by Terri Windling
art by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981)
The term fairy tale, now used throughout Europe and North America as a generic label for magical stories for children, was a term coined in the literary salons of 17th century Paris by a group of writers who wrote and published their tales for adult readers. These stories have come down to us through the years in simplified forms adapted for children: Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, 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 have exerted a strong influence on fairy tale literature up to the present.
To explore this group and their influence, first we need to distinguish between the oral folk tales and literary fairy tales of western 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’ Golden Ass), but these motifs are crafted and reworked through a single author’s imagination.
Although we find magical elements in medieval literature (in Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance, or Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales), 16th century Italy is where the fairy tale became a genre of its own with the publication of Giovan Francesco Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (The Pleasant Nights, 1550-53) and Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, also known as Lo cunto de li cunti (The Story of Stories, 1534-36). Both authors acknowledged that their source material came from women storytellers, yet Straparola and Basile were not scholarly collectors intent on preserving the oral folk tradition; they were writers who filtered the oral tales through an educated sensibility, turning them into literary works intended for adult readers. Both authors embedded short fairy tales into a larger frame story (ala the Decameron), a narrative technique that was to become a staple of fairy tale literature. Between them, Le piacevoli notti and Il Pentamerone contain some of the earliest written renditions of many classic tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Puss-in-Boots, among others. Yet these stories were somewhat different than the fairy tales we know today. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, was not wakened by a kiss, but by the suckling of the twins that she gave birth to after the prince has come, made love to her sleeping body, and left again. The tales were sensual, dark, bawdy, and never intended for children’s ears. Straparola, in fact, had to legally defend his volume against charges of indency.
In the 17th century, Italian interest in magical stories waned -- but the tales of Straparola and, particularly, Basile went on to influence a new generation of writers in Paris. 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 middle of the century, however, a vogue for magical tales emerged in the women’s salons of Paris. The salons were regular gatherings hosted by prominent aristocratic women, where women and men could gather 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 host gathering in their own homes 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).
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 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 chaperons. Most of all, they wanted the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and talents. Encouraged by their success in 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; they also provided a network for women struggling to achieve independence.
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. The telling of folk tales was an art that had long historical associations with women – yet the use that these bluestocking women made of such tales was new and subversive. Each salonnière would be called upon to retell an old tale or rework an old theme, spinning them into 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, the salon fairy tales may seem quaintly old-fashioned, dripping with too many pearls and jewels, but to 17th century audiences the rich rococo language of the tales seemed deliciously rebellious -- in deliberate contrast with the mannered restraint of works approved by the French Academy (from which women were barred). In the Academy, in the “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns,” Boileau, Racine and other literary men insisted that French literature should strive to emulate the classical works of Greek and Rome, while the Moderns (Charles Perrault among them) believed that the home-grown 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 stepped in and put all to rights.
Fairies were central to these stories, and it was here that the name “contes des fées” was coined – a term now used to describe a large, international body of magical tales. The fairies populating the salon tales were not quite the same as the earthy creatures to be found in the oral folk tradition, however. They shared some of the same characteristics (they wielded magic and granted wishes; they could be good or evil, helpful or capricious), yet these fairies were clearly aristocrats, intelligent, erudite, and independent, ruling over kingdoms and presiding over the workings of justice and fate -- just as intelligent, independent women ruled over the world of the salons. In short, these fairies can be seen as representing the women writers who created them.
As the vogue for fairy stories evolved in the 1670s and ‘80s, Madame d’Aulnoy emerged as one of the most popular raconteurs in Paris, famed for her tales and for the glittering circle she drew to the salon she hosted. Eventually she wrote down her tales (The White Cat, The White Deer, Green Snake, Bluecrest and The Royal Ram, among others), publishing them to great acclaim from 1690 onward -- beginning with a fairy tale embedded in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas. Soon after, other salonnières began to publish fairy tales of their own, including Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier and Catherine Bernard beginning in 1695, Charles Perrault1 and Comtesse de Murat in 1696, Rose de La Force in 1697, Chevalier de Mailly and Jean de Préchac in 1698, Catherine Durand in 1699, and Comtesse D’Auneuil in 1701.
Madame d’Aulnoy’s own history is just 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 her 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, as well as establishing a highly successful and profitable literary career.
