Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother: Undertaking The Same Mission In Different Forms.

© 2011, Andrea Chan, Madeline Li

Charles Perrault. Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper. Illus. Errol Le Cain. London: Faber and Faber, 1972. Print.





Throughout time, fairies have found their way into many oral folk tales; the term taking on a variety of meanings to the audiences these stories are told to. One of the most recognized of fairies today originates from Charles Perrault’s classic version of the fairytale Cinderella also known as The Little Glass Slipper – the fairy godmother (Ohmer 232). If ever categorized she would be considered a reflection of 3rd generation fairies (Bottigheimer 3). This 17thcentury French writer, known for putting popular oral folk tales on paper first published Cendrillon ou la Petite Pentoufle de Verre in 1698 for a well-bred adult audience. It wasn’t until the late 18th century when the story was filtered down into English chapbooks, did children become part of the target demographic (Cullen 57). As the audiences for fairytales transitioned away from adults and became solely for children, Cinderella followed suit and Errol Le Cain illustrated Perrault’s translated text into a picture book, which got published by Faber and Faber limited in 1972. Furthermore, Perrault’s variant has become the most adapted and commonly known version of the story and if one looks hard enough they would be able to discern the same archetypes in popular western films.

Throughout time, depending on the technology, different types of mediums such as film, text, illustration have represented the fairy godmother figure accordingly and though there may be some necessary alterations to go along with the evolving times, the job of the fairy godmother remains the same. Madeline will be investigating how in Perrault’s variant of the oral folk tale, the fairy godmother plays a crucial role in developing and progressing the story. She will also focus on Le Cain’s more kid friendly portrayal of the character through his illustrations. Andrea will then examine how in a modern context, the essence of the fairy godmother and her function in the story remains intact despite some alterations, in terms of appearance and abilities, adapted in correlation to the era’s culture and ideologies at the time these works were released.

Influences of Charles Perrault And Errol Le Cain On The Definition Of A Fairy Godmother

In Perrault’s The Little Glass Slipper, better known as Cinderella, a young girl is forced into servitude by her cruel stepmother and demanding stepsisters. When the family receives an invitation to the Prince’s ball, Cinderella continues to patiently complete all the menial tasks she is given including helping her sisters dress up in preparation for the ball. Dressed in rags, Cinderella is not eligible to attend so as soon as her step-sisters leave, she bursts into tears. It is at this moment when her fairy godmother appears and to help fulfill Cinderella’s desires to go to the ball and tells her to fetch a list of household items. One by one, the fairy godmother transforms common critters and ordinary objects into horses, coachmen, footmen, a golden coach and finally, a ball gown. Once the transformation is complete, the fairy godmother leaves with one warning: that her enchantments will wear off at the stroke of midnight. At the ball, Cinderella is adored by everyone, including the Prince, but in a hurry to leave before the items return to their original form, she leaves behind a glass slipper. The happy ending occurs when Cinderella is able to prove she is the beautiful girl the Prince fell in love with that night, by slipping on the glass slipper resulting in their marriage.

Many adaptations of Cinderella seem to follow the basic structure of Perrualt’s The Little Glass Slipper because his version of this tale addressed a large audience consisting of highly sophisticated adults. Due to this refined audience, the book became extremely well-known in the era of popular entertainment (Cullen 57). More specifically, Perrault’s version shifts the focus onto the fairy godmother, giving her a more dominant role unlike the versions beforehand (Cullen 59). The fairy godmother is portrayed as a generous, kind and heroic character in the text and throughout the book, the author pays careful attention in demonstrating these acts of generosity detailing certain examples such as showering Cinderella with elaborate clothes, jewellery and other services. Lastly, the fairy godmother is displayed as a powerful and magical figure since Cinderella never questions the fairy godmother’s requests, doing exactly what the fairy asks of her (though this could be a statement about the expected subservience in women during Perrault’s lifetime). Even though the fairy godmother has characteristics similar to that of a witch such as magical spells as well as rat-and-pumpkin tricks, those magical characteristics have remained the same through time (Cullen 59).

Although Perrault provides no physical description of the fairy godmother other than an association with witchcraft through her use of magic, popular 20th century illustrator, Errol Le Cain, manages to alter the figure of the fairy godmother into someone more kid friendly  (unlike Perrault’s original audience). He does this by drawing her with physical cliché traits of a motherly figure such as using an elderly woman who embraces Cinderella, etc. Le Cain’s unique techniques of illustration come from growing up in Singapore along with an Indian upbringing. Other influences on his artwork include his exposure to cinema, which led to his discovery of Disney, ultimately sparking his passion for cartoons (Eve 89).

