Disenchanting the Fairy Godmother: An exploration of the evolution of fairy godmothers in modern retellings of Cinderella

Disney's Cinderella and Fairy Godmother. Image belongs to Disney.


In a tradition perpetuated by Cinderella and her ilk, little girls dreamed about being princesses, wearing beautiful clothes and being swept off their feet by charming princes. They prayed for fairy godmothers who would make wondrous magic and fulfill all desires, even ones that seem impossible. From pumpkins to coaches and from mice to footmen, the magic that fairy godmothers wielded was welcomed and accepted as miraculous. During the course of reading fairytale retellings authored by contemporary writers, I observed a definite shift in modern attitudes towards magic. An exploration of the evolution of fairy godmothers in Cinderella and its retellings reveals that modern contemporary society has cultivated a decidedly negative attitude where magic is concerned.

The fairy godmother in Perrault’s “Cinderella: or the Little Glass Slipper” merits neither a name nor a description of her physical person. Instead, more attention is granted to her magic as she reshapes objects and animals into forms that are not natural to them so that they fulfill the function she requires of them. The fairy godmother is present in the story for only the brief period that Cinderella requires her aid and once her usefulness is obsolete, she disappears from the narrative without a trace. As Michael M. Levy observes, the vague and ambiguous figure that is almost synonymous with fairy godmothers is not limited to European versions of Cinderella. For example, in “The Golden Slipper,” a Vietnamese retelling of Cinderella, the fairy godmother is “a beautiful woman dressed in royal colours” (Levy 174) who disappears after giving Tam (the Vietnamese Cinderella) significant advice that later helps her win the prince. In another version of the same story, “[this] beautiful woman … is specifically identified as a fairy” (175). Fairy godmothers, then, in traditional versions of Cinderella, are beautiful, otherworldly and transient creatures who are welcomed for the magic they utilize to ease the difficulties faced by the female protagonists.

The female protagonist in Ella Enchanted, which is a 1997 retelling of Cinderella by Gail Carson Levine, has, understandably, less than sanguine feelings towards fairy godmothers. When she was born, Lucinda, a fairy, who though not the official fairy godmother nevertheless fulfills the role of one by giving Ella the dubious gift of “obedience” (Levine 3). Rather than being helpful to her, this gift complicates Ella’s life enough to ensure that she will never be thankful to Lucinda for it. Gail Carson Levine reworks the traditional Cinderella tale in a way that subverts the traditional dependence on fairy godmothers and the magic they wield. The disenchantment of fairy godmothers in Ella Enchanted is subtle but pervasive. In the novel, the official fairy godmother, rather than being a transient fey creature, is a constant presence throughout the length of the story. Additionally, her air of mystery and ambiguity is stripped away when she is given a name: in this case, Mandy. Also, the traditionally beautiful appearance of the fairy godmother is removed and, as Ella muses, “who ever heard of a fairy with frizzy gray hair and two chins” (24)? Her fairy godmother roles aside, the position Mandy occupies in the household is one of the cook and, no matter how delicious her soufflé is, the fact remains that she is a subservient character in the novel. This has intriguing consequences on the entire idea of a fairy godmother. Fairy godmothers in the “original” versions, though their sole function is to aid the protagonists, are not subject to the rules and limitations of society. This is in line with the fey nature of the godmothers. By placing Mandy in a subservient position, the novel challenges the stereotype and, to an extent, humanizes the fairy. Mandy is shown as a character that, though immortal, is subject to the same laws that govern humans. For example, she is unable to do anything that will prevent Ella’s father from sending her to the finishing school (36). Placing Mandy in a social class and position lower than the one Ella occupies makes Mandy and the magic she has, inferior to Ella and suggests that humans have, if not control, some sort of dominance where fairies are concerned. Also, Mandy is not an entirely good-natured and grandmotherly figure as Disney portrays fairy godmothers as being. Ella mentions that “Mandy was bossy, giving orders almost as often as she drew breath” (5). Ella admits that though these orders were harmless, she disliked them anyway as she was compelled to obey them. While superficially, Mandy’s ordering seems to be keeping in character with her personality, a slight ruthlessness colours her actions when one considers that Ella is entirely without choice where obedience is concerned.

