Once Upon a Time…

01 12 charles perraultToday is the birthday of Charles Perrault who was born in Paris on this day in 1628. Perrault trained as a lawyer, became a tax collector, then finance minister and wound up being in charge of some of the building works at the palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV. When the king was having a labyrinth (a hedge maze) built in the gardens, Perrault suggested adding fountains on the theme of Aesop’s fables. It was a grand scheme that was completed between 1672 and 1677. There were thirty-nine fountains made up from three hundred and thirty three animals. To carry the water three quarters of a mile from the Seine required fourteen waterwheels and two hundred and fifty three pumps. All this was intended for the education of the king’s son. Each fountain bore a plaque on which the relevant fable was printed, in verse. It was from these that the young Dauphin learned to read. The labyrinth was not only a hit with the royal family but also anyone else who was allowed to see it. In 1675 Perrault published a very popular guide: ‘Labyrinte de Versailles’ that was reprinted many times.

It’s really what Perrault did after he (rather against his will) retired that made him famous though. In 1695 he published a book called ‘Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé’, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals, which all sounds a bit dull. But the book was a collection of fairy tales, re-told for, what was then, a modern audience. It is on his stories that most modern versions of Sleeping Beauty, of Cinderella, of Puss in Boots are based.

01 12 perraultPrior to the seventeenth century, the French aristocracy thought of Fairy Tales as just a bit of vulgar nonsense that belonged to the peasant classes. They still knew the stories though because their nurses had told them when they were small. But then salons started to spring up in Paris, they were places where people could meet an discuss whatever they wanted, away from the formal setting of court. Also in Paris were many disaffected upper class women who were denied a university education and could expect to sold in marriage to the highest bidder. They had no real control over their own lives. A salon was a place where both women and men could come together, talk about art or anything they wanted really. They were often run by women and what they really aimed for was for women to be treated as the intellectual equals of men.

It was a laudable aim, but they had fun too. It became very fashionable to take traditional folk tales and re-tell them in a new and exciting way that demonstrated their verbal dexterity and imagination. In much the same way that the Brothers Grimm wanted to make their tales about ordinary, but heroic German people, the stories told in the salons were aimed at an aristocratic audience. They were peopled with kings and queens. Even the lowliest shepherd might secretly be a prince. Perrault was really only part of a movement to revive and retell these stories but his work is now the best remembered.

Perrault’s stories start with Once upon a time… and generally and with ‘…happily ever after. He is often derided in modern times for writing his princesses as rather insipid characters and I wish I could defend him, but it seems to be true. It’s odd when you think he must have spent so much time hanging out in salons with strong independent women. Also, as you can tell by the title of his book, he’s rather fond of adding a moral at the end. Little Red Riding Hood – young ladies should beware of strangers. Sleeping Beauty – don’t hurry to get married. Bluebeard – curiosity is a bad thing.

Many of the other writers of fairy tales from this time were women. One was his own niece Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier who wrote a fine story about a princess who sees off the unwanted attentions of a prince by threatening to crack his skull with a hammer, in a story called ‘The Discreet Princess’. We also have the opportunity in the works of Perrault to compare two versions of the same story. One by him and one by a woman called Catherine Bernard published in 1696. The story is called ‘Riquet à la Houppe’ Ricky with the tuft. Perrualt’s tale is about an ugly prince called Riquet who falls in love with a beautiful but stupid princess. He is able, because of a fairy, to bestow on her the gift of intelligence but in return she must promise to marry him in exactly one year. The princess agrees but forgets about her promise until the day before their wedding, when she meets him again. She tries to use her cleverness to get out of the bargain but Riquet tells her that the same fairy who visited him gave her a gift too. That if she will only agree to love him, he will become handsome. She agrees and he is transformed. Perrault suggests at the end that he was not really transformed except in the eyes of the princess when she agreed to love him. The moral is that ‘everything is beautiful in the one we love’.

Now let’s look at that story again told by a woman who is searching for a life as a writer, independent of a husband. In Catherine’s story there is no uplifting moral and no happily ever after. A lovely, but stupid princess meets an ugly bossy gnome called Riquet who is king of an underground gnome kingdom. He gives her a spell to make her intelligent then tells her that she must marry him in one year. The princess goes away and falls in love with someone else. At the end of a year, she doesn’t want to marry the gnome. He gives her a choice. She can marry him and stay clever, or go back to her father but be stupid again. She chooses to marry the gnome rather than give up her intelligence. She hates him and is very unhappy, but then she uses her cleverness to sneak her secret lover into the gnome’s kingdom. But the gnome finds out about it. As a punishment he turns her lover into a person who looks exactly like him. Now the princess has to live with two ugly gnomes One that she loves and one that she hates and she never knows which is which. Catherine’s story ends with a warning: “In the end, lovers turn into husbands anyway.”

