One of the outcomes of the global pandemic is that people discover that digital technologies can create a new space of gathering and storytelling. Today I attended an event organised by the George Ewart Evans Storytelling Centre, the Storytelling Choir, and Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival. “Rewilding Cinderella” was a one-day symposium of presentations, performances and conversation on the complex fluidities and wild encounters of the Cinderella cycle.
In 1951, Anna Birgitta Rooth introduced the term “Cinderella Cycle” to pinpoint the existence of the thousands of variants. As someone said, you have to see the Cinderella story as “a narrative mycelium, a kind of root stock in the psyche” from which more stories emerged. That is why/how you find stories in Iran, Japan, France and other places, which share common themes, archetypes and motifs. Some time ago, they launched a call to oral storytellers and got answer from all corners of the world. Instead of going for a game of regret and only selecting a few, they went for a different game and decided to host a whole day of stories and reflections on this “ash child caregiving the flames“.
“While Cinderella is easily dismissed as an overly passive, fashion obsessed, deeply problematic role model for young women, her relationship to binaries of passive / active, male / female, human / non-human are far more complex and complicating in her many sibling-versions. They suggest a depth and complexity that can only be revealed when both stories, and tellers, are situated in conversation with others.” This event was about “exploring the persecuted heroine from the perspective of kin-maker, mediator, and ritualist, using the fairy tales as impulse to explore the fluid, shapeshifting nature of human and non-human relations.“
I admit there was a time (when I started to explore feminism) that Cinderella was not my favorite princess. She looked so passive. But I know only the Disney version. I had some talks with others, who also stressed out which values Cinderella embody, like kindness, caring for others, even non-human beings. When I was invited in 2018 to write a blog about my first years in the world of circular economy, it was the Cinderella story I used (read blog: How Cinderella became a circular economy thinker). Now, step by step, leaf by leaf, I discover the depths and richness in this Cinderella mycelium. I discover how it can carry messages about forgiveness, shedding grief, resilience.
What is the connection between Cinderella and Rewilding?
In the introduction, Dr Joanna Gilar, the person behind the website https://www.wildstorycommons.org/, asked this question. Her work is rooted in the ideas of David Abram. “We cannot restore the land without restorying the land.”
For example, fairytales and other stories which are created before capitalism, hold truths and ideas that can help us to heal broken relationships (sometimes with our self) and wounded landscapes. Just think about it. In fairytales, animals are often characters, instead of useful objects. How would the world look like, how would agriculture and food consumption look like, if we acknowledge animals as characters in this big myth of earth? Fairytale rewilders look in the intimate relationships to land, plants and more-than-human creatures that inhabit the realm of story and folklore.
Rewilding Cinderella, sharing a dozen of Cinderella cycles of different wind directions and discussing them, unearthed some ecofeminist themes and ideas. These themes in the agenda can already give some first hints what I mean with the feminist ideas present in the symposium today:
- Unwinding the Persecuted Heroine
- Transforming Femininities and Veiled Narratives
- Untamed Others and Tamed Desires
- Vibrant Matter: Cinderella as Negotiator with the More-than-human
- Rites of Absurdity and Need: Cinderella’s Relevance to Climate Crisis Conversation
It struck that some stories started very differently. Sackcloth, rooted in Palestine, started with incest and reminded me to the folktale of Dimpna, the local Flemish saint whose stories were at the origins of a special mental health care service in Belgium and even the world, a story that had called me to be source material for fiction work I wrote last year. Clothes and fashion are other motifs in the Cinderella cycles, but it did not click that clothes and veils and skins are codes for identity.
There was only one male storyteller. He decided to tell the story of the male perspective, that of prince Charming. He did not tell how he saved the woman, no, he shared the insecurities the prince had.
In the fourth session, where hazeltrees got foregrounded, I had to think about the work on recognition and making the invisible visible, advocated for by ecofeminists as Val Plumwood.
Cinderella and the hazel tree
One of the stories was a willful misreading of Aschenputtel by Nikki Hafter. Not many people know, mostly because of the Disney version, but in the Grimm version, there was no fairy godmother. It was a hazel nut tree, at her mother’s grave, who helped Cinderella.
“Ash and Hazel is a parable for the anthropocene, in which exploiting nature’s wealth without due care brings reprisal, and where the supposed sovereignty of human language is exposed as fragile and vain. Informed by Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, this retelling foregrounds the experiences of non-human living beings and their congealed kinships“. After the story, she told how she looks at everything in a web or assemblage, where matters have also an agency and liveliness. She also introduced distributive agency, stressing out the relationships, and how they interact together and that we should not look at an agent in isolation. She also reminded us that plants can also influence us.
In the same session, Sian Jones foregrounded the hazel tree in her “Trees and rites of loss: Cinderella as mourning ritual”. The presence of the hazel in the fairytale story is no coincidence. There is a lore about hazels.
In the liminal area between winter and spring
When I think about it, it is no coincidence these British storytellers and scholars programmed this event in this time. The Cinderella cycle and the hazel nut tree flourishing are connected with this period in the northern hemisphere. Last year, in the same period, I organised a Re-Rooting circles with the hazel nut tree as my guest tree. I invited the hazel as guest, because she is so visible in this period. Cinderella is a caregiver to the fire. She is a scullery maid who cleaned the ashes of winter. It is about transformation, changing clothes and identity, starting over or starting again. It is interesting that mother bodies in the earth are present in their stories. The roots of the hazel going into the body in one of the retellings stresses out that the story is about the transfer of the knowledge of the ancestor, or the mother, to the daughter. It is about death (losing a mother), grief and rebirthing.
Modern feminist retellings of Cinderella
In the past summer, I read an edition of Gramarlye, an academic journal of fairy tales, fantasy and speculative fiction. It is published by the University of Chichester. One of the analyses was about this new series of retellings, currently only in English: “Fairy Tale Revolution”. Another analysis was about different versions of Little Red Riding Hood. These analyses made me realize (again) how feminist retellings can be.
In the 17th century, educated French women used fairy tales to push for greater justice and equal treatment. While it was mostly men who wrote down fairy tales in the 17-19th century (Grimms, Perault; Andersen…), many retellings from the 1970s onward are written primarily by women. Angela Carter, Madeleine Miller, and Terri Windling are authors of postmodern retellings. The female characters also have more freedom of choice and take initiative. They are not silenced. Rebecca Solnit wrote a retelling of Cinderella. I have not read it, but after this event I am curious to read it. The problem is that these stories are retold by a single person, and that it can let us forget there are thousands of realities and perspectives. Therefore, events where you hear a dozen of versions, represents what rewilding means: acknowledging the pluriverse.
You can find the agenda of this event on this website: Rewilding Cinderella. They made a recording, so if you are interested in experiencing this later, you can contact them.