Errol Le Cain illustrates a lizard transforming into a footman inside the border around the text

During the publication of this book in 1972, Le Cain had distinct elements to his work such as a whimsical component mixed with some cartooning embellishments. His style in general is derived from multiple inspirations including both French and Celtic designs as well as the bold colours used in the East. A prime example of this style is featured in the elaborate patterned borders accompanying the main illustrations in The Little Glass Slipper, which later became his trademark. (Eve 94)

The mystery and power surrounding the fairy godmother figure is demonstrated in Le Cain’s illustrations through the physically larger size of the fairy compared to the other characters. She is also seen holding a magical wand, which is a common trait in the stereotypical modern day fairy godmother. In addition, to the size of the fairy, Le Cain strategically positions the fairy in less than obvious places such as in the corner or slightly off the page, in the borders surrounding the text, in order to enhance the mysteriousness of the fairy.

The Fairy Godmother makes an appearance as Cinderella cries.

Varying Representations of The Same Role In Popular Cinematic Adaptations.

In contemporary popular culture, mass media has proven to be a major influence on western society. The essential role technology has taken in the daily lives of most individuals since the late 20th century has transcended into the 21st century.  In such a mediated society, Perrault’s The Little Glass Slipper, the most prevalent variant in western culture, of the Cinderella folk tale (Ohmer 233), has inevitably been adapted to mediums more popular than print.

The medium in question, through which the story has been told many times over, is film. All these adaptations, over the years, have led filmmakers to alter those customary characters according to a new situation so as to sustain interest in their interpretation of the fairytale for possibly older audiences. Alternatively, just as print cannot replicate the nuances of oral storytelling, or like how illustrations become an additional layer of interpretation to the text (Cullen 57) adapting the story to film requires a renovation of the story in order for it to succeed via the medium. For example, in Pretty Woman (1990), ‘Cinderella,’ played by Julia Roberts, isn’t a maid for her cruel relatives but rather a prostitute named Vivian Ward. Her ‘prince,’Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere, is a ruthless businessman. Mature audiences are able to enjoy what is considered a children’s tale because of these slight changes but in spite of that, the original characters still manage to be recognizable. This is especially true of the fairy godmother role, who is identified by her familiar function in the story. In Pretty Woman, though, she is played by a male, more specifically, the manager of the hotel where Edward stays. He, Barney, becomes a guide, teacher, and friend to Vivian despite his initial derision towards her. (Kelley 92)

In contrast to the illustrations of the book, which depict the Fairy Godmother as a majestic, omnipotent being with magical abilities while also dressed in fantastical clothing, Barney’s power and abilities as a hotel manager are limited to his occupation (although he is dressed just as nicely in context). Which brings to attention another factor that is often changed in live-action film adaptations: magic doesn’t exist. Despite this lack of magic, Barney is still able to help Vivian fit in amongst the wealthy crowd Edward acquaints himself with. He teaches her table manners, helps her shop for classier clothes, comforts her, etc., and in doing so, he successfully establishes himself as her fairy ‘godfather’.

The powerful Fairy Godmother looks over Cinderella as the enchantment wears off.

Moreover, while Le Cain situates his drawings of the fairy godmother in the corners and margins of the page to preserve some mystery within the character, placing her in those locations but at the top of the page persuades the reader to view her as an all-knowing being. Conversely, the fairy godmothers in modern pop culture film have been developed to fit in everyday life, rather than the fairy tale realm, with more plausible skills convenient enough to aid ‘Cinderella’ in her quest for happiness – Barney being the prime example. This power reduction in the fairy godmother is most likely because of gender stereotypes of the past. Perrault diminished the rebellious and independent Cinderella from earlier oral versions and instead made her embody obedience, politeness, and beauty in order to socialize the bourgeoisie audience for their future of waiting for a man to appreciate these virtues. (Kelley 88). Nowadays, these qualities do not define a ‘proper’ woman, and with these views, the role of the godmother is slightly lessened to just assisting Cinderella rather than doing everything for her as she passively accepts the help, this is further proven in later film adaptations when men have a less dominating role in society.

