The Fairy Godmother
Directing Cinderella has given me the chance to research the origins of the fairy tale and to begin to look at each of the characters involved in telling the story.
Cinderella is an ancient story with variants dating back to the Tang dynasty, with the tale of Ye Xian. In each telling of the story the protagonist is given magical aid. The character that provides this aid is known as the donor. The donor may also test the protagonist in some way to ensure that they are worthy of this aid. In Ye Xian there is a fish and a dead ancestor who provide aid. In Grimm's version of Cinderella, Aschenputtel, this role was taken by the spirit of her dead mother. It was Perrault who made the donor a Fairy Godmother -- and it is his version of the story that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is based upon.
Marie is an old crazy woman, who is mocked or ignored by most people who meet her. Her introduction in the text happens when she comes out of the forest and begs for money. Topher hands her the money, and when she reaches for him his guards react with swords. Cinderella defends Marie, and tells them that she is "nuts" and not a danger to anyone.
Cinderella treats Marie with kindness and generosity, and is rewarded for doing so when Marie reveals that she is in fact everyone's Fairy Godmother. With Marie's magical help Cinderella's outfits are transformed and she is taken to the ball in a beautiful carriage. Marie also provides encouragement to Cinderella, who does not realize that there are things she can do to make her own life better.
Move a mountain, light the sky,
Make a wish come true --
There is music in you.
-- Marie, Cinderella
There are many familiar elements to this story. Marie lives in a forest, and Cinderella lives at the edge of the forest. These are often seen as magical places, and the place that magical creatures inhabit. They are also used to represent the dangers that people have to contend with, a theme that is very clear in Sondheim's "Into The Woods". The test is that Cinderella is the only person who treats Marie with kindness. The story does not tell us much about Marie's craziness or why others would treat her badly. She speaks gibberish, she wears rags, but she can also be coherent and witty.
The wearing of rags is important to the Cinderella story, as it is set in a place where status, indicated by how you dress, matters above kindness and how you treat others. Cinderella sets about changing these perceptions and showing that it's not good to be beautiful on the outside by ugly inside.
Perrault's cynical ending to his Cinderella story, does point out that we often have to rely on who we know to help us get ahead.
Yet youth that is poor of purse,
No matter how witty or handsome,
Will find its talents no worse
For a godmamma to advance 'em.
-- Charles Perrault
Where would Cinderella be without her Fairy Godmother?