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?


Completed Beauty and Other Variations on La Belle et la Bête

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Beauty – Robin McKinley (U.S., 1978, reread)

Adaptations of La Belle et la Bête – Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (France, 1740):

  1. Marie Le Prince de Beaumont  (France, 1756), as published by James Lumsden and Son, Glasgow.
  2. Andrew Lang (Scotland, 1889)

Unless you’ve been living with your head firmly ensconced in sand (and given the craziness of the news, I wouldn’t discount the possibility), chances are you’ve noticed that Walt Disney Studios has a little film out just now that may just have earned a little bit of money in recent weeks and that is based on an old fairy tale…and that just happens to fit in well with Classic Children’s Literature Month. I can’t say for certain (my memory escapes me on the particulars), but it’s likely that one of the trailers for Beauty and the Beast prompted me to a return visit to a more contemporary written adaptation, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.* And that in turn has sent me down the rabbit hole–not only did I then (re?)visit some of the more traditional tellings, but I have on order from the library Beauty and the Beast Tales from Around the World (Heidi Anne Heiner), though since they have to purchase/process a copy first (apparently this is what they do instead of ILL?), it could be a while before I get to that one.

What I would really like to read (and thus the library hold) is a translation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 La Belle et la Bête. As far as I can tell, Villeneuve’s tale was the original story from which all of the other more familiar adaptations have sprung. That is, the original with the elements of a father promising a rose to his beloved daughter, getting lost in the woods and taking refuge in an enchanted castle where he is doomed to death by the beast for stealing a rose, the daughter willingly taking her father’s place and ultimately falling in love with the beast and ending his enchantment. (I believe there are other beauty + beast stories with different base elements–thus the “Tales from Around the World” part.) Since I was unsuccessful in finding an English translation of the Villeneuve, I settled temporarily for two adaptations, both of which are apparently both much shorter than Villeneuve’s and also the more commonly told. The first was by a Frenchwoman, Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. I couldn’t find a translator listed, but it is from the edition published by James Lumsden and Son in Glasgow. The second is by Andrew Lang, from his The Blue Fairy Book collection of fairy and folk tales.

Although both fairy tales, as well as McKinley’s novel-length adaptation are similar in their elements, they vary in the particulars. The fairy tales are most similar–naturally enough, for they share a common source. Beaumont’s version more emphatically pushes the moral however: virtue will be rewarded and selfishness punished. Here, Beauty’s sisters are proud and vain and selfish, while she is good and kind.  (There are also brothers, but they have very little personality as they are mostly just good sons and brothers.) Lang’s version, on the other hand–and perhaps here the more than 100 years between them makes a difference–has sisters who are nearly as insignificant as the brothers. The moral is not illustrated in them, but only in Beauty, who is rewarded for her own goodness and love. Notably, in none of these versions is it stated that the Beast under an enchantment due to his own moral failings, but rather entirely due to outside forces (in contrast to both Disney versions). (Actually, to be more accurate, I don’t think an explanation is given in Lang.)

In contrast with the fairy tales, McKinley’s adaptation much more greatly fleshes out both characters and plot. She has the advantage of greater length, for her story is a novelization of the fairy tale. But it also deviates some from the traditional stories. Instead of viewing Beauty with jealousy, her sisters are loving and kind in their own right–they truly do not wish to see her go and be sacrificed to the Beast. Nor are they the selfish, proud creatures of the fairy tale, but loyal to both their family and their lovers. Indeed, the middle sister, Hope, is distressed long before the loss of wealth, for her true love wishes to return to his hometown as a blacksmith and she is sorry that she might have to leave her family behind. But this lover is able to help the merchant and his family when they lose it all, thus showing how one tragedy may bring with it opportunity, and we see many scenes of happy family life, even after Beauty’s father has lost everything. I had worried that returning to a story I had so loved as a child might be a disappointment–that it could not live up to my memories–but thankfully, it was not so, and continued to enchant and delight me, far more so than the shorter versions.

I look forward to exploring other versions of these tales, and remain especially interested in Villeneuve’s. The short stories suffer in their shortness as compared to Beauty; will the longer original prove more satisfactory?

*Technically too new to be called “classic” just yet, I think, but older than I realized. Since it started me down the fairy-tale path, I decided to include it here anyway.

Week’s End Notes (24) – Once Upon a Time

 Once Upon a Time IX 

I’ve been in the midst of quite a reading/blogging slump lately. Part work (super-busy until about two weeks ago), part weather (just…winter…), part not quite finding the right book, part other distractions. I’ve only finished one book since January (The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper), but I recently started rereading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and I think that’s going to be just the thing. I’ve been missing 19th century lit, and didn’t even know it.

There’s also been the persistent idea worrying away at the back of my brain that I want to read some fairy tales, or adaptations. Maybe some writing about fairy tales. Something, I’m not sure just quite what yet. And when I saw–and I confess, I had completely forgotten that it would be coming soon–that Carl is hosting yet another edition of his “Once Upon a Time” event, it seemed that I simply must poke my head back in here and participate. Carl’s events are always fun (the number 1 and 2 rules), they don’t require much–one book is participating–and with the arrival of spring–actually here on time this year!–it seems the timing just right.

Now…what to read?

