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Columbine: The picture above is by Milo Winter, an American artist who illustrated fairy stories, Alice in Wonderland, Aesop’s Fables, 1001 Nights and many other books. I don’t know of any other fairy pictures of his, though there is this splendidly sinister Genie.

I think the story is a little fanciful, don’t you? I mean, turning into a shop! Though I have heard of fairies turning into things, and I have heard of fairies opening a shop in the human world, and usually a magic shop of some description. So there may be a foundation of truth there, as in most fairy tales.

Robin: No comment! Beauty shops are outside my realm of expertise. However, I do think the author has rather missed the point of the story of “The Ugly Duckling”.


Robin: Scholars of all descriptions from philosophers to psychologists have studied the traditional fairy tales and formed opinions about their inner meanings. Historians try to uncover the actual events they were supposedly based on. Literary scholars study their language and speculate about where they originated. Social scientists ponder their effects on society.

Gnomes who like to pore over enormous tomes will doubtless be pleased to have some of these in the fairy palace library, to enhance their studies of the curious habits of humanity.

“On Fairy Tales” is an essay by J. R. R. Tolkein which influenced many other scholars, defining what a fairy story actually is.

“The Ethics of Elfland” is an essay by G. K. Chesterton from his Orthodoxy. The master of paradox mounts a splendid defence of fairy tales as the soundest of moral and democratic teachers: “The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense”.

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes is an illuminating collection of brief essays on classic fairy tales of Europe, both modern and ancient, their authors, illustrators and regional differences.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell is a ground-breaking cross-cultural study of myth, legend and fairy tale. It can be considered vital and inspiring reading not only for students and scholars but for all writers and readers of fantasy.

Fairy Tales: Allegories of the Inner Life by Jean C. Cooper, a traditionalist writer, compares stories from various places to uncover common themes, symbols and archetypes which are of importance to the individual’s spiritual journey.

The Owl, the Raven & the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales by Ronald Murphy claims that “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Sleeping Beauty” were seen by the Grimms as Christian fables.

The Wisdom of Fairy Tales by Rudolf Meyer focuses on the Germanic tales using his scholarly studies in theology and philosophy, and shows that they can aid the development of ideals and imaginative creative thinking.

The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales by Sheldon Cashdan takes both an historical and a psychological look at a wide range of stories, showing that they contain inner journeys and moral quandaries which explain their wide appeal.

The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar examines the origins of the tales and the story of their subsequent rewritings and reinterpretations, taking a textual rather than a doctrinaire approach.

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim, professor of pschiatry, is widely regarded as a classic. It presents a Freudian interpretation and insists on the value of the tales in the development of a child’s mind.

Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood by Jane Yolen, a well-known author of children’s books and fantasy, is a collection of essays which explore the cultural importance of myth and fairy tale.

The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz, is a study by a follower of Carl Jung, a psychologist who spoke of the “collective unconscious”, the human heritage of which fairy tales are a part. Her Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales examines the mysterious, the other, the dark side in the hidden meaning of the tales. She also wrote a number of other examinations of fairy tales in terms of Jungian concepts such as animus/anima and archetypal patterns.

“Once Upon a Time: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives” is a brief essay by Jonathan Young on the psychological impact of fairy tales.

Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales is by Jack Zipes, a professor who has written extensively on fairy tales as well as producing a definitive translation of the complete Brothers Grimm. His works also include Fairy Tale As Myth, Myth As Fairy Tale and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. He examines the tales and the way they are presented in the context of modern society.

Fairy Tales by John Thackeray Bunce looks at their origin and meaning and adds an “account of dwellers in Fairyland”.

Hidden Meanings of the World’s Greatest Stories by E. Matthews Dawson gives a mystical/occult interpretation of some of the world’s best known stories.

Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life by Joan Gould discusses feminine archetypes in traditional tales and their influence on the personas adopted by women, demonstrating how fairy tales subtly incorporate powerful symbols and beliefs about the nature of a woman’s roles and her relationships.

National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth-Century England by Jennifer Schacker considers the period 1820 to 1850 when the fairy tale revived in England after a long period out of fashion.

