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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006) 549-555
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Revisiting French Fairy Tales as (Post)Modern Literary Machines
Over the past four or five years, a number of important publications in French have revisited a corpus of texts which are simultaneously world-famous and underrated. Everybody "knows" Beauty and the Beast, Blue Beard or Little Red Riding Hood. Many scholars have studied them from an ethnological or psychoanalytical point of view. Cultural Studies scholars have enjoyed tracking down, under their various and unsuspected guises, the narrative patterns and gender roles characteristic of the fairy tale. Yet, until now, few literary scholars have attempted to assess the literary stakes of this body of texts in terms of poetics. As a matter of fact, because of their very popularity, these tales have paradoxically often been excluded from the canon of 17th- and 18th-century French literature. In a deep misunderstanding of their true nature, the fairy tales have been portrayed as a leftover of pre-Enlightened mental frameworks. Such prejudices were shaken by several pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s (like Jacques Barchilon, Raymonde Robert, Jack Zipes or Ruth Bottigheimer), or by closer readings of exceptional authors (like Crébillon fils) and texts (like Diderot's Bijoux indiscrets). They are now about to be dramatically reversed by a new generation of French scholars, who manage to reinscribe the works of Perrault, d'Aulnoy, Hamilton, Gueulette, Moncrif, Pétis de La Croix, Voisenon, Bibiena or Le Prince de Beaumont not only within a rich, clever and highly self-conscious theoretical reflection on literary poetics, but also within an astute and timely dialogue on the promises, limitations, and stakes of Modernity.
For the fairy tale, far from being a relic from the Dark Ages, is a quintessentially modern genre—one of the rare genres that could claim no paternity among the Ancients, and therefore had to invent its own rules and agenda. It is the unfolding of this highly modern literary project, "the most advanced literary venture of the period" (8), which is described in Jean-Paul Sermain's latest book, Le Conte de fées du classicisme aux Lumières [The French Fairy Tale from Classicism to the [End Page 549] Enlightenment]. The opening chapter provides the reader with a neat periodization of the "Literary Revolution" brought by the fairy tale. When it emerges and meets instant success between 1690 and 1705 through the work of Charles Perrault and a group of mostly women writers, the conte de fées, baptized as such in 1698, can be described as a typically (post)modern remix of various pre-existing materials, sampling bits and pieces taken from folkloric elements, from the literary tradition of short stories (and their various framing techniques), from the newer genre of the novel, as well as from the meta-discursive poses popularized by Don Quixote. A second wave, between 1705 and 1730, is marked by Galland's translation-adaptation of the Arabian Nights, and by the Oriental craze it generates among French writers, who color their fictions with characters, beliefs and fantasies imported from the Arab world, Persia, India, or China. The last phase, between 1730 and 1756, is one of diversification: countless writers from all horizons find in the now well-established but ever-scandalous genre of the...