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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