Cinderella is one of the most popular fairy-tale heroines today, and yet she is far from the only pitiable servant to don a ball gown and win a prince. In European fairy tales from oral tradition, there’s a closely related story, one with a beautiful but lowly protagonist and ball gowns and a prince and â€¦ incest.
This sister-tale to Cinderella starts not with a mother-figure who hates her daughter excessively, but with a father who loves his daughter excessively. He swears to his dying wife to marry someone only as beautiful as her, who turns out to be (you guessed it!) their daughter. She postpones having to marry her father by asking for magically beautiful dresses, and then disguises herself in an animal skin and runs away. She works as a servant in the next kingdom over, and there meets a prince at a ball, and the rest is similar enough to Cinderella, with recognition by a slipper or ring and a happy marriage.
Why did such similar tales exist all over Europe, and why do we only have the one version in popular culture today? Fairy tales have the connotation of being for kids (thanks not only to Disney, but also to Victorian publishing practices), but in European folkloric traditions, fairy tales were also for adults: they sometimes had bawdy content or dealt with mature themes. By telling fantastical stories that dealt with incest, taletellers in diverse cultures had coded ways of talking about sexuality, psychological development, and trauma. People are drawn to stories that have relevance to them, that artfully handle issues close to their hearts. The heroine of this tale quite possibly suffers abuse at her father’s hands, and responds by covering herself up in another’s skin, only revealing herself as a desirable marriage partner when she is ready. Strong and resilient, yet alien to those of us who grew up with Disney’s saccharine Cinderella, this character offers yet another perspective on human sexuality.
Read more versions of this strangely familiar yet unsettling tale collected a website by folklorist D. L. Ashliman: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0510b.html