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 16 upon her marriage to the Comte de Murat, quickly making a name in the salons for 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 24, 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, de Murat 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, 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. 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, moved to Paris in order to become a writer, where she frequented d’Aulnoy’s and L’Héritier’s salons and became part of the fairy tale circle. Bernard resisted marriage and devoted herself to her literary career, writing well-received 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 women’s fairy tale salons, contributing stories of their own as part of the conversational games. Foremost among them are Jean de Mailly, author of Les Illustres Fées, contes galans; Jean de Préchac, author of Contes moins contes que les autres; and Charles Perrault, author of the most famous of all French fairy tale collections: Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also known as Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (The Stories of Mother Goose).
Perrault was born Paris in 1628 to a distinguished family of high-achievers: his father was an accomplished lawyer and a member of the Paris Parlement, 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 prestigious 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 ‘90s he began to turn his attention to fairy tales. He produced three poems with folklore themes, a prose version of Sleeping Beauty, and then Histoires ou contes du temps passé -- published under the name of his son, Pierre Perrault Darmancour, in 1697.
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 could not be blamed for re-igniting the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (which the king had decided in favor of the Ancients) 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.”2
Perrault turned the blunt language and earthy imagery of peasant folk stories into tales that were urbane, aristocratic, and refined, disguising his Modernist theories behind a façade of light, dry humor. His stories fit the fashion of the time, yet contain some marked differences from those of the female salonnières. First, the literary style he adopted was a simpler one, his plots less complex his language less rococo as he played with the narrative conceit that the tales come direct from the mouth of Old Mother Goose. Secondly, despite his salon 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!”
Though L’Héritier, d’Aulnoy, and other women enjoyed readerships as large as Perrault’s, the fairy tale form was still suspect among the leading critics of the day, who reserved their praise for the simpler, less subversive tales penned by Perrault. In 1699, Abbé de Villiers published a Dialogue commending Perrault while damning all women fairy tale writers, railing in particular against the popularity and financial success those writers enjoyed. “Most women only enjoy reading because they enjoy laziness and the trivial,” de Villiers declared. “Everything that requires a little effort tires and bores them; they amuse themselves with a book in the same way they play with a fly or a ribbon. So does it astonish you that tales and little stories are popular?”
Rosseau wrote scathingly of women’s fairy tales and the destructive influence of fantasy; what’s more, he added, “Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she;” and he strongly advocated the establishment of English-style clubs exclusively for men.
He needn’t have worried. The social and literary ground that the women salonnières had gained was already slipping away from them as the 18th century dawned. One by one, their salons closed as the salonnières died or were banished from Paris. 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. As the Marquise de Lambert lamented years later: “There were, in an earlier time, houses where women were allowed to talk and think, where muses joined the society of the graces. The Hôtel de Rambouillet [a famous salon], greatly honored in the past century, has become the ridicule of ours.”3
As the salons ended, a “second wave” of French fairy tale literature began, consisting of stories, primarily by men this time, that were parodies of the earlier tales, as well a host of magical stories with an Oriental flavor. The latter was due to Antoine Gallard’s phenomenally successful translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1704-1714), which introduced Arabian fairy tales to the French reading public.
Gallard, a scholar and linguist who’d traveled extensively in the Middle East, discovered The Thousand and One Nights cycle in a 14th century manuscript while translating some of the Sinbad tales as a gift for a former student. Although Gallard is criticized today for the liberties he took in his translation, his goal was not to produce a word-for-word scholarly translation of the text, but to retell the saga for French readers -- and this he did, with a fine, poetic literary style and with great erudition. The Thousand and One Nights took France by storm and inspired a great deal of Arabian-style pastiche, ranging from Abbé Jean Paul Bignon’s Aventures d’Abdallah (1712-1714) to Jacques Cazotte’s La Patte du chatte (1741).
