unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through



his is without question one of the Great Tales. Whether or not one admits the idea of a Canon, one must admit that this tale is canonical. It may be impossible to grow up in Western culture without encountering this tale in some form. Although we recognize the tale more immediately through Perrault’s ‘Cinderilla,’ it is, perhaps, the Grimms’ version that best encapsulates its imaginative complexity.

Since everybody knows this tale—or should—I will spare you my usual summary and discuss the structure of the tale itself, and the importance of several of its symbols, to suggest one reason—perhaps among many—for this tale’s endurance, or immortality. For me, it’s a sort of critical experiment, and has to do with colour, marriage, and redemption.

First, a note about versions. I’ve been reading the tales in Margeret Hunt’s translation of the 1857 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, and there was a dissonance immediately in this version. Why does Cinderella’s mother on her deathbed give her this unfeeling lecture about ‘Always be good and God will reward you’? It irked me enough that I pulled out D. H. Ashliman’s translation of the 1812 original (which I urge you all to go read). Here was the story I was looking for. I offer the opening paragraphs for your inspection:

Hunt, 1857:

The wife of a rich man fell sick, and as she felt that her end was drawing near, she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, “Dear child, be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect thee, and I will look down on thee from heaven and be near thee.” Thereupon she closed her eyes and departed. Every day the maiden went out to her mother’s grave, and wept, and she remained pious and good.

Ashliman, 1812:

Once upon a time there was a rich man who lived happily for a long time with his wife. Together they had a single daughter. Then the woman became ill, and when she was lying on her deathbed, she called her daughter to her side, and said, "Dear child, I must leave you now, but I will look down on you from heaven. Plant a little tree on my grave, and when you want something, just shake the tree, and you shall get what you want. I will help you in time of need. Just remain pious and good." Then she closed her eyes and died. The child cried, and planted a little tree on her mother’s grave. She did not need to carry any water to it, because her tears provided all the water that it needed.

The older version seems to recollect a much vaguer, thinner boundary between the living and dead; Cinderella continues a sort of ritualized relationship with her mother’s spirit, instead of receiving an untimely and severe adjuration to Be Good. It also talks unashamedly of a happily married couple, with a child as a result of their happiness—a serious blush-factor for prim Victorian readers, but significant for the tale, as it turns out.

What’s more, the simple poignancy of Cinderella’s grief, so powerful in the earlier version, is absent in the later version. Discrepancies of this sort continue throughout the versions. Everything we love about the tale is in the 1812 version; it’s been diluted and confused in the later.

So, it’s the 1812 version that this article refers to—that and the Story itself, what C. S. Lewis called ‘the pattern of events that effects us,’ the tale that we recognize regardless of its dress of words.

The characterization is delicious. Cinderella is determined, resourceful, but a far cry from a girl-power Overwoman. She’s very real, in fact—desperate in her childish, human determination to win her stepmother’s love, meek and reticent before the spiteful cruelty of her new sisters, wistful—even poetic—in her longing as she climbs the dovecote to watch the magical dance from afar. And she keeps her cool as the mourning ritual she’s kept before her mother’s tree begins to intrude into her everyday life.

The stepsisters, in this version, have much larger roles than the stepmother; the odd perversity of the stepmother humiliating her stepdaughter is gone—replaced, in fact, by blunt parental neglect and the darker trope of the absent father, as he himself dismisses Cinderella as the ‘kitchen wench’ when the Prince comes calling.  The stepsisters show simply—if that’s the word I want—the innate cruelty of children to children. There’s a straightforward malevolence in their actions familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on a school playground. ‘Do you want to go to the ball, Cinderella? Over my dead body!’

These details, however, are a sort of glamour in the telling; they inevitably change, even by the 1857 version. So, as a critical experiment, I wish to look at the rhythm of the tale itself, ‘the pattern of events,’ to find a reason for its poignancy. ‘Aschenputtel’ follows a structure basic to Western narratives of redemption and spiritual purification: it is told on a threefold alchemic structure. ‘Cinderella,’ in other words, is an alchemic tale, a quest for immortality.*

For those, like myself of three weeks ago, for whom this means nothing, let me briefly introduce this concept—one I’ve just encountered and am still evaluating. John Granger has written at some length about alchemic symbolism in literature, and what follows is largely a summary of his work.** Traditional alchemy, as used in literature to signify the purification, or perhaps more correctly the sanctification, of the soul, has three phases: nigredo, albedo, and rubedo. These three processes change the leaden base into gold, or the fallen, sinful soul into a purified, enlightened soul. Nigredo is the black, or ashen, stage; it is the phase of destruction, breaking down, as the base is stripped of impurity ‘in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form.’ Albedo is the white, or silver, stage; the material is washed, or baptized, and is now pure, ready for the final transformation. That comes in rubedo, the red-golden stage. The white material reddens as if stained with blood, as it turns to molten gold; this stage is the perfect wedding of spirit and matter, the resolution of contraries, and the death of the self into greater life.

