The term fairy tale, now used as a generic label for magical stories for children, comes from the French term conte de fées, coined for a group of 17th-century tales written for adults. These stories have come down through the years in simplified forms adapted for children: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Queen Cat, The White Deer, and Donkeyskin, among others. They have their roots deep in the oral folk tradition, but they are not anonymous folk tales themselves . . . they are literary works by a group of Parisian authors, enormously popular in their day, who can, in some respects, be compared with modern writers of fantasy fiction. In this article, we’re going to go back to the later days of the reign of Louis XIV and take a closer look at the fairy tales of 17th- and 18th-century France.
First, we need to distinguish between the oral folk tales and the literary fairy tales of Europe. Magical folk tales, of course, have been part of the storytelling tradition since the dawn of time . . . including stories of fairies, sorcerers, witches, and human folk under enchantment. Folk tales are humbler stories than the great cosmological myth cycles or long heroic Romances, and as such have been passed through the generations largely by the lower caste portions of society: women, peasants, slaves, and outcast groups such as the gypsies. The literary fairy tale, by contrast, began as an art form of the upper classes -- made possible by advances in printing methods and rising literacy.
Literary fairy tales borrow heavily from the oral folk tales of the peasant tradition (as well from myth, Romance, and literary sources like Apuleius’s Golden Ass and Boccaccio’s Decameron), but these motifs are crafted and reworked through a single author’s imagination. The earliest literary fairy tales we know of come from 16th-century Italy: Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli (published in 1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone (published posthumously in 1634-36). Basile’s work in particular was an influence on the French fairy tale enthusiasts one hundred years later; and his book contains the earliest known written versions of such classic tales as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Puss in Boots, and many others. Creators of literary fairy tales from the 17th-century onward include writers whose works are still widely read today: Charles Perrault (17th-century France), Hans Christian Andersen (19th-century Denmark), George Macdonald and Oscar Wilde (19th-century England). The Brothers Grimm (19th-century Germany) blurred the line between oral and literary tales by presenting their German "household tales" as though they came straight from the mouths of peasants, though in fact they revised these stories to better reflect their own Protestant ethics.
It is interesting to note that these canonized writers are all men, since this is a reversal from the oral storytelling tradition, historically dominated by women. Indeed, Straparola, Basile, Perrault, and even the Brothers Grimm made no secret of the fact that their source material came largely or entirely from women storytellers. Yet we are left with the impression that women dropped out of the history of fairy tales once they became a literary form, existing only in the background as an anonymous old peasant called Mother Goose.
In my usually-reliable favorite reference volume, Maria Leach’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth, and Legend (in the French Folklore section signed by Marius Barbeau), we find this snide but common reference to the women writers of 17th-century Paris, in the heyday of the French fairy tale: "Folktales once more found their way among the literati when Charles Perrault published Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oyle, in 1697. Imitators, mostly among women, followed his example, the best among them the baronne d’Aulnoy (1698). In all this derivative literature, the traditional stories served as a pretext to ‘belle-lettres’ according to the artificial tastes of the period; they were rearranged, developed, and pampered, yet became household familiars." Dismissive statements of this sort have stood unchallenged until fairy tale scholars in recent years (Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, and Lewis Seifert foremost among them) began to reclaim the history of French contes de fées by studying the actual publications of the period, along with critical works, diaries, and correspondence.
Thus we now know that when Charles Perrault first turned to writing fairy tales, he was joining an already established, immensely popular fairy tale movement that had begun over twenty years earlier, at least as early as 1670, among a group of nonconformist (and somewhat scandalous) upper-class women. Madame d’Aulnoy, contrary to the citation above, didn’t "imitate" Perrault -- she pre-dated him. D’Aulnoy was famed throughout the city for the stories she told in her rue Saint-benoit salon beginning in 1685 . . . tales which she began to write down and publish in 1690. (Perrault, who moved in the same social circles, would have known these tales quite well.) Perrault deserves his place in history for his lovely renditions of classic folklore themes . . . but that place is far more interesting when we look at the entire movement he was a part of and responding to.
Prior to the 17th century, French folk tales were considered the vulgar province of the peasantry, although members of the upper-classes often knew such tales via nurses and servants. In the mid-17th century, a vogue for magical tales emerged among the intellectuals who frequented the salons of Paris. These salons were regular gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where women and men could gather together to discuss the issues of the day. At court, contact between men and women was socially constrained and ritualized; and many topics of conversation were considered inappropriate for well-bred ladies.
