By Rebecca Smith
Along with plays by Molière, the court of Louis XIV was partial to literary fairy tales, considered Art. It was the King’s desire to showcase French culture and tradition and promoting its folklore was a means of doing so. Perhaps the most recognized chronicler, Charles Perrault, enjoyed great favor with the King. Backed by his royal Patron, Perrault consistently collected the tales from country storytellers and then reworked them for the nobility, often rendering them more genteel, less rustic. Their settings were changed from the pastoral to court and sometimes a moral tone was added. In this way, the accounts were restyled into literary narratives, distinguishing them from those of other regions. Perrault’s were some of the first oral histories to be noted and recorded, even preceding the Brothers Grimm, and from them reportedly can be traced the legends of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
Perrault had been trained as a lawyer but, always drawn to poetry and prose, wrote stories for Louis XIV and in the late 1660s he brought forth Histoires ou contes du temps passe, avec des moralités: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose). With this volume, the fairy tale was essentially established and French literary history was forever enhanced. Perrault was appointed to L’Académie Française in 1671.
The stories generally included fairies, enchantments and magic. Mysticism and transformation (from dead to alive, from human to animal and vice versa, spells, occult transportation) were common elements. Traveling was often involved and heroic rescues not infrequently supplied the denouements.
With such commanding features, the tales had long enjoyed a real popularity with women, especially of the aristocracy. The subject matter, including physical and sometimes sexual content, could preclude discussion between the sexes, so women-only salons were regularly scheduled affairs – perhaps among the earliest “book clubs”. The salons also offered the women momentary escape from the perils and stress of court life. Story lines and characters would be enthusiastically reviewed and some women would read their own creations. The Countess D’Aulnoy, was one of these writers and, indeed, her “Contes de Fèes” (“tales of fairies”), among which “Goldilocks” is said to be included, may be the origin of the genre moniker. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve may be credited with penning “Beauty and the Beast”. Sophie Segur, although from a Russian background, was another French tale writer of note.
Many of these educated and intellectual Parisian hostess/writers were labeled “les précieuses” and their writing style “préciosité”, which emphasized refined feminine elegance and comportment to a pretentious, excessive level. Molière famously scorned these women for their demure sensibilities and in 1659 he satirized them in Les Précieuses Ridicules. Our own esteemed President and Molière scholar, Dr. Felicia Londré, elucidates.
“The précieuses were an obvious target for satirical exposé. They were like tyrants of ‘political correctness’ in their day. Their pretentiousness was most evident in their vocabulary. One could not say a vulgar word like ‘teeth.’ Any servant could name a body part. So the précieuses came up with ‘the furniture of the mouth.’ ‘Eyes’ were ‘the windows of the soul,’ etc. They passed around a map called La Carte du Tendre so they could point to regions of the heart on the map rather than trying to express emotions in common words.
Molière was not inventing those lines about calling a chair ‘an apparatus for conversation’ in his play. The women really did aim for super refinement, and it’s probably a good thing for Molière that the fad for salons had been going strong for a generation. In their zeal to rid the French public stage of vulgarity and violence (so that women could actually attend the theatre!), they had a theatre of broader appeal ready for Molière’s return to Paris.”
So both Molière and Perrault emerged as French literary stars from the royal court. Molière is, of course, considered the pre-eminent playwright of France. Perrault is the godfather of fairy tale history to whom all future creators (including the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and the Walt Disney Company) must bow. And both are read by Francophiles everywhere. Molière is read and studied and performed. Perrault is read and enjoyed and recited. Of course, one must be a strong French speaker to read a Molière play in the original, but a French language student of any level can tackle a Perrault fairy tale. FluentU highly recommends it.
Finally, at KCMOlière400in2022 we must cheer, for obvious reasons, one of Madame d’Aulnoy’s tales, “Felicia and the Pot of Pinks” (“Fortunée”, in French) in which a true princess’s status is restored. “Lovely Felicia, the day has come at last when I may have the happiness of telling you how even the flowers love you and rejoice in your beauty.”
Sources: fairytalez.com, Wikipedia.com, fluentu.com
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