Even the Bigwigs Make Mistakes

One thing I’ve learned in the course of my grad studies: even the “experts” are not infallible. During undergrad studies, one tends to look at anyone who is published with wide-eyed awe (“It’s in print, therefore it must be true!”), doubly so if the publication in question is a book. But in grad school, I’ve found out that not only do the “experts” disagree with each other (often quite violently, up to and including name-calling) and, what’s more, that I can disagree with them, too, but that sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

Case in point: my new guru Jack Zipes. In Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (New York: Routledge, 2006), he spends some time analysing the Cinderella story, and brings several examples of adaptations that subvert the original story. One of those examples is Gail Carson Levine’s Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, the story of a farm boy with two brothers who don’t like him, who is nicknamed “Cinderellis” because he gets ashes all over him, and who gets himself a princess from the top of a glass hill. So Cinderella/Cinderellis, glass slipper/glass hill – pretty obvious, eh? Zipes thinks it’s great that Levine turned Cinderella into a boy and all.

The only problem is that she didn’t. Cinderellis and the Glass Hill isn’t a retelling of Perrault’s (or Grimm’s) “Cinderella”, but of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s “The Princess on the Glass Hill”. When I read Levine’s story last night, I recognised it right away – I had just read “Glass Hill” in Lang’s Blue Fairy Book a week ago. The main character is a farm boy called Cinderlad, and yes, he wins a princess by climbing a glass hill, but there’s no wicked stepmother, no ball, no animal helpers; the story pattern is quite different. It’s Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 530, “The Glass Mountain”, not Cinderella’s Type 510A, “Persecuted Heroine”. Cinderlad isn’t persecuted by a step-family, he’s just unloved and laughed at by his real brothers – it’s an “apparently-stupid youngest son of three makes good” story.

And Zipes missed it. Which makes me feel quite smug, that I’ve caught out this scholar whom I respect so much in a flat-out mistake like that. Now, if he had stuck with analysing Levine’s Ella Enchanted, it would have been a different matter…