The upshot is the same, though, in all of these versions. If you’re kind and humble, you’ll be rewarded by a step up socially and a happy marriage. Those who try to trick or wheedle their way in to riches will not win. Nice gals (and guys) do. Maybe that’s why we keep rewriting Cinderella. We really want that to be true.
Why do we love Cinderella so? It’s a rags-to-riches story, so it teaches us that no matter how low we feel, there is always the chance that we can escape our dismal situation and live like a princess or a prince. (There are Cinder-fella versions as well, naturally.) There seem to be two strains: either the inherent nobility of Cinderella is revealed—she turns out to be of noble blood somehow; this is most prevalent among European variants, or she is truly poor in material wealth, but rich in spirit–a diamond in the rough–and her circumstances ultimately rise to match her nature.
The first kind is now as common as the Disney version in America. Cinderella’s plight stems in part from being originally noble, a lord’s daughter or higher, who after her mother dies is reduced to servant status in her step-mother’s home. This is the Grimms’ version, the Disney version, the film version of Ever After. Some of this Cinderella’s trauma stems from that fall, from the shame of having to act like a servant, when she is not born to it, and her credit stems from the grace with which she adapts to her servitude.
But there are LOTS of versions of Cinderella. The ones where she starts low have their own appeal, and maybe it lasts longer. Wishing your nobility will be discovered is an increasingly dated notion. Rather, the idea that there is a distinction between nobility of spirit and circumstance seems more believable. It is an old, old notion that nobility is tied to beauty and goodness, and one propagated by the nobility. Medieval expectations that beautiful souls resided in beautiful bodies operate on the same understanding as the axiom that “might makes right.” God wouldn’t be so cruel as to put an ugly soul in a beautiful body, any more than he would allow a bad guy to win a duel.
In an age where those expectations are deemed foolish, though, Cinderellas who are poor but virtuous do very well for themselves. Some come to us from different cultures, without the monarchy baggage that Europeans carry. I’m thinking of my picture book collection here, which contains “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” an African tale from Zimbabwe where the girls are poor, but beautiful, and the king tests them in strikingly similar ways to Jesus testing his believers, to see who are virtuous–generous, and gentle in their dealings with others. Or there is the Native American story “The Rough-Face Girl,” about a girl whose face is scarred by sitting too close to the fire, and who wins her future husband by her ability to see his true nature (as a spirit being in the heavens, riding the swaths of Milky Way for sled runners).
In these versions, the kindness of the girl is rewarded, as well as her humility. Those qualities are rewarded in the gender-bent versions as well. Helen Ketteman’s “Bubba The Cowboy Prince” may be my favorite of these, where Bubba is just a farm hand who wins the hand of the wealthiest landowner around, Miz Lurleen, with the help of his fairy god-cow. (I’m not kidding. It’s glorious–both the fairy god-cow and the fact that the magic glass slipper has been replaced by the manky, mucky boot of a “real cowboy.”)