Grimm World Part 3
The stories of our childhood resonate with us throughout our lives. They counsel us from the recesses of our psyche and whisper words of caution and wisdom. I am always so grateful for the fact that my parents took the time to read children’s books to me and encouraged me to read on my own.
Many people in the world are not so fortunate. They grew up in homes where reading wasn’t emphasized. They weren’t taught to value good literature nor were they inspired to open their imaginations to the expansive universe of the written word. Such a lack of exposure to books has to have put them at a disadvantage. For, unable to draw upon stories from their youth, they don’t have a frame of reference later in life to assist them in making good decisions.
I decided to write these personalized interpretations of The Brothers Grimm fairy tales to provide some new insights on old stories that brim with lessons on the value of virtues and the importance of ethics. I also see my reflections as a way of honoring those of you who may never have read the childhood classics.
This installment of Grimm World is about Cinderella. The famous animated version has been watched by millions of people since its release by Disney in 1950. As with many of the “modern” adaptations of the Brothers Grimm folk tales, there are some significant deviations in the film. Rereading the original tales, I find them to be much more bizarre than the movie—even morbid.
Why is that? Well, the changes made from read to reel are often motivated by the gestalt of the era in which they’re released. With that in mind, let us begin to unwrap this beloved rags-to-riches tale of an innocent maiden, a wicked stepfamily, and a handsome Prince. Spoiler alert: There is no Fairy Godmother to be found in the Grimm version—and the slipper, as you will see, is better than glass.
Our story begins with the deathbed advice of a young girl’s mother, “Dear child, be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect thee, and I will look down from heaven and be near thee.”
As I have done in my previous pieces on Grimm allegories, I will loosely assign metaphorical meaning to each of the characters and attempt to parse out an interpretation of the story that is mine alone. I claim no special insight into the intent of the original author(s). You can follow along with this free PDF of the original text, entitled “Ash-Maiden.”
The young heroine in this story is named, as the title indicates, “Ash-Maiden.” But we shall use her Disney-fied name, Cinderella. (See this Wikipedia article for a detailed history of the fairy tale.)
We learn about Cinderella’s virtues through her relationships with various family members.
First, there is her deceased mother, who could be said to represent the Edenic state of humanity antecedent to The Fall. Prior to her mother’s death, Cinderella’s life was one of privilege and wealth. She was cherished, as all children should be. When her mother dies, Cinderella loses her place in Eden, so to speak. Her mother’s dying words—“the good God will always protect thee, and I will look down from heaven and be near thee”—remind us that, just as with Cinderella, so we, too, have a tether that connects us to the idyllic Garden, where human beings once enjoyed unbroken communion with our Creator.
Then we meet Cinderella’s father, who is not nearly so solicitous of her. It would seem he barely knows his own daughter. For our purposes, the father represents society as a whole—the collective, as it were. Any amorphous collective doesn’t actually know or care about each individual, despite claims to the contrary.
A year or so after Cinderella’s mother dies, her father remarries. We might say this marriage represents humanity separating itself from divine dominion, from being governed by a loving God, and instead being wedded to earthly domination.
I say this because of the domineering nature of the next character to appear in the story: the stepmother. (I’m starting to suspect that the author(s) may have had some deep-seated issues regarding stepmothers!)
This stepmother represents the too-often authoritarian approach earthly “rulers” take to common humanity. We see a distinct power differential between stepmother and stepdaughter—between “ruler” and “subject.” That relationship is in stark contrast to the love bestowed upon Cinderella by her mother—and upon us all by our loving Author, God.
Next we are introduced to Cinderella’s two stepsisters. The Brothers Grimm version describes them as “beautiful and fair of face,” but Disney’s version portrays them as homely looking. In both versions, though, they act in a way that is “vile and black of heart.”
Significantly, the contrast in facial features described by Grimm and shown by Disney is the first major deviation between the ancient tale and the modern movie. It is always easier to paint the villains as unattractive. The audience expects the good guys to wear the white hats and the bad guys to wear the black hats, the heroes and heroines to be beautiful and graceful and the villains to be as ugly and sinister in their appearance as they are in their character.
