(2009 / 2018) Charles Perrault, Oxford University Press, £14.99, hrdbk, liii + 204pp, ISBN 978-0-198-81797-0
This 2018 reprint of this 2009 collection of works will evoke memories for most readers, the fairy tales attributed to Charles Perrault are so embedded in our cultural memory that we almost forget we know about them. With origins that date back four hundred years in their classic form, and links to even older stories before that, tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and Puss in Boots and others remain essential and relevant owing to their simplicity and capacity for reinvention. We all have a memory of many of these tales and the imagery associated with each retelling, or adaptation, demonstrates their continued appeal.
This Oxford University Press edition of Perrault’s work collects together many of the popular favourites with a few titles that will be unfamiliar to the casual reader at first. The work is also accompanied by an extensive introduction, preface and selection of notes on the text and its translation. All of this is packaged into an unusually bright blue coloured hardback.
The book is very reminiscent of something you might see on the shelf in your parents' home, if you grew up in the seventies or eighties. The quality of binding is a beautiful tribute to that era of precious books. However, it is the black and white illustrations that bring something extra to this collection and these are a delightful surprise to find in between the pages of Perrault’s work. The intense emotional grotesques adding something exquisite to this presentation of the stories.
Modern scholars such as Berthold Bettelheim and Jack Zipes have identified the ways in which fairy tales are a product of the societies they emerge from, noting the way in which they are used to provide cultural reinforcement for the younger audiences they are aimed at. They are also life experience aids, allowing children to experience fear, loss, adversity and even happiness through a vicarious insulated form of fiction. Whilst scholars such as Vladmirr Propp have long since identified the archetypes and tropes of the fairy tale narrative. However, to read and experience these things in an original, or near original, form validates these frames of reference for an early scholar.
Perrault’s stories contain all of these elements. Princes are always handsome, and Princesses often in need of saving. The ugly are outcasts and often play subversive roles. Kingdoms are in need of saving and there are many happy ever afters to be had. However, not all is Disney-fied fluffy and light, noting the need to experience a range of emotions through fiction. Many of the more familiar tales contain a moral warning at the end, highlighting the lesson that the story was expected to impart at the time.
This Oxford University Press treatment of Perrault’s fairy tales is a lovely edition for the discerning collector who likes pretty books that contain intellectual insight and commentary along with meticulously translated prose and verse. It may also be a nice edition for bedtime stories.
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