Fairytale tellers, part two: the founder of a new genre

Charles Perrault in 1671, painted by Philippe Lallemand

Without this seventeenth-century writer, the fairy tale as we know it today might never have have emerged from the oral tradition: he could in fact be rightly called the founder of a new and hugely successful literary genre.  I’m speaking here of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), writer of such famous gems as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood,  Puss in Boots, Bluebeard, Donkey Skin, and several others. The tales he collected and retold in his 1697 book, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Tales and Stories from Past Times), also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose) are from anonymous folk sources, embellished in his own sprightly, elegant, sharp and inimitable way, with ‘morals’ that are often raise an ironic eyebrow at the ways of the world.  His retellings of these traditional stories are famous throughout the world even today and have inspired many generations of other writers. Including me–in my own collection, I’ve chosen to retell Perrault’s Le Maître Chat ou le Chat botté (Master Cat or the Booted Cat), usually known in English as Puss in Boots.

From a wealthy bourgeois family, Perrault had an illustrious if occasionally turbulent career at the glittering court of King Louis XIV,  and was a prominent figure in the literary and cultural scene of the time. Retiring from government service at the age of sixty-seven, he wrote Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé , which was an immediate success and which inspired other of his literary contemporaries, such as Madame d’Aulnoy–who first coined the term contes de fées –(fairy tales)to create their own. And thus the craze for fairy tales was born.




The fairytale-tellers : part one

In the next few posts about French Fairy Tales, I’ll be writing a bit about some of the classic French fairytale-tellers who either wrote down, in their own words, stories they collected from anonymous folk sources; or who created new literary fairy tales using some elements borrowed from older stories.

France has had a long history of the writing-down of fairy tales: from at least the late seventeenth century onwards, French writers have interested themselves in le conte de fées, taking it from its origins in folklore and anonymous storytellers, and transforming it in the process into a huge literary phenomenon.  In later posts I will write about some of the individual original writers of the tales I’ve retold, but in this post I want to briefly introduce an extraordinary late eighteenth-century series of books which collected  together hundreds of these literary fairy tales from the previous 100 years as well as providing potted biographies of all their writers (more than forty in all). I’m speaking here about Le Cabinet des fées, which was compiled in 41 volumes by writer and editor Charles-Joseph Mayer (1751-1825), and published between 1785 and 1789.  It is a hugely important series as it not only helped to preserve many of the classic tales abut also spark continued interest in them not only in France but across the world, in the process inspiring many other collectors and writers of fairy tales well into the ninteenth century and beyond.

Entry on Charles Perrault

I am fortunate enough to own one of the volumes from Le cabinet–volume 37, which is the one contained the potted biographies of the writers. It’s in an edition from 1786 which is pretty battered but whose pages are still eminently readable. It was one of my sources for details about three writers: Charles Perrault, Madame Leprince de Beaumont and Madame de Villeneuve, who

Entry on Madame de Villeneuve

I will write about in a later post.

The style in these potted biographies is quite discursive and personal, and it’s fascinating to leaf through the book and read about all these many writers who formed part of such an important literary movement whose influence continues to this day. And one of the things that struck me as I did that was how many of those writers were women; this was a literary movement in which female writers could enjoy as much attention and inspire as many followers as male writers.  And they could do so openly, under their own names, not under male pseudonyms.

French fairy tale travelling, by Lorena Carrington

Today I’m welcoming my wonderful co-creator, Lorena Carrington, to this blog, to write about the travels in France that helped to inspire her glorious illustrations in French Fairy Tales. All photographs in this post are by Lorena.

French fairy tale travelling, by Lorena Carrington

In late September last year, I touched down in France with a backpack, camera bag, and a draft manuscript of Sophie’s fairy tales. I was so thrilled to get the chance to work with Sophie, and happily circumstances (and the support of my family) aligned in such a way that I was able to travel to France to photograph the landscapes and chateaux in which her retellings are set.

