Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of Cendrillon [“Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper”] is the origin of some of the most popular elements of Cinderella. Fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, glass slipper – all of these were the contribution of Perrault!
You can see all my posts on Cinderella from the beginning at Introducing Cinderella.
Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703) was a Parisian author. Perrault studied to be a lawyer, but his interest in poetry drew him into the literary sphere. Today, he is famous for his Mother Goose collection of fairy tales. Perrault was one of the first to write down many of these oral stories, often adding his own embellishments, as we see in Cinderella!
His tale of Cendrillon is the origin of the famous glass slipper. But where did he get such an idea? Glass shoes, unless magically enforced, sound impractical and downright dangerous.
Did Charles Perrault really envision glass slippers for Cendrillon, or was it a mistake? The original French manuscript uses vair (glass), and does so more than once, making a typo/mistranslation unlikely.
However, an essay on Cinderella was written in 1879 by William R.S. Ralston, an expert on Russian folklore. According to Ralston, Cinderella was never meant to wear glass slippers — Perrault only thought she was. The French writer Honoré de Balzac said something similar several decades earlier.
This illustrated Antique Fairy Tales book sums up the argument in a footnote:
“There is no doubt that in the medieval versions of this ancient tale Cinderella was given pantoufles de vair – i.e. [slippers of] fur … probably [from] a grey squirrel. Long before the seventeenth century, the word vair had passed out of use… Thus the pantoufles de vair of the fairy tale became, in the oral tradition, the homonymous pantoufles de verre, or glass slippers.”
Based on Ralston and Balzac, Cinderella most likely wore fur slippers. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem as elegant…
But wait! What if the glass slipper was intentional after all? “Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper” is a wonderfully annotated version of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale.
Check out footnote #40; this annotation confidently declares the vair/verre theory to be unlikely:
“The glass slipper has been the cause of much speculation and debate over the years, including a prevalent, albeit erroneous theory, that the glass was a mistake, a confusion between the French verre (glass) and vair (squirrel fur)… Although the translation error theory has been dismissed by scholars since the 19th century, it continues to appear in popular media all too often today”
I’ve had a hard time finding definitive scholarly support for the above assertion. The vair word was no longer used for fur, a point used by both sides as supporting evidence. However, Paul Delarue, French folklorist, offered an authoritative article in 1951 against the vair theory. Fur slippers debunked!
In his essay supporting the fur slipper theory, Ralston also claimed that all versions containing glass slippers originate with Perrault’s French description. Regardless of the cause for the glass slippers, this is still a neat way to trace the tale. Thus, I was surprised to find them in a version from Brazil, Gata Borralheira (“Cat’s Ashes”). Perhaps the story traveled across continents and the Brazilians made it their own.
Alan Dundes, Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook, (New York, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982)
Gross, Ila Lane. Cinderella Tales around the World: Global Understanding, Cultural Literacy. New York: LEAPUSA.com, 2001. Print.