Ella’s gift of obedience is more of a curse and is directly subversive to the idea that “fairy godmothers appearances erase Cinderella’s initial efficacy” (Jorgensen 217). Ella says that “instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me” (Levine 5). Instead of easing Ella’s life as in the traditional Cinderella tale, the fairy’s gift provides an impetus for Ella’s growth as a person as she has to struggle against the compulsion to obey all orders whether they are well meaning or malicious. Jeana Jorgensen observes that fairy godmothers appearing in contemporary retellings still, to some extent, provide aid; however, “they also take on new roles” (220) which are a departure from the expected and accepted one. This is illustrated by Mandy, as fairy helper role aside, she functions mostly as a surrogate mother and companion to Ella. The greater part of her role is to be a confidante or a consoler than a magical being who waves her wand or strikes pumpkins with her enchanted ring. The limits of magic and Mandy’s abilities are revealed early on when Mandy tells a grieving Ella that fairies “can’t stop dying” (Levine 23). Linda T. Parsons articulates that Mandy “refuses to use big magic because of its unpredictable ramifications” (147). In the traditional versions of fairy tales, magic is accepted without question. In Ella Enchanted, magic, through the willful use of it by Lucinda, is shown to be something unpredictable and mostly unwelcome. Mandy tells Ella that “[w]e don’t do big magic” (Levine 26) because “[i]t’s too dangerous” (26). At this point, it is necessary to examine Lucinda who is the source of Ella’s miseries. She is arguably Mandy’s foil and superficially fulfills the fairy godmother stereotype. As Ella observes, “Lucinda satisfied every cherished idea of a fairy: tall and graceful, with huge eyes, skin as unblemished as satin, lips as red as pomegranate seeds, and cheeks the color of early sunsets” (121). This beauty disappears when the glamour of magic is removed from her and she is revealed to be “stooped with age” and her previously “perfect skin [is] wrinkled, with a mole next to her nose” (195). This, then, is the “real Lucinda, unshielded by magic” (195). This unveiling warns against the deceitful nature of magic and this warning is compounded when Lucinda is punished for the willful use of her powers thus insinuating that magic use has dire consequences to the user. Lucinda’s declaration that she has “renounced” big magic once again cautions the reader about magic and the ramifications of using it frivolously. In the end, Ella breaks her curse not with help from her fairy godmother but by finding in herself, the strength to do so. This is an implicit articulation that a person can find resolutions for her problems without help from fairy godmothers and their magic.

The fairy godmother undergoes a much more dramatic metamorphosis in Jessica Day George’s Princess of Glass. In the novel that was released in 2010, the godmother does not just gain a name but motivations that are far from the shallow “(i.e. to help good triumph over evil)” (Jorgensen 220) goals that drive her counterparts in the traditional versions. The godmother in Princess of Glass is not titled “a fairy” as in other versions but retains her otherworldliness by inhabiting a realm accessible only through the fireplace. This in itself has a sinister hue as traveling through sooty fireplaces conjures up images of narrow and dark tunnels with dangerous and hostile destinations. Rather than a proper name, the fairy godmother figure in Princess of Glass has a title: the Corley. She inherits the name from the ship that she had sunk and the parallelism between the two is striking. As The Corley, the ship sinks into the depths of the ocean, so, too, did the Corley, the self-proclaimed godmother sink from earth where she lived as a human woman named Mary Bright, into a realm constructed by her own crazed delusions. While the Corley is not as constant a presence in the novel as Mandy is in Ella Enchanted, she is much more menacing than Mandy ever aspires to be. Though her physical person is not described to exact detail, Ellen (the Cinderella figure) notices that the Corley has a “plump voice, a gentle voice, the voice of a grandmother in lace cap and woolen shawl” (George 47). The Corley’s appearance may resemble Disney’s interpretation of the fairy godmother but her actions are at odds with the benevolent mask she dons. The disparity between her actions and her assumed appearance is similar to the difference between Lucinda’s real appearance and the one afforded to her by magic. The Corley promises Ellen that she “would be the toast of society,” “the most beautiful and envied woman in Castleraugh” and “marriage to a doting and wealthy husband” (174). Ellen only has to do exactly as the Corley wants her to. She is not permitted to deviate from the path that has been laid out for her nor is she allowed to choose anyone else other than the prince chosen for her. In a significant perversion of the glass slipper motif, Ellen’s slippers are created from molten glass that is poured over her feet and then shaped to resemble shoes (119). This is not a painless procedure and Ellen, at several points in the novel, mentions the excruciating pain associated with these slippers. Everything in the Corley’s realm is made of glass (99) and Ellen’s feet, too, gradually turn to glass when she continues to undergo the slipper-making procedure. While the glass motif is obviously an engagement with the glass slipper theme in the popular version of Cinderella, it is also an implicit nod at the brittle and cold nature of the magic that is present in the novel. To elaborate on this, one must first consider the most distinct difference between the Corley and the unnamed fairy godmother in the Perrault version.

Helpers, being popular tropes in fairy tales, appear, provide aid for the protagonist and then disappear without further consequence or interruption in the narrative. They are detached from the overarching plot and, most importantly, have no self-interest in the resolution of the story. The Corley is unique amongst her cohorts because her motivation to help Ellen is not, in any way, selfless. In fact, the Corley does not seem to even like Ellen. Ellen notices that “her godmother [hardly speaks] to her,” “in fact, she [seems] annoyed when Ellen [goes] to visit her in her glass-pillared palace” (175). The Corley, or Mary Bright as she was known in her previous life, has more mercenary reasons to help Ellen. She simply wants a substitute for the goddaughter, Mary Bess Corley, whom she lost years ago. By manipulating people and events to suit her purposes, the Corley seeks to fashion a happy ending for the goddaughter substitute, who, in this case, is Ellen. It does not matter to her whether Ellen is amenable to this “happy ending” or not.  It is implied that the Corley is attempting to atone for her sins by giving Ellen the happy ending (that is, marriage to Prince Christian) that Mary Bess sought. Princess of Glass casts the fairy godmother figure in a villainous light which hues magic, due to its association with a grey character, negatively. The proliferation of the glass that is associated to the Corley can be interpreted as an indication of the mercenary nature of magic; cold in its regard for everything except the fulfillment of its ambitions. Magic “always smells awful” (144) according to Poppy, one of the characters in the novel. Another thing of note is that when the other characters attempt to combat the Corley’s magic with their own magical concoctions they have limited success. It is only when they use their intelligence and internal strength that they are able to trick the Corley and escape her evil machinations. Princess of Glass is a much more pronounced renunciation of the traditional Cinderella tale and her benevolent fairy godmother than Ella Enchanted is. The book also firmly rejects the idea of using magic to solve one’s problems, cautioning that magic is rarely as benign as it may superficially appear.