Other popular works of the time included comical, satirical fairy stories such as Anthony Hamilton’s Le Bélier (1730); Claude Philippe de Caylus’s Le Prince Courtebotte et la princesse Zibiline (1741), and Charles Duclas’s Acajou et Zirphile (1744) -- as well as tales that ranged from the bawdy to pornographic by Claude-Henri de Voisenon, Louis de Cahusac, and Claude-Prosper de Crébillon fils. In examining the differences between literary fairy tales produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Jack Zipes has noted, “In general, the fairy tales of the first phase of the vogue were very serious in tone and intent. Only here and there in the works of Mme. d’Aulnoy and Perrault to we find ironic and humorous touches. The fairy tales were meant to make readers realize how deceived they were if they compared their lives to the events in these tales. There was no splendid paradise in Louis XIV’s court, no genuine love, no reconciliation, no tenderness of feeling. All this could be, however, found in fairy tales, and in this regard the symbolic portrayal of the impossible was a rational endeavor on the part of the writers to illuminate the irrational and destructive tendencies of their time.”4
By the middle of the 18th century a “third wave” of French fairy tales emerged by writers who had more in common with the 17th century salonnières than with the parodists who succeeded them. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, for example, was associated with the parodists (she’s believed to have been the mistress of Claude-Prosper de Crébillon fils) but used the fairy tale form in a manner that harked back to the 1690s, penning stories that explored the role of women in marriage and society. In her youth, de Villeneuve had been unhappily married to a military officer, turning to writing to earn a living when his death left her impoverished. Her best known fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast (1740), a long, complex, and subtly erotic story exploring issues of love, marriage, and identity. The tale was later shortened and popularized by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.
Another writer who picked up the threads of the salon tradition was Marguerite de Lubert, the author of six acclaimed fairy tale novels and a number of shorter works, best known today for La Princesse Camion (1743) and Peau d’ours (1953). Like L’Héritier and Bernard before her, de Lubert studiously avoided marriage in order to pursue a literary career. Her tales have a light and sparkling surface, in keeping with the tastes of the time, but underneath lies a firm foundation of narrative sophistication. Her stories, like the salon tales, revolved around courtly, powerful fairies -- but de Lubert seems to have been more ambivalent about the nature of that power, portrayed in a manner that ranges from benevolent to meddlesome to downright sadistic.
The salon authors, as discussed above, composed their tales for an adult readership -- but in the second half of the 18th century a new idea began to take root of shaping fairy tales specifically for younger readers. Creating a separate body of fiction for children was a relatively new notion, engendered by new printing methods and the rise of literacy in the upper classes. Prior works for children were dull and didactic, intended to inculcate moral values. It now occurred to liberal-minded parents and children’s educators that these values would be easier to swallow if sugar-coated with entertainment.
Madame Leprince de Beaumont was one of the first French writers to compose fairy tales specifically for younger readers. Having fled from a disastrous marriage to a dissolute libertine, Leprince de Beaumont worked as a governess in England, where she began to write stories, in French, for magazines aimed at “young misses”. Although a number of her fairy stories contain original elements, she also borrowed liberally from previous fairy tale writers. In 1757, she re-wrote the text of de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, severely condensing the narrative and imbuing it with clear moral lessons. The resulting tale is the version that most people know today. De Villenueve’s text, over 300 pages long, was thick with incidental characters and rambling subplots. Leprince de Beaumont stripped these away to reach the bare, timeless essentials of the tale, condensing de Villenueve’s narrative into a mere 17 pages. She also made some significant changes. First, she toned down the eroticism: in the de Villeneuve version, the Beast repeatedly asks Belle to go to bed with him, while in the Leprince de Beaumont version, he merely asks her to marry him. Second, Leprince de Beaumont’s Beast is sympathetic, even attractive, before his transformation -- while in de Villenueve’s story (similar to “animal bridegroom” tales from the oral tradition) the Beast is a genuinely frightening character.
Leprince de Beaumont was not alone in re-writing tales by earlier authors, or in turning them into stories that were simpler, shorter, and less challenging. Throughout the 18th century, the tales of d’Aulnoy, Perrault, de Murat, L’Héritier, Bernard, de la Force and the other salonnières appeared in the pages of the Bilbliotheque bleue, a series of small, inexpensive chapbooks distributed by traveling book peddlers. Intended for readers of the lower classes, these shorter tales proved enormously popular and were often read aloud -- and thus began to slip into the oral folk tradition, not only in France but in neighboring lands. It is because of this that so many readers think of literary tales like Donkeyskin, White Cat or Beauty and the Beast as “anonymous” folk tales to this day.
