Columbine: Tell me more about Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

Robin: There are variants of the Cinderella story all over the world, from Scotland to China, as far back as ancient Egypt, and most of them involve slippers and dances and the ruler of the realm. But it was Charles Perrault in “Cendrillon ou La petite pantoufle de verre” in 1697 who introduced the fairy godmother and the pumpkin coach for which the story is now famous. In this picture by Edmund Dulac you can see the fairy godmother dressed as a French noblewoman of Perrault’s time, just about to transform the pumpkin.

Here is that part of the tale as he told it: Enfin l’heureux jour arriva – oh, all right, in English then:

At last the happy day came; they went to Court, and Cinderella followed them with her eyes as long as she could, and when she had lost sight of them, she fell a-crying.

Her godmother, who saw her all in tears, asked her what was the matter.

“I wish I could–I wish I could–“; she was not able to speak the rest, being interrupted by her tears and sobbing.

This godmother of hers, who was a fairy, said to her, “Thou wishest thou couldst go to the ball; is it not so?”

“Y–es,” cried Cinderella, with a great sigh.

“Well,” said her godmother, “be but a good girl, and I will contrive that thou shalt go.” Then she took her into her chamber, and said to her, “Run into the garden, and bring me a pumpkin.”

Cinderella went immediately to gather the finest she could get, and brought it to her godmother, not being able to imagine how this pumpkin could make her go to the ball. Her godmother scooped out all the inside of it, having left nothing but the rind; which done, she struck it with her wand, and the pumpkin was instantly turned into a fine coach, gilded all over with gold.

She then went to look into her mouse-trap, where she found six mice, all alive, and ordered Cinderella to lift up a little the trapdoor, when, giving each mouse, as it went out, a little tap with her wand, the mouse was that moment turned into a fine horse, which altogether made a very fine set of six horses of a beautiful mouse-colored dapple-gray. Being at a loss for a coachman.

“I will go and see,” says Cinderella, “if there is never a rat in the rat-trap–we may make a coachman of him.”

“Thou art in the right,” replied her godmother; “go and look.” Cinderella brought the trap to her, and in it there were three huge rats. The fairy made choice of one of the three which had the largest beard, and, having touched him with her wand, he was turned into a fat, jolly coach-man, who had the smartest whiskers eyes ever beheld.

After that, she said to her: “Go again into the garden, and you will find six lizards behind the watering-pot, bring them to me.”

She had no sooner done so but her godmother turned them into six footmen, who skipped up immediately behind the coach, with their liveries all bedaubed with gold and silver, and clung as close behind each other as if they had done nothing else their whole lives. The Fairy then said to Cinderella:

“Well, you see here an equipage fit to go to the ball with; are you not pleased with it?”

“Oh! yes,” cried she; “but must I go thither as I am, in these nasty rags?”

Her godmother only just touched her with her wand, and, at the same instant, her clothes were turned into cloth of gold and silver, all beset with jewels. This done, she gave her a pair of glass slippers, the prettiest in the whole world. Being thus decked out, she got up into her coach; but her godmother, above all things, commanded her not to stay till after midnight, telling her, at the same time, that if she stayed one moment longer, the coach would be a pumpkin again, her horses mice, her coachman a rat, her footmen lizards, and her clothes become just as they were before.

Strange to think that those few words: Sa marraine, qui était fée/Her godmother, who was a fairy forever transformed the human view of the fairy world!

Cinderella's Fairy Godmother by Rene Cloke

In many folk-tale versions there is some magical help or advice – perhaps from a white bird, or a leaping fish, or a ghostly spirit. But fairies do appear in the retelling of the Italian tale by Giambattista Basile, which was published more than fifty years before Charles Perrault’s, in 1634. In “La Gatta Cenerentola”, the Dove of the Fairies offers the princess Zezolla her help:

Now, while the young folks were dancing, and Zezolla was standing at the window of her house, a dove came flying and perched upon a wall, and said to her, “Whenever you need anything send the request to the Dove of the Fairies in the Island of Sardinia, and you will instantly have what you wish.

Later, having been badly treated by her stepmother and her six (yes, six) stepsisters, she asks her father to take a message.

The Prince… went to the Grotto of the Fairies, and, commending his daughter to them, asked them to send her something. And behold, there stepped forth from the grotto a beautiful maiden, who told him that she thanked his daughter for her kind remembrances, and bade him tell her to be merry and of good heart out of love to her. And thereupon she gave him a date-tree, a hoe, and a little bucket all of gold, and a silken napkin, adding that the one was to hoe with and the other to water the plant.

The Prince, marvelling at this present, took leave of the fairy, and returned to his own country. And when he had given his stepdaughters all the things they had desired, he at last gave his own daughter the gift which the fairy had sent her. Then Zezolla, out of her wits with joy, took the date-tree and planted it in a pretty flower-pot, hoed the earth round it, watered it, and wiped its leaves morning and evening with the silken napkin. In a few days it had grown as tall as a woman, and out of it came a fairy, who said to Zezolla, “What do you wish for?”