Slightly off the subject…

Troublesome Things : a History of Fairies and Fairy Stories by Diane Purkiss, a social historian, is less about fairy tales than about people who are interested in fairies, who go looking for them, write about them, draw them, act them on stage.

Collections of folk and fairy tales are too numerous to mention, but this deserves special attention: A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language by Katharine M. Briggs, a comprehensive four-volume collection, by the scholarly author of The Personnel of Fairyland and The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs Among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries & Successors.

The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans-Wentz covers folk-lore, history, anthropology and psychology.

And all scholars of fairy tales should have a look at this catalogue of books online.

Robin: About the fairy godmother – fairies can be helpful to humans, and often are, especially when the human is properly polite or helps the fairy first, and fairies have been known to take an interest in a child when they have helped the mother to conceive – I mean, with a spell or an enchanted nut or something of the sort.

But the idea of fairies being godmothers, which is after all a religious role, is a very odd one. Priests and fairies generally rub each other up the wrong way, though there are occasional exceptions, like Robert Kirk who wrote The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and is said to be still living with the folk under the green hills.

I believe the fairy godmother notion started with Madame d’Aulnoy in the seventeenth century. In both “The Blue Bird” and “The Hind in the Wood” (sometimes called “The White Doe”) the fairy godmother belongs to the heroine’s enemy and so works against her. In “The Blue Bird”, the fairy godmother attempts to force King Charming, who loves Florine, to marry her ugly goddaughter Truitonne. Frustrated by his stubbornness, she turns him into a bird.

In “The Hind in the Wood”, the fairy of the spring is offended when she is not invited to the princess’s birth, especially as she has earlier helped the queen, and despite her occasional lobster disguise has been described as “a delightful old lady” who only wished the queen happiness. Later she promises to help her goddaughter the Black Princess against Princess Desiree, again because the two princesses loved the same man.

As you can see, it would certainly be unfair to describe either as a “wicked fairy godmother” as they were only helping their goddaughters.

Illustration by Virginia Sterrett In “Finette Cendron”, a mixture of “Babes in the Wood” and “Cinderella”, the heroine’s fairy godmother, after helping her in the early part of the tale, is offended when her goddaughter does not take her advice, and Finette must manage her cruel sisters and the ogres who capture them without her assistance. Finette only disobeys because she is tender-hearted, and she makes peace with her godmother in the end.

Carabosse, later identified with the evil fairy in “Sleeping Beauty”, makes an appearance in “Princess Mayblossom” as an old enemy of the king’s. Now she is truly a wicked one! She is remarkable in appearance: a little wheelbarrow was seen coming up, pushed along by two ugly little dwarfs, and in it a hideous creature with crooked feet, her knees touching her chin, with a great hump on her back, squinting eyes, and skin as black as ink. In her arms she held a little monkey, which she was nursing. Though the fairies are invited to attend the princess’s birth and do give her magical gifts, there is no mention of godmothers. Carabosse actually comes down the chimney to curse the princess!

Columbine: Though they may be rare in traditional tales, fairy godmothers are very popular in new fairy stories and are sometimes very wise, but also sometimes rather funny characters, perhaps because they have a certain fairy unpredictability.

In Charles Dickens’s story “The Magic Fishbone”, which was originally part of “A Holiday Romance” and attributed to Miss Alice Rainbird (aged seven), the fairy godmother is quite formidable and capricious:

The king was beginning, ‘Might I ask the reason?’ when the fairy became absolutely furious.

‘WILL you be good, sir?’ she exclaimed, stamping her foot on the ground. ‘The reason for this, and the reason for that, indeed! You are always wanting the reason. No reason. There! Hoity toity me! I am sick of your grown-up reasons.’

The king was extremely frightened by the old lady’s flying into such a passion, and said he was very sorry to have offended her, and he wouldn’t ask for reasons any more.

‘Be good, then,’ said the old lady, ‘and don’t!’

Robin: She is so right! It is boring having to explain yourself, especially when you can’t!

Melisande by E. Nesbit Columbine: In E. Nesbit’s story “Melisande, or Long-and-Short Division” the hapless royal parents decide not to have a christening party so as to avoid the risk of offending a fairy – of course they offend them all! Fortunately the king is able to cut them off at the pass by invoking the tradition of only one bad fairy per christening before the baby can be deluged in curses. Eventually the king’s own fairy godmother comes to the rescue, though poor mathematics make the cure worse than the disease for a while! These touchy and quirky fairies seem much more true to life than the grand and proper fairies in many tales.

