‘The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault’ by Angela Carter

FairyTales

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 78 pages; 2008. Translated from the French by Angela Carter.

I’ve spent much of my adult life convinced that I had grown out of fairy tales. But then, last year, I read Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters, a wonderful collection of modern and slightly twisted fairy tales for young adults, followed not long later by Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I had to reassess my opinion. I found both books enormously enjoyable.

By sheer co-incidence this year I’ve read several novels that have been heavily influenced by the fairy tale tradition: Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report, Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet and Jennifer Johnston’s The Illusionist (a reworking of Bluebeard).

And then, last week, partly inspired by the lovely cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition and Paperback Reader’s Angela Carter month, I picked up The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault in Foyles. At just 79 pages in length I couldn’t really go wrong, could I?

Carter, who died from cancer aged 51 in 1992, was a fairy-tale writer (among other specialisms). This slim volume features 10 of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, translated from French (in 1977), to which Carter has added her own distinct twists and tongue-in-cheek morals.

The introduction by Jack Zipes, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota (and worth the cover price alone), and Carter’s own Afterword explains the fairy tale tradition and Perrault’s role in it. Perrault, a 17th century French writer who died in 1703, wrote some of the most well-known fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, which were based on oral folklore.

Zipes argues that Perrault was fairly progressive in his thinking and that much of his work, including his poetry, “stressed the necessity of assuming an enlightened moral attitude towards women and exercising just authority”. He adds that all his fairy tales

feature women, in particular, the comportment of women in desperate situations, and how their qualities enable them to triumph and find their proper place in society under masculine domination.

Given that Carter was a feminist, it’s probably no surprise that she was drawn to these works, although she appears to take a broader view, describing Perrault’s fairy tales as “little parables of experience from which children can learn the way of the world and how to come to no harm in it”.

The collection features Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, The Fairies, Cinderella, Ricky with the Tuft, Hop o’ my Thumb [Tom Thumb], The Foolish Wishes, and Donkey Skin. The last two were originally tales told in verse but Carter has translated them into prose. Each comes with a moral at the end, and it it these which I found most enjoyable, particularly as Carter likes to interpret them using her rather wicked feminist eye. For instance, here’s what Carter says about Little Red Riding Hood:

Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red riding hoods and all. Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions.
Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.

Dare I say that never a truer word were spoken!

This is a lovely collection, and one that has definitely made me think twice about all those seemingly innocent fairy tales I read as a child. There are some deep, dark messages going on here. But, in Carter’s hands, there’s plenty of fun, too.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault’ by Angela Carter

  1. I’ve read Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and I have to agree, it made me re-think fairy tales. If you think about them, some of them actually aren’t really suited for children, are they? I didn’t know this collection, but I’ll see about reading it. Carter has a way with words, she makes the world of fairy tales come alive.

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  2. One is never too old for fairy tales. The perfect follow-up to this would be The Bloody Chamber; Carter took her experience of translating Perrault, her knowledge of fairy tales and their morals and ran away with them, turning them on their head as she did so.
    Thank you for being inspired by my Angela Carter month (and the stunning cover) and going off-the-beaten-track a little with this one.

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  3. Thanks, Claire. Ive added The Bloody Chamber to the wishlist! I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this one, so very many thanks for making me aware of Carter. I would not normally have sought her out of my own accord.

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  4. Yes, some of them are quite brutal and violent. I wasnt familiar with Bluebeard, for instance, and was a little shocked at how horrible it was. Surely, it would give children nightmares!

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  5. Angela Carter was a fascinating writer; it’s great to see her being celebrated by readers again (and if you have a quick shufti through collected stories of the Brothers Grimm & H C Andersen, you’ll see what she was getting at!). Claire’s recommendation is great (& I’d add ‘Nights at the Circus’). If you really get into the serious side, there’s Bruno Bettelheim’s famous (& very readable) study ‘The Uses of Enchantment’: his view = folk tales serve to accustom children to the notion that the world holds many dangers + life isn’t always fair but it’s still worth aiming high + sound values are still essential. Gosh v preachy (unintentionally)!
    You are the FIRST book blogger to have responded to any of my comments in 12 months. An honour? You decide! Thanks, anyway.

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  6. What a striking cover for the edition you read! I love the “glass slipper” motif, but with a little bit of grime thrown in. How perfectly Angela Carter!

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  7. I do too love the cover! And I must get a copy of this book, too.
    I was going to suggest The Bloody Chamber but Susi and Claire beat me to it.
    Since having children, I’ve discovered how scary fairy tales can be. There’s children being starved and kept in cages, there are scary witches, monsters…it’s awful. I want my children to read and hear fuzzy, lovey-dovey stuff not wolves gobbling grandmothers up and step-sisters being treated like slaves.

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  8. I was just saying to Claire in a comment on her blog today that I have pulled two carter’s off the shelf to give the once over and The Bloody Chamber is one, I think after your thoughts today thats the one I will plump for.
    Oh and its 4 out of 5 books now if you include Skin Lane that have had fairytale themes, isnt that weird? It must be a subconcious thing. I would recommend Stella Duffy’s ‘Singling Out The Couples’!

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  9. I love that cover. I’m planning to read the Bloody Chamber for AC month, but this one goes onto the wishlist immediately. I love nothing more than a good fairytale.

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  10. Another one for the wishlist! They weren’t called the Brothers “Grimm” for nothing… I read The Magic Toyshop this month, prompted by Claire (Paperback Reader) and I’m keen to explore more Carter. I’m wondering if the translation of Red Riding Hood was the inspiration for the screenplay of In the Company of Wolves which she co-wrote with Neil Jordan – correction, I’ve just checked and it’s from a short story in the Bloody Chamber – another one for the wishlist – you bloggers certainly keep me busy! 😉

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  11. I can’t believe no one has responded to your comments! My broad policy is to acknowledge individual comments, because if someone’s taken the time to comment it’s only polite to respond. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to think of anything to say, other than “thanks for your comment”, so in those cases I might just do a general comment thanking everyone for having their say rather than answering each individual comment.
    Anyway, thanks for tipping me off about future Carter books to explore. I’m not very well educated in the way of fairy tales, so I appreciate being pointed in a direction I might not otherwise have known about/discovered on my own. I do get the impression I should read more of Carters work — I do think I would enjoy it.

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  12. Funny you should mention Company of Wolves. When I brought this book home, my Other Half, who is Irish, said “Oh, didn’t she have something to do with Neil Jordan” and I’m like, “I have *no idea* what you are talking about”. Sure enough he pulls up a wikipedia page to show me she co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan. Only he (and obviously you) would know that! LOL.

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  13. Thanks for all your lovely comments on this post — and sorry for not replying to everyone. But to all of you who mentioned the beauty of the cover, I agree: it’s very lovely. I saw the glass slipper and dirty feet, and just *had* to buy this book!

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