These simplified versions of the salon tales might be the only ones known today were it not for the labors of writer and editor Charles-Joseph de Mayer. From 1785-89, de Mayer published an extensive work titled the Cabinet des fées, collecting one hundred years’ worth of literary fairy tales by French writers. Completed, the Cabinet des fées was an astonishing forty-one volumes in length, the vast majority of its pages devoted to tales by women authors. De Mayer’s notes for the volumes, however, betray a distinctly nostalgic tone. The Golden Age of the French literary fairy tale was drawing to a close. The “third wave” of fairy tale writing was ending and no “fourth wave” succeeded it. The fairies were fading away -- at least in the literary circles of Paris.
But the literary fairy tale vogue had not died off -- it had merely crossed the border to Germany, where it lingered for a span of years before crossing the Channel to Victorian England. German readers of the upper classes were accustomed to reading French literature, and French fairy tales circulated in Germany as early as the 1690s. It was not until the later half of the 18th century, however, that fairy tales became as popular in Germany as they had previously been in France, but suddenly one French fairy tale after another was translated into German. In 1762 and ’63, a nine-volume version of Les Cabinet des fées was published in German, containing tales by eight women authors and one man, Charles Perrault. In the 1790s, shortened versions of tales by d’Aulnoy, Perrault, L’Héritier, and the other salonnières began to appear in the cheap chapbooks of the Blaue Bibliothek aller Nationen, modeled on the Bibliothèque bleue and popular with lower class readers.5 At the same time, German writers began to look to their native oral folk tradition with the idea of creating a body of literary fairy tales of their own.
Although fairy tale motifs can be found in German medieval literature, the distinct genre of German fairy tales properly begins at the end of the 18th century with important publications by Johann Karl August Musäus, Christopher Martin Wieland, and Benedikte Naubert.
Musäus, like Perrault, was an established writer with cultural influence at court, interested in promoting a German literature distinct from the classical tradition. Intrigued by the popularity and, particularly, the commercial success of French fairy tales (as we now know from his letters), he sat down to produce his Folktales of the Germans, which he published in 5 volumes from 1782 to ’86. Despite the title, these weren’t folk tales transcribed from oral story tellers, they were literary fairy tales reworked by Muhäus, in the French salon tradition. Further, a number of Masäus’ tales were drawn from French and Italian sources -- from stories by Basile, Perrault, d’Aulnoy, de Villeneuve, and from Galland’s The Thousand and One Nights. These charming, comical fairy stories were a great success with German readers, and helped to establish the popular, if somewhat erroneous, idea of Volksmärchen: that is, of a native fairy tale tradition rooted in the folk culture of German peasants.
On the heels of Masäus’ Folktales of the Germans came Dschinnstan by Christopher Wieland (1786-89), containing three original fairy tales along with retellings of French stories from the Cabinet des Fées. Benedikte Naubert published fairy tales in two collections: New German Tales, Volumes 1 - 4 (1789-93) and Delightful Dreams in Short Tales (1806). She also used a “frame story” technique to embed short fairy tales within her novels (as d’Aulnoy, de Villeneuve, and others had done). Naubert, who kept her identity anonymous throughout most of her illustrious career, published over 50 novels, including historicals admired by Sir Walter Scott. (Unable, because of her gender, to use the University Library of Leipzig herself, she enlisted male friends to help obtain the research material she needed.)
At the turn of the 18th century, the German Romantics came under the fairy tale spell, and sought to create a new literary fairy tale tradition that was distinctly German. The writer and dramatist Ludwig Tieck was a life-long lover of fairy tales, returning to their magical themes again and again throughout his career. Tieck’s first fairy tale collection, Volksmärchen (1797), contained arch, highly sophisticated tales presented to the reader as common folk stories. This narrative confusion was deliberately evoked, for Tieck was a sly, ironic writer, subverting the fairy tale form to playfully explore issues of genre. He followed Volksmärchen with two more collections (Romantic Works, 1799-1800, and Phantasus, 1812-16), as well as numerous fairy tale plays and magical novellas with a satirical bent. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most illustrious poet and dramatist of the age, was also a great fan of old folk tales, and an avid reader of literary fairy tales in both French and German. (Fairy tale references are peppered throughout his letters and memoirs.) His famous fairy tale, Das Märchen, composed in 1795, is a political and philosophical allegory, rich in magical symbolism. Novalis was another German Romantic who made deft use of fairy tale themes to explore a variety of philosophical, aesthetic, and utopian ideals. In his view, the literary fairy tale was the perfect vehicle for Romantic literature, capable of inspiring societal change through the power of aesthetics and imagination. His fairy tales, published posthumously, were found in the pages of his journals and embedded in two fragmentary novels: The Disciples of Sais and Heinrich von Ofterdingen.