In the 1630s, disaffected women began to gather in their own living rooms (salons) in order to discuss the topics of their choice: arts and letters, politics (carefully, for the Sun King’s spies were everywhere), and social matters of immediate concern to the women of their class: marriage, love, financial and physical independence, and access to education. This was a time when women were barred from schools and universities; when arranged marriages were the norm, divorce virtually unheard of, birth control methods primitive, and death by childbirth common. These women, and the sympathetic men who were increasingly attracted to their lively gatherings, came to be called précieuses, for they perfected a witty, inventive, précieux mode of conversation . . . rather like the bon mots popular in the Aesthetic movement of Oscar Wilde’s day. (Although "precious" is the English translation of prècieux, the French term didn’t carry derogatory connotations.) Some of the most gifted women writers of the period came out of these early salons (such as Madeleine de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette), which encouraged women’s independence and pushed against the gender barriers that circumscribed their lives.
The salonnières argued particularly for love, tendresse, and intellectual compatibility between the sexes, opposing the system of arranged marriages in which, at its worst, women of their class were basically sold off to the highest bidder. They railed against a culture that permitted men to take lovers while demanding that women remain faithful to men they’d never wanted to marry in the first place. They sought to control their own money, and property, and to travel without chaperones. Most of all, they wanted the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and talents. Encouraged by the success of the salons, women began to write fiction, poetry, and plays in unprecedented numbers . . . and to earn a living through this work which enabled them to remain unmarried or to establish separate households. The salons became quite influential . . . fashions grew out of them, artistic ideas, and even political movements. (The Fronde, an ill-fated nobleman’s uprising, was plotted in the early salons, and
Some time in the middle of the 17th century, a passion for conversational parlor games based on the plots of old folk tales swept through the salons. Each salonnière was called upon to retell an old tale or rework an old theme, spinning clever new stories that not only showcased verbal agility and imagination, but also slyly commented on the conditions of aristocratic life. Great emphasis was placed on a mode of delivery that seemed natural and spontaneous . . . but in fact people devised and practiced their stories before they trotted them out in public, and a style emerged that was both archly sophisticated and faux-naif.
Today, these tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels . . . but to audiences in 17th-century France the rich rococo language of the tales seemed cutting-edge and deliciously subversive . . . in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (an all-male institution). In the famous "Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns," Boileau, Racine, and other literary men insisted that French literature should strive to emulate the classical works of Greece and Rome, while the Moderns (Charles Perrault among them) believed that the homegrown source material of French folk lore and myth could inspire a vigorous new literature, free of antiquated rules. (Stories of ogres in seven-league boots were the true inheritors of the Homeric tradition, Perrault argued, not odes composed in Latin.) The king eventually ruled in favor of the Ancients, but Modern literary experimentation continued to go on with popular (if not critical) support . . . particularly in the world of the salons, where women writers often had no choice but to boldly take up the Modern cause. Largely self-educated, few of them could read and write in Latin.
The rococo language of the fairy tales also served another important function . . . disguising the subversive subtext of the stories and sliding them past the court censors. Critiques of court life (and even of the king) were embedded in flowery utopian tales and in dark, sharply dystopian ones. Not surprisingly, the tales by women often featured young (but clever) aristocratic girls whose lives were controlled by the arbitrary whims of fathers, kings, and elderly wicked fairies . . . as well as tales in which groups of wise fairies (i.e., intelligent, independent women) stepped in and put all to rights.
D’Aulnoy, as her contemporaries note, was a major force behind the fairy tale vogue and the first to publisher her salon tales, but she was soon followed by a number of other writers (Mme. de Murat, Mlle. L’H’éritier, Mlle. Bernard, Mlle. de la Force, etc.), most of whom knew and were influenced by each other to varying degrees. Although d’Aulnoy’s name is largely left out of the canon (you’ll find numerous Perrault collections, for example, and none devoted to d’Aulnoy), her tales are still retold today, republished in modern bowdlerized forms: The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, The Yellow Dwarf, Bluecrest, The Royal Ram, and other magical works.
Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is almost as fantastical as any of her stories. Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville was born in Normandy in 1650, and received a modest convent education . . . arranged for her by Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a wealthy aristocrat who was thirty years her senior. When Marie-Catherine was 15 or 16, the Baron abducted her from the convent (with the connivance of her father, who profited financially) and a forced marriage ensued -- from which, in that time and place, there was no possibility of divorce.
The Baron was famed for his dissolute habits, including drunkenness, an addiction to gambling, and sexual irregularities. Three long years later, it looked as though the girl might be freed from her odious husband when the Baron was arrested and charged with a crime of high treason against the king. Then the two men who had implicated the Baron recanted their testimony under torture. These men were discovered to be the lovers of the young Baroness and her beautiful mother, and it was now believed that the whole affair had been cooked up between the four of them. The Baron was released, the men were executed, and d’Aulnoy and her mother fled to Spain.
The two adventurous women spent the next several years traveling the Continent, and may have been spying for Louis XIV as a way of regaining his favor. Baroness d’Aulnoy received royal permission to return to Paris in 1685, where she promptly set up a literary salon in the rue San-benoit. Intelligent, beautiful, and tinged with an aura of mystery, she soon formed a glittering group around her of nonconformist women and men (and then became embroiled in another scandal when a close friend killed her husband).
Henriette-Julie de Castelnau, Comtesse de Murat, was part of the d’Aulnoy circle . . . and another writer of magical tales with a colorful history. Born in Brittany in 1670, she came to Paris at the age of sixteen upon her marriage to the Comte de Murat, quickly making a name for herself with her wit and insouciance. Her high spirits landed her in trouble when a tale she wrote was recognized as a thinly veiled satire of the king’s mistress; she was subsequently denounced by her husband for wild behavior, immodesty, and rumors of lesbianism. Banished by the king to the provincial town of Loche at the age of twenty-four, de Murat constantly petitioned to be released from this sentence, to no avail. She was kept confined to a Loche chateau for all but one year of the rest of her life . . . returning to Paris only when King Louis died, just before her own death.
Yet even in confinement, the Comtesse managed to maintain close contact with her women friends, and continued to play an active role in the Parisian fairy tale movement. She wrote and published a large number of novels and stories, and set up her own literary salon (dubbed the Académie du domicile), recreating the atmosphere of Paris in Loche and scandalizing the town. Her best known tales include Bearskin, in which a young king falls in love with a princess-in-exile disguised as a big brown bear. The bear wins the young man’s heart through the elegance of her conversation and the erudition of her beautiful letters and poems. Unlike Disney-style fairy tales today, where a beautiful face is a girl’s main attraction (think of Cinderella, or the film "Pretty Woman"), this king falls in love before he discovers the royal maiden inside the gentle bear -- in fact, he agonizes over his unnatural attraction to the animal and is greatly relieved when a fairy finally assures him that his beloved is actually human.
Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon, by contrast to the authors above, was able to lead a more self-determined life . . . partly because she was born into a family of scholars who saw nothing untoward in her desire to be a writer, and partly because she followed the example of her mentor, the writer and salonnière Madeleine de Scudéry, by refusing all offers of marriage. (A wealthy woman’s patronage and the income from her writing made this possible.) Charles Perrault was her uncle, as well as her colleague in the world of the salons; she was also close to de Murat, to whom she dedicated her first major collection of tales. Eventually she inherited de Scudéry’s famous salon upon her mentor’s death, and ran it with great success as her own literary reputation grew.
Scholars are now divided on whether L’Héritier (an early champion of fairy tale themes) influenced Perrault or whether it was Perrault who influenced his niece. It hardly matters, for in all likelihood the two of them influenced each other -- they were friends, they moved in the same social circles, they wrote fairy tales during the same stretch of years, and they drew their themes from a common stock of oral folk tales, as well as from Basile. L’Héritier is best remembered for The Discreet Princess, a wry and charming tale in which a king locks his three daughters away in order to safeguard their chastity.
