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Marvels & Tales 20.2 (2007) 276-280

Comments on Fairy Tales and Oral Tradition
Lewis C. Seifert
Brown University
Catherine Velay-Vallantin
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris
Translated by Lewis C. Seifert

Ruth Bottigheimer's work attracts serious attention from a wide audience, and deservedly so. However, in several recent studies (including her article "France's First Fairy Tales: The Restoration and Rise Narratives of Les facetieuses nuictz du Seigneur François Straparole," Marvels & Tales 19 [2005]: 17–31), she has made claims that invite close scrutiny, all the more so because of her preeminence within the field of fairy-tale studies. In essence, Bottigheimer has been attempting to demonstrate that the fairy tale, which she defines as a "rise" or "restoration" narrative that includes magic (see "France's First Fairy Tales" 17), does not have its origins in popular oral storytelling, but rather in Giovan Francesco Straparola's Facetious Nights and, specifically, that the French contes de fées are "direct descendants of stories in Les facetieuses nuictz du Seigneur François Straparole" (26). She has also repeatedly criticized fairy-tale scholars' failure to note what she considers to be "the absence of any documentation for oral fairy tales" (18). Now, to be [End Page 276] sure, the influence of Straparola's volume on the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French fairy-tale corpus should be given greater attention, and the assumption that this corpus is grounded in an oral tradition has sometimes led scholars to ignore or underestimate the importance of the properly literary (and printed) intertexts that were woven into the fabric of the conte de fées. This said, Bottigheimer's attempt to disprove the existence of an oral fairy-tale tradition before Straparola is itself problematic for several reasons, two of which I would like to address here.

Bottigheimer has repeatedly asserted that critics engage in little more than speculation when they posit that fairy tales were told orally (e.g., "scholars' fancy rather than historical fact has underlain the resident nursemaids so often thought to be a fairy-tale author's source" [18]). Unfortunately, though, the evidence she puts forth to counter such claims is frequently speculative as well. For example, can the scholarship done on the German and English oral traditions automatically apply to the French context (see 19–20)? How do we know that wet nurses would have been too busy to tell stories to the children in their charge (19)? What proof do we have that bourgeois and aristocratic women told children stories derived from Straparola's collection (20)? Can we accept that the "success" of Straparola's stories "outstripped the number of printings of every other story collection in France between 1560 and 1615" (24) without comparable publishing data about other story collections in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Such questions arise because Bottigheimer's claims are speculative. By saying this, I do not mean to suggest that there is no room for speculation in scholarship on fairy tales (or on any other topic, for that matter). Rather, when clear and decisive evidence for a phenomenon is lacking and a possible explanation is given, then it behooves us as scholars to frame these explanations as speculation and to assess these explanations accordingly.

What is not a matter of speculation is whether there is an "absence of any documentation for oral fairy tales" (18) in seventeenth-century France, and this is the second problem with Bottigheimer's hypothesis that I would like to address. Contrary to what she affirms, there are indeed allusions to popular fairy-tale storytelling at the time, most notably by a few of the authors of seventeenth-century contes de fées. Consider the following examples (but there are others): in paratextual commentaries on both "Marmoisan" and "Les Enchantements de l'éloquence" and Perrault's "Peau d'Ane," Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier claims she was told these stories as a child by various women (she mentions her nurse and her governess as well as another woman who was...


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