The Heidelberg Circle was a group of writers and scholars closely related to the Romantics, and they too were interested in finding or creating a German fairy tale tradition. This group of friends and colleagues included E. T. A. Hoffman, Clemens Brentano, Bettina and Achim von Arnim, and a pair of young folklore enthusiasts, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. E.T.A. Hoffman was a gifted man who juggled three separate careers: he was a well-respected lawyer; he was a conductor and composer of music for the opera; and he was a writer of fantasy stories that are still read and loved today. Though much of Hoffman’s fiction has magical themes, seven of his short stories fall specifically into the fairy tale category. The best known is Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816), on which the Tchaikovsky ballet is based. Clemens Brentano and Achim Arnim were avid collectors of German folk songs; their pioneering volume, The Boy’s Magic Horn (1805), produced with the aid of Bettina von Arnim, helped to established folk songs as worthy of preservation and scholarship. Brentano, the grandson of the novelist Sophie von La Roche, also wrote literary fairy tales, including Fairy Tales of the Rhine (1809-13) and stories inspired by Basile. His work was collected and posthumously published in The Fairy Tales of Clemens Brentano (1946-7).
Bettina von Arnim was Brentano’s sister, as well as the wife of Achim von Arnim, and the mother of fairy tale writer Gisela von Arnim. A social activist, fairy tale collector, and author in her own right, her published works were political in nature, but her private work included fairy tales such as The King’s Son and Tale of the Lucky Purse, as well as a fairy tale novel co-authored with her daughter. In addition to aiding her brother and husband with the collection of German folk songs for The Boy’s Magic Horn, she provided assistance to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as they compiled their famous collection Children’s and Household Tales, which they dedicated to her.
The Brothers Grimm, of course, are two most famous men in the history of Western fairy tales, and their influence on fairy tale collecting and authorship around the world has been profound. Like Perrault, the brothers were originally intended by their father for legal careers, but fell under the sway of German medieval literature at University of Marburg -- and ended up spending their lives as court librarians, antiquarians, and celebrated writers instead. It was during their university years that the two embarked on what was to become a life-long labor: seeking out traditional German stories and collecting them into one volume that would stand as proof of the great folk culture unifying the German peoples. The first edition of the Grimms' Children’s and Household Tales appeared in 1812 -- an edition aimed at both adults and children, with extensive notations for scholars. After the initial publication, the brothers revised and continually refined their work in numerous editions over six decades. In all, they produced seventeen editions between 1812 and 1864, consisting of seven full-length volumes, and ten smaller volumes (aimed at younger readers).
Although legend now has the Brothers Grimm roaming the German countryside collecting their stories from stout, unlettered peasants, in truth they acquired most of their tales from a middle-class circle of friends -- many of them educated, well-read women who would have been familiar with French stories from the Cabinet des Fées. As fairy tale historians have come to realize, a number of the stories presented by the Grimms as German peasant tales actually come from, or were influenced by, Italian and French literary sources. The Grimms’ romantic notion of a “pure” folk tradition, entirely separate from that of neighboring lands and entirely free of literary influence, was in fact as fanciful as any of their fairy tales. Historians also point out that the Grimms’ “folk tales” are actually literary creations -- for the brothers edited and revised the stories, in some cases quite heavily. They chose elements from mixed variants, and shaped characters, plots, and themes -- not only for dramatic effect, but also to reflect their own nationalistic, patriarchal, and Protestant values. Fairies, for instance -- those capricious, powerful, magical women in French salon stories -- are largely absent here. The Grimms’ heroines are moral, dutiful, long-suffering, and industrious, while powerful women are primarily represented by heartless step-mothers and wicked queens.
