You may find yourself yelling "he's behind you!" to a clever cat in Jimmy Choo knee-highs being stalked by a vicious captain; or shrieking at the antics of a very stupid boy having to climb a very large tree to commit a robbery. This year features a bumper crop of Aladdins, no doubt with a daring nod or two towards sinister bearded genies and magic lamps of mass destruction. But the most popular pantomime of the season, as usual, is Cinderella, currently showing in Belfast, Bristol, Grimsby, Llandudno, Newcastle, Stoke on Trent and York. Not to mention the luscious new production of Prokofiev's ballet at the Royal Opera House. So how come this simple fairy tale of a downtrodden scullery maid who becomes a princess has become so well–loved, so ubiquitous and so well–known that it has entered deep into the strata of our psyches, our language and culture?

It has even reached Downing Street. In a recent speech in Detroit, Cherie Blair told an audience of 900 businesswomen how she escaped Allerednic (Cinderella backwards) syndrome, in which high–flying women become domestic drudges as soon as they marry. Of course, with her winsome description of the early years, when backbench Tony changed the nappies while she was the chief breadwinner, what Cherie was really doing was weaving a new take on Cinderella: in her version, when the prince marries princess they both become even more rich, glamorous and successful and live happily ever after.

Wondering exactly what tragedy Cherie so narrowly escaped? Enter Angela Wilder, whose new book is the snappily named Powerful Mate Syndrome: Reclaiming Your Strength When Your Partner is the Star of the Relationship. " Cinderella never had to deal with the challenges of living with her prince, and we never had to witness her struggle to maintain her own integrity and identity in the shadows of power." In the grand American tradition of turning a paragraph into a best–seller, Wilder has post–feminised that earlier cult title Cinderella Syndrome, in which Colette Dowling warned women of the dangers of believing that some man out there somewhere was going to come along to rescue them.

It was a thesis that chimed in seamlessly with the awakening consciousness of women's liberation. Silly passive heroines valued only for their beauty, waiting to be validated by a man — that was a standard feminist response in the 1970s. Critics like Andrea Dworkin, revisiting the classic fairy tales from a feminist perspective, found them to be representations of patriarchy at its most vile.

Their revulsion has been exacerbated by the fact that the best known versions of the classic fairy tales have tended to be pretty sanitised. The model for today's pantomime versions of Cinderella came from Charles Perrault who, in the late 1600s, translated the earthy, oral tales of his childhood into artful, literary works fit for the court. It was Perrault who brought us the fairy godmother, the pumpkin that turned into a coach and the lizards, mice and rat as footmen, horses and coachman. This, naturally, was the source for Disney's sweetened version, with its cute animals, plump and kindly godmother and innocent heroine waiting for her prince to come.

Modern Hollywood retellings of Cinderella follow the Disney version to calamitous effect. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman epitomises not just a saccharine interpretation of the fairy tale, but a shameless distortion of it. A whore captivates a rich man with her coquettish prettiness and is rescued from life on the streets. The extreme passivity of the Roberts role and her amoral climb to fortune are bad enough. But even harder to stomach is that cloying girlish innocence. Roberts and her wide–mouthed delight; Drew Barrymore's hallmark clapping of fists; Melanie Griffiths and her Blossom Dearie whisper; Rachel, Monica and Phoebe having a group hug before indulging in squeals — all typify Hollywood's progressive infantilisation of the American woman. Somehow the indomitable examples of the haughty Hepburn, tortured Davis, the snappy repartee of Rosalind Russell, the chiselled intelligence of Lauren Bacall — real women, playing real women — have been systematically replaced by soppy girls, just as the real Cinderella has had her spleen ripped out.

A new collection, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tatar, is a welcome antidote both to the more familiar bland retellings and to the prejudices that the classic tales seem to inspire. Here Cinderella, unlike the passive Perrault heroine, has to use her wits to escape the ball unrecognised, hiding in a pear tree and then a dovecote. Even less like that more polite version, each wicked sister forces her foot into the slipper by mutilation: one cuts off her toe, the other her heel. Both times, the prince is fooled and gallops off with his bride — until Cinderella's faithful bird helpers betray the deception by alerting him to the blood gushing from the slipper. Finally, the sisters attend the wedding hoping for forgiveness — only to have their eyes pecked out by the birds.

