“There are no new stories.” That is a refrain that authors hear all the time. It usually goes like this: All the stories that have ever exist or will ever existed have all been told before. There’s nothing new, no new or exciting plots, no new or exciting are archetypal characters.

I heard this complaint while an undergrad student as well as in graduate school for library science. Then, when I decided to become a fiction author, I heard it again. No matter how hard I work, I will never come up with an original story. And that is probably true. But one of my all-time favorite fairytales, Cinderella, proves why that particular truth doesn’t matter.

The story of Cinderella has been around for centuries. For those of you who are not familiar with this folktale, it’s about a young woman (sometimes a young man) who, due to a tragedy, must live off the charity of others, usually their families who treat her terribly. But when this young woman meets a nobleman, he is desperate to find out who she is and where she lives. Once he finds her, they get married and she’s now the wife of royalty. The mean family members who treated her like dirt get their comeuppance. They are destroyed for their cruelty. Often, in many, many renditions of this story, there is a magical element that helps Cinderella succeed.

The earliest version of this story is by a Greek storyteller named Strabo. Sometime between 7 BC and 23 AD, Strabo wrote down a tale of a young Egyptian girl named Rhodopis who was a courtesan. One day while taking a bath, an eagle took her sandal, flew off, and dropped the sandal on Pharoah’s lap. He was so fascinated by the color and petite size of the slipper, he searched for her. Then, around 860 AD, a Chinese storyteller told a similar story. This story found its way into Malaysia with the tale of “Bawahg Putih Bawan Merah” and the Vietnamese have their own version called “Tam Cam”.

It wasn’t until 1634, when the Italian soldier and scholar Giambattista Basile decided to collect fairytales, that he came across the Chinese version of Cinderella. To this day, Basile is known in Europe as the first person to write down all the oral stories he could find, and over a century later the Grimm Brothers relied heavily on his work for their own collection of fairytales. Basile was well known for collecting rare and unusual folktales and was especially interested in those from non-European countries. His primary work was titled “Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille ” which translates as “The Tale of Tales for Little Ones.” The title was eventually shorted to The Pentamerone.

A few of the more well-known stories in Basile’s collection include old versions of Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Cenerentola (Cinderella). Basile’s version of Cinderella included an evil stepmother and stepsisters, losing one shoe, magical elements, and a prince who spent years searching for Cinderella.

Because we live in an age of instant information, and often so much information that we can’t take it all in, it’s hard to describe how important Basile’s work was for his time. All stories were told orally, throughout Europe and Asia. So to have a collection written down meant that there was now an official canon of these stories for other storytellers to draw upon. In 1697, before the Grimm Brothers wrote their own collection of fairytales, a French author named Charles Perrault wrote his own version of Cinderella in a collection of tales titled Histoires ou contes du temps passé or Stories or Tales from Past Times. He relied heavily on Basile’s version of Cinderella (which in turn had relied heavily on the Chinese version). Except Perrault included more magic such as the pumpkin, fairy godmother, and glass slipper. Walt Disney, in turn, relied heavily on Perrault’s version of the story for his own Cinderella movie which he made in 1950.

Charles Perrault wasn’t just a French author. He was a member of the Académie Française, a division of the French government that focused on the importance of the French language and culture. Because of Perrault’s importance in the French government, he was able to promote this new genre called Fairy Tales. Perrault gave credit to all the earlier works (such as Basile and Strabo) when he could find them. His collection of fairytales gave us the more modern version of Cinderella as well as Little Red Rigind Hood, Puss in Boots, Bluebeard, and Sleeping Beauty. A century later, the Grimm Brothers also relied on Perrault’s versions of fairytales to help them in their own collections of fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm appreciated not just the updated stories (from Basile’s and Strabo’s collections) but also the enormous amount of scholarly work that went into citing the original versions of these stories. Where Basile gave citations, Perrault offered more extensive footnotes.

By the time the Brothers Grimm discovered the story of Cinderella, there were over 345 versions floating around. When they included it in their 1812 version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they called her Ashenputtel. In the Grimm brother’s version, Ashenputtel plants a hazel twig which she waters with her tears. When a white bird (maybe a dove) makes the tree its home, Ashenputtel believes it is the reincarnation of her dead mother. The bird is the magical element in the story, offering her a white gown and golden silk shoes to wear to the ball. When she runs away from the prince, he chases her her. She runs home but loses one of her slippers. The prince searches his kingdom for her, asking all eligible women to try on the slipper. Ashenputtel’s stepsisters try on the shoes but when it doesn’t fit, they cut off their toes to fit into the shoe. When the shoe doesn’t fit and the prince notices blood coming out of the shoes, he retrieves the slipped. Eventually he tries it on Cinderella. He finds his princess and takes her away to marry her. They leave behind the evil stepmother and stepsisters who can no longer walk.

While this is no longer the tale of Cinderella we know (thanks to Walt Disney), many of the earlier tales have a young, poor woman tormented by evil female relatives. There is almost always a ball, a magical ballgown, and a curfew that cuts off the fun (and magic) at midnight. Sometimes magical birds show up to offer magic, and others have a magical fairy godmother. Both the birds and godmothers are metaphors for kindness. Also, in some stories, she loses a shoe while in others Cinderella loses jewelry. My favorite is in a Russian version where she loses a shoe made from a squirrel!

Regardless of all these variations, the thing I love about this story is while it proves the original thesis of “no new stories” correct, it also shows us that there are innumerable ways of retelling stories. Just check out the huge number of fairytale retellings on Amazon. Some are retold for small children, others for young adults, and there are even erotic retellings. One of my favorite YA series retells the stories in a science fiction setting. So for those authors out there who are worried about this idea that there are no new stories, remember Cinderella. While her story has been around since 7 BC, we never get tired of new versions of this classic tale. If you have one in your heart, write it and tell it. The world wants to hear it!


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