The very delightful Marigold in Godmother’s House by Joyce Lankester Brisley has a little girl staying for a while with her fairy godmother and enjoying various magical adventures. It was written in the 1930s and has recently been republished.

My Scary Fairy Godmother by Rose Impey sounds promising, but it is the heroine Isabella’s very human cousin Maxine who plans to transform her from a mouse to a princess. She is even bossier than a real fairy godmother though.

Princess Emily and the Beautiful Fairy is one of the Tiara Club series for very small princesses. All the princesses in this book attend a Princess Academy to learn how to become Perfect Princesses, and it seems in their world fairies also have to train for their positions at the Fairy Godmother Agency! Fairy Angora comes to teach the princesses even though she is not qualified and causes chaos by granting too many wishes.

Robin: The Academy has some useful lessons – like Avoiding Magical Mistakes, also Wishes, and how to use them Wisely. I know some fairies who would strongly disapprove – they regard the granting of wishes to unwise humans as an excellent source of entertainment. As a friend to humanity I couldn’t possibly comment!

Columbine: Humans find it entertaining too, judging by the stories. In The Diary of a Fairy Godmother by Esme Raji Codell, a modern young witch called Hunky Dory decides she would rather be a fairy godmother, and grant people’s wishes instead of casting wicked spells. She decides to start at the bottom – the bottom of a wishing well, that is, granting wishes for passers-by. It seems odd for a witch to attend school, let alone switch “careers” in this fashion, but it adds to the modernity of the story, even if fairy-tale characters do pop up all over the place!

The Fairy Godmother - The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye is a beautifully-written and fascinating account of a seventh princess who receives a very unusual gift. Her sisters have grown beautiful and charming without fairy gifts, but it is the custom for fairies to be invited to a seventh christening. The king is as worried as the king in “Melisande”, so no effort is spared to invite every single fairy in Oberon’s court.

Unfortunately, the roads are so crowded on the day of the christening party that the most powerful fairy of all is delayed. She reminds me of the fairy of the spring in “The Hind in the Wood”, watery, old and cranky. She looks with scorn at the beautiful perfection of the royal family and the decorated court before giving the baby Amethyst a gift which dismays them all: “My child,” said the Fairy Crustacea, “I am going to give you a gift that will probably bring you more happiness than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be Ordinary!”

The princess is certainly happy enough (another of her gifts was Cheerfulness) and she is able to enjoy many things her sisters cannot, but as she grows older the court despairs of finding her a husband. Apparently even dull and plain princes expect perfection in a princess! Hearing of the dreadful plan that has been cooked up to entice one, Princess Amy (as she is now called) runs away to live in the forest where she makes friends with a squirrel and a crow.

Crustacea appears again, emerging from a forest pool: “Standing half in and half out of the water… was the queerest old lady she had ever seen. She had long, greenish hair, a long hooky nose, and a pair of very twinkling eyes. She leaned on a stick made out of a knobbly branch of coral and wore a cloak of something that looked like seaweed.” She is pleased that Amy is glad to be ordinary, and points her in the right direction to continue a more ordinary life.

The fairy later appears again at the wedding (come on, you knew there was going to be a wedding): she “arrived in a chariot entirely made out of oyster shells and drawn by a hundred golden frogs”. Her wedding gift is much less controversial, and it is good to know that even ordinary princesses can have their happy ending.

If you were invited to be a godmother, what would you give for a christening gift?

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Read more about Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother

Read more about Sleeping Beauty’s Christening Feast

Read more about Fairy Tales

Columbine: So how many fairy godmothers did the Sleeping Beauty have exactly?

Robin: That is a good question, even though it cannot be positively answered, as the number varies in different accounts. There is also the question of whether the fairy who delivers the curse should be counted as a godmother – it certainly seems an odd title for her!

