“He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty handed.” Luke1:51-53
There is a deep magic in Walt Disney Pictures’ new live action release Cinderella. Director Kenneth Branagh has remained true to the classic Charles Perrault fairytale, refusing to give it any post-modern twists or distortions. While maintaining the beloved storyline, the new Cinderella has been infused with a depth of meaning the 1950 animated film or even the storybook versions could never quite capture,making this Cinderella the fairest of them all.
The narrator begins the movie with the story of a young girl named Ella. She is the beloved daughter of a happily married couple who have their own little idyllic kingdom. The Princess, as they call Ella, is heir to all the beauty, goodness, and love this kingdom possesses. She plays in the garden, communicates with her subjects the animals and is adored by her mother and father. Her world is filled with magic, as fairy godmothers do exist and a paper “Papillion” from France is an extraordinary treasure.
The butterfly given to Ella by her father is a harbinger of things to come. Butterflies are symbolic of transformation and more importantly resurrection. For something to be resurrected, it first must die; and so Ella encounters death when her dearest mother becomes fatally ill. The magical home with the swan chandelier (swans are symbols of chastity, fidelity, loyalty and monogamy) is filled with a sorrow and sadness it has never known.
In her final moments Ella’s mother shares with her a secret which will see her through all trials. She tells Ella what to do: have courage and be kind. She gives her knowledge of who she truly is, kindness personified, and teaches her the beauty and power of forgiveness by humbling herself and asking for it.
As time passed, the narrator explains the father and daughter’s pain turned to memory. Ella did not change because of the promise she made her mother to have courage and be kind. Ella’s father,however, did change; for having made no promise, he went looking for happiness outside the little kingdom and was seduced by a beautiful widow with two daughters. Ella, filled with kindness, blesses her father’s happiness and welcomes the three women into their home.
Just who truly is being welcomed into the little kingdom? Symbols are powerful in this film and so it is important to note that Lady Tremaine’s first appearance is with her cat “Lucifer”. Lucifer in the Bible and literature denotes the arch angel who fell from heaven because of his pride. Pride and envy are the essence of the well dressed stepmother who is caught off guard by Ella’s beauty. Taking control of the home, she soon fills it with the other five deadly sins: greed, gluttony, sloth, lust and wrath.2 The two hundred year old family home once filled with self giving love and whose very heart was Ella’s mother is now defiled by debauchery, decadence, corruption and every sort of evil.
Escaping from his unhappiness on yet another business trip, Ella’s father gives her a charge to cherish the home, still believing it is rooted in the original triune love. Unfortunately, the losses continue for Ella; her father falls ill and dies while away. Farmer John returns with the heartbreaking news and a dried branch, so unlike the first gift Ella received.
Death now fills the house. The branch cut from its life source is a presage of what is in store for Ella. She loses her position in life; the little princess and beloved daughter now becomes the family servant and object of scorn and mistreatment. Ella nobly tries to maintain the virtues of kindness, diligence, temperance, and courage taught by her mother, but a day comes when the burden she bears becomes too heavy.
The stepmother and stepsisters have changed Ella’s name to Cinderella, mocking her for the hearth ashes smudged on her face. Names have power explains the narrator and cast their own magic spell. Catching a reflection of herself, Ella realizes the person looking back at her is a creature of ash and toil, someone created by the design of the stepmother. 3 Horrified at the thought of losing her own identity, of not being her mother’s daughter, Ella flees her beloved home and gallops into the forest.
Encounter in the Forest
In fairytales, entering a forest is the crossing of a threshold into a hidden realm of magic, transformation, refuge and even sanctuary. For Ella it is all of these things; this is a pivotal point in the story.
Ella’s flight is abruptly halted by a brief encounter with a majestic stag. Stags are symbolic of Jesus Christ, of piety and devotion, and of safety in God’s care. One look in her new friend’s eyes and Ella becomes her true self: kind, courageous, and caring deeply for the animal creation.
