On magic and inner strength

In folktales, the miraculous does happen. Magic is being worked, witchcraft practised, spells are uttered, things happen in enchanting repetition. The natural world appears to be miraculously engaged in what is at stake in the story. In folktales, like with God, nothing is impossible. 

That makes fairy tales attractive for children and for storytellers, who do not wish to be locked up in reality as we have defined it in scientifical, social, economical, political and religious terms. For the same reason enlightened adults usually do not believe in fairy tales, just like they usually do not believe in God. Folktales and God - they are an insult to the laws by which we have defined the mechanisms of the universe and of life. If nothing were impossible, everything could be the case, and that cannot be.

Now it is not at all the case that everything is possible in folktales. There are magical moments in such tales, when the laws of physics step aside and the rules of social order are suspended - but such moments do not occur in the story in an arbitrary way. What cannot happen in folktales, is evil being rewarded in the end and good punished. The universe of folk lore is ruled by a metahysical and moral order in which by no means everything is possible.

I am talking here about folk tales as they were once treated seriously by adults, like in the Grimm brothers' collection. Whenever folktales are passed on merely as childrens' stories, in a moralizing or romanticizing way, the structure and depth of the story tends to get lost. The miraculous moments then remain as a pointless magical fireworks. The protagonist will arrive at her or his happy end after some harmless hubbub without any fundamental choices having been made. When, some time ago, I discussed the Cinderella story wit a group of elderly people, it appeared that none of them had ever heard the folktale in its serious and sharp-edged form. It was all new to them that, as the Grimm brothers tell us, the stepsisters use a knife to cut off their own toes and heels in order to fit into the magic shoe; and that at the and of the story, during the wedding ceremony, the helpful little doves peck out both eyes of the stepsisters: one eye at the entrance to the church and one eye after the service.

The Cinderella story seems to be most widely known in the Charles Perrault version, which has been used for the Walt Disney film production as well. Perrault, to be sure, has delivered the oldest written version of the fairy tale (1697), but as an early product of the Enlightenment it offers a moralizing childrens'story. In it, Ciderella is mainly sweet and passive. Her godmother is a fairy who takes care of the story's happy ending. Thus, the obedient sweetness of the girl is rewarded, and that is the moral we are upposed to draw from the story. I Perrault's version as compared to that of the Grimm brothers, there is hardly any mystery in the magic: it is a cheap instrument adding force to the moral. The listener sympathizing with Cinderella will enjoy the magic, but it will not lead him or her to discover a hidden order. Perrault's Cinderella does not guide us in life, because in the story she hardly makes any choice. She is a victim that passivey waits for the fairy and the prince  to appear. That explains why in the early 1980s a book about women's fear of independence could be published under the title The Cinderella Complex.i The author, Colette Dowling, considered Cinderella the role model of woman waiting for someone else to take care of her, because she is afraid to enter into the enterprise of her own liberation or emancipation. Perrault's version of Cinderella is a typically role-reinforcing story in that respec.


The Grimm brothers have recorded the Cinderella tale from oral tradition more than a century after Perrault. We will never know exactly to which extent the collectors' hand has formed the story, but the Grimm version has far more mythical force than Perrault's. It shows Cinderella as a person with a great inner strength, rather than as a victim that just has to wait for the rescue. The happy end does not simply come out of the magic wand of a compassionate fairy - it comes in recognition of the choices and initiatives of the girl herself. The magical order does not save a victim from her misery: it coes part of the way to meet a person who herself iswalking a meaningful path.

The secret of Cinderella is, in this version, the bond of loyalty that connects her with her late mother which, at the same time, seems to be a bond with the whole of nature. She visits her mother's grave every day to grieve, and her good behaviour in everyday life is her way of beig loyal to the memory of her mother. That means that the hostile environment of stepmother and stepsisters is not, for her, the whole of reality. She does not allow herself to be totally determined by what immediately surrounds her: at the grave she keeps in touch with the world of her mother, who has promised her to always look down upon her from heaven.

The first moment of choice occurs when the father before starting on a journey invites his daughters to tell what he shall bring home for them. The stepsisters choose beautiful clothes and jewelry. Cinderella asks her father to bring the twig that will hit his hat on the way back. She does not enter a competition with her stepsisters who had, earlier, taken her fine clothes away  from her and who strive for still more outward embellishment. Thus she receives a hazel twig, which she plants on het mother's grave and waters with her tears. It grows and becomes a tree. Cinderella stays in touch with her own grief, and in doing so she is increasingly in touch with the secret powers of nature. The contrast with the cynical and alienated materialism of her housemates could not be larger. Cinderella visits the grave thrice a day to pray and weep. A white little bird in the hazel tree throws down in her hands anything she wishes, but apparently she does not make use of this possibility to provide herself with riches and fine clothing.

Then ther is the party, the great ball that nobody should miss. It seems to be a symbol for full participation in life, for a future in the company of fellow people. It is a 'now or never' moment. Cinderella wants to go there, but back at home she only has to help her sisters dress up and comb their hair. As a modern reader, I would have liked to see how she revolts at this moment, how she refuses to comply, or revenges herself by spoiling a hairdo. But then, it is not at all sure that she complies and helps her sisters out of exemplary obedience. Her strength and possibilities are elsewhere, and if she wants her moment to come, she must now play the game as it goes. Cinderella does not enter into a battle that she cannot win. And revenge is not on her mind, perhaps because she allows her own grief to express itself every day. Vindictiveness and resentment go along with repressed grief rather than with the office of sorrow prayed daily by Cinderella at her mothers grave.

