On Context, and Donkey Skins

April 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

A Review of Fairy Tales Framed, ed. Ruth Bottigheimer, pub. SUNY Press 2012

First of all, readers, let me say sorry for the hiatus. Secondly, let me re-introduce myself to you. Hi, I’m Cate, and I’m a fairy tale snob. A snot-nosed academic. A purist, a full throttle believer in information and context when it comes to the stories I love. A while ago, I posted an essay in which I talked about the false consciousness of Disney fans, and the unnatural churning in my stomach that occurs when I read a young woman claim that a Disney film (The Little Mermaid was the specific culprit) taught her all she wants to know about love and life—and that no other version is acceptable.

My mission, both on this blog and in my life, is to be the counterweight to these girls, these girls who say they love The Little Mermaid but who probably have no clue who Hans Christian Andersen is. If snark is required, so be it. But more than snark, context is required. So what follows in this post is what I hope will be the first of many reviews on this blog of published and forthcoming critical works on fairy tales and folk lore. I’ve mentioned some tomes here on the Train before, but I’d like to devote some real attention to them, in hopes of building a list of resources for you, readers, who also appreciate the history of the stories you love.

And how better to start exploring this idea of context than with Fairy Tales Framed, due this spring from SUNY Press—as local as local gets for me, as I live in the Hudson Valley and am a SUNY New Paltz alum myself—and edited by Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Research Professor of Comparative Literacy and Cultural Studies at SUNY Stonybrook. Fairy Tales Framed is a collection of letters, forewords, responses and extracts by fairy tale authors of Italy and France, including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Giambattista Basile, and Charles Perrault. To no one’s surprise here, these fairy tale authors of the 16th and 17th Century had plenty to say about their writing and their mission—but these reflections were removed from their published tales, leaving readers to interpret the authors’ intentions for themselves. The collected pieces in Fairy Tales Framed give fairy tale scholars and enthusiasts new insight into the historical context of the first literary fairy tales, and their authors’ opinions about the reception and importance of their work.

Fair warning, readers: Fairy Tales Framed focuses solely on the French and Italian fairy tale authors and their friends and critics. No Grimm or Andersen here. And it’s truly an academic text—though Bottigheimer does frame her collection of frames with a brief introduction to the study of European folk tales, Fairy Tales Framed is not like the somewhat more accessible works of scholars like Maria Tatar (and no one is saying it has to be), whose analysis is often accompanied by summary and historical information, left like bread crumbs on a path for a reader who may not have read every tale she describes, or who may need more introduction into the world of fairy tale analysis and study. Bottigheimer’s book is a tome for the die-hards, the academics—this is fairy tale on the 400 level.

As such, Fairy Tales Framed should really be thought of as supplemental material, a worthy addition to the bookshelf of the reader whose knowledge of Perrault or Straparola is already well-honed. What Fairy Tales Framed does very well, in that respect, is pique interest in Bottigheimer’s other works, which include Fairy Tales: A New History (also published by SUNY Press) and Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition.

One of Bottigheimer’s main interests in these works is with respect to terminology—which wasn’t my bag at first. Used to reading more socially critical works by Jack Zipes et al, specific word choice used by the fairy tale authors to describe their work seemed like a tame preoccupation—why focus on the difference between a conte and a nouvelle if you could be decrying the social implications of changing peasant themes in a tale to courtly ones? But the more I delved into Bottigheimer, the more I became drawn in by her precise and categorical noticing of words that Perrault, d’Aulnoy, et al, used—what does it mean if Perrault fluctuates between conte and peau d’asne? What are we to make of an author who, perhaps jokingly, uses the term bagatelle—a trifle—to describe work that he or she actually feels is important?

An example: one of Perrault’s most enduring tales (thanks, in part, to Catherine Deneuve), is “Donkeyskin,” which of course takes its cue from much older tales such as “The Golden Ass”. The tradition of tales featuring the hide of a donkey stretched back so far in Perrault’s time that the term denoted not a particular tale, but a type of tale: nonsensical, ridiculous, not worthy of critical attention. Could Perrault, then, be thought of as making a joke, by using the term so blatantly in “Donkeyskin”? Could the moralist of moralists, the conservative, aristocratic, literary folk-stealer that Zipes has taught me to dislike all these years…gulp…actually be capable of irony? Maybe even subversion?

Catherine Deneuve as Donkeyskin in Jacques Demy's 1970 film

I can date my personal dislike for Charles Perrault back to the first time I read his version of “Little Red Riding Hood” (“Le petite chaperon rouge”). Raised on the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap,” and most in love with Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrated version, I was accustomed to seeing Red saved at the end by the kindly old hunter, alerted to trouble by the sound of the wolf snoring. He shoots the wolf, frees Red and Granny, and they sit down for a glass of wine (at least, in Hyman’s illustration). But Perrault, whose “Le petit chaperon rouge” predates the Grimms’, has Red eaten by the wolf…and that’s it. A moral: “Little girls, this seems to say/ Never stop upon your way…” follows, which leaves the same flavor in my mouth as “she asked for it by wearing that short skirt.” At least the Grimms had the heart to let her live. Perrault, in his tales, is a staunch moralist, but I have to hand it to this collection, Fairy Tales Framed: Perrault almost charmingly explains in his preface to the fourth edition of Griselda, Novella, with the Tale of Donkeyskin and That of the Ridiculous Wishes, that his “paltry tales (bagatelles)” transcend that definition by way of their morality, and that said morality should “suffice to free me from the fear of reproach for amusing myself with frivolities.” It seems to me that throughout much of the writings included in Fairy Tales Framed, Perrault is making the case for the survival of the tales, and their worthiness of critical attention—an unpopular mission, perhaps, at the time. He seems to refer to the morality of the tales as an excuse for their being read—and otherwise leaves the preaching to the page. Though his methods aren’t mine when it comes to fairy tale advocacy, it seems to me, after reading Fairy Tales Framed, that rather than imposing a set of courtly morals on a set of bawdy folk tales in order to “cleanse” them (because if you’ve ever read an older version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” you know it can get pretty dirty), Perrault was trying to convince a courtly audience that folk tales actually had a purpose, and were worth preserving. And by using the term “Donkeyskin” as the title of the story he’s serving up, he seems to be both poking fun of himself and those readers who would turn their nose up at it at the same time. He’s reclaiming a term, and arguing for its importance.

I might like him a little better now. Just a little. Well played, Bottigheimer.

But my personal feelings for Charles Perrault aside (the man’s dead, he doesn’t care whether I approve of him or not), Fairy Tales Framed is a brilliant addition to the shelf of any fairy tale scholar—Bottigheimer’s curated collection of authors’ words, and her thoughtful commentary, keep the reader mindful that fairy tales don’t just emerge fully formed from the dark woods and wrinkled mouths of Europe: their history is one of constant revision, reclaiming, and re-appropriation. They go by many names, adapting to survive in cultures where the line between frivolity and serious literature is ever shifting, and their authors and collectors have long sought to create a space in which serious discussion of them was not only tolerated, but celebrated.

Fairy Tales Framed will be available from SUNY Press later this spring. You can go here to pre-order a copy.

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§ 2 Responses to On Context, and Donkey Skins

  • Jennifer Lynn Krohn says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m always looking for good books on fairy tales.

    Also your earlier post inspired me to use Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in my English 101 class. I was surprised, though I probably shouldn’t be, that none of them knew about the original story.

    • crfricke says:

      I’m honored to have inspired a class! I learned, teaching freshman writing 110, that the best you can do is expose them to original versions: most of them won’t care, but a couple will, and at least they’ll get a sense that stories have history, even if they never look it up again.

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