This version is far closer to the majority of the hundreds of stories that make up the Cinderella cycle. The first recorded version, from China around AD 850, tells of a girl called Yeh–hsien, a talented potter. Persecuted by her stepmother and stepsister, she eludes them to attend a feast wearing a dress made of kingfisher feathers and tiny shoes made of gold. At the end of the story her oppressors are killed by flying stones. In the first western version, The Cat Cinderella, by Basile, the girl who has been displaced by an evil stepmother actually kills her.

As the tales began to become nursery fare during the 17th century many of them, like Cinderella, were progressively cleaned up and made more respectable for children. Since then, they have repeatedly come under fire from thinkers and educationists concerned about their dangerous influences on young minds. Kant believed that fairy tales impeded the proper development of reason. According to Locke, they provided undesirable, confusing examples. Rousseau disapproved of fantasies because they distorted children's sense of reality. Indeed, his Emile was only permitted one work of fiction, Robinson Crusoe. And that was intended more as a survival guide than a story.

In their quest for the most effective formula for preparation for a rational life, these philosophers influenced generations of earnest educators who sought an improving diet for children rather than misleading fantasies. Like the recent wave of radical feminists who wanted to protect young girls from the destructive messages of the stories, the rationalists and the moralists favoured a somewhat literal, two–dimensional interpretation of fairy tales.

The solemn insistence on fact and reason to offset the debilitating effects of religion and superstition is probably at the root of those accusations made by the devout that rational secularists have no sense of the spiritual, no soul beyond the material. Humanists today will often dismiss the Bible as a mere fairy tale. Yet, as Karen Armstrong pointed out (NH November/December) that is exactly how it should be seen. It is the fundamentalists who seek to interpret the Bible literally rather than viewing it as richly textured metaphor, with its brilliant tapestries of archetypes and stories.

"Theocracies don't know how to read," asserts the arch wizard Philip Pullman, in a recent edition of Index on Censorship. "And democracies do." He defines theocracy as any system of government which relies upon one inalienable belief, whether that be the communism of Stalin's Russia or the Islamist rule of Khomeini in Iran.

"The theocratic cast of mind has low expectations of literature," Pullman continues. "It thinks that the function of novels and poetry is to present a clear ideological viewpoint, and nothing else . . . The second charge against the theocracies is that they only know one mode of reading."

For Pullman, reading is a democratic activity because it involves engagement, questioning, response. It places demands on the reader and requires change and development. What he is championing is the life of the imagination against the dreary pragmatism of those who favour simple messages and digestible lessons. And the unfettered imagination is what AS Byatt welcomes in her introduction to Tatar's new collection. An avid interpreter of fairy tales, Byatt praises Tatar's scholarship but also her fearlessness in presenting the stories in all their unpalatable, sadistic nakedness,

Byatt is, of course, a contemporary Mother Goose herself, her own stories evoking the magnificent wildness of fairy tales without any attempt to mitigate their horror. Her recent Little Black Book of Stories is redolent with delicious fears. Two girls, confronting a monster in the forest, feel "a frisson of fear and terror that made them wriggle with pleasure". A woman turns to stone, with molten lava scorching her veins.

Angela Carter, too, relished the primeval terrors of the fairy tale world, rekindling it in her own tales of bloody chambers and rampant wolves. Marina Warner, the high priestess of the fairy tale, describes how Carter's retellings "lift the barriers that had come down to ring–fence them for the polite bourgeois nursery, that setting for the 'toilet training of the id'".

All of these writers recognise a common human hunger for a world of castles and forests, of talking animals, golden eggs, enchanted frogs, terrifying witches and paralysing spells. These are the fantasies that bind us. And their uniting characteristic is the possibility of change. "More so than the presence of fairies, the moral function, the imagined antiquity and oral anonymity of the ultimate source and the happy ending," claims Marina Warner, "metamorphosis defines the fairy tale."

Of all transformations, none is more dramatic than that of Cinderella. All versions of the story, from Europe to Indo–China, from Africa to North America, concern a banished girl whose identity is unmasked through the agency of a slipper so that she can shimmer into a princess.

