s wedding both their eyes are picked out by the valiant birds that helped Aschenputtel before.

The version provided for by the brothers Grimm seems less suitable for modern sensitive children. But the German brothers did set a trend by representing a heroine that was far more weepy than Perrault’s Cinderella. And that was before the final sugar coating that was provided by what the author Jane Yolen called “the master candy-maker” was added.13 We are of course talking about Walt Disney here. In the Walt Disney movie Cinderella, that was first screened in 1949, nothing is left of the witty Cinderella of Perrault or the vengefulness of the Grimm’s Aschenputtel story. What remains is a weepy and sentimentalized girl.14 It was this mass marketed Cinderella that most children grew up with. Whether she is called Cinderella, Assepoester or Chornuska. The modern adaptations of the story are mostly based on Disney’s conception.

It was this wrong Cinderella that made feminists rant at the poor girl that could not help it. The feminist Rosemary Minard is very angry at Cinderella. In her book Womenfolk and Fairy Tales she accuses her of being passive: Cinderella would still be scrubbing floors if it were not for her fairy godmother.15

But as we have seen Cinderella and Aschenputtel are capable of changing themselves through time and culture. Communist children in the German Democratic Republic of the 1950’s, to take an obvious non-Disney example, learned that Aschenputtel stood up against the oppressive regime of her stepmother and stepsisters and married a revolutionary prince who fought against the monarchical traditions of his father.16

One might say that every generation gets the Cinderella they deserve. She is still fascinating generations of children and psycho-analysts. Makes me wonder: what would psycho-analysts make of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s bed?17 But that will be for another time. For now we live happily ever after.


Zes grimmige sprookjes voor verdorven kinderen
De beste sprookjes van Grimm
Sprookjes van de Gebroeders Grimm
De Reuzenkrokodil, wat rijmen en enkele rotbeesten
Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. A.B. Rooth, The Cinderella Cycle (Lund 1951)  

  2. W.R.S Salston, Cinderella in The Nineteenth Century Volume 6 (1879) 832-853 there 836 

  3. A.Dundes, Cinderella. A Folklore Casebook (New York and London 1982) 14 

  4. Of the hundreds of translations in English, Andrew Lang’s from 1888 is considered the finest. It is available on the internet but is also included in the earlier mentioned book by A.Dundes. This citation is from page 16 of that book. 

  5. Same as before 

  6. Same as before, 17 

  7. Same as before, 18 

  8. A. Dundes, Cinderella, 21 

  9. Same as before 

  10. Based on the catalogue of the Dutch royal library, available at http://www.kb.nl  

  11. An example from the 1840’s can be seen at: http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/?/nl/items/KONB14:Borms0997/&p=2&i=9&t=29&st=assepoester&sc=%28assepoester%29/&wst=assepoester 

  12. There are loads of translations available of Aschenputtel, it is best to start at project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/. I based my translations on the Kinder- und Hausmärchen which is also available at project Gutenberg. 

  13. J.Yolen, America’s Cinderella in Children’s Literature in Education, 8 (1977), 21-29 there 22, the article is also available in the book by A. Dundes that was cited earlier. 

  14. Ibidem, 28 

  15. Cited in J.Yolens article, page 27 

  16. A.Dundes, Cinderella, 295 

  17. When you are interested in that question read the book by psycho-analyst Bruno Bettelheim, The Use of Enchantment (New York 1977)