The story of Cinderella is the story of a servant girl whose fairy godmother grants her splendor one night so she can go to the ball, win the heart of the prince, get married and live happily ever after.
The story of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is the story of a girl who is the victim of a fairy ‘blessing’, and goes on a quest to find a way to break her curse, only to end up unsuccessful and in servitude, and in a letter-writing friendship with her local monarch. Do you love retellings of fairytales? I think we’ve established that I do. And both Ella Enchanted and the character of Ella are fantastic. Spoilers to follow…
At birth, Ella of Frell gets visited by the fairy Lucinda, something of a self-important crackpot, who gives Ella the gift of obedience. Whatever she is told to do, she must do. Ella, naturally, considers this a curse, because it is – anything said to her, even casually, even without the person intending it as such, if it isn’t a question or said with word please attached, is an order she must obey. When told to eat cake at her birthday, she eats it unceasingly, through tears, until someone tells her to stop. The curse has no regard for her health, or her life, or for that matter, anyone else’s. If she was ordered to kill someone, she’d have to. (It’s worth noting that though Ella actively tries to resist whenever she can, she suffers physical effects until she finally obeys.) So Ella is given an order that she must never tell anyone about the curse, for her own safety.
But what’s great about Ella is her rebellious streak. It’s not harmful to those around her, at worst it’s self-protective. While her curse is obedience, she often manages to find her way out of things. She can find every tiny loophole to get her out of doing precisely what she’s told to do. She is forced to go to finishing school, but she runs away. She is told she needs to be married off, but manages to escape that.
Ella is not content with her fate, particularly after she meets up with the odious Hattie at finishing school Hattie is not aware Ella is cursed, but she knows Ella is obedient, and she abuses that knowledge. She starves Ella for the days of their journey, she takes the last relic Ella has of her dead mother, she dictates who Ella’s friends are. So Ella -since she was only ordered to go to finishing school, not stay there – flees in the night, off to find a giants’ wedding. Fairies love weddings, and Ella is hoping to catch Lucinda and make her break the curse.
She sets off on her own fairly successfully, making friends with some elves, but nothing can go smoothly for long, and Ella ends up captured by ogres. In this fairyland, elves are potters, gnomes can see the future, fairies can blend in among people, and giants are friendly, emotional folk – but ogres want to eat you. The ogres have a special, persuasive way of speaking, to convince you you’d feel much better as lunch, but they can also see your secrets, so they take one look at Ella and all they have to do is tell her not to run.
Ella, however, has a talent for imitation and a gift for languages. During the night, she practices her Ogrese and works on making herself sound extra persuasive. In the morning, with some effort, she convinces her would-be eaters they should just take a nap. Prince Charmont, heir to Kyrria (the kingdom in which Frell is located), shows up just in time with his knights to tie up the sleep ogres, but it’s clear at that point Ella is completely capable of taking care of herself (well, so long as no one uses her curse against her).
At the giants’ wedding, Ella meets up with Lucinda (pro), but fails to convince her to lift the curse (con). Worse, Lucinda orders Ella to feel happy she is obedient (pro and con – she still has to be obedient, but she no longer feels burdened by it). Then Ella’s father runs into her and takes her home (away from finishing school – pro) with the intent of marrying her into money because he’s lost all of theirs (con). Her dad, a somewhat duplicitous trader, has fallen on hard times and he and Ella are pretty poor (con), so at least one of them will have to be married off. Since Ella is under her happy-obedience curse (and also the influence of actual magic mushrooms), she ends up being super flirty with her aging suitor, but it turns out he’s too poor for Sir Peter’s liking, so Ella is safe again for now (pro). So it’s Sir Peter who ends up getting married (pro), to Hattie’s mother Olga (con, con, con).
This is more or less where it turns into the Cinderella story. Sneaking off at her father’s wedding, Ella and her friend Char (Prince Charmont, who became somewhat enchanted with Ella meeting her after her mother’s funeral (sexy, I know)) find a pair of glass slippers that only seem to fit on Ella’s tiny part-fairy feet. Sir Peter flees to anywhere else to get away from Dame Olga (Lucinda helpfully ‘gifts’ them with the power to love each other forever, even though Peter finds Olga awful and Olga realizes Peter is dirt poor, which is something of a dealbreaker). And Olga and daughters Hattie and Olive (who is exceptionally stupid, but lonely), declare Ella a pauper and demand her subservience.