The first edition of Children’s and Household Tales6 was published with great commercial success, but although the book remained influential in literary and scholarly circles, sales of the revised later editions proved disappointing. By the mid-1800s, the German public had come to prefer a different volume of fairy tales, making Ludwig Bechstein’s German Fairy Tale Book (1845) the century’s top seller. Bechstein’s stories were more reminiscent of the fairy tales of 18th century France in that they had a literary touch as opposed to the Grimms’ more folkloric style.7
Although today (due largely to the Grimms, and to the prevalence of fairy tales simplified for children) we’re come to associate fairy tales with a simple, plain-speaking style of narration, fairy tales published prior to the Grimms were more self-consciously literary in their use of language. Even Perrault, the plainest of the French salon writers, wrote in a style more ornate than the Grimms, who were eager to preserve the illusion that their tales came straight from the mouths of peasants. The Grimms, as Elizabeth Wanning Harries has pointed out, posited “a rupture or separation between literate and oral culture, between modern, self-conscious writing and older, ‘natural,’ spontaneous story-telling or ballad-singing. Their nostalgia for a vanishing or vanished culture -- assumed to be simpler or more poetic than their own -- still permeates most fairy-tale collecting and research.” 8
The Grimms’ volume, however, would stand the test of time and become beloved all over the world as translations appeared in far-flung lands from the mid-1800s onward. In addition, as a passion for folklore collection and scholarship began to spread throughout Europe, the Grimms’ folkloric style of fairy tale retelling became the dominant mode, and literary confections of the Bechstein sort fell out of favor. It was this, and not just the obvious gender bias, that led the Grimms to dismiss d’Aulnoy and other women writers from the French salons as the “inferior imitators” of Perrault (in the introduction to their Tales), while praising Perrault for the “purity” of his simpler narrative style. Unfortunately, subsequent generations of fairy tale editors and publishers then followed suit, particularly in the next big fairy tale boom in Victorian England. As simpler fairy tales were celebrated, particularly ones with clear Christian values (suitable for publication in the voracious new children’s book industry), the complex, adult tales of the French salonnières were reprinted less and less. The very women who had been so instrumental in creating the modern fairy tale genre were now in danger of being erased from the pages of its history, represented only by an anonymous, illiterate old peasant called Mother Goose.
As Jeannine Blackwell has pointed out, “There is a certain irony in the fictional privileging of the naive elderly illiterate peasant woman who could tell stories of magic and conjuring as the ideal source of ‘true’ tales. Although this harmless rendition of the older peasant woman was surely a positive step forward in characterizing poor and illiterate females, making such women the icon of storytelling in 1812/1815 served to discourage later educated elite women from the independent storytelling business, even though there had been models for them by 1700 in France and by 1800 in Germany. This strategy preserved the gathering of stories as a job for the male editor, ethnographer, and collector, and reestablished a hierarchy within [fairy tale] writing and publishing: women were subject matter, while men imposed the form.” 9
For many years this hierarchy held, and the history of Western fairy tales largely revolved around four men: Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen. But in recent years, through the diligent work of fairy tale historians (Jack Zipes, Elizabeth Wanning Harries, Maria Tatar, Lewis C. Seifert, Marina Warner, and many others), a broader understanding of the fairy tale movement in France is now coming to light, prompting a re-appraisal of fairy tales produced in the long shadow of the Cabinet des Fées.
More recently still, scholars have discovered another neglected area of fairy tale history: the enormous body of work produced by women writers in Germany. Fredericke Helene Unger, Karoline Auguste Fischer, and Therese Huber, for example, all wrote and published fairy tale works in Germany in the early 19th century, using fairy tales as a form of social critique, just as French salon writers did. The German Romantic movement produced a number of women fairy tale authors, including Sophie Tieck Bernhardi, Karoline von Günderrode, Julie Berger, and Sophie Albrecht. Most interesting of all, in 1843 a group of women intellectuals gathered in Berlin to create a women’s conversation salon modeled after the fairy tale salons of Paris, meeting weekly between 1843 and ’48 (when the Revolution forced them to disband). The women of the Kaffeterkreis, as it was called, presented stories, art work, musical compositions -- all submitted anonymously -- and performed their own fairy tale plays for audiences that included the Prussian monarch.