It’s an understandable expectation. In a perfect world, the distinction between good and evil would always be so easily recognizable. However, in the real world, malevolent agendas are often obscured by carefully crafted rhetoric and the pretense of benevolence.
I suspect the underlying hostility of the rulers toward their subjects remains hidden from the majority of the pawns used in these various schemes. The poison of tyranny is sweetened by the honey of empty promises and cleverly veiled intentions. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously noted in The Gulag Archipelago, “[T]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”
In the original Ash-Maiden tale, the cruelty of the “beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart” stepsisters represents totalitarianism. I think it’s important to distinguish between the generic concept of government and totalitarianism. The two are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they equivalent in their processes and manifestations.
It pays to mention that neither Ash-Maiden nor Cinderella is the young girl’s given name. We never learn either her birth name or the names of any of the tale’s other characters. In their anonymity, they are meant to represent any one of us.
Both the original German Aschenputtel and the Anglicized Cinderella are a play on words. They refer to the cinders of a fire, which the now-motherless girl is forced—by her unmotherly stepmother and her unsisterly stepsisters—to tend in her lowly position as “kitchen-wench.”
Cinderella is so dehumanized by these three inhumane, unwomanly females that she is not given a bedroom or even a bed, but is made to sleep in the ashes by the kitchen fire to stay warm at night.
Just so, the totalitarians in the real world enjoy dehumanizing and attaching degrading monikers to groups of people they consider beneath them. This act of “othering,” this marginalization, unjustly creates scapegoats who are shunned in every society.
As previously noted, Cinderella’s father seems unperturbed by the way she is treated and stays oblivious throughout the tale. His behavior causes me to ask: How many people have his mentality? How many—myself included—are unconcerned about the actual suffering of others? Sure, we well-meaning folks may politely murmur over injustice, hunger, and poverty. But how many of us give more than a passing thought to the downtrodden in our communities who endure hardship on a daily basis, much less to the downtrodden in the wider world?
Every last one of us could be doing more to relieve the burdens of our fellow man. It’s an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge. Sure, we have good excuses for our apathy. We have our own trials and tribulations, we tell ourselves. Besides, we cannot be everything to everyone, we say with self-justification. Yet, it’s worth owning up to our shortcomings, our inactive, undemonstrated compassion, if only for accountability’s sake.
Cinderella’s apathetic father prepares to go to the fair and asks his stepdaughters what they would like him to bring them. They want pearls and jewels and beautiful dresses. Is the Brothers Grimm author(s) thinking of Ecclesiastes 1:2’s “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity”?
When he asks Cinderella what she would like, she responds, “Father, break off for me the first branch that knocks against your hat on your way home.”
How often do we look around us and see entitled, selfish people demanding what they have not earned and playing the victim in order to manipulate others? And how difficult is it to watch as their self-centered wishes are fulfilled? Admit it: When you see someone successfully gaming the system, it creates resentment in your heart, does it not? It does in mine. That is not a virtuous response, but it is a natural one.
Yet that is not how Cinderella responds. Her simple answer to her father’s question shows she is more concerned for his well-being, neglectful and unjust as he is, than for her own. She is not resentful or bitter, despite the ill-treatment she receives.
How much does Cinderella remind you of faithful, hard-working, selfless people you know—the ones who do whatever they believe is principled, even if it doesn’t serve their own interests? We see this noble attitude in loyal patriots. Yes, we may think them gullible and naïve, but we also admire them for adhering to the rules—even in a parasitic system that oppresses them. They never break a promise, they always show up at the polls to vote for the candidate whom they believe has their interests in mind, and they always treat others with respect, even when dealing with those whose “ways are crooked,” to quote Proverbs 2:15.
The father grants all three daughters’ requests. He brings back the pearls, jewels, and dresses for his stepdaughters, who, swelled with the sins of ambition and entitlement, show no appreciation for the finery. To Cinderella he hands the first branch that knocked against his hat—a gift she tenderly plants at her mother’s grave. She kneels beside it and weeps, mourning the loss of her lone friend in the world.