Tale Spin

01 07 alsatian spinnerToday is Saint Distaff’s Day. There isn’t really such a person as Saint Distaff. It is a sort of unofficial holiday. Holidays are never long enough are they? You could always do with an extra day or so. Yesterday was Epiphany, the very end of Christmas and on Distaff Day women were meant to go back to their spinning. Spinning wool and flax was a terrifically important job. If no one spun any yarn or thread, there would be nothing to weave and no one would have anything to wear. An important piece of equipment needed for spinning is the distaff, a long pole that you tie the loose wool or flax to. Then you tease out the threads from the distaff and twist them using a spindle. This very important job fell to women. Women from all walks of life, from peasants to queens were expected to spend every spare moment spinning. The job is so strongly associated with women that an unmarried woman is referred to as a spinster; presumably because she had no husband to look after, she had plenty of time for spinning. Also in a family tree, your mother’s side of the family is the distaff side.

01 07 sleeping beautyWe only have to look at a couple of fairy tales to know how important spinning was. Sleeping Beauty falls into her hundred year sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle. Rumpelstiltskin has the gift of spinning straw into gold. In truth, fairy tales were probably kept alive from generation to generation by women telling stories to each other while they were spinning. It must have been awfully dull work and I can’t help noticing that a lot of the stories end up with the heroine being excused spinning for the rest of her life. In Sleeping Beauty, because it has been foretold that she will prick her finger; spinning is banned throughout the kingdom for years. As an aside, and because I’m interested in fairy tales, did you know that in the story on which Sleeping Beauty is based, ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ the princess is raped in her sleep by a passing king and gives birth to twins? One of the babies sucks a splinter of flax, which has been the cause of her enchanted sleep, from her finger and she wakes up.

01 07 rumpelstiltskin

There are several stories about a girl who lands in trouble because a parent had boasted about how good they were at spinning. Rumpelstiltskin is probably the best known. But there is also a story called ‘The Three Spinners’ which has several variants. It starts with a beautiful, but lazy girl who won’t spin. When the queen overhears her mother telling her off and the mother pretends that it is because her daughter is too good at spinning and might wear herself out. She is taken to the castle and given absolutely loads of flax to spin in return for marriage the queen’s son. Of course, she can’t but is helped by three kind but horribly deformed old ladies. In return they ask to be invited to her wedding. When they turn up at the feast, the king rudely asks the women why they are so ugly. (If you live in the UK, you know what it’s like when the Queen’s husband is a bit rude sometimes.) One of the women has a massive thumb, one has a pendulous lip and the third has a huge swollen foot. They reply that it is from years of spinning. The king forbids his new daughter-in-law from ever spinning again.

However, back to Saint Distaff’s Day. Although the women were supposed to go back to their spinning, the men in rural areas were not expected to go back to their work, ploughing, until the first Monday after Epiphany. As the first day after Epiphany rarely is a Monday, they had a bit of time hanging around making a nuisance of themselves. They would spend Distaff Day trying to set fire to the wool or flax that the women were trying to spin. The women would respond by pouring buckets of water over them. It seems that this was quite fun for everyone and probably a good way of easing oneself back into everyday work and getting a bit off a day off at the same time.

01 07 plough mondayThe men didn’t do a great deal of work on their first day after Christmas either. They had to wait until the Monday after Epiphany because they needed their ploughs to be blessed on the preceding day, Plough Sunday, before it was safe to make a start. As Plough Monday doesn’t fall on any particular date, we’ll tell you about it briefly here. It was the official start to the agricultural year. The men of the village would drag their plough around the village. Usually they were accompanied by musicians, a fool, who generally seems to have an animal’s tail, and an old woman, or a boy dressed as an old woman, called ‘Bessy’. Their purpose was to collect money from the residents. Failure to pay would result in you having your garden ploughed up.


01 06 doreToday is the birthday of Gustave Doré, who was born in 1832 in Strasbourg, which was then a part of France. Gustave took to drawing at a very young age His earliest dated drawings were made when he was just five and he could make highly elaborate and detailed drawings from memory. He would later turn out to be great at painting and sculpture too. Also he was a pretty good mountain climber, singer, violin player and acrobat. But, just so I don’t make him too annoying, I’ll stick with his illustrations today.

