Perceived as “fairy tales,” Perrault’s tales seem disarmingly simple and innocuous, and perhaps too familiar, to interest any but the youngest readers. Nevertheless, they bear considerable historical significance. Although neither the first book written for children nor one written solely for them, Perrault’s Fairy Tales is a landmark, a collection of stories that offer their lessons by employing satire and imaginative appeal rather than the overwhelming didacticism found in most early children’s literature. They entertain more than they preach.
Students of French culture may be interested in knowing that these tales were once the subject of heated debate. By 1697, Perrault and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux had been arguing for ten years concerning the moral value of contemporary literature (espoused by Perrault and many female writers) and classical learning (supported by Boileau-Despréaux and most male intellectuals). Perrault’s Fairy Tales, drawn from folklore and popular short stories, embodied the “modern” ideas and added new fuel to the quarrel. Unlike classical mythology, Perrault’s stories allow no evildoer to go unpunished. While classical myths chasten irreverence for the gods and the fates, other evils, especially cruelty, often incur no punishment. Blue Beard is executed and the fairies offer justice, while Hera, for example, is savage toward her often unwitting rivals for Zeus’ affection.
One of Perrault’s claims, and the one that most enraged his critics, was that contemporary society was more humane than ancient civilization had been, particularly in the attitudes expressed toward women. Among other things, Perrault’s tales feature many female protagonists. Of the eight, only...
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Although some men composed the popular fairy novellas, they were mostly the work of women. Originally, just like Perrault’s Fairy Tales, the works of the fairy writers were meant to be read aloud or told from memory like folktales. Stock situations, such as that of a beautiful maiden being forced to marry against her will, were elaborated upon and interwoven with other elements to produce stories that took an hour or more in the telling. Many of these narratives were eventually published, either individually or in collections. Judging from those that were published, storytellers would often compliment their friends or comment on recent events through oblique references within the story; in addition to such commentary, the authors primarily strove for wit, satire, playfulness, and graceful language. The most famous and successful of these adult fairy writers was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. Her Contes de Fées (1690) and Les Fées à la mode (1695), translated together as Fairy Tales by the Countess d’Aulnoy (1856), are still widely read in French and are occasionally retold for children in English. The best known of these tales in English are “The White Cat” (“La Chatte blanche”) and “The Yellow Dwarf” (“Le Nain jaune”), both of which were popular in the nineteenth century.
Charles Perrault, as a moralist, drew upon such works as Aulnoy’s vehicles for philosophical examinations of human behavior and thought. Another influence on him was an older contemporary, Jean de La Fontaine, whose fables, written between 1668 and 1695, were similarly intended both to appeal to young readers and to offer insight to older ones. Perrault adapted La Fontaine’s simplicity of language and brevity of plot for his new genre, the fairy (or nursery) tale. Later writers took up Perrault’s ethical fairy stories, including moralist and educator Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, now most remembered for her children’s version of Suzanne-Gabrielle de Villeneuve’s 1737 adult fairy romance “Beauty and the Beast,” (“La Belle et la Bête”).