French Legends, Tales, and Fairy Stories is a collection of twenty-three traditional French narratives, grouped under four categories: “Tales of the French Epic Heroes,” “French Courtly Tales of the Middle Ages,” “Legends from the French Provinces,” and “French Fairy Stories.” The first two categories consist of tales retold from written sources in medieval France; the latter two are derived from oral traditions that are still current. Several of the stories in the first three groups prove useful in understanding French literature and culture, among them “Roland and Oliver” and “The Battle of Roncevalles,” both stemming from the Old French La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland); and such tales as “Aucassin and Nicolette,” a widely read love story, and the legend of “Mélusine,” whose title character is credited, in folklore, with many landmarks in the neighborhood of Poitou, including the castle of Lusignan. The final section of the book presents several French fairy tales that are interesting partially because of their resemblance to (and differences from) other familiar tales, such as “Ripopet-Barabas,” whose plot and central characters recall those of “Rumpelstiltskin.”
The tales are short enough to be read in one sitting by young readers, averaging approximately ten pages. (The longest is “The Miller and the Ogre,” at fifteen pages.) The tales in the first section all come from the “Matter of France,” the cycle of legends and tales concerning Charlemagne and his immediate successors, once important in helping to form a distinct French national consciousness. For example, “Roland and Oliver” and “The Battle of Roncevalles,” both suggest that later generations perceived the age of Charlemagne as a golden age of passion, pride, and derring-do, a heritage that helped define what it meant to be French. The section devoted to courtly tales presents some of the best-known stories of love and chivalry from the Middle Ages. The final two sections deal more properly with folklore than with a literary heritage. They contain tales that are still told both to children and to adults as part of social gatherings in French villages, particularly on long winter evenings.