Being the servant of an image-obsessed lady and her unpleasant daughters (one of whom wants to punish you for generally being better than her, and also for stealing her wig) is about as gross as you imagine it is. They take all of Ella’s nice things, send her off to live in the servants’ ward as soon as Peter leaves the house, make her clean everything (including them), and she can’t say no. Ella’s only outlets are the continued employment of her friend/fairy godmother Mandy, who is working as Peter’s and now Olga’s cook and takes Ella as an apprentice, and Ella’s penpalship with Char, now on a diplomatic mission in neighboring kingdom Ayortha. Mandy provides Ella with a bit of sanity, and through their letters, Ella and Char slowly fall in love. This is wonderful release for Ella, especially when Char declares his love, but then she realizes the danger inherent in marrying a prince: as long as she is cursed, he will never, ever be safe. Ella ends up deceiving Char and effectively ending their friendship, because his safety and the safety of Frell and Kyrria is more important to her than her own happiness. It’s noble as hell, but Ella is miserable.
So it probably comes as a surprise to no one that when Char comes back to town and his parents decide to throw a series of balls to find him a future wife (the royal equivalent of speed-dating), Ella decides to go undercover to stalk him just an eensy bit. And it probably does not come as further surprise that she can’t stop herself from talking to him and making him laugh the way she used to. And you will probably remain unsurprised that this backfires horribly and she gets found out that she is not bored partygoer Lela from Bast. (‘Lela’, Ella? Really? You suck at espionage.) Char follows her home, finds her telltale glass slipper, and while she tries to disguise herself as a servant girl and Olga and Hattie do their best to corroborate this, Char is not fooled. He unthinkingly orders Ella to marry him, in that casual “Marry me, Ella,” way that anyone else would think nothing of. But Ella isn’t anyone else.
But she says no. Ella struggles vastly with herself to overcome magic to have that glorious moment of complete autonomy to simply say no. Moreover, to say no to a thing she would like more than anything to say yes to: to save herself, to rescue herself from her step-family and the hell that is her life, and moreover, to do it with someone she genuinely loves. Someone she loves in fact so much she will sacrifice all of that happiness to save his life. So she fights the actual physical impulse to say yes and says no.
After all of her traveling, after a near-death experience, a year of servitude, after a plea with Lucinda, after fairy godmother intervention, this is what gets Ella to break the curse: herself. Herself, with no magical powers, but simply a noble impulse, and a love of something greater than herself.
Ella is a great heroine to root for, because she rarely gives up, and when she does, it’s for the right reasons. But it’s also something of a sad commentary on the expectations placed on women in society. Char is allowed to – encouraged, even – to run around the country with his band of knight friends, capturing ogres. Ella is expected to be obedient (it’s considered a blessing for parents to have an obedient child, after all, and Ella herself is told to consider it a blessing, even though she could die) and is shipped off to finishing school when her father decides she isn’t much of a lady. And when he screws up his own life and finances through being dishonest and crappy, gee, it sure is handy to have a young and lovely daughter around to marry off to the first rich dude that comes along. We should all be so lucky to have an out for our troubles.
But the problematic nature of Sir Peter and his beliefs aside, Ella is interesting for a fairytale heroine. She does not have magic abilities. She has a trace of fairy blood in her, yes, but all it grants her is small feet, which in turn actually makes her a bit clumsy. (Fact: all heroines of all romances must be clumsy or else the love they find won’t be true love. If you are capable of staying on your feet for more than eight seconds, sucks to be you. At least Ella has a legitimate reason, I suppose?) Her talent with languages lies more with mimicry and the patience required to attempt to pick anything up. So her main gift is really perseverance, more than anything else. She has a fairy godmother in house cook Mandy, but Mandy only really gives her medicine when she’s sick and makes her help with the baking. She has a fairy-made gift to accompany her on her travels, but it’s a book. A useful book that keeps her apprised of local gossip and relevant items, but it’s a book all the same, and won’t save her from getting eaten by ogres. Ella has no magical assistance (only a magical boon), she does all that herself. How freaking great is that? Charmont saves her from boredom, nothing else. She saves him.
What else is great is that Ella is just kind of average. She has no greater destiny, she’s not setting about to bring the downfall of a post-apocalyptic dystopian regime, she doesn’t have a gun or weapons or secret ninja skills. She’s not secretly gorgeous or a super-genius. She just… is. She’s just a flawed girl who has weaknesses and still manages to save the day on her own, without anyone telling her, ‘you just don’t know how people really see you, do you?’ (Maybe I am an Old and therefore that particular trope doesn’t appeal to me, or maybe I just tend to gravitate to the sort of thing where that happens all the time: the heroine is being characteristically stubborn and self-loathing, and the other character (generally the love interest), emphatically lists all of the amazing qualities the heroine has. Ella knows all of her good qualities and all of her faults and doesn’t need any boy to give her a passionate eleventh hour speech. And thank God for that.) Ella gets your sympathy but you never feel overshadowed by her, and you always kind of believe things will turn out okay. (They do.)