I had a delightful conversation with Katie Curtin the other day on a teleconference that she arranged for her program The Creativity Café. We talked about how I came to be fascinated by fairy tales, and what sort of method I’m using, and we also talked quite a bit about the Cinderella story. (If you click on News, you’ll find the link to the recorded interview)

Cinderella is perhaps the oldest fairy tale on the planet, going all the way back to China, and cropping up all over the world, from Egypt to North America. In the late 1600s, a lawyer in Paris named Charles Perrault wrote the version of Cinderella that has become popular in the industrialized world—the one with the fairy godmother, the pumpkin and the coach. In movies, plays, and cartoons, everybody seems to go for Perrault. Disney’s done it, Rogers and Hammerstein did it, and even Betty Boop took her turn.

Charles Perrault retold the story at a time when Europe was on the move, and people were beginning to think that they could advance themselves. They were stepping out of the fixed roles that characterized feudal society. It was beginning to dawn on them that they could become something other than servants, cobblers, blacksmiths, and farmers. They could turn themselves from rats to drivers and pumpkins to coaches, and ride that coach to the ball.

After my Dad died in 2009 I had a real wish to spend time in Perrault’s Cinderella. I was looking for a source of levity and light. I wanted to be lifted up and danced around by the fairy godmother with all her magic. I wanted to have a conversation with the rat, and explore the idea of transformation, even if the spells came to a crash at midnight.

The story rubbed off on me in a very positive way because the character of Cinderella is so creative. She dresses her sisters in the latest fashion of Mademoiselle de la Poche, and gives them all kinds of fashion advice. While I was in the story, I started making little fairies out of silk flower petals, and selling them in the store down the street to raise money for a charity. The story lifted me out of my grief, danced me around the ballroom, and wouldn’t allow me to think too seriously about itself.

At the same time, there was a certain tension for me in the story, and it’s still with me. In Perrault’s version, Cinderella isn’t quite certain that she wants to go to the ball. While she’s unhappy to be left behind and see her sisters ride off in the coach, she’s a bit stuck. When the fairy godmother shows up and picks the weeping girl off the pavement, Cinderella has trouble telling her what she wants. She stammers… “I wish…I wish…” I don’t think she’s sure about that ball. Earlier, while dressing her sisters, she says, “The ball is not a place for one such as I.”

It’s easy to write her off as having a superior moral attitude, but I feel that something more is going on. She’s resisting the push to self-improvement. She’s smack in the middle of a dilemma that is very modern. If you can improve yourself, why not do it? Trim that fat, build those muscles, whiten those teeth, buy that big TV, manifest your wishes! That’s the promise that comes with progress–you can have a better life–better health care, better house, better education, better everything. Some would say there are no limits. You can have and do whatever you’re big enough to wish for.

Yet Cinderella is holding onto something. It seems to me that she’s holding onto herself. She’s already lost her mother, her room in the house, her identity. What is left? I feel her wanting not to disappear, or see others disappear under all this gorgeous material that she herself adores.

Interestingly enough, at the time Cinderella was written, educated women in Paris were doing their utmost to preserve what Cinderella is holding onto: the values of the heart, of courteous and respectful human relations. They had started to gather in salons to collect and tell fairy tales. In fact, the term “fairy tales” was first coined by one of these women, Madame D’Aulnoy, who called her collection of literary fairy tales “Contes des Fées.”

The Marquise de Rambouilet (1588-1665) convened the first meeting in Paris. She decided to have it at home rather than at court, and to bring her guests into a very intimate setting. She invited them to attend her in her chambre bleue, her blue bedroom. Marina Warner, in her book, From the Beast to the Blond, paints a vivid picture of how these meetings were conducted.

“The guests approached the inner sanctum “through a sweeping enfilade of rooms, until they reached their hostess. In this ‘alternative court,’ the lady lay in bed, on her lit de parade (her show bed) in her alcove.” There she invited women to tell their stories.

Her favorite guests took the space beside her bed, in the ruelle, the alley, which became the word for such salons. In this little place, women created a space for the spoken word, for their personal stories, for tales whispered by nannies and grandmothers. Their stories retained the old courtly values of honor, courtesy, and love. In fact, the enterprise might be encapsulated by the work of Madeline de Scudery, the most successful novelist of the day. She devised the Carte de Tendre, or Map (of the Land) of Tenderness. The map charted the journey taken by those who are guided by love, who must make their way through seas of enmity, lakes of indifference, and wastelands of betrayal on their way to the Land of Tenderness.

When I look at Perrault’s Cinderella, I see a young woman who truly wishes to preserve her tenderness while at the same time taking the journey of progress. She does attain her goal, or rather, she maintains it all the way through the story. She not only dresses her sisters, (whose behavior is reprehensible!) she feeds them oranges and citrons at the ball, and invites them to come and live with her in the castle when the story ends. While her fairy godmother helps her to develop the confidence to go to the ball and move into the public sphere, she doesn’t lose her tenderness. When you get right down to it, I think that’s what keeps Perrault’s story, lighthearted though it may be, alive in me.

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