When the girl asks to be allowed to the ball herself, she twice receives a conditional permission. First, she has to sort out the lentils thather stepmother has maliciously thrown into the ashes. At that moment Cinderella takes an action, the importance of which might be easily overseen by a modern reader. She goes outside and asks the birds for help. She does not lock herself in with her misery. She knows that she will not manage alone, and she knows that she has allies. She does what is for many of us among the most difficult things in life: she asks for help. Assistance comes in through the back door. Cinderella lives in a world of which her housemates have not the slightest idea.

When all tasks are completed, Cinderella is still not allowed to come to the ball. But after the others have left, she goes to her mother's grave, and only now does she make use of the fact that under the magical hazel she can get whatever she wants. She has kept in touch with this possibility every day until now, but she has waited for the right moment. Now the finest dresses and shoes are thrown down upon her. She appears at the ball as a princess, and on three subsequent days she dances with the prince all night long.

In Perrault's version the magic works only until midnight, so Cinderella has to keep an eye on the clock. She has to disappear in time, because otherwise the truth will be revealed, namely, that she is not at all a princess. In the Grimm version Cinderella herself wants to go home. She herself brings the pretty clothes back to the grave. In three subsequent knights she manages to escape from the prince who wants to see her home, and every time she manages to lay herself to rest in her old rags before her stepmother and stepsisters return home.

The question is: why did she flee? Is she afraid that she will still be rejected if it becomes clear where she lives and what position she holds in the household?  Does she fear that so much luck cannot possible be hers; is she afraid of desillusion, or of the fall that follows pride? Or is it because she wishes to content herself with her happy moment, knowing that one should not grasp all without losing all? Or does she want to save her secret for a future moment suprême? In short, I do not know if I have to explain her midnight escapes in terms of strength or rather in terms of weakness, in terms of trust or in terms of fear.

It is striking, though, that according to the folktale she flees into the dovehouse in the first night, and into a pear tree in the second night. Out of the cultural environment of the ball, the manners and the clothes, she flees into the natural world of birds and trees, whichdo not represent nature in a modern sense of the word, but the mysterious world beyond our human grasp, the deeper and wider and higher world. Her piety allows her to be at ease in this larger world.

When the prince has laid his hands on one of his dream princess' little shoes, Cinderella can for a moment retreat into the background. The reader knows already whose foot the shoe fits, but before the end of the story he has to witness another revealing scene with the stepsisters and their mother. They are determined to seize a luck that is not theirs, and therefore they cannot look beyond their own noses. On her mother's advice, one of the sisters cuts her own toes off, and the other her own heel, because they have to fit into he little shoe at all costs. Apparently, they are not aware of the fact that, even if they would succeed, they would never again be able to dance.

On both occasions, when a sister is struggling with the shoe, the white birds from the hazel tree draw the prince's attention to the blood dripping from the shoe. The same birds alight on Cinderella's shoulders when at last the prince has found her. On the wedding day, as I mentioned before, they peck out the stepsisters' eyes. That is a punishment in mythical style, because the blindness that befalls te sisters corresponds with the blindness in which they have lived. Or to formulate it the other way round: now they will have to discover the existence of an inner eye, and of a diferent reality seen by it - different from the glamourland they had been wedded to with their eyes wide open.


In folktales not everything is possible. The white birds with their magical powers play a large role in the Grimm version of the Cinderella story, but they do not work magic in an arbitrary way. It is Cinderella who by her choices and her attitude opens herself to communication with a deeper and wider reality, and the 'miracle' in the story is that her choices and attitude are answered by that reality. The magic occurs as a sign from that order that is hidden in the world surrounding us. Cinderella is the person that lives in harmony with that order, not by living in subservience or obedience, but rather in her piety, her grief, her courage to open her door and allow for help from the outer world, and her sense of limits and time. The magic in the story serves to make true what Christians confess: that all things cooperate for the good of him or her who lives in faith, who communicates with the hidden order of the Creator and opens herself for the hidden order of the Saviour. Thus, magic is an expression of the idea that this deeper reality, both transcendent and immanent, is, far from being an abstraction, the sustaining ground of our existence. The magic confirms that it makes sense to live, as the Grimm version of the tale has it, 'piously and rightly', and in doing so to exercise patience and make consequent choices.

Thus the Cinderella folktale is a powerful story in support of, for example, people living in poverty. People often feel like being Cinderella, being the one who comes off worst, who has everything working against her, having no chance to escape from misery – they feel like the one person condemned to watch all the others going to the ball. But then, Cinderella is precisely the character that resists to being victimized, to having her reality reduced to what others do to her. She derives her strength from a wider reality to which she has gained entrance by paying sincere attention to her own grief. She wishes to go to the ball as much as her stepsisters and she, too, is dreaming of fine clothes, but she also acknowledges other values. These values empower her and give her the strength to await her moment and to choose the right allies. She does not, like so many people in poverty situations, lonely and grimly cling to her fate, but she comes out through the door and invites the good powers to come to her assistance. That is exactly what we in our needs often do far too late. She is, in sum, a person with enough self-esteem not to act reactively, but to walk her own path.

Piet van Veldhuizen