Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

A Christmas Story with a Fairy-Tale Twist: Paul Arène's "The Gospel According to Saint Perrault"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

A Christmas Story with a Fairy-Tale Twist: Paul Arène's "The Gospel According to Saint Perrault"

Article excerpt

Translator's Introduction

One of the most recognizable names in the classical fairy-tale canon is that of Charles Perrault (1628-1703). In 1697 Perrault published Histoires ou contes du temps passé: Contes de ma mère l'oye, a collection of eight literary fairy tales based on folkloric and literary narratives.1 With this collection, consisting of "La belle au bois dormant" ("Sleeping Beauty"), "Le petit chaperon rouge" ("Little Red Riding Hood"), "Barbe bleue" ("Bluebeard"), "Cendrillon" ("Cinderella"), "Le petit poucet" ("Tom Thumb"), "Riquet à la houppe" ("Piquet with the Tuft"), "Le chat botté" ("Puss in Boots"), and "Les fées" ("The Fairies"), Perrault became one of the masters of the fairy-tale genre at the end of the seventeenth century2 and, in popular consciousness, the unmistakable author of the immortal old wives' tales-tales that have withstood the test of time and continue to speak to us today.

Perhaps the endurance of Perr auk's name and the transcendence of his stories encouraged Paul Arène (1843-1896) to honor his work by writing a piece with the title "L'Évangile selon Saint Perrault" (The Gospel According to Saint Perrault). "L'Évangile selon Saint Perrault" is a recast of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus focalized through a 4-year-old girl named Simonette, who conflates catechetical teachings with the tales of Perrault. In the opening line of this frame story, the little girl, who has lost her train of thought, decides to restart her narrative from the beginning, when baby Jesus, born in a crude stable, is placed in a straw-covered manger. Simonette's account unfolds in an intimate setting with characters that seem to reflect the daily life of a nineteenth-century bourgeois family. The seven characters of the story-Simonette, a nursemaid, a priest, Monsieur, Madame, a cat, and the narrator, whose identity is unknown-are gathered in a hearth-warmed room listening to the girl.3 It is unclear from the larger context of the telling, however, whether or not this is a nuclear family spending some quality time with its visitors. The narrator is the girl's primary listener, and his use of "Madame" and "Monsieur" to designate two of the characters leaves readers wondering whether there is a familial bond between them and the child.

In her version of the Nativity, Simonette tells about three affluent men who, led by a star, find baby Jesus lying in a cold manger. Unlike the gospel of Matthew, the visitors are not wise men from the East but three marquises from Carabas; we recall from "Puss in Boots" that Marquis de Carabas was the name that the shrewd cat created for his master. Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the distinguished foreigners bring gifts that include a pot of butter and a cake-items reminiscent of those that Little Red Riding Hood was about to deliver to her sick grandmother. Similar to the biblical account, the story mentions a nefarious ruler determined to murder baby Jesus as well as the escape of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here, however, the threat comes not from King Herod but from an ogre called Bluebeard. In an attempt toffee to safety, the family departs toward the land of the Nile but leaves behind an ailing grandmother who is unable to walk; it is the desire of baby Jesus to reunite with his grandma that brings him into contact with Prince Charming, the Fairies, and eventually the Wolf.

"The Gospel According to Saint Perrault" along with other fairy taies4 appeared in Nouveaux Contes de Noël (New Christmas Stories), a tome of twenty-six brief stories from the series Collection des Auteurs Célebres (Collection of Famous Authors) published by the Parisian house Flammarion in 1890. Arène wrote several children's stories and fairy tales, which he published in various volumes; among them are "Les Ogresses" ("The Ogresses," 1891) and "La Chèvre d'or" ("The GoldenFleeced Goat," 1889), one of his best-known works. Arène's writing career, however, started with articles and short stories that he contributed to newspapers and literary periodicals. …

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