A visual and literary feast

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 00:00

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.

Oral tradition

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.

The glass-slipper motif is unique to Perrault and is always a sign that a version of the tale derives from him. Thought to be a misunderstanding – the words for green and glass in French sound similar – could it have been a deliberate mistake? It fits, like a glove, the world of conspicuous consumption to which Perrault’s downtrodden protagonists graduate when they jump through the dangerous hoops of the fairy-tale exams. What could represent the sumptuous fashions of Versailles better than an exquisitely elegant but quite unwearable shoe?

Such extravagant effects abound in Perrault. Cinderella goes to the ball in a gilded coach drawn by six horses, recently transmogrified mice. She has six footmen of lizard descent and a coachman who was originally a rat. (In some Irish oral versions of the tale, of which there are about 500 in the national folklore collection at University College Dublin, the transformed Cinderella meets her prince not at a ball but at Mass, to which she goes dressed in a nice tweed suit and mounted on a single pony.)

Fairy tales are the stories in which the human imagination enjoys its wildest fling, but the details and settings tend to have local boundaries. One of Perrault’s gifts is to maintain a dual perspective. Those prancing horses retain their mousey skin. We’re thrilled that Cinderella has a well-dressed coachman, but don’t forget that underneath the livery the man is a rat. There were, no doubt, lots of them around, well turned out, in 17th-century Paris.

This text in this new edition is based on a previous translation by Thomas Bodkin, published in 1922, now revised by Fiona Biggs. Occasional updates to the earlier style are judicious. “Anyone other than Cinderella would have sabotaged their hairstyles” is a good rendering of Bodkin’s “Anyone but Cinderella would have dressed their heads awry”.

Something for everyone

Biggs points out in her excellent introduction that Perrault’s tales were for adults. Perhaps it would be more accurate to use the contemporary publisher’s term, “cross-over”. There’s something here for everybody, and the feast is as visual as it is literary, since the edition features Harry Clarke’s illustrations from the 1920s. His images are in a different style from those in the wonderful selection of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales that Gill Macmillan reissued, to such acclaim, last year. When illustrating Perrault, Clarke did not use the unforgettable lapis-lazuli blue, inspired by the blues in the windows at Chartres Cathedral. A more nuanced palette – burgundy, lilac, dusky pink – reflects the intricate, feminised rococo settings of the French tales.

In addition to the many magnificent colour plates, the volume includes black-and-white drawings; stylised, menacing, Beardsleyesque. These are the perfect visual match for fairy tales. Clarke was described as “Ireland’s only great Symbolist”, and the fairy tale is the most symbolist of all narrative genres, mixing menace and magic in equal proportions. To this unbeatable recipe, Perrault added more than a soupcon of acerbic esprit, making this is a magnificent book at all levels. It is a pleasure to look at and to read, a triumph of Irish publishing.

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