I seem to remember a certain carpenter saying, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The faithful mourn their broken relationship with God, with the perfection of Eden, while the worldly revel in their earthly pursuits.
Cinderella’s tears water the earth and nurture the roots of a beautiful hazel tree that starts life from the branch she has planted. We are reminded that, just as from the virtuous, sorrowful hope of the young maiden spring life and regeneration, likewise, from our faith in something ineffable and transcendent grows the hope of renewal and regeneration.
The tree attracts a little white bird. “[I]f Cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she wished for.” How beautiful is that! Though Cinderella asks for nothing from her father (from the world), the little white bird, who represents our prayers, grants her what she asks for in humble supplication.
The responsiveness and generosity of the little white bird may also bring to mind the Comforter, or the Holy Spirit, that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of John. (I encourage you to take a break from my reflections and turn to John’s Chapter 14.)
Here we may take another lesson from young Cinderella. We notice that she does not pester the little bird with pleas for riches and power, glory and prestige. She remains the humble servant of those who mistreat her—who call her a “stupid goose.” She does not wish for retribution. We may again recall the aforementioned carpenter’s instruction to “love your enemies.”
Enter the King, another fairy tale staple. He proclaims there will be a festival where his son, the Prince, will choose a bride. The King represents God, the Father, and the Prince represents Christ, the Son. In fact, in the Gutenberg version, the latter is referred to only as “the King’s Son.”
Perhaps the festival can be seen as a potential paradigm shift from the current world order to a false ideal of world order. Totalitarians wish to create an earthly state of utopia and immortality. They seek to usurp the Creator’s (King’s) power to serve their own ends. They believe they have all the answers to the challenges faced by humanity.
Totalitarianism is an all-encompassing system whose adherents are devoid of self-reflection or humility. In contrast, the faithful sons and daughters of God humbly await their eternal reward and readily acknowledge their inability to save themselves.
The stepsisters are in the former camp. They demand that Cinderella prepare them for the festival. To them, she is a mere means to their end. In their utilitarian eyes, her sole reason for existence is to serve them. Little totalitarians that they are, they sacrifice Cinderella for the “greater good”—that is, for their own good.
When Cinderella asks her stepmother if she can attend the festival, her stepmother mocks her and calls her “dusty and dirty.” Do you recognize in this shrew the high-and-mighty attitude typical of today’s ruling class? To them, we are “common folk”—even chattel—as Cinderella was to her stepmother.
We are told that the laws of our land exist to protect us. Meanwhile, the politicians who supposedly represent and serve us are amassing wealth and power at the expense of our prosperity, privacy, and freedom. Whoever speaks out against the maltreatment is vilified as an enemy of the state or even as a terrorist.
How does this present-day scenario relate to Cinderella? Well, after she begs to attend the festival, her mean stepmother throws lentils in the fire and insists that Cinderella pick them all out, one by one, before she can go anywhere.
That mindless, useless task is akin to the myriad distractions we are assaulted with regularly by mass media. Our focus is constantly being (mis)placed on current events—each of them engineered to make us believe that chaos and violence and perversions are normal and natural. The end goal of the media is to keep us preoccupied, too busy to participate in any meaningful endeavors, too hopeless and helpless to improve societal problems, and incapable of discerning the power grabs being carried out behind the curtain.
But the meek and mild Cinderella refuses to miss out on the joy and relief from drudgery the festival offers. She is resilient, and she knows it is wrong for her stepfamily to berate and oppress her. So she calls upon her allies, the birds. They quickly come to her aid and pick the lentils out of the fireplace for her. Lentils in hand, she approaches her stepmother, makes the same request, and receives the same dismissive treatment.
Did Cinderella give up her quest? Would we be reading about her if she had? Her persistence and ingenuity remind us of the millions of earth’s denizens who valiantly overcome the myriad obstructions placed in their path by governments. They refuse to submit to unlawful, immoral edicts. Refuse to relinquish their God-given freedom.
