Aschenputtel is the German name for Cinderella and the subject of the superior Grimm fairytale that puts Perrault’s to shame.
Chances are you have read or seen the story of Cinderella. More than likely, it’s been through a Disney lens. If you’re anything like me, she wasn’t an interesting princess to you for many reasons. I mean, what were her identifying qualities? She cleaned a lot, and she took a lot of abuse without a peep. I was never about that kind of life as a kid. As an adult with real-world experiences, I’m even less about it.
I was a deeply weird child, and the silver lining of that was that I spent a lot of time reading fairytales, folklore, and mythology instead of playing with children my age. So, I was blessed to discover Cinderella’s way cooler German cousin, Aschenputtel. You may be thinking, “Aschenputtel, what an offputting name,” and I would reply with, “That’s the freaking point.” This is a girl who got bullied relentlessly. As a child who went by “Audrey the Audball” in school, I completely related to her based on her name alone. However, the story gets better and better.
Aschenputtel roughly translates to “ashen dirty girl,” which is actually way less kinky than it sounds. Cinderella is French for “ash girl.” The story of Cinderella was published by Charles Perrault in 1697, and Aschenputtel was published by the Brother’s Grimm in 1857. Perrault and the Grimms all made a big difference in bringing fairytales out of oral tradition and established it as a publishable genre. There are even some Perrault tales that I particularly enjoy. However, those Grimm boys are my favorite because they really speak to the dark, gritty part of my soul.
Anyway, enough back story. Just why am I 100% right on Aschenputtel being better than Cinderella?
1. Her Mom Helps Her.
Right now, you may be wondering how Aschenputtel is anything like Cinderella from this point alone. Relax, sadists. Her mom is super dead. However, from beyond the grave, a mother’s love knows no bounds.
You see, Aschenputtel plants a twig at her mother’s grave as a child. There a hazel tree grew, watered by the tears she shed in grief over losing her mom and being stuck with her loser father, lazy step-mother, and bratty step-sisters. (Just a quick aside, hazel is associated with spirit contact among various magical purposes.) After a while, when Aschenputtel comes to visit, a white bird would come down from its branches and grant her a wish. In fairytales, birds often symbolize the human spirit. It is pretty clear that this white bird is Aschenputtel’s mother. If this seems at all familiar to you, congratulations, you probably saw “Into the Woods,” one of the best musicals ever to grace Broadway.
I don’t know if Aschenputtel wasn’t brave enough to wish for anything significant or what, but she never outright asks the white bird to just get her the heck out of dodge. Aschenputtel doesn’t start dreaming big until there’s a festival coming to town. The Prince was hosting the event for three whole days, and Aschenputtel wanted to go because oh my gods, why wouldn’t she? It’s a three-day festival. Ask any young woman if she wants to go to a festival, and you’ll immediately find her wearing a floral dress and an over-sized sun hat.
This wouldn’t be a tragic story if her family was at all willing to let her have anything good in life, however. So, of course, the step-mother says no. It’s worse than that, though. She makes Aschenputtel think there’s a chance. She tosses some lentils into the ashes of a fire and gives her step-daughter a really short amount of time to pick every single lentil out. If she can do that, she can go.
Much like Hercules, Aschenputtel doesn’t balk at the seemingly impossible task. She just calls on her bird friends (Thanks, Mom!), and they do the job for her. TWICE! After the second time, the step-mother finally comes clean and admits she never had any intention of letting Aschenputtel go.
What does Aschenputtel do when things get bad? She complains to her mother, and some birds give her such a fantastic gold and silver gown that no one even recognizes her at the festival. They do this for each day of the festival, giving her increasingly more epic clothing!
They help at the end too, but I really feel like that would be giving some other reasons away. So, I’m going to keep this under my hat for now. You’ll see them later.
2. She Gets to Know the Prince.
One thing that really bothers me about Cinderella, specifically Disney’s Cinderella (based off Perrault’s work), is that the lady dances a few dances, and that was all it took for them both to decide it was time to get hitched. I know this was from a time when marriages often happened between two people who had never met, but it’s not exactly what I would call a love story.
Aschenputtel gets three full days of hanging out with the Prince, who refuses to give her up for a minute the whole time. A real connection is made here. Every time she has to leave, he tries to find her. The Prince is so in love with her. She’s also in love with him because she keeps going straight back to his arms each day. In Perrault’s version, she gets two nights with a curfew. That’s it. Bogus.
3. She Isn’t a Klutz.
Cinderella loses a shoe running away because that’s what white girls do apparently (see most horror films for reference). Aschenputtel hides in pigeon coups and climbs up trees. This isn’t some fainting maiden. This is a girl who could join Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men if that was her thing. She is so effective at getting away from the Prince that he is forced to hatch a plan. On the third day, he puts some pitch down on the ground so her shoe will stick. That’s the only reason why she loses a shoe.
4. She Gets Better Shoes.
Not to sound like a total chick, but shoes make a big difference. Once you get over how pretty crystal slippers sound, it becomes evident that shoes like this make no stinking sense at all.
For starters, this is a person named “Ashen dirty girl.” Do you really think she has perfectly manicured feet that are going to look so beautiful through the crystal of her shoes? Not a chance. She needs those little piggies covered up, thank you.
