When the Grimm brothers published their collection of traditional tales two centuries ago, in 1812, they can have had little notion of the enduring, global legacy the stories would achieve. Nor, in all likelihood, did they aim for any such result. After all, their project was in nearly every respect a local—even a parochial—one.
French arts and culture had dominated the Baroque era. French scientists and thinkers had shaped the Enlightenment. Then Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies had held Europe in their thrall, waves of chaos and conquering unleashed from post-Revolutionary France. No German nation-state yet existed to counteract these forces, though the writers, musicians, and philosophers of a nascent German Romanticism had begun to coalesce, led by Goethe. To this bid for a cohesive folk culture, Jacob and Wilhelm contributed the folk tales they had painstakingly gathered over many years.
Imagine the shock, then, when Jacob Grimm later provided an introduction to a collection of 16th-century Italian stories in a new translation, only to discover that it held parallel or alternative versions of many of the very same tales. Known as the Pentamerone, recounted by Giambattista Basile and based on traditional Neopolitan tales, the collection—coarse, violent, bawdy, very much a work of folk transmission—predated Perrault’s famous French literary versions by well over a century.
Two elements stand out about the Grimm’s collection, one witting and one probably not. First, it provided a fairly self-conscious response, an alternative even, to Perrault—German for French, folk for courtly. Second, they formed part of an extraordinary repetition of these same tale types in version after version, variant after variant—across time and national boundaries and barriers of language, class, or culture.
Transmission of Cinderella-type tales dates back further than we can measure, appearing in some forms as early as the 1st Century BC in Egypt (in which an eagle snatches up a maiden’s lost sandal and fires a nobleman’s love).
But many of these fables also link to ancient myths that go back even further in Western culture. More globally, there’s a 9th-century Chinese cognate tale for Cinderella, and one nearly as old for Little Red Ridinghood (in this case, with a devouring, shape-shifting tiger in place of the wolf). There’s a 16th-century Japanese version of the same type. Cinderella in particular overlaps with European Cap o’ Rushes, Catskin, Allerlairauh, and Donkeyskin; and versions in Zunni, Javanese, Hansa (Nigerian), Bengali, Swedish, Slavonic, Gaelic, Yiddish, Norwegian, Brazilian, and too many more to list. One compilation counted nearly 350 distinct variants of Cinderella stories.
Does this attest to an evolutionary process, the spread of a story genome over time? Is there an Ur-source that morphs; or do these tale types arise independently in far-flung locales, part of spontaneous and local responses to specific circumstances? Are they part of what Carl Jung considered a collective unconscious that we share as humans, or are they symbolic residue of ancient ritual practices? Who can say for sure, though many argue vociferously in favor of their favorite answer. Some retellings are distinctive (Perrault originates mention of a red cloak or slippers of glass, for instance). Other elements are more widespread: the stepmother, the degraded girl, the suffering beauty become scullery maid or servant, the dead mother present as nurturing tree or spirit, the clothing trial (slipper, ring, dress).
Nor does the spread end with the Grimms. The Jack tales accompanied English colonists and proved highly adaptable and appealing, spreading through Appalachia. Little Red tracks the Francophone diaspora. Cartoons, movies, teen novels, merchandising, advertising, pop-up books, pop songs, pornography, greeting cards, and of course musical theater: all have played their part in the endless retelling and reshaping of these accounts. But wherever they come from, and whether told for children or among adults, these stories have become all of ours.