And Zezolla replied that she wished sometimes to leave the house without her sisters’ knowledge. The fairy answered, “Whenever you desire this, come to the flower-pot and say:

My little Date-tree, my golden tree,
With a golden hoe I have hoed thee,
With a golden can I have watered thee,
With a silken cloth I have wiped thee dry,
Now strip thee and dress me speedily.

And when you wish to undress, change the last words and say, ‘Strip me and dress thee.'”

When the time for the feast was come, and the stepmother’s daughters appeared, dressed out so fine, all ribbons and flowers, and slippers and shoes, sweet smells and bells, and roses and posies, Zezolla ran quickly to the flower-pot, and no sooner had she repeated the words, as the fairy had told her, than she saw herself arrayed like a queen, seated upon a palfrey, and attended by twelve smart pages, all in their best clothes. Then she went to the ball, and made the sisters envious of this unknown beauty.

Columbine: I have been looking at the many many retellings of Cinderella now in publication. These are not just variations of the classic European version, but draw inspiration from everywhere – to take just a few: A Persian Cinderella by Shirley Climo, which has a peri in a pot, Abadeha: The Philippine Cinderella by Myrna J. De La Pa, in which the heroine turns to the Spirit of the Forest, and Salmon Princess – an Alaska Cinderella Story by Mindy Dwyer which has an eagle spirit in the fairy godmother role.

Cinderella by Hilary Knight But to return to the original fairy godmother: illustrators show her in many guises. Sometimes she is a mysterious cloaked figure, sometimes an apple-cheeked countrywoman, sometimes wild and eccentric, sometimes a sparkling lady in a magnificent ball-gown of her own. Almost always she is at least as tall as Cinderella, but I rather like this portrayal by Hilary Knight in which she is a tiny excitable figure in a very individual gown. And you have to love that hair-style!

Cinderella is often set in the vaguely mediaeval “once-upon-a-time” period and in the world of castles and princes, but there are some striking exceptions, and the fairy godmothers fit right in – of course! One is Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella by Shirley Hughes set in 1920s France, on the Riviera. Ella Cinders works in her father’s dress shop, her elegant stepsisters are models, her stylish fairy godmother wears a smart yellow hat and carries a purple umbrella. The umbrella is a magic wand which transforms Ella into the Queen of the Jazz Age. The pictures are truly gorgeous!

Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella by Susan Lowell and Jane Manning could hardly be a bigger contrast. Our heroine’s stepmother, meaner than a rattlesnake, forbids her to attend the biggest event of the season, a wild and woolly rodeo followed by a square dance. Cindy Ellen’s lower lip quivers, but her gun-toting fairy godmother has a bracing attitude: “Magic is plumb worthless without gumption…. Stop that tomfool blubbering, and let’s get busy.” She magically outfits Cindy in the “finest riding clothes west of the East,” with a pair of diamond-studded spurs on her soft-leather boots. You just know she’s going to lose one of them… and that Joe Prince the rodeo champion will find it.

Cinderella - Before Midnight So far the books I have mentioned have been simple tales in which the illustrations tell half the story, suitable for reading to children at bedtime. There has been in recent years a fashion for extending the fairy tale into a full-blown novel, usually, though not always, for teenagers. There is a series, called Once Upon a Time, which has several novels by different authors, each based on a classic fairy story. The one about Cinderella is Before Midnight by Cameron Dokey. The magic here is very subtle, although La Cendrillon (she has her French nickname in this book) comes to expect her birthday wishes to come true. Mathilde, the wise housekeeper, is her godmother. A fairy? You must judge for yourself. Beyond Midnight has a good deal of optimism and humour as well as romance.

Ever After by Wendy Loggia claims to be the “real” story of Cinderella. Yes, you guessed, no fairy godmother, no magic. This is an historical romance set in 16th century France, with Leonardo da Vinci turning up to offer eccentric but wise advice. The orphan Danielle, nicknamed Cindersoot, is a real Renaissance girl, well-read, self-reliant, determined. Some of the conversation is amusing, but the book is just not very magical, in any way.

Silver Woven in My Hair by Shirley Rousseau Murphy is hard to find, but by all reports well worth it. Unusually, the mediaeval heroine Thursey knows about the fairy-tale Cinderella and recognizes that her own life is all too similar. But will she find the transforming magic and attend the ball? You know, I think she might!

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is set in Holland, for a change, and as you’ll have guessed is from an unusual point of view. A complex and difficult novel about the nature and effects of beauty, this is a fascinating read, but sad to say no fairy godmother!

Cinderella - Just Ella Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix is set after the ball when Ella realizes she has made a mistake – the life of the court is stiflingly dull and Prince Charming is a bit of an idiot. Ella needs all her ingenuity and stubbornness to avoid the all-too-clever courtiers who try to tame her. Sadly again there is no fairy godmother to help matters along.

Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound is based on the Chinese Cinderella tale, and set in a small village in 17th century China. A white fish with red fins and golden eyes is the misused heroine Xing Xing’s secret comfort and may be an ancestor spirit looking out for her in godmother fashion.

I Was a Rat! or The Scarlet Slippers by Philip Pullman is another book set after the ball. The true identity of Roger the former rat is a bit of a secret, but one it is more fun to know than otherwise. Not really about Cinderella – that story is mainly told through the newspaper articles which are peppered through the text – this satirical tale describes the adventures of one of the rats turned into a pageboy by the fairy godmother. Somehow – perhaps because he played with the palace pageboys instead of staying with the pumpkin coach – he was not turned back with the rest of the equipage, and has to find his bewildered way through the treacherous human world. His somewhat ratty habits attract unwelcome attention – he is studied as a psychological specimen and displayed as a side-show freak. Finally the sensationalist Daily Scourge takes up the story of the Monster of the Sewers and he is put on trial for his life. Fortunately the kindlier humans win the day, but it is a pretty harrowing journey. No fairies appear in this story; the fairy godmother, “the beautiful lady”, is only a memory and cannot be summoned back. The princess regretfully says: “Maybe she only comes once, and grants you a wish, and then you’re stuck with the consequences.”

Cinderella - Ella Enchanted In the tradition of leaving the best to last, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is the most magical of these Cinderella novels. A fairy is mentioned in the very first sentence (though not in very flattering terms!) This is Lucinda, not Ella’s godmother, but a fairy who gave her as a baby the “gift” of obedience. Ella is unable to refuse any order, however mildly phrased. At first only her mother and their kind but bossy cook know about it, and even so it is like a shackle on Ella’s soul. When later her stepsisters learn of it, it becomes a positive torment. This gift or curse cleverly reconciles a spirited heroine with one who meekly accepts ill-treatment – obviously for the benefit of a generation which is puzzled by the idea of obedience as a virtue!

Lucinda is well-meaning, and does not intend to curse people with her gifts, but she has no imagination or empathy. The other fairies are much more cautious and refrain from using what they call “big magic”, magic which dramatically affects people’s lives. The fairies in Ella Enchanted disguise themselves to walk unknown among the humans – this involves little more than covering their feet or stuffing their shoes, as these fairies are human-sized but have tiny feet. When Ella wonders about their purpose in hiding, her fairy godmother tells her: “People only like the idea of fairies. When they bump up against a particular, real-as-corn fairy, there is always trouble… People know we can do magic, so they want us to solve their problems for them. When we don’t, they get mad. The other reason is we’re immortal. That gets them mad too.” Lucinda openly swans about conferring her “gifts”, especially at christenings and weddings – and it must be said, this also gets people pretty mad!

In this unusual country, Ella meets ogres, centaurs, giants and elves. She finds the elves hospitable and generous. “With their mossy hair and green skin tinged with orange for the coming autumn, they were no more frightening than a pumpkin vine.” Her merchant father buys exquisite pottery from the elves, whom he rudely calls “greenies”.

Ella’s fairy godmother is a very interesting character, and the way she handles Lucinda quite impressive – she is very set on not doing more than quite minor magic though, and it is the repentant Lucinda who provides the pumpkin coach and the servants for the three nights of the ball. The vivacious, intelligent, ingenious heroine is a real delight, and the way she copes with her curse and finally breaks it is inspiring. Though his name is actually Charmont and Ella calls him Char, the Prince is still pretty charming, whether he’s sliding down banisters with Ella, leading his men against the ogres or dancing at the ball with “Lela”. This novel answers so many of the questions stirred up by the original story – for example, why did the fairy godmother not help Cinderella before? why did her father marry such a horrible woman? how could the prince fall in love so quickly? why could no one else wear the glass slipper?

Set in the same world is Fairest, which I must say I am rather keen to read!

Cinderella - Maria Anderson as the Fairy Godmother Robin: Cinderella is so excellent a story it cannot be confined to the printed page. It is not only the most popular of the traditional pantomimes, but has been made into operas, ballets and musicals. And of course Walt Disney turned it into one of the best animated films ever made.

Rossini’s 1817 opera, La Cenerentola, is rather disappointing for fairy lovers, as the prince’s tutor helps the heroine, but Massenet’s 1899 Cendrillon is more traditional. A Cinderella ballet, Zolushka, was performed in Russia in 1893 with music by Fitinhof-Schell, and here is the fairy godmother from that production. Cinderella, the ballet with music by Prokofiev, was created in the mid-twentieth century, as were the musical films The Glass Slipper and The Slipper and the Rose.


Also see:

Fairy Tales

A companion to the Cinderella page: Sleeping Beauty and Spindle’s End

More Fairy Godmothers