Academic journal article Folklore

The Conte-En-Vers: Expanding Stith Thompson's X-File of Obscene Motifs

Academic journal article Folklore

The Conte-En-Vers: Expanding Stith Thompson's X-File of Obscene Motifs

Article excerpt

The conte-en-vers is a genre that weds poetry to the bawdy motifs of folktales. The genre affords an excellent point of convergence for scholars of literature and folkloristics. Jean de La Fontaine, a seventeenth-century author known principally for his Fables, invented the genre in 1664 with the publication of his Contes et nouvelles en vers. While the Aarne-Thompson Types of the Folktale and Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature regularly cite Chaucer, Boccaccio, the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, Rabelais and Marguerite de Navarre, La Fontaine is never mentioned in the list of analogues following each entry. Nor are the conteurs who continued to write prolifically in the genre all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And yet, the Contes et nouvelles of La Fontaine are certainly as significant as Boccaccio's Decameron, both as literary work and as a compendium of folklore motifs.

There are several explanations for the oversight; the principal one, undoubtedly, is that French literary critics have not until recently begun to study La Fontaine's tales in a serious way. In France, the Contes were neglected primarily because of their bawdy nature. Until not so long ago, the prevailing approach was a paradoxical silence: "En parler pour les blamer," commented the nineteenth-century critic Nisard, "serait pruderie; les louer, ils n'en ont pas besoin. Ces livresla ne font que trop leur fortune d'eux-memes; n'en rien dire est le plus sage" (Nisard 1863, 3:163) [It would be prudish to speak about them only to criticise; to praise them is unnecessary. Those books do only too well on their own; to say nothing about them is the wisest solution].(1) A popular success among readers, but a work not suitable for the serious perusal of scholars: such has been the judgement of historians and critics of classical French literature of the past few centuries. Fortunately, that situation has been reversed over the last twenty-five years and the Contes et nouvelles now take their rightful place in the literary canon as one of the masterpieces of the classical period of French literature.

A further reason for not paying attention to the Contes in folklore studies in the past was that they were considered to mark the end of a tradition. Now, however, there is an increasing awareness of the fact that when La Fontaine published his first volume of Contes et nouvelles in 1664, he actually began a new genre which was to play a vital role in preserving folklore material in France over the next two centuries. Despite the controversies and scandal they provoked, La Fontaine continued to compose and publish his tales until a few years before his death in 1695 (1665; 1666; 1667; 1669; 1671; 1674; 1685).(2) The Contes enjoyed great popularity; about seventy editions appeared in the eighteenth century and over a hundred editions were published in the nineteenth.(3) What is more, his tales spawned a host of imitators, some of whom were well known writers in more respectable genres: J.-B. Rousseau, Grecourt, Piron, Voltaire and Sedaine.

The folklore scholar Gershon Legman devoted several pages to the French conte-en-vers genre in an article entitled "Toward a Motif-Index of Erotic Humor." Legman underlined the significance of this genre in the context of folklore research:

The conte-en-vers is therefore the real connecting link between the earlier folktale collections and the modern scientific collections, and is the real repository of the native and original humorous material for nearly two centuries (1650-1850), where little of an original nature and almost nothing native will be found in the jestbooks. The entire literature of the conte-en-vers, whether dated from the burlesque and Aretinesque academies of the 1550's in Italy, or from La Fontaine's contes, "tires de Boccace" as he perfectly frankly admits, in the 1660's ... represents in sum an exceptionally large repertory of jokes and tales, purposely sought from the folk at a period when the jestbooks were already forgetful or contemptuous of folk sources, and far gone in sterile mutual plagiarism (Legman 1962, 237). …

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