A Civilizing Cinderella

The tweet, by a prominent conservative cultural observer, was caustic:

Kenneth Branagh, 1989, directed “Henry V,” one of the greatest films ever made. In 2015–“Cinderella.” #DeclineofWesternCivilizationin1Tweet.

Wired also voiced concern. It published an open letter entitled, “Dear Kenneth Branagh, You Can Do Better Than Cinderella,” which deemed the film “a perfectly adequate love story,” but “wholly unnecessary.”

These critics have it wrong about Branagh’s new, and quite successful, film adaptation of the Cinderella tale. The film is absolutely necessary and, far from spelling a further decline in Western civilization, reminds us of what in that civilization is worth preserving. Cinderella is an unironic, uncynical, and (wittingly or not) deeply Christian portrait of the moral virtue required to sustain romance.

I wonder whether the one critic’s simple contrast between Branagh’s truly magnificent Henry V and his recent Cinderella was intended to underscore the superficiality of the fairy tale as a genre: i.e., Shakespeare is for grownups, fairy tales are kids’ stuff. If so, this is a grave error. The fairy tale is one of the most important and perennially popular of literary genres, for children and grownups alike, because fairy tales are about adventures into what we might call “the golden world,” a world in which innocence must be fought for and achieved.

By “golden world” I do not mean an idyllic world. Fairy tales often spirit their protagonists away into other lands and even other dimensions of time and space, but these new territories are places not of peace but of peril. Witches, monsters, villains of all kinds abound.

So why do I call such places “golden worlds”? Because they are places, arenas, where good must face its opportunity to overcome evil. As G.K. Chesterton famously puts the point: “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

In the golden world, innocence is not just a given, something handed to the protagonist; it is a moral achievement demanding significant risk. So by “innocence” I do not mean the very small child’s moral purity and naiveté. I am speaking of a moral perfection won only by displaying great moral responsibility, courage, hope, and love. Such moral qualities can be displayed by children having reached a certain age, but also can be acquired by adults, even after a long period of wandering.

There is something essentially human in the adventure into the golden world which explains the perennial power of the fairy tale as well as the fairy-tale structure of works we don’t consider fairy tales at all. What, for example, is Dante’s epic quest through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven but an adventure into a world of great peril in which his moral innocence, his perfection in all human and supernatural virtue, hangs in the balance?

Cinderella (Lily James) dances with Prince Charming (Richard Madden)
Cinderella (Lily James) dances with Prince Charming (Richard Madden)

Dante’s Divine Comedy, in fact, helps us see that human life itself has a fairy-tale structure, that we are made for the happily-ever-after of a paradise that can only be attained by sacrifice. Fairy tales and all stories in the comic mode are fundamentally Christian in inspiration.

In a recent article, Father Robert Barron illuminates the Christian allegory at play in Branagh’s Cinderella. Ella’s enchanted childhood is disrupted first by the death of her mother, then by her father’s remarriage to a wounded, heartless woman with two vapid daughters of her own. When her father suddenly dies, Ella is left at the mercy of her stepmother. She is reduced to slavery and a bed amid the cinders by the hearth. “Cinderella,” Father Barron observes, whose beauty and virtue are obscured by ashes, is a figure of human fallenness.

And yet Cinderella remains constant to her mother’s dying admonition: “Have courage and be kind.” A truism, to be sure, but no less valuable for that. In his wonderful essay, “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls,” Chesterton praises the popular literature made up of truisms. Such popular works, he says, “express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilisation is built; for it is clear that unless civilisation is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.”

Clearly, too, there is no moral health for a society which thinks, “Have courage and be kind” to be something “wholly unnecessary.” Cinderella answers her stepmother’s cruel treatment with uncommon humility, generosity, and even mercy, virtuous responses that allow her to make a golden world even out of a dusty attic filled with mice.

Another key feature of the Christian allegory in Cinderella is the entrance of the charming prince, the son of the king and an image of the Incarnation. As Father Barron notes, the prince represents the Bridegroom longing to unite with his Bride, the Church. Their marriage is a picture of our sacramental union with the Beloved, the foretaste of our ultimate union in Heaven.

My point in all this is not that Branagh himself is necessarily aware of the Christian allegory at play in his film, but rather that in choosing not to deconstruct the Cinderella tale, in choosing to approach it in the same traditional manner by which it was first written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, he has allowed the tale’s original Christian inspiration to shine through.

For this reason I refuse to look down my nose at Branagh’s decision to tell a simple fairy story in which virtue is tested and rewarded in a marriage. A pleasant two hours contemplating such civilizing romantic comedy is a grace indeed.

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.