When Doré was fifteen, he visited Paris with his family and he absolutely loved it. During their visit they happened to pass a publishing company, called La Maison Aubert, with some comic drawings displayed in their windows. Gustave hatched a plan. The next day he feigned illness. His family had to go out without him. As soon as they had gone, he made a few sketches, headed straight back to Aubert and into the office of its head publisher, Charles Philipon. He put his drawings on the desk and told Philipon: “This is how that set of illustrations should be done.” Philipon was amused by the boy’s approach, but delighted by the drawings. He called several other people in to look at them. No one could believe they had been done by young Gustave. They asked him to draw more. He quickly dashed off a few sketches. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Philipon would not let the boy leave the office, but tracked down his father and talked him into signing a lucrative contract for his son.

trials of herculesGustave published his first book at age fifteen, his own version of the ‘Trials of Hercules’. Then he began illustrating a magazine published by Aubert called ‘Le Petit Journal Pour Rire’, the little magazine for laughs, which, incidentally, was edited by Félix Nadar who took the above photograph of him. By the time Gustave was seventeen, he was the highest paid comic illustrator in France. He made over 2,000 caricatures whilst he was still in his teens. By the 1850s he wanted to be taken more seriously and moved on to illustration. He produced engravings for works by Rabelais, Balzac and many more for a publisher called Louis Hachette. But still he was searching for something more satisfying. His books were selling well, but none of them sold for more that fifteen Francs. But over the course of five years, he had been working on a much grander project. He was making a series of large illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. dante's infernoIt was a massive undertaking and couldn’t be sold for less than a hundred Francs. Hatchette thought it was a stupid idea, no one would pay that much for a book. But Gustave really wanted to do it. He offered to pay for the printing himself and eventually Hatchette agreed. A thousand copies were printed, but the publisher was so sure they wouldn’t sell that he only bound a hundred of them. A couple of weeks later Gustave received a telegram from Hatchette: “Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!”. The book would eventually run to 200 editions.

Gustave’s illustrations for the Inferno really proved his worth as a serious illustrator. He went on to produce a set of drawings for Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ and ‘The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen’. He also did a set of now definitive illustrations for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for which he travelled to Spain to really get a feel for the places that the story was set.don quixote Almost all subsequent images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, both in books and on film, have been influenced by his work. It was also among his first works to be published in Britain. We took to him immediately here, and in the UK he received a level of recognition in his lifetime that he never really achieved in France. Gustave Doré did not really suit the French art world, he had never trained as an artist and didn’t fit into any particular genre. In his teens he had published a book called ‘Three Artists, Misunderstood Malcontents’ poking fun at serious artists and art critics. It hadn’t really gone down very well, particularly as he was, at the time, more highly paid than the people he was lampooning. Even though he later produced some really beautiful paintings, they still thought of him as little more than an illustrator.

rime of the ancient marinerIn London, however, a gallery was opened specifically to show the works of Gustave Doré in 1867. Initially, it was a five month long exhibition. It ran for twenty-three years. He continued to produce illustrations right through the 1860s, including a set for the Bible which was hugely popular. Also he produced work for the other two parts of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’. He began to get commissions to illustrate works by British authors, among them Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ and Coleridge’s ‘ Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ which is beautiful. His last work was his only American commission, a set of prints for Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ which he was working on at the time of his death in 1883.

His images have wonderfully dramatic quality and have been a massive resource for film makers from the very beginning. Almost every film made about the Bible has referred to his illustrations. We know that Cecil B DeMille had a copy of his Bible prints when he was a child and that it was one of his favourites. Before that, Georges Méliès drew inspiration from his work. So did Jean Cocteau, Ray Harrihausen, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and many others. I have sought out a few images that remind me of film sets and characters and, with over 100,000 drawings to choose from, there must be hundreds more. Can you guess what these are?


01 04 brothers grimmToday is the birthday of Jacob Grimm, The eldest of the folk tale collecting Grimm brothers. He and his brother Wilhelm were born in Hanau in what is now Germany. Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm, a year later. I don’t particularly favour Jacob above Wilhelm, It’s just that I wanted to write about them and needed to pick a day. Germany was, when they began to collect their stories, a fairly loose collection of states, part of which had been invaded by Napoleon. German people had a strong need to hang onto their national identity. Many felt that this identity was to be found in the popular culture and amongst the ‘volk’, the ordinary working people. This was one of the things that led them to make a collection of German folk tales. Another was that peoples’ work patterns were changing in a way that meant they had less time for storytelling. Jacob and Wilhelm wanted to capture the tales and write them down before they were lost.