An evil prince from a nearby kingdom manages to trick his way into the tower, and then to seduce and impregnate each of the foolish older princesses. The youngest, Finette, is a clever girl, and more than a match for the honey-tongued prince. "Once this devious prince had locked up her sisters," writes L’Héritier, "he went in search of Finette in her room, which she had locked against him. He spoke the same compliments at her door that he had used with each of her sisters, but this princess was not so easy to dupe, and did not respond. . . . The wicked prince lost his patience. Fetching a large wooden log, he broke the door in. He found Finette armed with a large hammer, her eyes glittering with rage. ‘Prince,’ she said, ‘if you approach me, then I shall split open your skull!" In the end, the prince is outwitted, killed in a trap he has laid for Finette, and she marries the prince’s gentle brother, the new heir to the neighboring kingdom.
Catherine Bernard, born in Rouen in 1662, was not accepted at the court, but became a part of the fairy tale circle and attended L’Héritier’s salons. She resisted marriage in order to devote herself to a literary career, writing poems, novels, and tragedies known to have influenced Voltaire. As a fantasist, she’s best known for her version of an oral folk tale called Riquet of the Tuft, published around the same time as Perrault’s rendition of the story. Both versions are good ones, and thus it’s interesting to compare the two, demonstrating the differences in tales by men and women of the period.
In Perrault’s charming retelling, a beautiful princess is cursed with stupidity by a malevolent fairy and then encounters Riquet of the Tuft, a courteous but ugly prince who gives her the gift of intelligence in exchange for her promise to marry him in one year’s time. During that year, the now-dazzling princess entirely forgets gentle Riquet of the Tuft . . . until she encounters him once again on the day she had promised to wed him. She attempts to weasel out of the promise, using all her new-found cleverness . . . until he assures her that it is quite within her power to make him as beautiful as herself, provided she agrees to love him. She does so, Riquet changes shape, and now he’s as handsome as he is courteous. Perrault then ends the tale with the suggestion that Riquet may have not changed his shape after all, but merely appeared to be beautiful to the princess once her love was pledged.
Catherine Bernard’s version of the old folk tale is a considerably darker one, and takes a dimmer view of her heroine’s prospects for happiness. The lovely but stupid princess encounters Riquet, an ugly and bossy little gnome, ruler of a wealthy gnome kingdom in a realm deep underground. He gives the girl a spell to chant that will render her intelligent, and then informs her that she has no choice but to marry him in one year’s time. The princess soon grows witty and charming, suitors flock to court her, and she loses her heart to a man who is very handsome but has no wealth. Secretly, she ponders the dreadful fate that is awaiting her, and the day finally comes when she must give herself to the horrid gnome. Her deep distaste for the marriage is so obvious that Riquet presents her with a choice: she can marry him of her own free will and retain her new intelligence, or she can return to her father’s house as stupid as she was before she met him. Loathe to give up her intelligence, and fearful of losing her handsome lover’s regard, she chooses the lesser evil and marries Riquet of the Tuft. The tale continues after the marriage, in Riquet’s kingdom under the ground. Angered by his wife’s continued aversion, the gnome avoids her company . . . and she concocts a plan to bring her lover to the palace. Her plan succeeds, and for a time she revels in stolen happiness . . . but the sudden bloom in her cheeks awakens her gnome-husband’s suspicions. After various machinations, Riquet discovers his wife’s secret, and he takes ingenious revenge by turning her beloved into a replica of himself. "Thus," writes Bernard, "she lived with two husbands instead of one and could no longer distinguish between them, living in fear of mistaking the object of her hatred for the object of her love." Whereas Perrault’s version ends with a moral ("We find that what we love is wondrous fair."), Bernard’s version ends with a warning: "In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway."
A number of Modern, nonconformist men frequented the leading women’s salons, contributing fairy tales of their own as part of the conversational games. The Chevalier de Mailly and Jean de Préchac went on to publish some wonderful tales, as did Charles Perrault, already well known as a poet and polemicist. Born in Paris in 1628 to a distinguished family of high-achievers, Perrault’s father had been a lawyer and member of the Paris Parliament, and his four brothers forged glittering careers in the areas of theology, architecture, and law. Perrault became a lawyer himself after passing examinations at the University of Orleans, but he gave it up to become a court administrator three years later. As secretary to Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Sun King’s powerful finance minister, he was able to wield his influence in support of culture and the arts. (He was one of the men in charge of the design of the Louvre and Versailles, for instance.) He began to write poetry, essays, and panegyrics for the king, and was elected to the French Academy in 1671. In 1672, Perrault married Marie Guichon and the couple had three sons, but Marie died of smallpox a few years later and he never remarried.
