(Watercolor by Liga-Marten, from Bing images)
I recently had the opportunity to teach a 30 minute “mini-lesson” to some visiting high school students, and I decided to do a comparison of the Grimm brothers’ version of Cinderella and the Disney version (assuming most students had some familiarity with the latter). I decided to focus on two aspects of the story only, given our short-time frame for the class. What emerged from the analysis and discussion was that both of these passages reveal that Cinderella has much more agency in the older version of the story. She works towards her own self-empowerment to make the magic happen, and she is a clever trickster in her three playful escapes from the prince, as he is the one who must be tested to be true. For example, in the Grimms’ version, Cinderella receives her magical dresses from a white bird that appears in a hazel tree that grows on her mother’s grave, watered by Cinderella’s tears, after she asks her father to bring home “the first twig that brushes against your hat on the way home.” The dresses thrown down from the tree are silver and gold, elemental metals that indicate both wealth and fiery transformation of things from the earth. Cinderella’s decision to run away from the ball—three times on three different nights—is not motivated by any external, magical deadline but seemingly by her own impishness. Each time she hides first in some site at her father’s house—his dovecote, a pear tree—and her father, wondering if the girl fleeing from the prince might possibly be Cinderella, brings his ax to hack open the dovecote and chop at the tree, imagea suggesting the need to open up his house so that he sees the abuse of his daughter with which he has been passively complicit. As you can see, even a short lesson on versions of Cinderella opens up intriguing possibilities for analysis.
This short retelling of Hansel and Gretel, from Sara Maitland’s book From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012) portrays the adult Hansel and Gretel who still riddle over the trauma of their past, with Gretel having grown into a figure not unlike the witch herself. This story thus suggests a rethinking of the witch as “pure” evil, and it could make for an interesting unit alongside reconsiderations of historical witches, a reading of Wicked, or study of recent representations of Disney’s wicked women, such as the film Malificent.
Hansel and Gretel story
This essay from The New Yorker provides an intriguing overview of some of the ways critics have both interpreted fairy tales and suggested the role they play in the human culture and psyche. The names mentioned here could be starting places for more reading or research.
New Yorker essay on fairy tale criticism
(Yes, the stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by birds). There are so many intriguing ways you could study Cinderella and its adaptations. Anne Sexton’s poem, among many about Cinderella, makes us ask, what is it about “that story,” the transformation from rags to riches, that so intrigues us? Anne Sexton poem
Or students could choose a cross-cultural Cinderella story and compare cultural differences: Folk variants of Cinderella
Variants in English are collected here:Variants of Cinderella in English
Where these variants come from: “These transcriptions and images are made available online free of charge for academic and private, non-commercial use, the only requirement being that you mention the title, “The Cinderella Project,” the editor, Michael N. Sald the URL of the homepage, http://www-dept.usm.edu/~engdept/cinderella/cinderella.html , and the location of the resources, the de Grummond Children’s Literature Research Collection, University of Southern Mississippi, in any print or electronic medium that makes use of these materials.”
You could even consider the widespread Cinderella Project, which reconditions used prom dresses to provide prom dresses for economically disadvantaged young women.
You can easily access readings of Grimm’s fairy tales to assign or read at this site:
Project Gutenberg Grimm’s Fairy Tales
In Fall semester 2014, members of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Languages and Literatures department will have the chance to participate in The Fairy Tale Project, a semester-long celebration of fairy-tales and the magic of secrets, taboos and startling transformations that they reveal. Instructors can participate by adding an assignment or unit to their Fall syllabi that touches on fairytales. For example, perhaps students in English can analyze the difference between a Grimm fairy tale and its Disney-fied version, examining, perhaps, how female agency changes in adaptation. (All the Grimm versions are available online at the Gutenberg project). Students could also write poems based on fairy tales, write fractured fairy tales (there is an online site for students to practice short, simple versions of this) or create skits or audio scripts based on fairy-tales. English 102 students could analyze poems, perhaps feminist ones, that retell fairy tales such as Cinderella. Instructors of upper-level courses can surely think of creative ways to include a work that is a fairy tale adaptation, and foreign languages teachers could encourage students to read a fairy tale in a foreign language (or, in the case of German, look at some of the dialects of German that fascinated the brothers Grimm).
Each class that chooses to participate should think together about what they could create to share at a gala event (a festive reception) to be held in early December. Does the class want to make a tree (perhaps out of collected sticks), with leaves that each display a poem? Create Red Riding Hood’s basket filled with goodies of the literary kind? Create a branch filled with poem-covered haiku birds? (It might be fun to think of these as collaborative installations). Perhaps the class will make audio recordings, and when an audience member approaches their “tree” and enters a certain text number, they hear recordings of a fairy tale on their phone. Perhaps a class makes images combined with text to be projected on the walls (imagine some place like the Hamilton Center).
Judges from outside the department will select the best projects in certain categories, and the winning classes will get a pizza delivered to their class on the last day of class.