In “Dornröschen” or “Briar Rose”, the Sleeping Beauty story from the Grimm collection, the godmothers are usually called Wise Women (die weise Frauen), but some English translations call them fairies anyway. In that tale there are twelve:-

So twelve fairies came, each with a high red cap on her head, and red shoes with high heels on her feet, and a long white wand in her hand: and after the feast was over they gathered round in a ring and gave all their best gifts to the little princess. One gave her goodness, another beauty, another riches, and so on till she had all that was good in the world.

In Charles Perrault’s story “La Belle au Bois Dormant” or “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”, there are seven:-

There was a very fine christening; and the Princess had for her god-mothers all the fairies they could find in the whole kingdom (they found seven), that every one of them might give her a gift, as was the custom of fairies in those days. By this means the Princess had all the perfections imaginable… The youngest gave her for gift that she should be the most beautiful person in the world; the next, that she should have the wit of an angel; the third, that she should have a wonderful grace in everything she did; the fourth, that she should dance perfectly well; the fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale; and the sixth, that she should play all kinds of music to the utmost perfection.

In the Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Beauty there are also seven; their names vary but the chief of them is always the Lilac Fairy. In the Walt Disney film there are three, Flora, who gives Princess Aurora the gift of beauty, Fauna, who gives the gift of song, and Merryweather, whose gift alters the curse. In the splendid Sleeping Beauty novel Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley the princess is blessed with twenty-one fairy godmothers, one for each of her names.

Three and seven are well known to be magical numbers, and naturally so is their product twenty-one, while twelve with the bad fairy added makes the powerful but unlucky thirteen.

Carabosse by Leon Bakst Columbine: I must say the bad fairy intrigues me. Why was she so very bad?

Robin: We fairies do expect some courtesy from humans, and you know how easily offended some fairies are, though usually they confine themselves to some minor annoyance, like having snakes and toads drop out of their victim’s mouth when they talk. Cursing someone’s baby to die is overreacting to say the least. In the Grimm’s tale it is suggested that the neglected “wise woman” is in fact a witch, and they of course might do anything – they are practically human.

A great noise was heard in the courtyard, and word was brought that the thirteenth fairy was come, with a black cap on her head, and black shoes on her feet, and a broomstick in her hand: and presently up she came into the dining-hall. Now, as she had not been asked to the feast she was very angry, and scolded the king and queen very much, and set to work to take her revenge.

A curious thing in this story is the reason given for the king and queen’s failure to invite the last fairy: As the king and queen had only twelve golden dishes for them to eat out of, they were forced to leave one of the fairies without asking her. So she was not uninvited because she was known to be an evil fairy, as in some versions. You may conclude that it was just bad luck that they left out the nasty one, or that any of the godmothers might have reacted with equal fury.

Charles Perrault has it slightly differently:-

There was placed before every one of them a magnificent cover with a case of massive gold, wherein were a spoon, knife, and fork, all of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. But as they were all sitting down at table they saw come into the hall a very old fairy, whom they had not invited, because it was above fifty years since she had been out of a certain tower, and she was believed to be either dead or enchanted. The King ordered her a cover, but could not furnish her with a case of gold as the others, because they had only seven made for the seven fairies. The old Fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered some threats between her teeth.

Columbine: I think myself they should have made a little more fuss of her, perhaps brought out some exquisite heirloom, given her the king’s own cover, or seated her in the highest place.

Disney's Maleficent Robin: You could be right, Columbine, though she may have had her heart set on mischief regardless. In later versions the bad fairy is known for her wickedness before the christening. She often also has a name: in the ballet Sleeping Beauty and some pantomimes she is Carabosse, in the Disney film Maleficent and in Spindle’s End Pernicia. Carabosse is the name of the evil fairy in a couple of Madame d’Aulnoy’s tales. Maleficent is also called “The Mistress of all Evil” and has a devil-like appearance, with red skin and a horned headdress. Pernicia has been nursing a spite against the royal family for hundreds of years.

Also in the later versions the old woman in the attic who has the spindle on which the princess pricks her finger is definitely the evil fairy in disguise. It does make sense – no fairy worth her salt would allow a mere king’s proclamation to frustrate her purpose. It would be very curious indeed that an old woman could continue to spin in the very palace where the princess lived for fifteen or sixteen years without anyone noticing. Yet that is the way of it in the older tales, it is an innocent accident which turns the young princess into the Sleeping Beauty, one which comes about precisely because she had never seen a spindle before.