Secondly, those shoes aren’t going to be comfortable at all. Either it’s going to be one masterfully sculpted hulk of crystal per pump, which will make it slippery as all get out, or it will be lots of spiky little crystals actually cutting into her foot.
Aschenputtel gets golden shoes. It’s not practical, and I don’t think I’d want to give it a go, but it still sounds more attractive and more comfortable than crystal shoes. Also, if things hadn’t panned out with the Prince, she could have melted those shoes down and sold them for some coin. Goodbye, stupid family! Hello, financial independence!
Remember how I said the birds were coming back? Well, that time is now. The festival ended and the only clue the Prince had managed to get through his wily schemes was Aschenputtel’s shoe. He’s definitely in love with her because he goes to every flipping family in the area to try this shoe on every last stinky foot. It’s not a great plan, but it’s all he’s got.
After a day of dealing with a kingdom’s worth of foot odor, he gets to Aschenputtel’s house. I guess he’s tired of feet or something because he allows the step-sisters to try the shoes on in private. The oldest sister can fit everything but her big toe in. The step-mother isn’t going to let a silly toe get in the way of her daughter marrying a Prince. So, she chops it off.
The Prince doesn’t seem to notice her limping, and they begin to ride away. Aschenputtel’s mom isn’t having it, though. She sends some birds to tattle, “Hey, look, Mr. Magoo! There’s actual blood dripping from the shoe.”
He comes back and says, “I’d like to return this potential bride for false advertising.” Like an idiot, he lets the step-mother take her younger daughter to another room to try on the shoe (I hope after a good shoe cleaning). This girl’s heel doesn’t fit. The step-mother, not having learned that cheaters never prosper, cuts her daughter’s heel off. Once again, the Prince rides off with a limping bride, mom’s birds come through with the truth, and he brings her back.
This is the last house, though, and he’s desperate. So, he asks if there’s another daughter. Aschenputtel’s father is like, “You don’t want my daughter. She’s dirty and ugly”. Father of the Year Award, right? The Prince insists, and Aschenputtel puts the shoe on. Perfect fit, of course. They ride off, and mom’s birds start singing about how Aschenputtel isn’t a self-mutilating liar but the real deal.
At Aschenputtel’s wedding to the Prince, her step-sisters come to enjoy the festivities. Mom’s birds aren’t happy about this at all. They peck both their eyes out, causing them to be blind for life. Father and step-mother didn’t even get invited to the wedding, because screw them.
In Perrault’s version, Cinderella’s step-sisters try on the shoes and just say, “Oops, my feet are too big.” Then, at her wedding, Cinderella forgives them. She allows all the toxic people in her life, the same people who forced a child to sleep in ashes and called her names, to live with her at the palace because she’s a good girl. If I’m going to read a fairytale to escape reality, karma better be involved.
This brings me to my last point…
6. Aschenputtel Has the Better Moral.
The moral of Cinderella is clear. Be a good girl. Be patient. Be long-suffering. Be a martyr. Good things will happen to you in the end. Just do as your told and don’t bother anyone.
Has that really worked out for women? Historically, this is precisely what the patriarchy has impressed upon women for centuries to control them. Honestly, this is the point of a lot of eurocentric fairytales. They were created to teach young women to keep their legs closed, their mouths shut, and their hands busy at work. It’s part of my love-hate relationship with many stories in this genre.
Perrault’s Cinderella never even asks to go to the ball. She just helps everyone else get ready while she silently deals with her disappointment. She bottles up her emotions until everyone’s gone and then has a good cry. Then, some Fairy Godmother she doesn’t know gives her a dress and a carriage, along with a time limit. The good things just happen to her, despite not making any efforts to better her own life or stick up for herself. In some versions of the story, the Fairy Godmother literally says, “Be a good girl, and maybe I’ll reward you.” Seriously?
The Grimm Brother’s Aschenputtel is proactive. How did she get the hazel tree? She asked her father for the first twig to brush him on a trip. She planted it, she watered it, and she prayed over it. She grew that baby. She asked for help. She tried to bargain with her abusers. She played the game to win the Prince. Aschenputtel is a heroine. Good things don’t happen to her. She makes them happen.
The moral of Aschenputtel has less to do with the heroine and more to do with her family. This is a Golden Rule fable, a cautionary tale about what happens to mean people. Don’t mistreat children, or you will suffer the consequences. In a world as bleak as the one we live in, I wish that was the message more people were hearing. Then, maybe we would see fewer news articles about murdered children and more stories about young women achieving their dreams.
After writing this, I’m sure there will still be some people who prefer Perrault’s sanitized version that Walt Disney made so famous. I understand the familiarity and sweetness of that story can be very appealing, and I don’t fault anyone for that at all. As for me, I will always prefer Aschenputtel, my little German rebel girl who made life happen with the help of her mother’s spirit.
Full story of Aschenputtel: https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm021.html
Full version of Perrault’s Cinderella: https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault06.html
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Princess Eya’s life changes forever with the discovery of the Statue of the Goddess Winds, just as she’s coming of age. The long-overlooked kingdom of Hicares finds itself in a war it isn’t prepared for against the far more powerful empire of Pescel. To survive, Eya must flee her home, losing everything and everyone she loves in the process.
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Struggling With the Current is the first book in The Telverin Trilogy, a story about an exiled princess who finds herself in a terrifying world with equally frightening powers.