Hello, everyone! In honor of the holidays, my book club decided to take a trip down memory lane and read Gail Carson Levine’s fabulous Cinderella adaptation Ella Enchanted. Published in 1998, and winner of the Newbery Medal for distinguished children’s literature, Levine’s novel was one of the first works in a wave of modern Cinderella adaptations that told the famous story through a feminist perspective. It’s also a wonderful book on its own merit: sincere, playful, humorous, and profound, with a simplicity suitable for young readers, and wit elevated enough for adults.
Synopsis: Cursed with the “gift” of obedience at her birth, Ella of Frell must obey the commands of others, regardless of their intentions. When her mother dies from illness, her final command is to forbid Ella from telling anyone of her curse. Ella is left in the care of Mandy, a loving household fairy, and Sir Peter, her avaricious father, who quickly remarries the haughty Dame Olga. Now faced with the spiteful dealings of Dame Olga’s daughters Hattie and Olive, Ella decides to track down Lucinda and try to get her to undo the curse.
My thoughts: I’ve loved reading fairytales since childhood, but the one story I’ve never been able to stand is that of Cinderella. In its essence, the tale is a story of a girl forced to bear a lifetime of cruelty without complaint and is rewarded for her patience with a marriage to a prince. The original stories always emphasized Cinderella’s kindness and sweetness, and the implication was that if girls were obedient, kind, and pretty, then they would eventually be lifted out of their suffering. Not exactly the tale that would interest a spirited young girl like myself, especially because I could never understand why it was Cinderella’s responsibility to obey her tormentors and be kind to them, while her father and those who were supposed to protect her did nothing to help.
Gail Carson Levine’s story is tailor-made for those who have always wanted to see Cinderella given a little gumption. In Levine’s narrative, Ella’s obedience is shown from the very beginning to be a curse rather than a virtue. In a lighthearted example, she can’t stop eating when her mother encourages her to stuff her face at her birthday party, and in darker one, she is compelled to give up her dead mother’s necklace to her cruel stepsister. The book is full of examples of how forced obedience can be a weapon in the hands of the malicious, and a demonstration that those with power don’t always have noble intentions for those in their sway.
Lest Ella Enchanted be a miserable tale of a girl obeying the capricious whims of others, however, Levine gifts her protagonist with virtues that are far more worthy than obedience. Ella is intelligent, funny, witty, and kind. Most importantly, she has grit, and much of the book is devoted to her trying to find workarounds for her commands, or obeying them to the letter, not the spirit. Even though Ella is forced to do things against her will, she still has agency, and is determined to improve her life, rather than wait for someone to do it for her.
Ella Enchanted uses Ella as a symbol of the “powerless” to show how an individual’s character is the greatest determining factor in whether someone with power will use compassion or cruelty. Ella’s stepsister, Hattie, for instance, immediately uses her power over Ella in terrible ways when she discovers Ella’s curse, forbidding her from eating, forcing her to break off a friendship, and compelling her to be a servant in their household. Prince Charmont, on the other hand, falls in love with Ella’s fiery spirit and quirky sense of humor, and even though he knows nothing of her curse, never commands her to do anything, despite the power of command being well within his powers as the prince of the kingdom. Rather than showing that power can be a corrupting force, Levine shows that demonstrations of power are only an expression of people’s inner values. When Lucinda “gifted” Ella with obedience, she put her at the mercy of those without morals. Thematically, Ella Enchanted is a warning against blind obedience to authority.
Apart from being an adaptation of Cinderella, Ella Enchanted is also a romance, and one of the best young adult romances that I’ve read in fantasy fiction. Perhaps because the novel predates the YA trends of today, the romance in Ella Enchanted avoids an abusive bad-boy love interest. Prince Charmont is the exact opposite of the YA romantic leads we might see today: kind, loving, honest, and humble, Char loves Ella as she is and never tries to change her. Rather than love at first sight, Ella and Char form a relationship through correspondence, and Char, despite wanting to marry Ella early on in the novel, never pressures her into doing anything that she’s not ready for. Nor does Levine invite even a hint of “damsel in distress” into her novel: at the climax, it’s Ella who saves the prince, as well as herself. Even though the novel was written more than 20 years ago, the romance between Ella and Char is more modern and mature than most romances I’ve read in current YA fiction because it emphasizes love built from trust and mutual admiration, rather than one built on an enemies-to-lovers foundation.
Ella Enchanted also delivers as a fantasy novel. Kyrria, Ella’s country, is home to magical creatures like fatally persuasive ogres, artisan elves, and warmhearted giants. The world-building and magic are relatively simplistic in this book, but Levine weaves in snatches of invented languages and allusions to the magical culture to make it seem robust and immersive. She also lays the world-building groundwork for Fairest, her Snow White adaptation, which takes place in the neighboring country of Ayortha. Overall Ella Enchanted is more fairytale than fantasy, but there are enough magical elements to please fantasy lovers while keeping them interested in a character-driven story.
Final consensus: There’s something magical about Ella Enchanted. From its feminist Cinderella adaptation, to its heartwarming romance, to its fantasy elements, the novel is a joy to read, and small enough to be finished in an afternoon. Once you’re done, check out Gail Carson Levine’s other fantasy works, including Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and Ever, which are all as spellbinding as her first novel.