Like Cinderella, But With More Incest

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 … incest.

Thanks to Wikimedia for image.

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:

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • berryberry

    Fascinating! I think most Americans think of Disney first as the fairytale makers and not old Europe. Mention any of those stories that Disney made into a movie and their cartoon depiction is the first thing I’ll see in my head.

    Will definitely check out the link.

  • Debby Herbenick

    The link is quite interesting… thanks for posting it, Jeana!

  • Kate McCombs

    Fascinating post, Jeana. I can understand why you are so passionate about this field!

  • anonymoose

    Incest eh? Very interesting? Am I the only person who won’t see that Disney Beauty and the Beast movie because the beast looks too much like a ‘beast of the field’ which makes me think of Beauty and the Beastiality. Gross.

    Have you ever read any of the psychologically complex, female owned and driven, Lolita (May / December) blogging communities?? Now that is some entralling psychology.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Thanks for your comment, Kate!

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    That’s a good point about bestiality in fairy tales… many tales, from Cupid & Psyche onward, feature a monstrous bridegroom who is threatening to the female protagonist.

    The Lolita communities sound interesting, thanks for the reference!

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    You’re right, many Americans tend to think of Disney versions as the “original” versions simply because those are the tales they were first exposed to when young.

    I hope you enjoy the link!

  • Amanda Barton

    Isn’t Robin McKinley’s “Deerskin” based on this version? This sounds incredibly similar to the tale, and I know that “Deerskin” is one of her fairy tale adaptation novel(la)s.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Yes, Deerskin is based on this fairy-tale plot, though with a few notable exceptions: in Deerskin, the father actually rapes his daughter, whereas in most fairy-tale versions they do not have intercourse (i.e. the daughter runs away before this can happen); Deerskin has more notable fantastic/supernatural elements than most of the fairy-tale versions (in some cases, the three dresses are magical in nature or origin, but there aren’t very many other magical aspects); and in Deerskin, the daughter resolves her issues with her father by confronting him, which happens in very few of the fairy-tale versions.

    Thanks for an interesting comment; there’s plenty more I could write about this tale, and maybe I’ll come back to it after touching on issues of sex and sexuality in some other fairy tales… :)

  • ellie

    Jeana, these are really fascinating ideas — especially your comment, “By telling fantastical stories that dealt with incest, taletellers in diverse cultures had coded ways of talking about sexuality, psychological development, and trauma.” It reminds me of an analysis I came across of Penelope and Hades as being an allegory for rape. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Thanks for your comment–I would love to go into these ideas more in future posts, since I believe that folklore is a really important way that people express and grapple with their values and conflicts. And I think that analysis of Persephone and Hades sounds spot-on… in societies where people may not be able to openly discuss extreme power imbalances without repercussions, they frequently use storytelling to gain some sense of catharsis and resolution.