Glass Slipper

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange
and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We have a framed photograph of our then-four-year-old granddaughter in pink sweater on the wall in our spare bedroom. She is encircled in the picture by a bevy of colorful cartoon heroines, known collectively as Disney Princesses. Alex at this age was obsessed with them. My wife and I had raised sons rather than daughters, so this was a bit of a revelation to us. It turns out that what toy trucks and dinosaurs are to little boys, Disney Princesses are to little girls. Feminists might grumble that the whole Disney Princess phenomenon encourages wish fulfillment rather than empowerment among impressionable young girls. But try getting that message across to a granddaughter who by then had already made pilgrimages to Disney World and could expertly navigate the Disney Princess web site hunting for merchandise.

On a visit to Brooklyn, where Alex lived with her mom and dad, we found her wearing her yellow faux-chiffon Cinderella gown, one of a collection of princess gowns and accessories she had gotten for her birthday. There was an empty cardboard box on the living room floor whose purpose became clear when Alex invited her grandma to join her on board for a quick flight of the imagination to Florida — where else? — to a certain stretch of former swampland near Orlando where Cinderella’s castle dominated the landscape.

The Cinderella animated feature film occupies an equally prominent place in the history of the Disney enterprise. The release of Cinderella in 1950 revived Disney’s fortunes at a time when the studio was deeply in debt. Its success paved the way for the Disneyland theme park and all that followed. The studio had lost money on a string of cartoon features now regarded as classics, including Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo. Cinderella, based on a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault published in 1697, had been a make-or-break proposition for the studio.

Perrault, like the Brothers Grimm, was a collector of folk tales rather than their originator. Like most such stories, Cinderella’s origins are impossible to trace with any precision. Folklorists have found basic elements of the Cinderella story in a tale recorded by Tuan Ch’eng-shih of China in the ninth century. Even earlier, the Greek geographer Strabo recorded a story about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt from the first century CE. Altogether, folklorists have catalogued hundreds of variants of the same rags-to-riches tale from all over the world. Modern-day iterations would include the Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which was itself inspired by a Greek myth.

Perrault’s version of the story introduced such elements as Cinderella’s fairy godmother and a pumpkin turned into a coach pulled by mice that had been metamorphosed into horses. The latter addition would have been irresistible to Disney’s animators, who loved to surround their heroines with cute wildlife (e.g., Snow White’s furry forest friends). But the most iconic touch was Cinderella’s glass slippers, which Perrault himself regarded as so signifiant that he titled his story, “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper.” They are the means by which our heroine, reduced to servitude by her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, is able to escape her downtrodden existence and journey to a realm in which her dreams do come true — at least until the stroke of midnight.

Cinderella is not the only tale in which magic slippers figure prominently. Think of Dorothy in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. She is transported to her “heart’s desire” back home in Kansas by means of ruby slippers that had once belonged to the Wicked Witch of the East. Similarly, golden slippers were a motif in Negro spirituals and minstrel tunes expressing a longing for heaven. In order to get to heaven, you had to be dressed appropriately, which usually meant wearing a long white robe and footwear that would not look out of place when walking on streets paved with gold.

Jungians see Cinderella as a story of the transformation of the human soul, with the heroine’s glass slippers symbolizing the soul’s purity. Feminists may see the whole thing as an exercise in wish-fulfillment; indeed, idle dreaming can easily become a dead end. But Cinderella shows unwavering determination to pursue her dreams, and her circumstances somehow come together to make them a reality, transporting her to another realm.

Then comes the witching hour, and Cinderella’s coach, her coachmen and her horses revert to what they had once been, and even her gown is reduced to rags. Was it all just a beguiling dream? No! In her haste to flee the palace at midnight, Cinderella loses her glass slipper, which strangely remains in its pristine state. Alone among her other accoutrements, the slipper survives intact. This enables the handsome prince to scour the kingdom in search of the maiden who lost it. Why didn’t the glass slipper return to its original condition? Because it is the soul’s talisman and is unaffected by outward appearances or circumstance. Cinderella’s wicked stepmother causes the prince’s retainer to drop the slipper before Cinderella can try it on, and it shatters. But Cinderella is able to produce the matching slipper and is whisked off to the palace to fulfill her destiny as consort to a future king.

Much is made of dreams in the make-believe realm of Disney Princesses. The tone was set by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney’s first full-length animated feature, which was adapted from a German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Twice Snow White sings of her faith in dreams coming true, once at a wishing well (“I’m Wishing”) and then to the seven dwarfs (“Some Day My Prince Will Come”). Similar sentiments are also expressed by Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (“Once Upon a Dream”) and by Cinderella herself (“A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”).

“Dreamer” is often used as an epithet to describe an ineffectual person. Yet dreams are often the prelude to creative enterprise. Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Kahn” came to him verbatim in a drug-induced reverie, while Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was inspired by a nightmare. Chemist August Kekulé dreamed of a serpent swallowing its own tail, which gave him a clue to the hexagonal molecular structure of benzene. ·Dreams also figured in Dmitri Mendeleev’s final configuration of the periodic table in chemistry, as well as in physicist Niels Bohr’s model of the atom with electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets circling the sun.·

So what separates idle dreaming from the purposeful kind? There needs to be some element that carries over from one realm to the next. In a creative enterprise, it need be nothing more than the act of setting pen to paper. With the Cinderella story, there needed to be something that survived the stroke of midnight, something to tell our heroine that her night as the belle of the ball was more than a beguiling dream. That something was the symbol of her soul’s transformation, a glass slipper. In the end, it was more than just the stuff of dreams; it was real.

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