Their first collection ‘Kinder – und Hausmärchen’ (Children’s and Household Tales) was published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815. They claimed, or at least heavily suggested, that the stories were all German in origin and collected from the humblest of people. Neither of these were really true. For example, they presented ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as uniquely German. It isn’t, there are loads of versions that come from all over Europe. It dates back to at least the 10th century. There are even echoes of it in the Elder Edda in a story about Thor dressing up as a bride to retrieve his stolen hammer. There are similar stories from Russia, from North Africa, even from China. The protagonist was not always a wolf, sometimes it was an ogre, sometimes a werewolf. 01 04 little red riding hood doreWerewolves were a very real thing to medieval Europeans. Real people were tried, found guilty and executed horribly for being werewolves. Sometimes Red Riding Hood takes off her clothes and burns them on the fire before getting into bed with the wolf. Often the wolf tricks her into eating some of her grandmother’s flesh. Variously, she is eaten and that is the end of the story, or she is saved by a man, a woman, or just saves herself. No one can say where the story came from of what it was originally about. Perhaps it is a story about how night swallows day. Perhaps it is a rite of passage story, perhaps it is a warning against sexual predators. Perhaps it is all of these things.

Some of the tales were collected from written sources, others from their friends and family. A major contributor, Dorothea Viehmann, was the wife of a middle class tailor. Also she was a Huguenot, so basically French. Definitely not a German peasant. Nor were the stories written down exactly as told, but were embellished with each succeeding edition of the tales. Also as they became more famous, they were inundated by people sending them their own versions of the tales. So they had more material to work with. We can’t really accuse them of changing the original stories, because folk tales are stories that have been changing all the time for ever. As we have seen, there are no definitive versions.

The first edition didn’t really go down that well. It was never really meant for public consumption and was certainly not aimed at children. Yet that was the general complaint: These stories were terrible for children. This was not really the fault of the Grimms. They had collected stories from adults, some of which were to be told to other adults. They were not cosy bedtime stories for children. In their original version of Rapunzel, the witch who locked her in a high tower finds out that she has been visited by the prince, not because Rapunzel complains that the witch is so much heavier than the prince as she climbed up her long plait of hair, but because she is clearly pregnant. As the Grimm brothers began to perceive a new market for their work amongst the rising middle classes, they began to tone down their stories. They began to add more Christian elements to them and to add morals. They took out obviously French stories like ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Bluebeard’ and also references to fairies, which were similarly, a bit too much of a French thing. They removed the sexual references, but not really that much of the violence. Certainly Hansel and Gretel are taken to the forest on the orders of their Stepmother, rather than their actual mother, as in the first edition. But they are still abandoned in the forest to starve. In their other stories, the murders, the dismemberments, the cannibalism are all still there.

The Grimms being, as they were, all about German Nationalism and identity, suffered rather after the Second World War. Hitler loved them and demanded that every school should teach the stories. The tales are full of fearless and heroic German Boys. The Nazis even made a film of Little Red Riding Hood where she is rescued at the end by an SS officer. The Grimms were tainted by Hitler’s enthusiasm for them and, after the war, they were banned in a lot of places. They are not universally liked today, particularly by parents who want to keep their children away from such violent stories, but also because quite a lot of the female characters are rather insipid and helpless.01 04 hansel and gretel They lie about, sleeping or dead or something while they wait to be rescued. But if you pick your stories you can find some good female role models. Gretel is pretty smart, the way she tricks that witch into getting into the oven and, as when I mentioned Bluebeard in an other post, I point you heavily in the direction of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’.

The final edition of their tales though, from 1857, with which people are generally most familiar, is a much altered version of the original. Recently, Professor Emeritus, Jack Zipes from the University of Minnesota has published the first English translation of the Grimm’s first edition. There, you can read a story of a mother who is so poor and hungry that she plots to kill and eat her own children and how a whole family die horribly as a result of two children playing a game called ‘Butcher and Pig’ So now we have both ends of the Grimm spectrum. Their (slightly) sanitized final version and the glorious originals. Which ever you choose, lots of people will die in truly awful ways, but what are these dark evenings for if not a scary story?