This week I came across a copy of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, translated by Angela Carter in my local library (dear reader, I did not know this book even existed – I was thrilled to find it). Folk and fairy tales fascinate me, and I had visited the library to do a little research.
I quickly found myself utterly lost in the stacks and sought the help of a librarian. I am of the firm belief that librarians are the best humans on the planet: kind, patient, curious, and always willing to disappear down rabbit holes in a quest to help total strangers learn things.
This wonderful human found the book pictured here for me, and showed me how to find and order in other books I might be interested in.
She was an absolute delight to be around.
I’ve since discovered that the original edition, which was published in 1977, included wonderfully disturbing illustrations by Martin Ware (pictured below).
They have a copy of this edition in the British Library (which sounds to me like a great excuse for a visit).
Charles Perrault is regarded as the father of the fairy tale as he was the first person to publish many of these folk tales in print. His book, (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé avec des Moralités), was published in 1697. Prior to the 17th century, folk tales had existed within an oral tradition of storytelling, passed down between generations.
Many of the stories contained within the book will doubtlessly be familiar to you – Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella. However, you may find subtle (or not so subtle) differences in plot, and, in how these stories end (for example, Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are not saved).
Furthermore, at the end of each story, there is a moral (or sometimes two morals).
In the afterword, Carter notes:
… in the moral tags at the end of each tale, he [Perrault] seems concerned in turning the fairy tales into little parables of experience from which children can learn, without half the pain that Cinderella or Red Riding Hood endured, the way of the world and how to come to no harm in it. The book is intended for children but these children are seen as apprentice adults and the succinct brutality of the traditional tale is modified by the application of rationality.Angela Carter
What’s interesting about Carter’s version of these tales and their morals, is that they are not direct translations. She modernised the language and adopted a far more straight-talking style.
Contrast a more literal translation of Perrault’s second moral for Cinderella, with Carter’s version:
It’s undoubtedly a great advantage
To have wit and a good deal of courage,
Or if you’re born with common sense
And other worthwhile talents
That heaven may discharge.
But all of these may prove useless
Any you may indeed need others
If you think you can have success
Without godfathers and godmothers.
It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible and have other similar talents given only by heaven. But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or a godmother to put them to work for you.
I feel there’s something slightly subversive in Carter’s translations. certainly by adopting this plain-spoken style, she allows these morals to be more readily scrutinised by the reader.
I get the sense that she wanted to preserve these morals, and expose the reader to them, but at the same time, she’s gently poking fun.
As she observes in her afterword:
Each century tends to create or re-create fairy tales after its own taste.Angela Carter
We now know, that at the same time as translating these fairy tales, Carter was simultaneously drafting The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, her own collection of stories based on traditional fairy tales. In Carter’s collection, Perrault’s Bluebeard would be transformed into The Bloody Chamber and Little Red Riding Hood would become The Company of Wolves.
The story of Bluebeard is the one that I find most compelling. Many fairy and folk tales deal with the macabre, but few (to my knowledge at least) are quite so preoccupied with it as Bluebeard.
Possibly it’s not a fairy tale you’re overly-familiar with; so here’s a brief synopsis:
Bluebeard is a wealthy and powerful nobleman. According to this tale, God had given him a blue beard which made him look so ghastly that women fled at the sight of him. (No further explanation of this blue beard is provided).
He had been married several times before, but all of his previous wives mysteriously vanished.
Bluebeard visits his neighbour (a mother of two daughters) and decides he will marry one of the daughters. He leaves it to them to decide which it should be.
Neither of the daughters wants to marry him.
So, he throws a lavish, eight-day party to win them over, and, the youngest daughter begins to think his beard is not so blue after all, and he is in fact a fine fellow.
They are married.
A month passes, and Bluebeard says to his young wife that he must go away on business for six weeks.
He gives her a huge bunch of the keys. She is able to open any door in the house with them, each of which contain his riches. He encourages her to explore the house whilst he is away.
However, there is one key, which she must not use – a key to a room on the ground floor. He forbids her to enter this room, or even open the door.
He then goes away and leaves the house and the keys in her hands.
Her friends and neighbours arrive and together they explore. However, she is overcome with desire to see what the forbidden room holds, and she sneaks away and ventures into the room.
She discovers the floor of the room is covered with blood and the murdered corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives.
Horrified, she drops the key in the blood. She tries to wash the blood from the key, but the key is magical and the blood cannot be removed.
Bluebeard unexpectedly comes back early and, of course, discovers the bloodstained key.
He threatens to kill her on the spot, but she asks for one last prayer with her sister Anne (who is still in the house).
(Actually, she’s stalling, because her brothers promised to visit that day, and her hope is that they will arrive and save her.)
All seems lost, but at the last moment, just as Bluebeard is about to deliver the fatal blow, her brothers arrive and kill Bluebeard.
She inherits all his wealth, and goes on to marry an honest man.
There is so much I love about this tale. The sinister blue-bearded man. The mysterious room. The magical key.
But it’s the moral here, that really interests me. Carter’s translation of Perrault’s moral is below:
Curiosity is a charming passion but may only be satisfied at the price of a thousand regrets; one sees around one thousand examples of this sad truth every day. Curiosity is the most fleeting of pleasures, the moment it is satisfied, it ceases to exist and it always proves very, very expensive.The Moral of Bluebeard, translated by Angela Carter
This moral fascinates me, simply because it doesn’t square with the story.
On the face of it, yes, you could read this story as a cautionary tale to impel wives to be obedient… And yet, if this young wife had never ventured into the room she was forbidden to enter, she would never have truly been free.
According to Wikipedia (yes I know, that’s a terrible source) Jungian psychoanalyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estés refers to the key as the key of knowing which gives the wife consciousness. She can choose to not open the door and live as a naive young woman. Instead, she has chosen to open the door of truth.
I definitely agree with Estés’ interpretation – it’s a tale about choosing to know.
A character in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Heart Goes Last – is offered a striking similar choice. Towards the end of the book, this character is offered a gift:
It’s a piece of information about you…
You can choose to hear it or not.
If you hear it, you’ll be more free but less secure.
If you don’t hear it, you’ll be more secure, but less free.
Like Bluebeard’s wife, Charmaine (the character in question) chooses to accept the gift of information: she chooses to know.
What I think is perhaps most interesting about the tale of Bluebeard, is that choosing to know works out surprisingly well for Bluebeard’s wife. Thanks to her curiosity and disobedience (and help from her sword-wielding brothers) she’s free of her murdering husband and has secured a fortune and stability for herself.
If she’d chosen not to know what was behind that door, if she’d chosen to obey would she ever truly have been happy with Bluebeard? (Obviously this is something we can’t possibly know, but my instinct is that she wouldn’t have been).
So is this really a tale cautioning against curiosity?
Or is it a tale celebrating it?
If only Bluebeard’s wife had been able somehow, to save herself (rather than relying on her brothers to rescue her), I think it would be pretty damned perfect feminist fairy tale.
Perhaps you’re wondering what happens in Carter’s own version of the tale (the Bloody Chamber)?
She elects to tell it pretty faithfully to the original, however, in Carter’s version there are no brothers or sisters, and so, it is the young girl’s mother who saves the day. The writing, as you would expect from Angela Carter, is pyrotechnic.
I’m going to claim coming across this slim volume of fairy tales as manufactured serendipity.
Incidentally, when it comes to manufacturing serendipity, according to my Dad: “It not only can be done, it’s been done.”
Photographic proof below: