Perrault's Fairy Tales

by Charles Perrault

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Perrault’s Fairy Tales consists of eight short stories, modeled on French folktales, with morals appended to each. Five of the tales are almost universally familiar to English readers: “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au bois dormant”), “Little Red Riding Hood” (“Le Petit chaperon rouge”), “Puss in Boots” (“Le Maître Chat: Ou, Le Chat botté”), “Cinderella” (“Cendrillon: Ou, La petite pantoufle de verre”), and “Tom Thumb,” sometimes called “Hop o’ My Thumb” (“Le Petit Poucet”). The others, “Blue Beard” (“La Barbe bleue”), “The Fairies” (“Les Fées”), and “Riquet with the Tuft” (“Riquet à la houppe”), are not as widely known in English.

Although scholars debate the actual portion of folk material in Charles Perrault’s collection, the stories generally resemble folktales in their brevity and matter-of-fact reporting of events. The action begins immediately, following the formulaic “once upon a time” (“il était un fois”) in all the tales except “Puss in Boots.” As with folktales, the stories emphasize action and dialogue, making them well suited for oral presentation. Although often called “fairy tales,” only four of the eight—“Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “The Fairies,” and “Riquet with the Tuft”—feature fairies as characters.

While all the tales are widely read, not all have achieved equal popularity. In particular, readers have often found “Blue Beard” disturbing. A young woman is married by her family to a grotesque but wealthy man with a blue beard. When his bride disobeys his command not to enter a certain storeroom in his castle, she discovers several bodies—those of his previous wives, whom he has murdered for similarly disobeying him. She survives only because her brothers arrive at the moment that Blue Beard is about to kill her.

As the inclusion of morals suggests, the tales deal with ethical issues. Good is always rewarded, and evil is always punished. Modern readers, however, often miss the satire that is often present. For example, the good daughter in “The Fairies” shows kindness to a fairy and is rewarded with magically produced precious stones; a prince soon falls in love with her, but only after he notices her jewels. The morals themselves are more obviously sardonic. One of the morals to “Blue Beard” remarks that such cruelty as Blue Beard shows could no longer occur, since modern men know better than to expect the impossible of women; whether the impossibility is for women not to be curious or for them to obey men slavishly is unclear.

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