When I picked up The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Angela Carter, I must admit that I was very much swayed by the stunning cover and by what I had read about Carter as a feminist writer who subverts classic fairy tales. Here, I must give a brief history of my relationship with fairy tales. As a child I had a big, fat book – the kind with gorgeous illustrations that you just don’t find these days. It was a compilation of all sorts of fairy and folktales. There were the stories collected by Charles Perrault (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots), the Brothers Grimm (Rapunzel, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Rumplestiltskin), Madame Leprince de Beaumont (Beauty and the Beast) and Hans Christian Anderson (The Little Mermaid). There were folktales like The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Dick Whittington and His Cat, and some which were taken from the group of stories referred to as The 1001 Arabian Nights. These latter included Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Sinbad the Sailor.
The great advantage of having read these stories before I found out how Disney and other generators of frothy, mind-numbing fare for children, had mangled them is fairly obvious. In the versions known to me, to give one instance, the Little Mermaid does not get her Prince. She loses her ability to speak, having sacrificed her tongue to a hag in exchange for a pair of legs. Each step she takes in them feels like she’s walking on knives, but that’s nothing for the mermaid, who even dances to please her friend, the prince. Her sacrifice, however, comes to nothing because the prince eventually ends up falling in love with another princess and marrying her. The tale that I read ended with the mermaid flinging herself into the sea from which she had come and turning to foam.
I was, perhaps, 7 or 8 when I read this story. I wasn’t traumatised by the heroine’s suicide. In fact, the poignancy of her situation and her deep love for the prince moved me so much that for a very long time, it was my favourite story. So you can imagine my horror when I saw Disney’s Little Mermaid, with the feisty heroine who wins her man. This happy ending seemed quite unnecessary to me. It lacked the poetry that the original had. The excuse that children cannot digest the harshness of original fairy tales seemed quite thin to me. Hadn’t I read, and accepted, the original story here? I had even loved Beauty and the Beast, where there was no complication of the magical rose or the comic relief of servants turned into pots and pans. My Aladdin was Chinese, not Arabic,had a fraught relationship with his genie and not the genial relationship as seen in the Disney movie.
Of course, when I say ‘original’ I mean what Messrs Perrault, Grimm or Anderson had heard and written down. From what I’ve read, the version they put down on paper for the consumption of a more educated class were fairly sanitized versions of true-blue blood-and-gore folktales. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood’s consumption by the wolf is meant to stand for a man’s seduction and rape of a young girl, who was thoughtless enough to talk to a stranger. Perrault, who wrote this tale, meant for it to be a cautionary tale for children. But he was also talking to adults through it, telling women what their proper place in society.
Anyway, that’s enough of my reminiscences. Coming back to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault: these are not stories re-written by Angela Carter; rather, they were ‘rediscovered’ by here during the course of her translation. The French writer had meant to provide a guide to life in civil society for women and men and given that he lived in 17th century Europe, it had a fairly patronizing view of the female sex. Women, he counsels, should be docile ( a la Sleeping Beauty), patient and charitable (like Cinderalla) and shouldn’t be so bold as to make conversation with strange men, like the unfortunate Red Riding Hood. He was straight and to the point, and not fanciful at all, as most Fairy Tales compilations would have you believe. The points of his story was not to feed the imagination of child, but to instruct her/him on how to behave in the adult word. Carter has remained faithful to that vision here. Tom Thumb is a ruthless killer, Red Riding Hood is a silly girl, Cinderella has presence of mind, Sleeping Beauty may be madly in love after waking up from her snooze of a 100 years, but as her servants remind her, eating after a century of starvation is also important.
Carter injects a bit of her own wicked humour here: In Cinderella, she points out that while beauty might get a woman certain concessions, what really matters is a powerful patron. In Little Red Riding Hood, again, she says that the real wolves are hard to see as they are ‘smooth-tongued and smooth-pelted’.