Her encounter with the stag is interrupted by a handsome young man who is hunting the stag. The hidden forest is a place of hidden identity which is good, for had these two young people met outside the forest the roles they play and the rank they carry would have prevented them from speaking. Here in this sanctuary where there is freedom from family expectations and loyalties both good and evil, they can converse long enough to become captivated by one another.
Brought together by the stag, Ella and Kit leave the forest transformed by their chance meeting. Love has opened a door from their perspective confinements and they waste no time in stepping into the new enchanted terrain.
Return to the Garden
The young apprentice Kit is of course the royal prince who immediately changes course by wanting all young maidens both royal and common to come to the “Find a Bride” ball his father is insisting on. Kit has high hopes of finding the mysterious young maiden he met in the forest. Ella too is determined to go to the ball even if she has to remake an old gown of her mother’s. She hopes that in going to the castle she may find the young apprentice.
True Love is always fiercely opposed. So it is no surprise when the jealous stepmother and her ugly daughters literally shred the refashioned gown Ella has made. Filled with wrath at the possibility of her own plans for advancement being thwarted, the stepmother hurls accusations and condemnations at the devastated young woman.
Ella’s soul is as torn and tattered as her gown. Running to the garden, Ella returns to her mother with repentance and a confession. The wickedness of such an act has blotted out her faith in the beauty of the world her mother knew. It is at this moment of utter vulnerability and raw honesty when a broken heartcries out to the one she knew as love that the deeper magic enters the story. An old crone in the garden asks for a little kindness and when Ella without thinking offers it, the crone is revealed to be the Fairy Godmother Ella’s mother believed in and the one whom Ella has lost sight of.
The following scenes of the godmother’s transformation of common objects and critters, pumpkin, lizards, mice, geese and of course Cinderella’s dress and slippers, are always the highlight of the story. Every little girl who has ever read or heard of Cinderella glories in the beauty and joy put on display in this climatic moment. Why?
This is a foretaste of Resurrection and of New Creation. It is an unveiling where a curtain is lifted and all things are seen as they truly are and forever will be in the New Creation: beautiful, majestic, and glorious. The humble maid who wasn’t too proud to wear her mother’s old gown is now revealed to be the most beautiful maiden of all. The lowly creatures of lizards, mice and geese are in the twinkling of an eye filled with majesty worthy of a king, and the common garden pumpkin literally explodes with a glory which cannot be contained.
This is a glimpse of a glory “which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard nor has entered into the hearts of men.”4 Cinderella cannot fathom the royal palace which lies adjacent to her little kingdom, but her Fairy Godmother has seen to it that for this kairos moment she is prepared to meet its Prince.
The Secret Garden
Cinderella goes to the ball hoping to find Kit, never dreaming he is the royal prince. Her unabashed delight is evident as he approaches and asks her for the first dance. After they complete their spellbinding waltz Kit whisks her away to have her to himself. He takes her through the palace and out to the secret garden of his childhood, a place he has never shown to anyone else. The swing makes this small intimate garden a place of innocence, purity, and delight. Here Kit and Cinderella’s love is sealed when he replaces the fallen glass slipper back onto her foot. Even though he does not yet know her name and she has to flee at midnight, the two slippers, one left behind and one on her foot, bind them like an engagement ring until their wedding day.
The Three Gifts
Cinderella returns from the ball in a tattered gown, walking in the rain, with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. The Fairy Godmother has given her the glass slipper as a gift. This is the third gift given to Ella and each one has been a significant portend of things to come. The first paper butterfly given by her father was a promise of resurrection while speaking too of the fragility of life, for paper is made from a dead tree. The second gift was the dead branch snapped from a tree of a distant land, given to her to confirm her father’s death while assuring her of his undying love.
The third gift is given by the Fairy Godmother and also represents a promise. Shoes are symbolic of power, rights of possession, and they can also represent being trodden on. Cinderella’s little black flats are a sign of her humility and her being tied to her little kingdom, the one she has cherished at great cost to keep in the love of her parents. The fairy godmother exchanges these shoes for glass slippers adorned with butterflies; for shoes can also express the value of the person wearing them. The slippers reflect the beauty, purity, and transparency of the one they were created for, the only one they will ever perfectly fit. The original butterfly has been transformed and is now ready to come forth from the old chrysalis. She has become and fulfilled the promise she made her dying mother.