Completed: Tales of Magic Land 1

Tales of Magic Land 1: The Wizard of the Emerald City & Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers by Alexander VolkovThe Wizard of the Emerald City
1939, U.S.S.R.
Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers
1963, U.S.S.R.
Alexander Melentyevich Volkov
Translated from Russian by Peter L. Blystone

Waaaaay back in January when I hosted the Wonderful Wizard of Oz readalong, Ekaterina reminded/informed us about the existance of a Russian version of the original Baum story. (She posts a comparison HERE.) Some years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, Alexander Volkov released his own version, part translation, part re-imagining of the Baum. Intrigued, I decided, to search out a copy. It doesn’t seem to be well-known at all in the U.S., but my library came through: after my Interlibrary Loan request, they purchased a copy. It took a while to arrive, but came just in time to serve as my first two completed reads for Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge–I read the Volkov sequel Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers as well.

Now, given my so-s0 feelings towards Baum’s original, I’m perhaps not the best person to be reading The Wizard of the Emerald City. Sure enough, the reading simply dragged on. I’d read (most) of this before, just a couple months back. But (as Ekaterina’s post shows) they are not quite the same book. Although at times it felt like I was reading a text that had been run through translation software twice–from English to Russian and back–Volkov selectively edits and adds. He has a completely new chapter prior to the arrival at the Emerald City, in which the Dorothy character–named Ellie here–is snatched by an ogre and nearly eaten. I felt before that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn’t have high enough stakes–Volkov certainly raises them! But on the other hand, I have a feeling that Baum would not have cared for such a blood-thirsty addition, at odds as it was with his own desires for a new sort of fairy-tale.

One benefit to the comparison of the two stories is that it gave me a new appreciation for Baum’s actual writing. I can’t say for certain–knowing not a lick of Russian–how many of the little irritations I found here are products of translation, but one thing I felt was that Volkov overwrites. He seems to feel a need to provide an explanation for everything, rather than letting the “magic” of the story–and his “Oz,” which he calls “Magic Land” take over. Sometimes less is more. Of course, this could be a “your mileage may vary” sort of thing and others far prefer the extra explanations. The other thing I noted was that, at least in The Wizard of the Emerald City, Volkav has a tendency to use adverbs with his “saids,” such as “said sadly.” (I don’t remember seeing this in Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers, but it could have happened and I was just more caught up in the story and didn’t notice.) He also seems to like to use every synonym for “said” he can find. I’ve seen recommendations against both of these practices in writing, and while I’m sure there’s a time and place, in this instance, I was able to see just how annoying it can be! I don’t know though…maybe this is a lost in translation sort of thing and it comes across better in Russian?

In contrast to Wizard, Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers was completely new to me. Rather than adapting one of Baum’s own sequels, Volkov invented his own completely new Magic Land adventure (and I believe there are another four as well). The translator packaged them together, and despite how long it took me to get through the first, I decided that since I had it, to try the sequel. Volkov certainly had his own vivid imagination and Urfin Jus feels like a story that fits with Oz. The basics of the plot: Urfin Jus, an unsociable Munchkin, comes by a magical powder that brings inanimate objects to life. He creates an army of wooden soldiers and a plot to  conquer Emerald City, and Ellie finds that she must return to Magic Land with her uncle Charlie to help defeat Urfin Jus. This of course means all sorts of new adventures for Ellie and her friends–but also has an interesting echo of The Wizard of the Emerald City when we follow Urfin’s journey from Munchkinland to the Emerald City. The same challenges are still there, only Urfin must find a different way to solve them.

I enjoyed the second selection much more, largely, I think, because it was completely new to me and I could just focus on the adventure rather than the comparisons.

A note regarding the translation: from all I can tell, these translations were a labor of love for the translator, Peter L. Blystone. When I was looking for The Wizard of the Emerald City online, the only available English edition I found was from a print-on-demand publisher, and in his acknowledgements Blystone mentions that when he started it was “basically a one-man production.” I am grateful he took the effort–if not I would not have had to opportunity to try out these books.

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Fairy-tale Selection for Once Upon a Time VIII, Quest the Second

Completed: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
1900, U.S.

I know that I read several of Baum’s Oz novels when I was in elementary school, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first and most famous one. I certainly enjoyed them at the time, but  this go around… Well, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I disliked the novel, I did find it less enjoyable than any of the other children’s classics I’ve revisited in the last few years. It strikes me as simpler than, say Finn Family Moomintroll, containing characters who are types, or elements of a person, rather than complete personages in and of themselves. Dorothy might perhaps be the exception.

Baum’s stated objective was to create a modern sort of fairy-tale, free of the ugliness of the Grimms and meant to entertain rather than moralize. His tone certainly feels like that of a fairy-tale: plain and matter of fact. But his removal of the “horrible and blood-curdling incidents” also seems to lesson the danger, lesson the stakes. I am never truly convinced of the wickedness of Baum’s Witch of the West–or at least of the danger she poses the traveling companions. They might have been battered or enslaved, but it doesn’t feel real, more that if Dorothy were to take it into her head (which doesn’t seem likely, as it doesn’t seem that Dorothy is actually capable of this much thought) to just give the Witch a good whack with a broom, the West would have been spared her menace just the same as when Dorothy employed the bucket of water. Baum has made his story bloodless, and his removal of danger’s teeth might provide a story entertaining enough, but without any true heft.

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Anderson have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents.

(Author’s Introduction)

Reading Baum’s thoughts, I recall my reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1947 essay, “On Fairy-stories”:

Children as a class – except in a common lack of experience they are not one – neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keep appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them… it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.

Given that Tolkien was an academic, and Baum a working writer, I have a feeling that Tolkien is more accurate on this one. Certainly, not everyone enjoys reading fantasy tales or fairy tales. I am also struck by this contrast: Tolkien kept the stakes high in his work: death is a very real thing, even in The Hobbit which is a children’s book. Which perhaps might go a ways towards explaining why Tolkien’s actual novels seem to have had a longer appeal than Baum’s–would we remember Oz today were it not for the 1939 movie?