Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Complete Fairy Tales

Charles Perrault, a minor government official in 17th century France, is best remembered today for the collection of fairy tales he published in 1697, just six years before his death. Perrault, however, was not the author of any of the tales collected in his book. Rather, he rewrote various folk tales, tales of unknown origin snatched from the oral tradition of his time, and published those stories in the versions that most closely resemble the ones children grow up on today.

This new Christopher Betts translation of Perrault’s work presents a few of the stories in simple verse, the rest in prose, and it includes an all-star list of fairy tales. Among the stories in The Complete Fairy Tales are: “Little Red Riding-Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” “Cinderella,” and a story very similar to that of ”Hansel and Gretel.” But make no mistake about it – these are not the fairy tales you heard from your mother and they are, most definitely, not the ones made famous by Mr. Disney.

Nevertheless, Perrault did intend that his stories be read to small children by their parents. For that reason, his versions of the folk tales are shorter than the stories with which adults of the period would have been more familiar, they encompass a limited number of characters and motivations, and much of the most obvious sexual content has been removed or, at the least, disguised. In addition, within his stories, Perrault emphasizes lessons and warnings about the process of growing up and he attaches at least one moral to the end of each tale. The attached morals, however, do seem to be aimed more at the parent/reader than at the listening children.

Adult readers will be intrigued by the editing process to which Perrault subjected his chosen tales and probably a little shocked by some of the details he excluded. Perrault clearly felt it necessary to clean up the old folk tales before publishing them as children’s entertainment. Who might have imagined, for instance, that Snow White would be raped by her prince and would give birth to twins before she was awakened? Or that Little Red Riding-Hood would be forced by the wolf to eat part of her dismembered grandmother? Or that incest would play a prominent role in some of the tales?

The Complete Fairy Tales includes twenty-six remarkable illustrations by 19th century French literary illustrator Gustave DorĂ© (including the book’s cover and the “Cinderella” illustration shown here) and it is amply footnoted. Most intriguing, though, is the book’s presentation of alternate versions of several of today’s most beloved fairy tales, versions that make it obvious why Perrault felt obliged to edit the tales to fit his intended audience. Readers preferring their history in unexpurgated form will much appreciate The Complete Fairy Tales as translated by Christopher Betts.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Wow, I'm shocked at the parts that got left out! This sounds like a great book! And I love the illustrations you show! Thanks!

  2. Holy moly. I've got to get my hands on this. Sounds intense! Agree with rhapsodyinbooks--GREAT selection of illustrations!

  3. Rhapsody, I have to admit that I was very surprised, too. I had never read the original folk tales from which our accepted modern versions are taken from - it was quite an education.

  4. Rosemary, some of the illustrations are really special - and scary. One shows an ogre in bed with his seven daughters as he begins to slit the throats of each...in a book for children!

  5. I have read some of the Grimm fairy tales in their non-toned-down versions. Even in the cleaned up versions of fairy tales I wonder how many would have seen the light of day if pitched to a modern children's book editor. Most would probably be deemed completely inappropriate for children.

  6. In today's "nanny state", Alissa, I doubt that most of these would have ever been read to children. Only Disney's cuteness would be deemed appropriate. What a shame it would have been to miss these as a child, though...they had great morals, scary as they could be in general tone.