My time there seemed to be peppered with the most wonderful and delightful book related coincidences. Our friends happened to be staying an hour’s drive away from Azay-le-Rideau, so I had a friendly welcome and enthusiastic tour guides for the first few days. The first chateau they took me to was once owned by the man who was said to have inspired the Marquis de Carabas from Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots. The hotel I booked in the town of Azay-le-Rideau turned out to be the same one Sophie stayed when she visited, and from which you can see the chateau peeking out from between trees at the end of the curved cobble stone street. Crows followed me, through both France and Ireland, and allowed me to create the flock that surround Crow Castle with birds from almost every place I visited.

Azay-le-Rideau was the main reason I was in France. It is the chateau in which Sophie set her retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so it was extraordinary to have the chance to create illustrations from the very place the tale is set. The town is popular with tourists – cobbled-stoned and romantic – but I was there at the very tail end of the season so, while waiters and shopkeepers looked tired, it never felt crushed with holiday makers.

It’s a strange and marvellous experience to spend a week on one’s own in a place where you can manage to order coffee and a croissant (barely) but have no other opportunities for conversation. I was alone with my camera in hand and Sophie’s tales in my head. Free to roam as I wished, I spent a full day exploring the Azay-le-Rideau chateau and gardens. I had explored for a brief couple of hours with friends Jim and Yvonne the day before, but now I had the place to myself (and a hundred or so other tourists). The wonderful thing about exploring on your own, surrounded by a language you can only pick the odd word from, is that you feel a bit like a ghost. I could wander from room to room, doubling back when I wanted, pausing to spend ten minute photographing the way a spotlight falls on velvet brocade and feathers, counting the gold stitches on red wall paper. I tucked myself into corners, waiting for a room to clear to I could get a clear shot of a painted fresco that covered the opposite wall, lingered on staircases to catch soft window light grazing across rough stone. I stood in the rain photographing ripples in the moat, and crouched awkwardly in wet grass to peer under hanging branches. It also gave me the chance to notice so many small details that I may not have if I hadn’t been alone: the still-fresh hay smell from the plaited straw wall coverings, the feel of carved hand rails worn smooth by thousands of hands over hundreds of years, and all the tiny beasties carved into stone and wood.

While at Azay, I collected dead leaves and twigs, and took them back to my hotel bathroom later to photograph on a makeshift lightbox (my iPad). These small pieces of detritus from the grounds made up the Beast who lived there. I’m always conscious of the origins of objects that go into the creatures I make. They are made of the landscapes they inhabit, and none have ever been as specific as the creation of the Beast.

In the lead up to the release of French Fairy Tales I’ll share some stories about the specific illustrations, but for now I’ll leave you with a detail of the Beast in his castle.


My favourite French castle, an inspirational fairy tale setting

Today I want to write  a bit about the castle that for me, since childhood, has represented the absolute epitome of the classic French fairy tale setting: and that is the gorgeous small chateau of  Azay-le-Rideau, in the Loire Valley.  Of course the Loire Valley is full of beautiful castles; but this one is my favourite of them, indeed it’s my top favourite in all of France. Not only does this absolute jewel of a chateau represent for me that epitome of fairy tale magic and charm, but it’s also the setting for the Beast’s castle in my retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which is the longest story in French Fairy Tales.

Chateau d’Azay le Rideau, September 2018. Photo by Sophie Masson.

Built in the early 16th century on the ruins of the previous fortress suited there, the castle of Azay-le-Rideau has a tumultuous history. It’s situated  within the charming little village of the same name, down a small road away from the main highway, amongst green fields and little woods. The castle is set on a small lake, in superb parkland, and I’ve visited it a number of times, the most recent being in September 2018. That time, in a glorious early autumn with blue skies and trees still green but starting to turn gold, we stayed in a lovely little hotel in the village, a few steps away from the castle. At the time we were there, an extraordinary, eerily beautiful art installation called ‘Les enchantements d’Azay‘, by artists Piet.sO  and Peter Keene, was displayed in the castle. Together, the castle, the parkland gardens, the art installation, and the amazing, magical feel of the whole place, were just the most perfect elements to help create the Beast’s world.

