France - Fairy tales and folk tales - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


19. Fairy tales and folk tales


Ruth B. Bottigheimer




Charles Perrault’s relatively brief Histoires, ou Contes du Temps Passes (1697), with their limited vocabulary and witty morals, together with Madame d’Aulnoy’s lengthy and lexically rich Contes des Fees (1697-8, collected in four volumes 1710-15), sowed the seeds for early modern and modern fairy tales and tales about fairies. Mme d’Aulnoy’s stories, which were initially the more popular, fit seventeenth-century notions of story-telling in terms of plot and language. For instance, her ‘The Yellow Dwarf’ opens with a princess disdainful of her suitors and continues with an unfortunate promise of betrothal to a physically deformed yellow dwarf. When the princess finally meets and falls in love with a worthy suitor, the valorous and virtuous King of the Gold Mines, the yellow dwarf kills him and the princess swoons and dies in sympathy. The tale ends distinctly dystopically: ‘The wicked dwarf was better pleased to see his princess void of life, than in the arms of another.’ Although Mme d’Aulnoy’s ‘Ram’ met an equally unhappy end, most of her tales about fairies ended with princes and princesses happily wed. Perrault’s tales gained popularity more slowly, but fit modern notions of fairy tales in a folk style and in the nineteenth century outpaced Mme d’Aulnoy’s tales in popularity, maintaining their precedence in the twenty-first century.

At a very early point, tales about fairies and certain kinds of fairy tales were identified as the products of women’s imaginations. Demonstrable qualitative differences exist between the tales women tell and those that men recount (Holbek 1987: 161ff), particularly with reference to the naming, speech and initiative of female characters. Children have often been assumed to have produced fairy tales, but whether children were ever significant contributors to the fairy-tale tradition, as the Abbe de Villiers suggested in 1699 (Warner 1991: 11) is doubtful.

For the French bookbuying public in the eighteenth century, fairy tales existed in three forms. The first consisted of chapbooks of the bibliotheque bleue, which foraged among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tales about fairies and fairy tales in search of fodder for their hungry presses and delivered French tales about fairies and fairy tales to a semiliterate and illiterate public in France ravenous for stories. It was a population that provided nurses who told fairy tales to children put in their care and who were, in part, responsible for the myth of a link between fairy tales and oral transmission by peasants. The second form comprised fantasy tales about fairies. These tales, with little or no moral or moralising component, had been composed for adult readers and often offered distinctly dystopic views of the human condition. Hence, their suitability for children was highly problematic. However, there existed a third form, intensely moralised fairy tales that were intended for child readers. Enlightenment pedagogy remained dissatisfied with magic in any form, and by the late 1770s and early 1780s, educators under the influence of Rousseau and Locke inveighed unendingly against the dangers of fantasy. It does not seem likely that those same educators ‘gradually alienated the child from the world of Perrault’s fairies ... and Mme Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beast” [based on evidence that] Mme de la Fite had openly attacked the highly moralised fairy tales of Mme Leprince de Beaumont’ (Davis 1987: 113). After all, the Grimms’ own informants were well acquainted with fairy tales whose origins lay in France.

In nineteenth-century France the market for fairy tales for children was limited to Perrault (Caradec 1977: 53ff) and a few translations of Grimms’ Tales. In general, France’s educational system, and hence its book market, was firmly closed against fantasy.