     Ella Enchanted and Princess of Glass share more similarities than just being retellings of the same fairytale. Both works have substantially disenchanted the fairy godmother. In both novels, the fairy godmother figure is advanced in age. This is significant because age has traditionally been utilized in canonical fairytales to showcase a woman’s unattractiveness. The fairy godmothers are stripped of their beauty and the benevolence that is natural to them is deliberately complicated by other factors. Both Mandy and the Corley’s roles have been reshaped and they, particularly the Corley, have achieved substantial backgrounds that attempt to explain their existence and to, if not exactly excuse, explicate their purpose. It is undeniable that the magic wielded by both these women is presented in a negative light. Vanessa Joosen claims that “magic is one of the typical fairy tale features that disappear” (288). I would like to add that when magic does not disappear, it is cast in an unattractive light so as to dissuade complacency or dependency on unknown elements that can potentially control a person’s fate. My observation brings to mind the “radical movement against magic in the programmatic Marxist and feminist retellings of 1970s and 1980s” (Joosen 237). As Joosen argues, those retellings are similar to the contemporary retellings in that they both have an “agenda: to show that magic is a naïve illusion, and that children and adults should take action themselves if they want to improve their own life” (238).

Fairytales “are continually in a flux” (Crowley and Pennington 299). They evolve and mutate to reflect the needs of the people who are reading them. In contemporary society and to modern people, it is very important that a person depends on his/herself and his/her own skills to pave the way to his/her destiny. Cinderella has begun losing her appeal as Ella Westland found in her study (Parsons 142). She observed that 10 and 11 year old girls “almost unanimously denied wanting to be a princess because they wanted greater agency” (142). This shows that wearing beautiful clothes, being princesses and getting swept off their feet by princes is no longer attractive to little girls. In fact, I believe that they would much rather turn pumpkins to coaches themselves than wait for a fairy godmother to do it for them.



Works Cited

Crowley, Karlyn and John Pennington. “Feminist Frauds on the Fairies? Didacticism and  Liberation in Recent Retellings of “Cinderella”.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale  Studies. 24.2 (2010): 297-313. Print.

George, Jessica Day. Princess of Glass. New York: Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers, 2010. Print.

Joosen, Vanessa. “Disenchanting the Fairy Tale: Retellings of “Snow White” between Magic and Realism.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. 21.2 (2007): 228-39. Print.

Jorgensen, Jeana. “A Wave of the Magic Wand: Fairy Godmothers in Contemporary American Media.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. 21.2 (2007): 216-27. Print.

Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1997. Print.

Levy, Michael M. “What if Your Fairy Godmother Were an Ox? The Many Cinderella in  Southeast Asia.” The Lion and the Unicorn. 24.2 (2000): 173-87. Print.

Parsons, Linda T. “Ella Evolving: Cinderella Stories and the Construction of Gender- Appropriate Behavior.” Children’s Literature in Education. 35.2 (2004): 135-154. Print.

Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella: Or the Little Glass Slipper.” Folk and Fairy Tales. Hallet Martin, and Barbara Karasek. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008. 97-102. Print.

9 responses to “Disenchanting the Fairy Godmother: An exploration of the evolution of fairy godmothers in modern retellings of Cinderella

  1. Pingback: Disenchanting the Fairy Godmother: An exploration of the evolution of fairy godmothers in modern retellings of Cinderella | Bibliophilic Monologues·

  2. Wow. This was incredibly interesting! I’ve not read Princess of Glass yet, but Ella Enchanted is a personal favourite of mine. I honestly haven’t thought about the role of magic in more modern tales before, but now that I’ve read this, I’m remembering all sorts of examples where skill and determination are the solution, rather than magic. I have to say this is probably why I’ve always loved Cinderella retellings, but am really not a fan of the original story, as Cinderella is shown as a “virtuous woman”, who never stands up for herself, and she is not the reason her fate was changed, her fairy godmother (or mother/bird thingies in the Grimm version, which I prefer) gives her beautiful things to wear, and the prince saves her from her servitude. Bleggghhhh.

    But really, I loved reading this analysis of the story, it was very thought provoking (and now I’m probably going to be thinking of all the books that fit/don’t fit and why all day haha)

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