When Charles Perrault published his first tale, La Marquise de Salusses, ou la patience de Griselidis (Griselda), as its own verse narrative in 1691,1 he was in the throes of the famous literary controversy known as the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (1687-1715).2 The most outspoken of the Moderns, Perrault reveals his critique of the work of antiquity in his preface to Griselda, in which he declares his tales (morally) superior to those of the Greeks, the Romans, and Jean de La Fontaine, an advocate of Ancients, whose tale of the "Ephesian Matron" Perrault so bluntly dismisses. An earlier textual dialogue between the two is well known: La Fontaines Epistle to Huet (1667) defends the superiority of antiquity's artistic models against Perrault's critique of them in his earlier Parallels of the Ancients and the Moderns (1667). Full of direct references to the tales of antiquity ("Cupid and Psyche") and to their supporters (La Fontaine among them), Perrault's preface to Griselda, then, appears to be part of Perrault's continued, intertextual quarrel with the Ancients.
Another of Perrault's and La Fontaine's contemporaries, Mme de Murat, inserts herself into this dialogue with "To Modern Faines," the preface to her Sublime and Allegorical Stories (1699). Published two years after Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose (1697), Murat's preface takes issue with this work and offers a new spin on what it means to be a Modern. Perrault's preface alludes to his own story "Les fées" ("The Fairies") as an exemplary modern tale in which fairies teach a moral lesson. Murat's preface reprises the same reference as an example of the foolish actions of "Ancient Fairies. " Murat continues with a series of contrasts between modern and ancient fairies. Her preface, then, becomes a sort of response to Perrault in which she establishes herself as more modern than the Modern top gun. Interestingly, in his preface Perrault criticizes the moral of La Fontaines tale for its corrupting effect on women. Into this textual dialogue between Perrault and La Fontaine on virtuous women, Murat interjects her image of the modern fairy woman: mighty, beautiful, and powerful.
In an especially perplexing turn of words, Murat uses the phrase "fatherly love" ("amour de père") to describe her affection toward her own tales. Her word choice continues her preface's broader theme of authorial reappropriation that is directed in large part toward Perrault. Finer thematic details of the dialogue between the prefaces are also interesting to note. For example, both prefaces carefully integrate planting/hatching imagery: literally with regard to the seasons and farming, figuratively with regard to the "seeds" of good morals or the "birthing" of stones.
While these prefaces offer insights into the complexities of early modern tale transmission, they also allow us to appreciate more fully the extent to which the French tale can be understood as a point of cultural and literary intersection at the close of the seventeenth century. When translated and placed side by side, Perrault's and Murat s prefaces evoke parallel imagery and allusions that form more of a dialogue than a debate, allowing for a richer contextual reading of the prefaces, the tales they precede, and their compositional influences.
Preface to Griselidis
By Charles Perrault
The way in which the Public received the Pieces of this Collection, as they came out separately, is a sort of assurance that they will not offend [the Public] in appearing all together. It is true that some people who pretend to appear serious, and who have enough spirit to see that these Tales are intended to amuse and that their subject matter is not overly weighty, viewed them with contempt; but it was satisfying to see that people of good taste did not judge them in that way.
They were pleased enough to remark that these frivolities [bagatelles] were not pure frivolities, that they contained a useful moral, and that the playful tale enveloping them was chosen solely to let them pass more easily into the spirit, and in a way that both instructed and entertained. …