Tuesday, October 5, 2010

French fairy tales

This spring I have the wonderful opportunity to travel to France and Germany. I'm really excited and I was thinking about trying to do French and German fairy tale-themed posts, but it's kind of impossible to have a fairy tale blog and avoid French and German fairy tales. Just about every well known fairy tale is from either Perrault or the Grimms (Beauty and the Beast is not, but is still French, as we shall see.)

Today I'm focusing on the rise of the French literary fairy tale. France is really where fairy tales became popular with the upper class- a couple Italian collections existed previously, but we have the French to thank for much of fairy tale popularity today. Previous to 1690, fairy tales were thought to be for children and peasants, and scorned by the upper class. Those who did share fairy tales were doing it all orally. Fairy tales became more popular as aristocratic French women formed salons, in which they would gather to discuss important topics to them-art, literature, love, marriage, and freedom. They wanted to set themselves apart as intellectuals and were a bit elitist. One of their goals was to improve their speech and discuss morality and manners, and to do this, they would practice telling each other fairy tales. They would be practicing the art of storytelling, speaking, and instilling their values into the stories at the same time. Telling fairy tales was the thing to do at gatherings back then-guests would take turns telling tales, speaking as if making it up on the spot, but really the tales had been planned out and rehearsed at home.

The attraction to fairy tales was linked to the spirit of the times-Louis XIV wanted his court to be the most radiant in Europe. The French wanted to translate the splendor of their country into splendid stories. The women who told the tales also added their own values-often feminist, their characters would resist male dominance, and their supernatural worlds would be governed by all-powerful female fairies, not male monarchs.

The palace of Louis IV
Fairy tales went through three stages in France. The first was the salon stage. Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy kicked the whole thing off by including the fairy tale The Island of Happiness in a novel. Other authors (including Charles Perrault) jumped on the bandwagon and published their own collections of fairy tales. For the first time these salon fairy tales were traveling beyond the salon and becoming literary tales. Around 1688, France had its own recession that makes ours look like a walk in the park. Louis XIV continued to live his extravagant lifestyle and taxed all levels of French society, so even the aristocrats felt the sting. Because of censorship, the fairy tale was a way to critique the government subtley, as well as instill hope. Most of the famous authors from this period were aristocrats who got in trouble with the king at some point.

Louis XIV
The tales themselves were not complete inventions, nor were they pure folktales. Tellers would know the folklore of their regions of France, embellish tales in the salons, share ideas and edit with each other. Together they established a common tone for the tales, and really set a lot of standards for fairy tales as we still know to be part of the fairy tale formula. The French salon writers didn't shy away from violence-"in fact, the salon tales of the refined French ladies make the Grimms' tales look prudish." The protagonists of the tales had to suffer in order to demonstrate her nobility (much like many of the authors themselves suffered). The tales in general were very serious in tone-not escapist in the sense we often think of. "The fairy tales were meant to make readers realize how deceived they were if they compared their lives to the events in these tales."

The second stage was the Oriental Fairy Tale. The Translation of 1001 Nights (Arabian Nights) into French in 1704-17 made those tales very popular. Disillusionment with the decline of Louis XIV's court and the appeal of the exotic made the Middle East a more appealing option. Significantly for this period, women played less of a dominant role in the tales, and "the tales were no longer connected to the immediate interests of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie."
The final stage was the Comic and Conventional Fairy Tale. (I find this fascinating because we seem to have gone through the same stages-minus the Oriental stage. Wouldn't you say fairy tale parodies are very popular right now?)

In France, the same parodying happened. Once the fairy tale genre had become well known, authors could start playing with it- either through gentle mocking, or by taking themes and expanding on them in a more serious vein. Mlle. de Lubert and Mme. de Villeneuve did the latter. Beauty and the Beast fans, take note! This is the Mme. de Villeneuve who wrote the 1740 long version which is the origin of Beauty and the Beast as we know it today! (Influenced by former tales, as other posts discuss.)

Prior to this, fairy tales had been circulated among adults. Only later, by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont, were fairy tales rewritten exclusively as teaching moments for children. Beauty and the Beast fans should recognize her name as well-she's the one who simplified Villeneuve's tale and made it famous, in 1757. Others also simplified and moralised the tales, distributing them to children and the peasants, where the literary tales once again became integrated into oral folk lore. So even the tales which have not reached universal fame today are influential in the standards they set for the fairy tale genre-each generation molded the tales according to current ideas, handed their creation to the next generation to keep altering and evolving, and the process is still going on today.

Source: Jack Zipes, introduction to Beauties, Beasts, and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales(the link is to the Hardcover version, though it is more expensive, because only it includes the Villeneuve version of batb)

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