As we know, there is no dearth of Cinderlla-esque stories, retellings, and adaptations- not today and, as it turns out, not even in the past. Since Nafiza has worked hard at providing an extensive bibliography of modern Cinderella retellings, I thought I could add two to the list of older Cinderella-esque stories. I say “Cinderella-esque” because really Perrault and his tale came quite a bit after these tales*:
The Irish Cinderlad, written by Shirley Climo and illustrated by Loretta Krupinski, was published in 1996. It tells the story of young Becan whose mother passes away, and his father remarries to a nasty woman with nasty children. His only friend and saviour is a magical bull. (Yes, the magical bull does indeed fulfill the fairy godmother trope.) And before you can ask whether there’s a prince involved, Becan flees his home with the bull, defeats the giant, and even slays a dragon. (Spoiler: he’s the prince, okay?)
It’s interesting to me that this story should be packaged as a Cinderella tale. According to Climo’s author’s note, this story was a “condensed retelling” of Douglas Hyde’s “The Bracket Bull” and Sara Cone Bryant’s “Billy Beg and His Bull”. I can certainly understand the logic here: horrid stepmother + horrid stepsisters + fairy godmother + bewitching ball gown + lost show + obsessed prince = rags to riches. But the details make it quite a bit more convoluted: horrid stepmother + horrid stepsisters + OMG that is a bull’s ear providing Becan with food + OH NO DID THE FAIRY GODMOTHER JUST DIE + okay things have involved a giant and a dragon so nothing fazes me anymore + lost boot + oh look, a princess who likes Becan = guess he’s royalty now. I guess what I mean to say is that this retelling just reminds me how utterly boring I found Perrault’s version of the tale.
Cinderella is not so much the protagonist of the story as a character who has things happen to her. She’s basically the human embodiment of a moral: “Be nice. Things can get crappy, but you know what, if you’re nice, you get to be a princess someday. Won’t that be something?” And the thing is, Becan is so wonderfully not a boy-waiting-to-be-a-prince. He’s an adventurer. He bests a giant in a fight. He slays a freaking dragon! Through his adventures, he comes of age in a spectacular manner. Him becoming royalty is just the icing on the cake, really. He’s a charming character and I kind of wish Climo had done a series on just him. It’s just that, personally, the illustrations were not my favourite. They were easy enough on the eyes, but they didn’t make my heart sing.
On the other hand, I just couldn’t get enough of Ed Young’s illustrations for Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China. This one was published in 1982 and retold by Ai-Ling Louie who had grown up hearing this story from her family- a story that she traced to a collection from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), The Miscellaneous Record of Yu Yang . One can view details of this collection as well as the reprinting in the original language right before you dive into the picturebook. I thought this was great idea- it reminded me how long a journey this story has had, how many years it took for this book to exist. A great way to start off.
Now, this one has some striking resemblances to both Climo’s Irish tale and Perrault’s version. Yeh Shen has a stepmother and a stepsister who put her to work around the house and starve her, a magical intervention allows Yeh Shen to entrance the King at a gathering, she loses her slipper as she runs away, the King eventually finds her using the slipper, and they marry and (presumably) live happily ever after. It is worth noting that in this tale too, the fairy godmother takes the form of an animal- a giant koi fish in this one. And also, like The Irish Cinderlad this godmother is killed. But while Becan is left behind with the bull’s magic tail, Yeh Shen is left with magical wish-granting bones. (I honestly don’t know which one I find more disconcerting …)
Tropes aside, the beauty of this story lies in the details provided. An entire, ancient culture comes to life through this retelling. Ed Young who was born and raised in China, but moved to the States in his teens, actually took two years to complete the illustrations for this book. He made two research trips to China over this period and his knowledge of traditions and costuming clearly comes through in the book. Even though we’re back to the kind of Cinderella whose superpower is to be nice (what’s wrong with nice and adventurous, I ask you?!), I really appreciate how Ed Young correlates her selfless acts with the magic that envelops her life. In almost every illustration, Young blends in regal looking fish scales and fish insignia into accessories, clothes, backgrounds, and even shadows. It’s haunting but at the same time it is a positive, concrete reminder of how Yeh Shen’s past choices are ensuring her safety and happiness, which I have to admit is pretty heartwarming.
*Both copies were borrowed from the Neville Scarfe Building / Education Library at UBC.