Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Dialogue on Fairy Tales

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Dialogue on Fairy Tales

Article excerpt

Translator's Introduction

Elected to the French Academy in 1896 and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921, Anatole France (1844-1924) was one of the most prominent wñters and critics of France's Third Republic. He was appreciated by Marcel Proust, and along with Fmile Zola and Léon Blum, he proved to be a fervent Dreyfusard. However, his stories and novels steer away from the scientific realism of Zola and often draw from the fairy, all the while containing ironic and skeptical elements. For instance, in his version of Bluebeard, published in his collection of tales Les sept femmes de la Barbe-Bleue et autres contes merveilleux (The Seven Wives of Bluebeard and Other Marvelous Tales, 1909), France pokes fun at the new scientific approaches to the analysis of the fairy tale and comically establishes Bluebeard's innocence.

In 1885 France published Le livre de mon ami (My Friend's Book), which includes his "Dialogue sur les contes de fées" ("Dialogue on Fairy Tales"). Through the "Dialogue" France celebrates the imagination and the tradition of tale-telling, at the same time that he cñticizes certain scholarly approaches to the study of fairy tales. Immediately preceding the "Dialogue," France includes a letter to "Madame D***" in which he deplores the new emphasis on science in the education of children. He laments the fact that for the past twenty years, in France and elsewhere, people have the idea that "one must only give children scientific books, for fear that poetry will spoil their spirit" (262)} He applauds the creativity of storytellers, which is passed on to their listeners: "Storytellers remake the world in their own way and they gj,ve the weak, the simple, and the young the opportunity to remake it in their own way . . . They help people imagine, feel, and love" (265). His distrust of science extends itself to early science fiction, which deceives children into believing, "on the reputation of M. Verne, that one goes to the moon in a shell and that an organism can defy the laws of gravity without harm" (265). Ironic words, indeed, given the scientific progress of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, France's message is clear and resonates still today: "Alas! our society is full of pharmacists who fear the imagination . . . Oh mothers] don't be afraid that it will be your children's downfall: imagination, on the contrary, will prevent them from making vulgar mistakes and facile errors" (266).

The dialogue itself is constructed as a conversation between Laure, her cousin Raymond, and Laure's husband, Octave. Laure initiates the discussion by asking Raymond to speak about fairy tales. Raymond clearly is a learned man, which explains why Laure fears he will ruin fairy tales for her. Laure appears to be Raymond's country cousin, as her husband is a farmer of some sort (he knows about planting cabbage). Raymond's discourse constantly moves between positing theories of the oñgins of myths and fairy tales and cñticizing other all-encompassing theones, often in somewhat arbitrary ways, as Octave points out. Nineteenth-century theorists who wrote on myths and fairy tales, such as Charles Athanase de Walckenaer, Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, CharlesFrançois Dupuis, and Fnedrich Max Müller, all provide food for thought in a conversation that evolves into a parody ofmythological and Aryan theories of the oñgins of tales.

The text used for this translation is taken from Anatole France's Le livre de mon ami (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1923), 267-316.

Laure, Octave, Raymond

Laure

The band of purple that was blocking the sunset has paled and the horizon is tinted with an orangish glow, above which the sky is a pale green. Here is the first star; it's all white and it flickers . . . But I find another and another and another, and pretty soon we won't be able to count them any longer. The trees in the park are black and seem bigger. This little path, which descends down there between the thorn bushes and of which I know all the little pebbles, seems to me, at this time, profound, adventurous, and mysterious, and I imagine, despite myself, that it leads to countries similar to those we find in dreams. …

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