Of course, our would-be rulers who lord it over us don’t give up their power—and their lust for more power—without a fight. In the same way, the stepmother is undeterred from her efforts to exclude Cinderella from the festival. Breaking her promise, she once again throws lentils into the fire and insists that the girl achieve the impossible task of retrieving two dishes of lentils in one hour.
Similarly, does it not seem we are under unrelenting attack on every front these days? Our energy sources appear to be purposely depleted even as energy prices are made to purposely rise. Same on the food front. Every indication is that our health and our wealth are being sabotaged by “the powers that shouldn’t be,” (TPTSB) as our friend James Corbett calls them. It’s abundantly clear that TPTSB are scheming day and night to make our lives more difficult. Their lies and propaganda are stifling us at every turn.
But here is the good news: We are awake to their strategy. Our innate desire for liberty, more compelling than their strictest mandates, propels us to stand up to their strong-arm tactics and fear-based threats.
And so, despite her stepmother’s best efforts to foil her, Cinderella once again completes the onerous task set before her—with the help of her feathered friends. Having done what has been asked of her, she is ready to receive her reward: a ride to the festival with the rest of the family.
Yet, like Pharaoh, who continually reneges on his word to Moses in a vain attempt to keep the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, Cinderella’s stepmother keeps going back on her word. This time she haughtily announces that Cinderella has neither a decent dress nor the ability to dance properly, making her a most unfitting guest in the King’s palace.
And thus, despite doing all of her assigned duties, Cinderella is left behind. Seeking consolation, she goes to her mother’s grave, where she weeps and calls out:
“Shiver and quiver, my Little Tree,
Silver and gold throw down over me.”
The little white bird hears her and sends down a gold and silver dress with slippers made of silk and silver thread. What she could never earn with her own earnest efforts, the little bird effortlessly provides.
And so the lovely Cinderella is able to attend the festival after all. Her wicked family doesn’t even recognize her in the elegant gown. They cannot perceive the truth of her beauty. Their view is blocked by the darkness of their wicked hearts and by their preconceived notions about her lowly station in life. By refusing to recognize her true character and worth, they are made literally blind to her physical transformation from little kitchen-wench to the equal of royalty.
I can clearly remember the way people who knew me prior to my conversion to Christianity struggled to accept the reality of my transformation. In their eyes, I would always be that drunk, that addict. For them to acknowledge the change in my life would give credence to what caused it: the power of God. They weren’t ready to accept that our merciful Maker grants us grace that covers our old iniquity—that He makes us new creations and washes away our old self.
The Prince is enchanted by the innocent beauty and charm of this young maiden. He takes her by the hand and dances the night away with her, refusing all other would-be partners. He has chosen this lowliest of creatures to be his beloved.
But when he tries to escort her home and discover where and with whom she lives, a fearful and embarrassed Cinderella runs away and escapes to the pigeon house. Naturally, the smitten Prince pursues her. When he hears her in the pigeon house, he takes an axe to it, only to find that she has vanished. (She has returned to her old gray rags and her resting spot in the ashes.)
Likewise, the Prince of Peace pursues us, desiring communion with us—with every last one of us. Christ loves us enough to show us how to overcome death by following him in “the Way” of eternal Life. He is our bridegroom and we are his bride.
I also felt unworthy of divine love and was unwilling to sacrifice my familiar habits. I kept returning to the ashes and dust of sensualism and impurity, until, weary of the struggle, I finally surrendered.
Though she fled from the Prince the night before, Cinderella returns to her tree and requests an even more beautiful dress. Why? Apparently, even though the Prince has made clear his intentions—has already chosen her to be his wife—she still feels unworthy of his affection.
How often do we avoid God because we feel unworthy? How often do we try to change our outward appearance to make ourselves more presentable to Him?