What continues to fascinate folklorists is the sheer number of Cinderella variants and how this one story came to spread across the globe. Some argue that it travelled with sailors and merchants who would infect and affect local storytellers in distant communities. Others propose that the common experiences of human society inspire similar narratives even when there can have been no contact. That view is supported by the work of structuralists like Vladimir Propp, whose matrix of themes of Russian fairy tales can apply to all tales everywhere, and later by Levi Strauss's analysis of the deep structures underlying cultural rituals and myths.

Karen Armstrong's notion of the mythos — the metaphors and stories which deal with the timeless and the constant — points to the idea of a universal civilisation, not unlike the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious.

Jung in turn influenced the Freudian Bruno Bettelheim. In his psychoanalytic account The Uses of Enchantment, he argues that fairy tales offer a cathartic satisfaction to children by exaggerating their own fears and desires and then showing a happy ending. So Hansel and Gretel addresses separation anxiety; Snow White the fear of maternal rejection. And Cinderella, for him, is primarily about sibling rivalry. Cinderella triumphs over her ugly sisters just as the child reader fantasises about being the best loved in the family and the most deserving.

Writers like Warner, Tatar and Byatt have criticised his approach for being too limited in its insistence on a Freudian pattern. His interpretation of the many versions in which Cinderella flees the attentions of a lecherous father, for example, is that this is a manifestation of the oedipal phase. The wicked stepmother is a child's projection of the mother she must distance herself from in order to grow up.

Contemporary commentators recognise that incestuous fathers and usurping stepmothers spring from reality as well as from fantasy, and mistrust Bettelheim's manipulation of the stories to fit his thesis. But they share nonetheless his perceptions of the profound truths pervading the stories.

Cinderella is about the nature of motherhood itself. The girl who has to sleep in the ashes is, after all, in mourning for a mother who had promised to watch over her. A common feature of the stories is that Cinderella is helped by an animal, frequently one which is a source of food, just as a mother is. In many versions the helpful animal is killed by the stepmother, but its bones continue to provide succour and help to the beleaguered heroine. The mother's role is to nurture and protect her child, but also to die and make way for the next generation.

In the ancient Chinese version of the story, Yeh–hsien's helper is a two inch fish which, under her care, grows to ten inches before being eaten by the stepmother. It's hard to deny the phallic imagery — just as it is impossible to ignore the sexual innuendo inherent in that fundamental element of Cinderella: the slipper. Especially as in China, the source of the first Cinderella, tiny feet were a symbol of extreme beauty.

There is also a sexual inference in the notion of a perfect foot fitting exactly into a perfect receptacle. And of course it is the search for love, the finding of fulfilment, that is central to the landscape of fairy tale. These are stories of adolescence — that no–man's–land between childhood and adulthood where a young woman hovers between the protection of a father and that of a husband. Today's young women have infinitely wider options. But for Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel and those twelve endlessly dancing princesses there was really only one fate; their choice of a partner their only, and certainly their most crucial, decision.

The fairy tale heroine is beautiful and innocent because she is on the verge of womanhood: untried, unpenetrated. The prick of the finger that precipitates the Sleeping Beauty's downfall symbolises her loss of innocence — either the blood is menstrual, or it is the tearing of her hymen.

Cinderella's purity is contrasted not merely with the wickedness but also with the worldliness of her stepsisters. The blood that betrays them as it oozes through the too–tight shoe is the menstrual blood that marks them as women rather than girls, tarnished and soiled rather than virginal and pure.

Ultimately, though, it is Cinderella's true nature that allows her to outwit her persecutors and to be restored to her rightful place, after the dark years of degradation. Her transformation — from scullery maid to princess, from rags to riches — is probably the most loved, most abiding, most irresistible of the story's many motifs. It is the American dream, but also the socialist utopia, the glimmer of hope for the poor, the comforter of the oppressed who yearn for salvation.

So when you gasp at the most spectacular scene at the pantomime this year, don't feel too anxious at the worrying subtexts and the flight from reason. Rejoice, instead, at the revolutionary promise of a better world where the powerful are defeated by the weak and justice is seen to reign supreme. Let the glass slipper, the glittering chandelier and that dazzling, diaphanous gown be your enlightenment, and allow a momentary sense of wonder to lift your humanist heart.