Losing his government post upon Colbert’s death, Perrault turned to writing full-time. He was one of the leading initiators of the "Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns" in the 1680s, and in the 1690s he composed several poems and tales using folklore themes. He produced three magical tales in verse, then a prose version of The Sleeping Beauty, and finally (in 1697) his famous collection Contes du temps passé, published under the name of his son: Pierre Perrault Darmancour. The reason for this pseudonym has been hotly debated by fairy tale scholars. Some say he wanted to distance himself from the tales, so different from his "respectable" works, but Jack Zipes posits the most credible theory, judging by the available evidence: Perrault was masking his identity, says Zipes, largely so that he would not be blamed for re-igniting the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns by publishing stories which clearly exemplified his Modern ideas. "Numerous critics," Zipes points out, "have regarded Perrault’s tales as written directly for children, but they overlook the fact that no children’s literature per se existed at that time and that most writers of fairy tales were composing and reciting their tales for their peers in the literary salons.
Certainly if Perrault intended them to make a final point in the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, he obviously had an adult audience in mind that would understand his humor and the subtle manner in which he transformed folklore superstition to convey his position about the ‘modern’ development of French civility." Perrault turned the blunt language and earthy imagery of peasant folk stories into tales that were urbane, aristocratic, stylish and highly refined, disguising his more subversive ideas behind a façade of light, dry humor. His stories fit the fashion of the time, yet contain a few marked difference from those of the female salonnières. In particular (and despite his own friendships with out-spoken, independent women), the princesses in Perrault’s tales tend to be passive, helpless creatures, praised for their beauty, modesty, and quiet obedience. His princes stride off to seek their fortunes, outwitting ogres and hacking through briars, while the princesses sleep or sit in the ashes, virtuously awaiting rescue. Compare Bluebeard’s wife, lying prostrate before him in tears while her brothers ride in to save the day, with clever Finette, in The Discreet Princess created by Perrault’s niece L’Héritier, waving her hammer at the prince and shouting "Come closer and I’ll open your skull!"
Rather than beginning the rage for fairy tales, publication of Perrault’s collection in 1697 came close to the end of the "first wave" of fairy tales . . . if only because many of the major writers had either died or been banished from Paris by the early 18th-century. Perrault died in 1703, d’Aulnoy in 1705, Bernard in 1712; de Mailly was in trouble with the king, de Murat was still under house-arrest in Loche, and de la Force had been banished to a convent for publishing "impious" works. Exotic stories from the Orient became the new fashion in the next decades -- such as Antoine Gallard’s phenomenally successful translation of The Thousand and One Nights, and Arabian-style pastiche by men such as Abbé Jean Paul Bignon. The Oriental stories comprise what’s called the "second wave" of fairy tales, and lack the element of social critique that characterized the earlier stories. The "third wave" of fairy tales began with of a host of parodies and burlesques, such as those by Anthony Hamilton and Claude Philippe de Caylus in the 1730s and 1740s. By the middle of the century, however, several writers emerged who were clearly influenced by the "first wave" of fairy tale writers, such as the prolific Mademoiselle de Lubert, best known for Princess Camion, and Madame de Villeneuve, author of the original Beauty and the Beast.
Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who published in London from the 1750s onward, was one of the first French writers to recast these tales as children’s fiction. Working as a governess in England (after leaving her marriage to a dissolute libertine), she borrowed liberally from earlier writers to create stories that were moral and instructive, publishing them in the new genre of magazines for young people. De Beaumont rewrote de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast for an English girls’ magazine, shortening the narrative and imbuing the text with clear moral lessons. Despite her didactic tendencies, de Beaumont’s prose had a simple enchantment, and it is her version of Beauty and the Beast, rather than de Villeneuve’s rococco narrative, that people know today. She wasn’t the only one rewriting and publishing tales by earlier writers. Throughout the 18th century, stories by d’Aulnoy, de Murat, L’Héritier, Perrault and other salonnières began to find their way into the pages of the Bibliotheque Bleue -- a series of cheap and popular chapbooks distributed by traveling book peddlers. Intended for readers of the lower classes, the tales were shortened and simplified -- and in this form, they started to slip right back into the oral folk tradition. Thus dialogue, details, characters, and plots original to the salon writers can now be found diffused into the oral folk tales of France and other countries.