We are given two symbols in the tale to strongly suggest the alchemic structure. First, the tree itself, whereby Cinderella can grieve and communicate with her mother’s spirit. Trees were used to symbolize the entire alchemic process of growth, purification, and rebirth; this particular tree seems to undergo its own alchemic transformation, growing from the grave—nigredo—being covered in snow—albedo—and finally flowering in spring, just in time for the wedding—rubedo.

Second, the help and catalysts of Cinderella’s alchemic process—her mother’s intermediaries, if you will—are a pair of pigeons, inglorious doves. Not only do doves symbolize the purifying presence of the Holy Spirit, not only do they signify peace and the hope for peace, not only were a brace of pigeons the pauper’s sin offering under Levitical law, in alchemic literature birds are used to symbolize the soul, with different birds for different the stages of purification. The presence of the birds in the tale, especially given their importance, combines with the tree to suggest that Cinderella is a sort of philosopher’s stone, the material being purified for immortality.

Of course, a tree could be a phallus and two birds could be Greed and Hunger—one can symbolize nearly anything to any extent. Such a freewheeling symbolism, however, requires an  a-contextual reading; I suggest an alchemic reading for these symbols not arbitrarily, but based on the imagery and rhythm of the tale itself—based, in other words, on its colouring.

Cinderella is given no name at first; she’s simply a grieving daughter, missing her mum. However, when the stepfamily is formed, she is cast out of her wealthy society into poverty and oppression, more specifically to the ashes and darkness of the kitchen hearth. The tonal colour of this section is black.

Her stepsisters took her dresses away from her and made her wear an old gray skirt. "That is good enough for you!" they said, making fun of her and leading her into the kitchen. Then the poor child had to do the most difficult work. She had to get up before sunrise, carry water, make the fire, cook, and wash. To add to her misery, her stepsisters ridiculed her and then scattered peas and lentils into the ashes, and she had to spend the whole day sorting them out again. At night when she was tired, there was no bed for her to sleep in, but she had to lie down next to the hearth in the ashes. Because she was always dirty with ashes and dust, they gave her the name Cinderella.

This is her nigredo, as—perhaps through her real mother’s guidance—she begins the breaking down to purity, losing everything which, at her young age, would give her a self-identity. Much of the events of this section, stretching in the 1812 version through the first two nights of the ball, happens at night. During this time, Cinderella comes to observe the two pigeons, befriend, them, and learns to ask for help when help is needed.

She enters her albedo with suddenness and beauty. The tree bears fruit: a silver dress. Purified now, Cinderella is given the honour due her, attends the ball, and—Galahad like—awes everyone with her beauty. Here she meets her opposite, the loved and lauded prince, acclaimed and desired. Through the ‘baptism’ as it were of accepting the dress, meeting the prince, and, more importantly, keeping her promise to be home by midnight, she passes into the rubedo. Her second dress is made of gold, the servants are dressed in red and gold, and the marriage—the resolutions of contraries—is inevitable.

First, however, there must be her ‘death,’ and she descends once more into the kitchen as the golden slipper is offered to her stepsisters. The rubedo continues, revealing its incompleteness and the untimeliness of the marriage, as the ‘blood in the shoe’ and ‘blood in the track’ cautions the prince that the real bride is not yet ready. Finally, Cinderella emerges from the kitchen—resurrected and restored—and she is transformed into her opposite, from slave to princess.

The details of the story change with the telling, of course; the colours—black, white/silver, red/gold, will not always be present in that way. But I suggest that the rhythm of events that effects us in the tale is simply this threefold alchemic purification. Even in a wildly different telling like Minghella’s ‘Sapsorrow,’ the pattern in the same: the nigredo of the Straggletag beast-costume, the albedo of appearing as the beautiful stranger at dance and the moral superior of the prince, and the rubedo of the golden slipper and marriage of contraries, with Sapsorrow’s dénouement as a princess in her own right. The tale in any form is redemptive; it is a tale of joy and wonder and hope, of beauty rising phoenix-like from the ashes.