My wife once admitted this tendency to our friend Andy. She likened the process to the “before-and-after” photos shown in ads for diet plans. She felt she needed to look like the perfect “after” picture before presenting herself to God. Andy’s response was something to the effect that, when God looks at us, He already sees the “after” picture, thanks to the grace of Christ. That impactful analogy has stuck with me ever since.
The process of Cinderella being chosen, only to flee, repeats itself. On the third day, she is given the most beautiful dress yet. The accompanying slippers are made not of silver and silk, as they were the first time. Nor of fragile glass, as in the Disney film! No, these are golden slippers. Pure gold is malleable. It is timeless. It is precious. It does not tarnish. It does not break, unlike glass. Disney’s version may betray the fragility of our own attempts to be pure and untarnished.
The Prince hatches a clever plan to have the stairs covered in pitch. Sure enough, when Cinderella makes her next attempt to flee, one of her slippers sticks in the pitch and she is forced to leave it behind. The Prince declares to his father that whoever fits the slipper shall be his wife.
The next episode in the story is so engagingly told that it’s worth repeating word for word:
Then were the two sisters glad, for they had pretty feet. The eldest went with the shoe into her room and wanted to try it on, and her mother stood by. But she could not get her big toe into it, for the shoe was too small for her.
Then her mother gave her a knife, and said, “Cut the toe off. When you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.”
The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s Son. Then he took her on his horse as his Bride, and rode away with her. They were, however, obliged to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried:
“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There’s blood within the shoe!
The shoe it is too small for her,
The true Bride waits for you!”
Then he looked at her foot, and saw how the blood was streaming from it. He turned his horse round and took the false Bride home again, and said she was not the true one, and that the other sister was to put the shoe on.
Then this one went into her chamber and got her toes safely into the shoe, but her heel was too large.
So her mother gave her a knife, and said, “Cut a bit off your heel. When you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.”
The maiden cut a bit off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s Son. He took her on his horse as his Bride, and rode away with her. But when they passed by the hazel-tree, two little pigeons sat on it, and cried:
“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There’s blood within the shoe!
The shoe it is too small for her,
The true Bride waits for you!”
He looked down at her foot, and saw how the blood was running out of her shoe, and how it had stained her white stocking. Then he turned his horse and took the false Bride home again. “This also is not the right one,” said he. “Have you no other daughter?”
“No,” said the man; “there is only a little stunted kitchen-girl which my late wife left behind her, but she cannot possibly be the Bride.”
The King’s Son said he was to send her up to him; but the mother answered, “Oh, no, she is much too dirty, she cannot show herself!”
Here is my take on the father’s and stepfather’s pathetic responses: The worldly will not recognize you as the royalty you are, for they value the wrong things. Jesus tells us so: “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
Thankfully, the perceptive Prince insists on having Cinderella brought before him. She tries on the slipper and of course it fits “like a glove.” Seeing her for who she truly is, he takes her away to be his bride.
Appropriately, when they pass by Cinderella’s hazel tree, the pigeons cry out,
“Turn and peep, turn and peep,
No blood is in the shoe,
The shoe is not too small for her,
The true bride rides with you.”
Also fittingly, the birds land on Cinderella’s shoulders—as if covering her with their wings, like a soft mantle—as she rides to the castle with her bridegroom-to-be.
So, too, are we covered by the wings of God’s grace. So, too, are we redeemed by the Holy Spirit, which indwells us and removes our shame. So, too, when our time comes, we will be brought home to the throne of God, where Christ has prepared a place for us.
This is not the end of the Cinderella story, though. We must witness evil’s self-destruction and be assured of its powerlessness. At the wedding, the pigeons blind the stepsisters by pecking out their eyes, showing that wickedness and vanity do not go unpunished.
We should not wish for anyone to be excluded from the Kingdom of God. We must all recognize that it is not our own righteousness that saves us. All of us are unworthy of the gift that we are freely given. Whenever we start believing we deserve God’s grace, we blaspheme the sacrifice that was made in our stead. It is crucial that we understand this fact and recognize that we, like Cinderella, can rise from the ashes to the throne room.