- Preface to the Special Issue on “Reframing the Early French Fairy Tale”
For several years, I have taught a course on Approaches to the French Fairy Tale for our Freshman Seminar program at Vanderbilt University. As many Marvels & Tales readers who teach similar classes can relate, a course on fairy tales is guaranteed to raise the eyebrows of more than a few parents and administrators. However, sharing space in the schedule of classes with seminars such as "New York, New York: Film and Literature," "Musicals! All Singing, All Dancing," "The Social Construction of Hip Hop/Rap Music," and "The Simple Art of Murder: Knowledge and Guilt in Detective Literature," my fairy-tale course is in good company (or, in the case of the latter, perhaps not!).
In the context of a Freshman Seminar program, the choice of an ostensibly "lightweight" topic is a calculated risk that has the potential for a rich payoff. First, fairy tales and other such courses fill seats; my seminar is always over-enrolled. Second, and more important, the primary goal of our Freshman Seminar program is "to instill curiosity [in students] ... [to help them] examine all ideas critically [and] to develop a mind free of preconceptions" (http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/cas/freshmanseminars). What better way to challenge preconceptions than to ask students to engage critically texts that seem, at least initially to them, impermeable—and perhaps even antithetical—to scholarly discourse?
While the students change each semester, the notions or critical "frameworks" they bring to my classroom on the first day remain fairly stable: Fairy tales are, and always have been, for children. They are generally consistent across time and space. They remain untouched by the cultural politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality. And, of course, they are at their best when in the hands of Disney's Imagineers. As the fairy tale is increasingly recognized as a legitimate field for scholarly inquiry, researchers have offered up a treasure of evidence that dramatically rewrites these and other popular (mis)understandings of what is, in the end, a highly complex genre. From formalist and structuralist accounts of the fairy tale to psychoanalytic perspectives, from feminist [End Page 11] engagements to sociohistorical inquiries, the trajectory of critical approaches is as diverse as the tales themselves.
As fairy-tale studies as a general field continues to flourish, it is worth noting that beginning in the mid-1990s there seems to have been a disproportionate upsurge in interest regarding the French fairy tale and particularly those tales originating from the Old Regime salons. New editions of Perrault and d'Aulnoy's contes, moderately priced anthologies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tales, and English translations have made many previously unknown texts available to a wider public for the first time. Moreover, the books of Lewis C. Seifert (1996), Philip E. Lewis (1996), and Patricia Hannon (1998) set a deliberate and highly scholarly tone for monographs by Anne Defrance (1998), Nadine Jasmin (2002), Elizabeth Wanning Harries (2001), Jean Mainil (2001), Sophie Raynard (2002), Holly Tucker (2003), and Anne E. Duggan (forthcoming). For readers interested in exploring the remarkable breadth and depth of scholarship on the early French fairy tale, Bérénice V. Le Marchand's impressive bibliography, included in this issue, will prove extremely useful.
The aim of this special issue is not to rehearse what these important studies already tell us about the early French fairy tale. Instead, what is at stake in these pages is—as the title suggests—a "reframing" of the types of questions that we may wish to ask as we continue to recalibrate and to nuance our understandings of the contes de fées, their contexts, and the conteurs and conteuses themselves. Just as we challenge our students to shake off preconceived notions in order to open their minds to new ways of viewing a seemingly well-worn topic, it may be time for us, too, to give thought to the frames through which we view our work, the questions those frames allow us to ask, and how the answers we are likely to uncover are dictated by the boundaries we have set for ourselves, both intentionally and unwittingly...