Gisela von Arnim, daughter of the Heidelberg Circle writers Achim and Bettina von Arnim, was a founding member of this group, and one of its most notable authors. In addition to publishing short fairy tales that look at the Grimms’ material from a female perspective, Gisela von Arnim was the author of an extraordinary fairy tale novel, The Life Story of the High Countess Gritta, co-authored with her mother -- a distinctly feminist tale about a brave and independent girl who makes her way through a series of trials, eventually ending up on an enchanted island with eleven young female cohorts.10 All in all, as fairy tale historians Jeannine Blackwell and Shawn C. Jarvis have documented, German women published over two hundred fairy tale collections 1845 and 1900, far out-numbering their male colleagues. A full history of German women’s tales of the period has yet to be published.
A clear trail of breadcrumbs and stones runs from the fairy tale salons of 17th century Paris, and from writers like d’Aulnoy and Perrault, to the German Romantics, the Heidelberg Circle, and the Berlin Kaffeterkreis. The trail then journeys onward to Victorian England, with its explosion of fairy tales and fairy art…and then it leads into the present, at the dawn of the 21st century, where a wealth of fairy tale literature is being published, once again, for adult readers.
Working with themes and narrative techniques inherited from the French salon tradition, contemporary writers (primarily feminist writers) are retelling old stories in new and subversive ways, using their themes to explore and critique modern society and issues of gender. Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Kathyrn Davis, Olga Broumas, Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Emma Donoghue, Berlie Doherty, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Tanith Lee, Midori Snyder, Patricia A. McKillip, Kate Bernheimer, Robert Coover, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman – these are just a few of the new salonnières who are working in a tradition begun in Italy and France hundreds of years before. D’Aunoy and Perrault would surely be pleased to know the “fad” that they created is still going strong three hundred years later, that writers are still retelling their fairy stories.
Let us hope that in another three hundred years someone will be retelling ours.
1 Charles Perrault is often wrongly attributed with creating the fairy tale vogue in 17th century France. Recent fairy tale scholarship has proven this to be erroneous. The fairy tale movement was a collective one, established in the salons years before Perrault sat down to write his fairy stories. Perrault’s first tale, a rendition of Sleeping Beauty, appeared in 1696, and a collection of tales appeared one year later. He also authored fairy tale poems in 1691, ’93, and ’94 -- published in support of women writers after a savage satire against them was published by Boileau.
2 Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Signet, 1989), page 3.
3 Quoted by Marina Warner in her introduction to Wonder Tales: Six Storied of Enchantment (Vintage, 1996), pages 8-9.
4 Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Signet, 1989), page XIX.
5 “Thus,” Bottigheimer warns us, “the fairy tale tradition that we now know as ‘German’ was thoroughly international at the beginning of the 1800s.”
6 The first edition contained tales by Charles Perrault, which the Grimms removed in subsequent editions.
7 Another difference between the two collections, as Ruth B. Bottingheimer notes, is that “Bechstein’s presentation of characters is striking for it’s gender-egalitarianism. The numbers of wicked men equal those of wicked women, and stepmothers do not form a selfevident well of iniquity, both of which depart distinctly from the gender-specific distribution of malevolence in the Grimms’ fairy tales…..[Bechstein] faulted anti-Semitism as a sin of community; did not ascribe danger to woods and forests in and of themselves; neither silenced nor inculpated girls and women; avoided prohibitions whose only function was to test obedience; rewarded initiative; and generally stayed clear of gruesome conclusions.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Oxford University Press, 2000), page 50.
8 “Fairy Tales About Fairy Tales” by Elizabeth W. Harries, Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, edited by Nancy L. Canepa (Wayne State University Press, 1997), page 153
9 “Laying the Rod to Rest” by Jeannine Blackwell, Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies, Volume II, Number 1 – 2, 1997, page 31.
10 Although originally prepared for publication in 1843, with illustrations by Gisela and by Herman Grimm (Gisela’s future husband, the son of Wilhelm Grimm), for unknown reasons the book did not see print until 1926.
Credits & copyrights:
The art above is by French fairy tale illustrator Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981), from The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, The Snow Queen and Other Stories, and The Nutcracker. The title of each picture can credi be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist's estate.