Columbine: It is very powerful magic of the last fairy godmother which puts a whole palace to sleep – and not only to sleep, but frozen in time – for a hundred years.

Robin: Not as powerful as the fairy godmother who in some versions gives the gift of goodness. That really makes me shiver!

The Princess Pricks her Finger by John Dickson Batten

Columbine: As with Cinderella, there are a number of novels based on the story of the Sleeping Beauty, but few offer much of interest from a fairy point of view. Enchantment is a time-travel novel by Orson Scott Card in which a modern scholar discovers a sleeping beauty cursed by the Russian witch Baba Yaga; Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose links the story with a grim concentration camp in Poland; Robert Coover’s Briar Rose is strange and convoluted description of the princess’s dreams and nightmares intercut with the prince’s struggle through the thorns.

Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep by Gail Carson Levine Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep by Gail Carson Levine has all the familiar ingredients of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. But just a minute! Aren’t there too many princes? And which fairy gave that rather odd gift? And who is responsible for the balding of the King’s sheep? This is a sparkling and very funny story.

Wilma’s Wicked Spell by Kate Umansky is another comic take on the story, with the “Thirteenth Faerie” Angria sending her great-niece Wilma to stop the prince from waking the Sleeping Beauty. Wilma goes to spy on the Twelve Good Fairies, now retired and living in the Pink House in Fairyland, but though she is the youngest of a family of wicked queens, Wilma’s own brand of naughtiness comes with a conscience. Quite silly, but a lot of fun!

This is Wilma’s father on the subject of Angria: “..that’s her stock-in-trade, isn’t it? Pretending she doesn’t get invited to things. It’s just an excuse to allow her to – to slam into places and shoot off a lot of indiscriminate cursing.”

Beauty Sleep by Cameron Dokey has a certain amount of magic and a beautifully described enchanted forest, though no fairies. It is a light, witty and unexpected romance which bends the conventional structure of the tale to the limits. It particularly has some interesting thoughts on the effects of living under a curse, and is unusually narrated by the Sleeping Beauty herself.

Spindle's End by Robin McKinley Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley is the most outstanding of the Sleeping Beauty novels. It is set in a country where magic is everywhere, to the delight and dismay of its inhabitants. Anyone’s family might produce a fairy who will grow into her powers, except the royal family which provides stability to the realm. Sovereign queens are especially valued, so there is a great celebration when a girl is the queen’s first-born. Twenty-one fairy godmothers prepare magical gifts for the child. This is the first time fairies have ever been asked to be godmothers, and it could have been the start of a better relationship between the fairies and the priests of the country – if it hadn’t all gone so wrong.

Just as the fairies are giving their deliberately minor gifts (sample – “a laugh like a silver bell”), Pernicia, a wicked fairy who was defeated by the last sovereign queen long ago and has vowed revenge, makes a dramatic appearance in a storm cloud. She pronounces a curse on the child, predicting that she will someday prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a poisoned sleep – perhaps even that very night.

Young Katriona, distressed by the threat, picks up the baby and distractedly gives her her own gift, the ability to communicate with animals. The princess’s fairy nurse seizes the opportunity to ask Katriona to take the baby away secretly and raise her as her own, to protect her from Pernicia. So Rosie, as she is called from her last name of Briar-Rose, is raised by fairies far away from the court – as also happened in the Disney film. She has no idea she is a princess, and grows up happily ordinary (though something of a holy terror), until the day grows near when she must break the curse – or sleep forever.

The anticipated doom hangs rather heavily over the second half of the novel, with no possible happy ending foreseeable. The animals play a big part in the outcome; it is a splendid book for animal lovers, as the animals are given a voice while retaining their particular natures.

When so many authors try to play down the magic in the tale, it is wonderful to have so much flying around, and the disadvantages are amusingly described: a loaf of bread might suddenly change into a flock of starlings, your toddler might turn herself into an elephant, any fish might be – and probably is – a creature under an enchantment, the neighbours of fairies are plagued with unusual weather – and so on. It is, in short, perfectly delicious.

Also see:

Fairy Tales

A companion to the Sleeping Beauty page: Cinderella and Ella Enchanted

More Fairy Godmothers

  • 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