It isn’t just in Beauty and the Beast, however, that you will see the enchanting influence of Azay-le-Rideau; for in the next post, Lorena will be writing about how her own stay there and her visits to other places in the Loire Valley, became the source for her glorious illustrations in French Fairy Tales.



The five tales…

In this post today I’m listing the five tales which you’ll discover in French Fairy Tales, with a brief introduction to each. I’ll tell you more about sources and inspirations and settings as time goes on, and in the future I’ll also be making an illustrated video talk which will delve more into the background of each individual tale, but this is just by way of a short introduction.

I chose to translate and retell these particular five tales because each of them means something important to me–whether because of my French heritage and memories, my family connections, my cultural and literary interests, or everything together! A couple of them are well-known classic fairy tales which I’ve translated and retold in a fresh new way;  the other three are regional fairy tales, not known in English-speaking countries, but which I hope might become much better-known through French Fairy Tales!

So here are the five tales:

The King of the Crows: Well-known in France, but unknown in English-speaking countries, this beautiful and unusual tale from the rural heart of the southwest province of Gascony has an extraordinarily poetic, imaginative quality. It has a very special place for me as it’s linked not only to my father’s family homelands but also in my imagination to the place of enchantment of my French childhood. My translation is the first into English.

Beauty and the Beast: One of the world’s most beloved fairy tales, here in a retelling which combines elements from two classic French original versions, adding my own twist to create a magical, romantic tale that has the texture of a novel and the elegance of a short story, with a setting inspired by a real-life castle in the Loire Valley (which Lorena and I will both write about in posts soon!)

The Magic Gifts: This rollicking, clever tale from the picturesque  Pays Basque, the French Basque Country, has never been translated into English before.  It highlights bravery, cunning, kindness—and the usefulness of magic tools! My family and ancestral roots in the Basque Country made this a must for me to choose for the collection.

The Booted Cat, or Puss in Boots: This sprightly new retelling, directly translated  by me from the original, showcases the playful, intriguing and mischievously worldly tone of Charles Perrault’s famous fairy tale. One of my childhood favourites!

The Queen of the Korrigans: this never-before-translated tale of the unexpected rewards of kindness and the strange, magical world of the Breton fairies known as korrigans, features a surprising twist. My love of Celtic culture and knowledge of Brittany inspired and informed this retelling.

Something about French Fairy Tales…

Over the next month or so, I’ll be posting bits and pieces about my forthcoming collection, French Fairy Tales. With magical, extraordinary illustrations by Lorena Carrington, the book will be published by  Serenity Press in late October, and I am so looking forward to its release! (You can also pre-order it right now from the Serenity Press bookstore).

So, for this very first post about French Fairy Tales, and to set the scene as it were, here, below,  is the back cover blurb for the book. In future posts, I’ll reveal the identity of the five stories I chose to translate and retell, tell you something about their sources and inspiration, and join with Lorena in writing about a very special magical place in France, which not only inspired the setting of my retelling of a great classic fairy tale, but also became the primary source for Lorena’s creation of the extraordinary visual world of the book.

France is classic fairytale territory. Not just because it’s where many of the most well-known and beloved fairy tales were first written down in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or because it’s where the term ‘conte de fées’ was invented. France, with its diverse regional cultures, glorious castles, gorgeous countryside and tumultuous history, lives and breathes fairy tale in a uniquely powerful way.

French Fairy Tales collects and retells five stories from stories from different parts of France: some well-known, others newly translated into English. Full of adventure, magic, mystery and romance, with a light-hearted dash of humour and a sprinkling of surprise, these stories feature unforgettable characters: tragic shape-shifters, monstrous creatures, mischievous tricksters, witty youth – and many different kinds of fairies!

Chosen, translated and superbly retold by award-winning French-Australian writer Sophie Masson and enchantingly visualised by acclaimed illustrator Lorena Carrington, these stories will transport you into the potently magical heart of the French fairy tale tradition.