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.

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.