The final scenes of Cinderella are rich and laden with truth.5 Upon hearing the news the Prince is requesting the mysterious maiden of the ball to present herself at the palace so he can marry her, Cinderella runs to her attic to retrieve her glass slipper. Lurking in the dark shadows is the stepmother who has stolen her prize gift. Confronting Cinderella, she cannot believe the shoe was a gift of kindness. Evil cannot and will not believe truth for there is no truth in evil (John8:44), nor is there any kindness. Ordering Cinderella to obey her by making her head of the household and claiming she will manage “that boy” the Prince, she unveils her true Luciferian self with the words “I will rule.”6 “No” says Cinderella, and in a very few words conveys the thought “I won’t let you”.
Smashing the glass slipper as a gesture of breaking all the power the shoe holds and dashing all of Cinderella’s hopes and dreams, she thinks she has won; little does she know . . .
“Behind all the seemingly fantastic speculation lies the thought that the power of evil ultimately overreaches itself when it comes in conflict with the power of good, with God himself. It loses the battle at the moment when it seems victorious.” 7
The stepmother loses the battle at this moment because she does not understand the shoe is tied to love. Love always has as its focus the object of its love: the beloved. It is open and outward not closed and turned inward like the self idolatrous stepmother. She cannot understand self sacrifice, the laying down of one’s own life for the good of the beloved. “No, I will protect the Prince and the Kingdom” and with these words the stepmother loses the battle and a window of grace is opened for Cinderella.
Those who have been recipients of Cinderella’s kindness, the very least in her little kingdom, the birds and mice, return her kindness by opening the attic window, thus allowing her voice to be heard by those assembled in the courtyard. The song she is singing is her mother’s song from childhood, and the tune she danced to at the ball. Those memories are what fill her heart with joy and keep her in the love of parents and prince.
It is this love that allows her to come forth and take the greatest risk of all, to be seen for who she truly is, not Ella the little princess but Cinderella the honest country girl who loves Kit the apprentice. And it is this love which gives her the grace to extend kindness to the person who has wounded her most, thestepmother.
Forgiveness is the kindest, most courageous act a person can do for another. It too is an act of self sacrifice. For those who forgive, a King and his Kingdom await.8
1. Exaltavit Humiles is Latin and translated as “elevates the humble”. It comes from “The Magnificat” or Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:46-56) specifically verses 51-53: “He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty handed.”
2. The modern Catholic Catechism lists the seven deadly sins (The same Dante used in The Divine Comedy) as pride, avarice/greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. It also list corresponding virtues: humility, charity, kindness, patience, temperance, and diligence. One might view Cinderella as an allegorical contrast between the Seven Deadly Sins personified in the stepmother and stepsisters and the holy virtues personified in Cinderella.
3. The phrase “creature of ash and toil” is a description of fallen mankind taken from Genesis 3:17-19. The curse on man included hard labor (toil) and returning to dust (ash).
4. From 1 Corinthians 2:9: “However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him.”
5. When people think of truth in the Post Modern world it is usually a subjective truth . . . very akin to Pontius Pilate’s famous quote, “What is truth?” ( John 18:38) Jesus equates truth with God (John 18:37) and with Himself as the Incarnation of God (John 14-6).
6. “I will rule.” The Prophet Isaiah lists five “I wills” by one described as “the star of the morning, son of the dawn”. Many scholars consider this to be a reference to Lucifer before he fell and the reason for his being cast out. Listed in Isaiah 14:12-14, they are: I will ascend to heaven, I will raise my throne above the stars of God, I will sit enthroned on the Mount of the Assemble, I will ascend above the tops of the clouds, and I willmake myself like the Most High.
7. From Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen
8. Matthew 6:14 “For if you forgive others their Trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”