There’s plenty of other readings of the tale, of course, and one good reading doesn’t have to cancel out the other. That’s why this article is an experiment—an attempt to see how effectively this alchemic structure helps reveal a tale. Why the pattern works so effectively may be another question; but in this tale, at least, it seems unmistakable that it is there. And in one sense, it has worked. Whatever else may be said, the tale of ‘Cinderella’ has certainly passed to immortality.

*Everything I know (almost) about alchemy in literature, I learned from John Granger, The Hogwarts Professor. Many thanks for his relentless ‘shared text’ criticism, our lively and enjoyable correspondence, and his ongoing reintroduction of alchemical and iconological theory to literary discourse.

** John Granger, How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books (Wheaton, IL: SaltRiver, 2008), 29-40; The Deathly Hallows Lectures (Allentown, PA: Zossima, 2008), 7-15, et al.


11 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Fascinating. It occurs to me that it works just as well with “Beauty and the Beast” (even in the Disney version–color palette and all). Also with Farjeon’s novelization, if I recall.

    The pigeons sorting the lentils from the ashes are also a fairly clear nod to Cupid & Psyche. This works on many levels.

  2. This is a great piece about a tale beloved by all. Thank you for writing up this little experiment of yours, of applying literary alchemy to this tale–I think the experiment yielded some very worthwhile insights into the tale.

  3. Pingback: Hogwarts Professor · Literary Alchemy: Time to Talk ‘Cinderella’

  4. Pingback: Literary Alchemy: date to Talk ‘Cinderella’ | Wandlore.net

  5. Yessss! You’re talking about alchemy. My favorite. 😀

    I seem to remember disliking the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, perhaps because it was the first non-Disney version I ever read. Hunt’s sounds familiar, but I can’t place when or where I might have come across it.

    Sounds like I need to find Ashliman’s. The tale has been told so many different ways… The thought of it as alchemical is new to me–probably shouldn’t be, but it is–and it’s very exciting.

    Excellent exposition of the symbols and story, by the way.

  6. Thanks, all.

    Jenna–to clarify, Hunt’s ‘version’ is a translation from the Grimms’ 1857 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen; Ashliman’s version is a translation of the 1812 edition of the same title. So, I’m only dealing with Grimm here (except when I jump over to Minghella). But there are a lot of different versions of the tale to explore; you can find many of them at the link to Ashliman’s translation above.

    Of course, what’s been intriguing me ever since I wrote this is whether or not I’ve got the cart before the horse–if, rather than ‘Cinderella’ working so well because it’s an alchemic story, literary alchemy works so well because it’s a ‘Cinderella’ story. Do the rhythms from the tale flow out of literary alchemy? Or do both alike grow from something deeper–the death, burial, resurrection cycle of seasonal narrative, perhaps, or Primary Myth (whatever that means)?

    More spadework than I can do at the moment would need to see if there are versions of Cinderella that predate alchemy in science and literature; perhaps, as I said, both alike rise from a similar root, and thus have a natural affinity. Perhaps I’m thinking in circles, but it’s an interesting circle.

    I think I just deconstructed my own article. Does that mean I get some sort of geek award? 😀

  7. Perhaps so. If you like I’ll pass your name along to the nomination committee for the Geekies. 😉

    I know there are some very *very* old versions of ‘Cinderella’ out there; there’s a ancient Greek version where an eagle steals the lady’s sandal and drops it in the king’s lap. The woman’s name in this version is Rhodopis, which means “red-cheeked.” (Rubedo reference, perhaps?) But then, there are some very old versions of alchemy, too–it’s really hard to say which came first without that spadework.

    Hardly the most academic source, but Eldredge suggested that Cinderella’s endurance is due to the fact that it’s in some sense the story of the Bride of Christ–which itself can be a story of three-part purification (justified, sanctified, glorified?). If that’s so, it may not matter which came ‘first’ as such: Great Tales seem to be timeless in the atemporal sense. You have myths of the dying god popping up in mystery religions centuries before God himself stepped into human sandal-leather and died. I think that world-rocking events have a way of casting echoes (via cultural media such as Story) not only forward but backward in time.

    Excellent post!

  8. Very interesting analysis of Cinderella! I have loved that tale for as long as I can remember. It’s been a while since I have read them, but there are several versions you may find interesting and helpful: The Egyptian Cinderella, The Korean Cinderella, The Persian Cinderella, and even The Irish Cinderlad retold by Shirley Climo. The author includes her research notes after the story. You can probably find them in your local public library.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts about them.

  9. Pingback: The Ancient Pythoness » Blog Archive » Alchemical Serendipity

  10. Pingback: Cinderella and alchemy |

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