- Confessions of a Fairy-Tale Lover
My discovery of fairy tales began early: I remember my father telling me, in French, his own oral version of "Le Petit Poucet" the story known in German and American culture as the Grimms' somewhat different "Hansel and Gretel." I was inwardly shocked that parents could abandon their children in the woods (but I did not say anything then, as I am sure I would not have known how to verbalize such feelings, since I was five or six years old). I did not for one second believe the story as a true happening. My father was always a tender and caring man: it would have been out of character for him to suggest in any way that parents, any parents known to him or me, could ever abandon their own children. Such parents belonged only in the unreal world of fairy tale adventures.
I believe that in the back of his mind he sensed it was good for me to hear a cautionary tale. Through my Proustian eyes I have often seen his smile and I have also heard in my inner ear the relish in his voice: "but that little boy had filled his pockets with tiny white stones, which he dropped behind him, so he could find his way back, and he did." I think my father wanted to impress upon me that I should be observant and use my own wits and not allow despair to invade my mind, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. He also told me, with the same lilt in his voice, the story of "Red Riding Hood," the classic French version with final death inside the wolf and not the Grimm version with the happy end and rescue. I didn't believe that tale either, but I was interested, and waiting for something else, a message or an explanation about such "unreal" stories.
It came later, through a French Protestant Bible, when I was nine or ten and could read all by myself. The story of Genesis seemed so beautiful. I was moved by the simple majesty of the language, but it did not carry any conviction for me; yet I remember that inner voice: "I know it can't be true, but how beautiful! It does make sense in a way, a good explanation somebody with a simple mind could have believed, a long time ago."
I understood that narratives can be beautiful without being true. It was my first "aesthetic epiphany," if I may formulate it in such terms. Many, many years afterwards, I found another answer in Coleridge, and I will come to it in a little while. A year or so after my encounter with the [End Page 208] Bible, I began to read Jules Verne with a passion, and every day I was telling my friends at school what I read the night before; one schoolmate asked: "Tu ne connais pas les contes de Perrault?" [You don't know Perrault's tales?] So I read them. The only impression I recall was my reaction upon reading "Riquet à la Houppe" [Ricky with the Tuft]. That story's style was too refined for me, somewhat artificial and, I thought, not for children. It was a correct judgment; only after puberty, when children become young adults, are they able to appreciate fully the delicacy of preciosity and the dialogues of lovers arguing about love, beauty and wit. Little did I know that 25 years later that very reaction would launch my study of fairy tales, or life-long scholarly avocation.
Since I am fourth in a family of five boys, I inherited many hand-me-down toys and clothes, and many dog-eared and soiled books. A few of these were fairy tale collections. I recall in particular a book with black and white illustrations, which had long ago lost its cover page, so I never knew the author, and I still regret it, because of an intriguing tale of a boy reading books in which each page would turn magically to make room for the next one. This seemed to me the greatest marvel of all: everything...