- The French Fairy-Tale Conspiracy
"I don't want neon light, nor air conditioning. I prefer trees and boots. Farewell forever. Your only child. Pierre."1 These are Tom Thumb's words, not Charles Perrault's Tom Thumb, but the one created by Michel Tournier in a tale entitled Tom Thumb's Escape.2 In their rough childish sincerity, complete with spelling mistakes in the French, these hastily scribbled words underline the main aspect of a children's literature that is now being written in France.
The message of the new tale is an ecological one: "back to nature." The hero chooses the plant kingdom and leaves behind a world which is getting more and more industrialized each day. The child-hero of the modern tale demonstrates a spirit of enterprise and adventure. He disapproves of paternal decisions, questions authority, and deliberately leaves his family. He signs his note to his parents, and leaves in search of another truth without looking back. He is no longer the weak and harmless character whom we used to know in the "classical" tale where the woodcutter and his wife would weave their infamous plot and lose their children in the dark and threatening forest. Rather, in a clever reversal, Tom Thumb, for example, abandons his parents, and the trees become his friends, while men oftentimes stand for the dangers that the hero must avoid.
I would like to study the transformations of parental figures, and the shifting of traditional authoritative roles in a selection of these modern French tales. In the last few years in France, the re-writing of traditional fairy tales is not an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, it seems to have become a common current in children's literature. In his study of the subversiveness of fairy tales, Jack Zipes finds "two major types of experimentation which have direct bearing on cultural patterns in the West," one which he calls "the transfiguration of the classical fairy tale," which consists of upsetting traditional motifs to give to the tale a completely different message. The other one is similar, adding "the fusion of traditional configurations with contemporary references" (180), which causes banal, everyday-life details to feed the subversion.
These two methods appear quite clearly in works such as Les Contes à l'Envers by Dumas and Moissard mentioned by Zipes in his book, and [End Page 112] also La Patrouille du Conte by Gripari, or Sept Contes by Michel Tournier. authors of children's literature manipulate tales that originated in the popular oral tradition, or literary fairy tales which were written down later, and re-write them in their own fashion, taking an opposite, completely anti-conformist view. They cleverly play with the archetypes, characters or narrative structures of traditional tales that they set not only in the familiar context of our everyday life, but also within the frame of mind of the modern child, taking into account his rebellion as well as his boredom in the face of our modern society.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Let me first tell you in my fashion a few tales which would probably startle this good Monsieur Perrault, as much as the brothers Grimm in [End Page 113] order to draw some conclusions on this "transfigurative" tendency of the French modern tale.
Tom Thumb's father is still indeed a wood-cutter, but he is no longer the miserable hungry peasant forever in servitude to the lord of the village. He is Commandant Poucet, the Chief of the Paris Wood-cutters, in charge of clearing the trees in the Parisian parks so that more skyscrapers can be built. Overpowering within the family, the father figure is full of the arrogance that is so often the privilege of fools. He dominates his shy and fearful wife and his only son who refuses to be impressed by his father's dreams of rampant urban development. Little Pierre Poucet, who preferred his small suburban cottage with its little garden, has no other solution but to escape. Tom Thumb of these modern times would not be...