Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Complete Fairy Tales - Charles Perrault

Translated, and with an introduction by Christopher Betts.

A few weeks back Oxford World's Classics sent me a particularly beautiful cloth bound edition of Charles Perrault's fairy tales (all of this series looks good, but this one comes in an especially pleasing shade of blue). A good few years back they'd also sent me a paperback copy (2010, the post office held onto it for an oddly long time before they admitted to having the parcel - I know this because I blogged about getting it) which I thought I'd read.

I also have the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Angela Carter's translation of Perrault, which I remember reading, I thought I'd probably blogged about both. Turns out neither. Which spoiled my intention to refer back to any notes to talk about the pretty new edition.

I certainly have read the Christopher Betts translation now, and possibly more to the point, also his introduction. I've also compared some of them to the Angela Carter versions (which has made me want to reach for 'The Bloody Chamber' again).

Perrault's versions of these stories reflect his time and place (a successful public official in seventeenth century France) and were published relatively late in his life. The mix of traditional fairy tales with very old roots, Perrault's particular details, and contemporary preoccupations and morals is particularly pleasing.

This Cinderella for example seems to be the one that gives us the glass slipper. It also leaves Cinderella's father alive, but indifferent to his daughters degradation at the hands of his new wife and her daughters. Cinderella doesn't appeal to him for help because she fears his anger.

That's a much more interesting set of family politics than you get when both Cinderella's parents are dead, and resonates well in our society, where divorce means complicated family arrangements are even more common than a higher mortality rate would have made them in the 17th century.

Perrault doesn't punish the stepmother or sisters either. Instead the girls are married off to great lords at the same time, and that's interesting too. Is it punishment enough to see Cinders as a princess whilst the sisters remain subjects, is it inappropriate to punish the well connected stepsisters, what happens to the parents who aren't mentioned again? So many questions...

There's also an insistence that intelligence is as important, or even more important, than beauty - especially in Ricky the Tuft, which if nothing else reflects the importance based on wit and the ability to entertain in Perrault's time.

Sleeping Beauty is interesting too, it's a cleaned up version that dispenses with the rape that earlier folk tales include (and that still features in one of the Russian fairy tales I read a couple of weeks ago where the Prince has his way with a sleeping Tsarina very much without her consent. She turns up some time later with twins and an attacking army) in favour of a secret marriage. In Perrault's version the Prince's mother is an ogress who wants to eat his children- it's an interesting take on the mother in law/daughter relationship - but not entirely successful, even if it is delightfully gruesome for children (and she does get punished at the end). Now children's versions more or less finish with a kiss and happy ever after, but this odd half way between story certainly underlines some of the problems with Sleeping Beauty.

At the end of the introduction Betts says that "We should perhaps accept that fairy-tales from the past have to be put into modern forms in order to be appreciated; that it is preferable to oblivion." For me this is the point of them - they keep finding ways to be told, we continue to rely on them to frame narratives, and our appetite for fairy tales in film and fiction only seems to grow.

Angela Carter's translation of Perrault has a stripped back feel about it (she also drops the tale of Griselda, a sound decision as it's hard to decide if the Princes sadism and misogyny is more appalling than Griselda's patient acceptance of his behaviour dressed up as laudable virtue) but Betts gives the stories the sense of humour that I assume Perrault intended them to have. The Gustave Doré illustrations in the Oxford editions add to the baroque feel of the thing as well. These are fairy tales that are as much a pleasure to read now as they were to be told once upon a time ago.


  1. I have that Betts paperback too - glad his translations are true to Perrault.

    1. I assume they're true - they're certainly very engaging, and the tone is definitely more playful than in the Carter version. It fascinates me how these stories keep shifting. The essentials of this Cinderella for example are all very familiar, but keeping the father alive and not punishing the sisters changes it - it's amazing how many week step fathers their are in fairy tales!

  2. Oh dear, another book to long for! I think the Betts translation sounds more appealing than the Carter (and I'm quite surprised I write that); I actually don't have a 'proper' translation of Perrault but I do remember reading in one of Marina Warner's books that Perrault's stories were written to amuse the French court and so a sense of humour does sound accurate. I'm also glad he retains the Patient Griselda story even though I hate it.

    I'm curious as to the versions of the story in which both of Cinderella's parents are dead. I've never encountered this in a written version, only in the Disney cartoon which I suppose couldn't bear to present an emasculated or uncaring father figure. There's a retelling by Eleanor Farjeon which rather astutely presents him as kindly but weak. In one of the Grimms' versions in which she goes several times to the palace, her father repeatedly destroys her hiding places.

  3. Thinking about it I grew up with the Disney version, and the Ladybird book one, though I can’t remember the fathers status in that. Other childhood versions I had most likely sanitised the father out of the picture. The latest live action Disney kills the father off half way through. I’ve obviously painted him out the picture too, because even here he barely registers. Back to the Books for me.

    I like both translations, my guess is that Betts is more faithful to tone though, and the Carter one is probably most interesting in relation to her own re workings and versions of the stories. My paperback Betts is spare if you would like it. Possibly prohibitive to post to Europe, but if there’s a uk address where it could wait for you I’d be happy to send it on.

    1. I had a book called At the Stroke of Midnight which was re-tellings of the most famous fairy tales by Helen Cresswell, I think that was where I first read it, but it was never a great favourite of mine, I'm more of a Baba Yaga person...

      As for your kind offer, how could I refuse? Thank you! Could you post it to my parents' house in Ipswich? I'll email you their address, I think I have your email somewhere...

      And of course I'll send you back a little thank-you...

  4. I'm very happy to send the book on to a new home, no thanks necessary. if you don't already have it my email address should be in the profile box thingy in the side bar.

    I love Baba Yaga for how changeable she is, and the details about her house and mode of transport, but it's Beauty and the Beast tales from Cupid and Physche onwards that have always been my favourite. Werewolves included.