Classic Children's Literature

Completed: Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals by Charles Perrault

I can’t believe it’s here already, but today marks the halfway point for the Classic Children’s Literature Event. Already! A gentle reminder to those reading, the discussion for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is planned for the weekend of April 21-23–just next weekend! (Though I won’t point fingers if you’re late.) I’d better get reading…

Cover: The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles PerraultTales and Stories of the Past with Morals [Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé]
Charles Perrault
(France, 1697)
Translator: Charles Welsh

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” paragraph 2)

One fairy tale often leads to another, and after completing my “Beauty and the Beast” binge, it was time to move on to some other tales. Charles Perrault’s Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals [Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé] is not only the oldest title on my Children’s Classics project list, but it also contains versions of some well-known fairy tales plus a few others that are less familiar.

It is likely that Perrault did not invent these tales, but rather that, like the Grimm brothers, he retold stories already in oral circulation. Or perhaps he merely published them; the end note in the edition I read references Les Contes de ma mère l’Oie avant Perrault (Paris, E. Dentu, 1878), in which author Charles Deulin takes the view that the stories were likely written down by Perrault’s young (10 0r 11) son, from memory of tales his father had told him. In this theory, the elder Perrault had collected the stories to retell in poetic form and had asked his son to write them down from memory as an exercise. Reading the clear prose of his son, he then opted to publish those versions instead.

Regardless of the actual origins, this little collection, published over the years in various titles and various English translations, has proven influential–on later tale collectors, on film-makers, and, of course, on readers.

Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper

A story with many varieties, Perrault’s Cinderella became the familiar Disney version. If you are at all familiar with the latter half of the Grimm version (which Stephen Sondheim would take up as one of several tales in his Into the Woods), the Perrault version is also a gentler version–no cutting off of appendages, no pecking out of eyes.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods

What starts out as the familiar “Sleeping Beauty” story takes a decided turn to the macabre, just as the reader thinks the story is nearly over. For Sleeping Beauty’s prince has an ogre for a mother, and she loves nothing better to eat than young children. While we know that most fairy tales will end “happily ever after,” this one takes two halves to get there.

Little Thumb

I’m not entirely sure if it’s fair to say I was familiar with this one, for I’m not sure I’ve read this exact tale before. However, it is familiar, for it seems to be a French version of “Hansel and Gretel,” complete with poor parents leaving children in the woods and first stones, then breadcrumbs as trails. The witch is replaced by an ogre (I’m beginning to sense a theme?), and our hero Little Thumb must use his wit and ingenuity (and perhaps a vengeful streak?) to save the day.

The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots

I know I’ve read at least a version of this story before, it is so familiar–and nothing like the animated Dreamworks film, of course! But it is a story of trickery and deception. The third son of a miller inherits only the cat (for there was little enough to divide between three sons) and believes himself unfortunate. Only this cat has the cunning and planning abilities to provide for his master–and thereby himself–much, much more.

Riquet with the Tuft

This could almost be a Beauty and Beast tale. Riquet of the title is a prince, but is terribly ugly. He falls in love with a beautiful Princess–only she has no sense, which here means wit and intelligence as well as common sense. Fortunately, the fairies have given both a gift: Riquet can give the gift of sense to the woman he falls in love with, and the Princess the gift of beauty to the man she loves. Not too hard to see where this one is going…

Blue Beard

At last, I have read “Blue Beard.” I’ve heard so many references (though I can’t remember all where, at least one L.M. Montgomery novel for sure) to this dark tale of a man who keeps the bodies of his dead wives locked in a room of his home (or castle). Although I’d not previously read this exact story, the themes of fatal (or near-fatal) curiosity and forbidden rooms are common throughout literature.

The Fairy

A clearly moral tale: a widow has two daughters, one she loves who is selfish and disagreeable and one she doesn’t who is good and kind. The kind daughter meets a fairy in disguise when she is sent to the well to draw water and is rewarded richly for her kind treatment of the fairy. So the beloved selfish daughter is sent to the well, with not quite as desired results!

Little Red Riding-Hood

This is not the “Little Red Riding-Hood” I know! It starts out the same, but then ends. Abruptly. Both Little Red Riding-Hood and her grandmother have been quite eaten and there is no woodsman’s rescue! Though this perhaps may make it a bit more realistic than the average fairy tale… Nor does there really seem to be a moral, for Little Red Riding-Hood is not warned against straying from the path or talking to strangers, as she is in other versions.

And here the Perrault fairy tales end, on quite the somber note. Though, it is no wonder they remain at least somewhat popular, for they are quite readable and have an element of charm to them, even at their most disturbing. It is almost enough to send me in search of more fairy tales to read. Perhaps some Brothers Grimm on the menu next?

 

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