Cinderella steps out from the coach and all eyes are on her, including the Princes'

As mentioned before, the digital age has determined how the tale is told, but in recent appropriations such as A Cinderella Story (2004) and Another Cinderella Story (2008) plot devices like the glass slipper have been regurgitated as technology so as to suit the era. The dependency on media, increasing with the growing popularity of social networking sites and portable devices such as cell phones and iPods, is reflected in the two films. Both are set during high school in the 21st century but in the former it is already established that Sam (Cinderella; played by Hilary Duff) frequently communicates with the ‘prince’ through text messaging and a variety of online platforms although she is unaware that the identity of her online friend is the popular football player at her school, Tristan (played by Chad Michael Murray). Her cell phone substitutes the glass slipper when she, in a rush to meet her curfew, drops it the night of the dance where the online couple made plans to meet. A portable music player is the replacement in the latter film, starring Selena Gomez as Maria Santiago, as she must name the top 5 played songs to prove she is the owner and the same person who the ‘prince,’ (Joey Parker, a famous celebrity returning to high school) danced with compatibly the night before. Again, she had to flee before midnight to avoid the wrath of her guardian – further evidence to support the loss of magic as Cinderella’s limited time is not because of a spell wearing off.  After all, magic wouldn’t be considered realistic in a high school setting.

The shoe fits Cinderella, to everyone's surprise. In more modern adaptations, the shoe has been replaced by a cellphone or a portable music player.

These two specific cases showcase the stepmother and stepsisters palpably, but the responsibility of the fairy godmother seems to be adopted by multiple characters. Some are definitely more helpful than others based on their skill set and what they can access. Rhonda, a long time employee and co-worker at Sam’s dead father’s diner provides Sam with a costume for the Halloween dance by lending Sam her own wedding dress and offering free breakfast to the costume shop owner who sells them a mask. On the other hand, Carter, Sam’s best friend, is her mode of transportation to the dance when he drives her ‘coach’/his father’s classic car. Less significantly, the remaining employees at the diner collaborate to stall Fiona, the ‘stepmother’, when Sam is running late. Similarly, in Another Cinderella Story, Maria’s best friend, Tami, hires a cleaning crew to lessen the workload for her friend and with the combined efforts of her eventual boyfriend try to get the prince back into Maria’s good graces. These fairy godmothers don’t need magic to assist Cinderella – just their combined efforts and capabilities.

Characters of all shapes, sizes, genders, races, ages, and species fulfill the duty of a fairygodmother in these film adaptations of Cinderella.

From coworkers and best friends of all genders, races, ages, shapes, and sizes, the physical characteristics of the fairy godmother are no longer restricted to that of the stereotypical elderly woman image. This is also true of earlier film adaptations set inside the fairy tale ambit, most notably Disney’s animated version, aptly named Cinderella (1950). Despite being comparable to the book in terms of having a distinct fairy godmother figure, the animals in this animation are much less passive. (Kelley 89) Where Perrault meticulously details the physical transformation of ordinary objects into magnificence worthy of accompanying an extravagantly dressed Cinderella to the ball (Ohmer 233), the animals, like in most Disney movies are personified and actively participate in Cinderella’s life before and after her dreams are achieved.  So Perrault may have been the author to introduce the fairy as a Godmother figure (Ohmer 232), but that definition has changed in terms of description and ability. The core function he established remains intact, even in the ideologies of modern day society and corresponding films, but one cannot deny, that the fairy godmother has since been developed to correspond with the changing times.

However, with stories that follow the archetypes there exists those that challenge it by doing the exact opposite of the films mentioned above. The fairy godmother of the Shrek series introduced in Shrek 2 (2004) is a prime example. She intrinsically looks like a fairy godmother – wings and wands alike – and even possesses the magical abilities but her motives are less than kind. Instead of the ideal helpful, motherly role, she is the main antagonist of the movie, scheming to satisfy her greed and accomplish her own desires (Jorgensen 218).


The Pygmalion story of a down in the dumps girl eventually meeting a guy who fulfills her potential is a tale that has been told over and over – especially so, in the many retellings of Cinderella which includes the addition of a fairy godmother. As the audiences changed along with the beliefs and thought processes of their surrounding society and culture, so did the medium through which it was told, thereby affecting the story, and finally the characters. In general, fairy godmothers as accommodating supporting figures looking over and protecting the protagonist has been the canonical interpretation of the character since Perrault’s text was first published, which was later reaffirmed by Disney. There may be some examples of contradictions to this theory but just like how there are eccentrics who go against the norm, stories have the capability to break rules of an existing archetype in order to advance creativity and demonstrate innovation.

Cinderella has her fairy godmother to thank for this happily ever after.


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Eve, Matthew. “Errol Le Cain: The Very Best Aspects of Book Illustrations.” Children’s Literature in Education 30.2 (1999): 85-102. Academic Search Premiere. EBSCO. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Jorgensen, Jeana. “A Wave of the Magic Wand: Fairy Godmothers in Contemporary America Media.” Marvels & Tales 21.2 (2007): 216-227. Project MUSE. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.

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