Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Beginning the 17th century at a young age - La Fontaine and Perrault

In practice, for French readers, French literature begins in the 17th century.  Two works, really, that are not exactly children’s books but that are perfectly adaptable for children, the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1668-94) and the Contes of Charles Perrault (1697), or Les Contes de ma Mère l'OyeStories from My Mother Goose.

Early on, when my French reading level was that of a little child, I went to a Paris bookstore specializing in children’s books, Chantelivre, where I asked for the poetry section.  It was only a shelf or two, even in this store, and it was mostly illustrated selections of La Fontaine’s Fables, dozens of different editions of La Fontaine, a few poems, many poems, simplified poems, the real thing.  Luckily there was also a lonely copy of Les Plus Beaux Poèmes pour les enfants (The Most Beautiful Poems for Children), featuring a surprising number of poems about dead and dying mothers, which is more what I was looking for.  Still, I learned something about the place of the Fables in French culture just by looking at that shelf.

In a sense, we have them in American culture, too, and in a sense not.  The Fables are poetic versions of (mostly) Aesop’s Fables, beginning with “The Grasshopper and the Ant”:

La cigale, ayant chanté
      Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue:
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.

The grasshopper, having sung
       All summer long,
Found himself much deprived
When the North Wind arrived:
Not a lone little bite
Of worm or of fly.

Look at the rhymes and sounds I was able to keep.  But why am I translating this myself, when I have Marianne Moore:

Until fall, a grasshopper
                 Chose to chirr;
With starvation as foe
When northeasters would blow,
And not even a gnat’s residue
Or caterpillar’s to chew…

I had wondered, reading Moore’s 1954 translation of the Fables long ago, how much of what I was reading was La Fontaine, and now that I have read (about half of) La Fontaine in French, I can see that the answer is that Moore includes a lot of herself and a lot of the original.  She keeps form, even line lengths, rhymes, plus the stories and characters and morals, some of which go on longer than the fable itself.

What a perfect match of translator to text.  But how many children find Aesop in Moore’s, or any, poetic form?  You likely remember that a big chunk of La Fontaine is on the reading list for next year’s Bac.  For many students, these will be poems and stories familiar from their earliest experience with books.

We have the Charles Perrault Contes, too, although I believe now we call them Disney stories.  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard.  No Disney version of that, surely.  Retelling fairy tales was a popular activity in intellectual salons of the time, and I do not believe anyone knows whether the Contes were written for children or for an adult salon audience.  Both, I assume.  They are pretty sophisticated, rhetorically and linguistically, more so than the Grimm Brothers equivalent.   They are longer than the Grimm texts.  They are more composed.  But they lend themselves to simplification and illustration.  They lend themselves to rewriting.  There are a number of later periods in French literary history when writers become excited about the idea of the “conte” as opposed to the modern short story.  It is still a live form.

I had never, myself, read Perrault in English. Just versions of the stories.

Is there an equivalent in English literature, where children encounter the 17th century early on, and keep returning to it, even unto a painful exam to graduate from high school?  Maybe in the days of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Tales from Shakespeare, but that was before my time.  How much youthful Bible reading is of the King James Version?

In France, they start young.


  1. The first Fable I had to learn by heart was in primary school. I guess we start young.

    I don't think I've ever read Perrault. We mostly start literature with the 17th century, with Lafontaine and Molière. (usually with Les Fourberies de Scapin)

    Sometimes we study a bit of Le roman de Renart.

  2. I certainly read and re-read bits of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, and many other writers from earlier centuries as a small child, thanks to anthologies like Untermeyer's The Golden Treasury. I read a great many nineteenth-century English collections of fairy stories. And yes, Aesop's fables. My mother was a librarian, but I doubt that I was the only child reading such things.

    Perhaps it is not so now? Or perhaps it is, at least among those who love to read and pass on that love to children. I do not know.

  3. I think the difference with Perrault is that in French the many children's re-tellings of "Cinderella" and "Blubeard" and so on are often labelled "Perrault" in some way. They are versions of Perrault. In English, they just become more fairy tales, from who knows where. We have lost their origin.

    I hope children are still reading those poems! I hope someone is anthologizing them. I guess what I do not see, even with Shakespeare, is some sense of using the school curriculum to build towards anything. That is one of the extraordinary strengths of the French. They do so much more than assign "Julius Caesar" in 8th grade. Or whatever. That's what I got, long ago.

    I have tried to remember when I first had the idea that there was something called the 17th century, and that it was roughly three hundred years ago, which was a hundred years before the American Revolution, and so on. When I knew I was reading not just a collection of fairy stories, but a 19th-century collection of fairy stories, if you see what I mean. But I don't remember. I feel like I had to mostly figure that all out on my own.

    1. Yes, I certainly had the sense that my children's literary education at school was sometimes chaotic, and often dominated by books that were too "young" for them.

      I am not really sure about my younger school experience of things literary, as I have a lousy memory for such things, it seems. I remember far more clearly what I was reading at home. And my mind was already being quite well fed before school began. But certainly I read a lot of challenging works in high school--more so than my own children. Young Adult works with some political message have replaced a good many more difficult books there.

  4. It is hard for Europeans to understand the chaos of the American school system. It is hard for Americans to understand it. I mean our mix of everything, superb schools and disasters, luxury buses and taped-up old textbooks.

    I was mostly assigned old-timey Young Adult books - A Separate Peace, Death Be Not Proud.