A visual and literary feast
FAIRY TALES:An edition of folk tales, sparkling with wit and mischief, is a triumph for Irish publishing
Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Illustrated by Harry Clarke, edited by Fiona Biggs, Teapot Press/Gill & Macmillan, 160pp, €16.99
“Grandma, what great teeth you’ve got!”
“All the better to eat you up.”
And, saying that, the wicked wolf fell on Red Riding Hood and ate her all up.
And there goes poor Red Riding Hood, in Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale collection, first published in France in 1697 and usually known by the title Contes de Ma Mère L’Oye, or Tales of Mother Goose.
Red Riding Hood suffers a more tragic fate here than in the better-known version by the Brothers Grimm, in their famous collection of 1812. But in most respects the stories of Perrault, although including more cannibalism than is usual in fairy tales, are in a merrier, less violent mode than those of the Grimms. For example, “Cinderella, who was no less good than she was beautiful, brought her sisters to live in the palace, and that very same day made matches for them with two great lords of the court.” This is not such a bad outcome for an ugly sister, although it’s possible that Perrault thought it was, and wrote ironically.
Charles Perrault, born in 1628, was a civil servant, acclaimed poet, member of the Académie Française and a campaigner for modernism in its 17th-century French manifestation. He has in common with the Grimms that the work which made his name immortal was something he regarded as incidental to his life’s main work. In fact, Perrault was initially embarrassed by his collection of tales and attributed it to his 19-year-old son.
Although the name Perrault is not as famous as the Grimms or Hans Christian Andersen, the collections by these writers are among the most popular in the world. The works differ hugely, however. A handful of Andersen’s stories are based on tradition, but most are of his own invention. The Grimms’ stories, on the other hand, were taken from an oral tradition. Perrault’s stories – less than a dozen, as opposed to about 260 in the Grimm collections – also derived mainly from folklore, probably from the Mother Goose of his title, but he made no attempt to reproduce her style. While he did not change the basic plots, he embellished them, and dressed the homespun folk tales in the exotic fashions of Versailles in the time of Louis XIV.
Perrault’s elegant retellings sparkle with wit and mischief, luckily not overshadowed by the versified morals (alien to fairy-tale tradition) appended to give the tales an edifying appearance. When the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty eats her grandchildren, she insists on having them served with a sauce Robert. The recipe is thoughtfully included in this edition, handy if you’re planning a cannibalistic feast. ( I’ve tried it with fish. It’s good.) And all the stories in the collection are served with that sort of sauce piquante, sharp as mustard, light as beurre meunière.
Whether you know Perrault’s name or not, you’re sure to be familiar with his versions of the world’s most popular tale. Perrault’s Cinderella is the star of the Christmas pantomime and of the bedtime story your mother told you.