Chloé Perri

The Tale of the Lone Fairy

Perrault, one of the most important writers to put folklore to paper, published a collection of prose tales in 1697.  Among them was the story of the fairies, “Les Fées.”  This story is not well known in twenty-first-century America and is the shortest of Perrault’s tales.  Because this story is so short, every word and symbol used is powerful.  This is also a story with two principle characters, a pair of sisters, and a third aiding character, the fairy, which really allows the reader to contrast the two sisters sharply.  In Perrault’s tales, we often see three main characters that balance one another out.  We also often see the tales end with the test of the good sister, which is not the case in “Les Fées.”  In this story, the fairy enables a comparison to be made between the two sisters and we find that this is not a story about good versus bad.  Instead, it is a story about social classes and the obligations that accompany each class.

The Sisters

In “Les Fées,” the two main characters are sisters, both of whom could not be more different.  The eldest sister is described as unpleasant, over proud, violent, dramatic, and dishonest.  The youngest sister is described as mild, gentle, living her life in a pure way. She is also honest, beautiful, naïve, weak (mentally) and good.  While the eldest sister is seen as a woman who is disrespectful, the younger sister is seen as respectful and empathetic.  Although this is typically seen as a story about politeness—one sister is rewarded with diamonds, the other with toads—there is more to it than that. Both sisters are tested by the same fairy in very different ways.  The eldest is tested for how far she is wiling to go for the aristocracy, the noble class, and the younger sister is tested for her compassion and empathy towards those of a lower social class.  When compared in this way, the two sisters are offset from one another and their true selves are revealed, but something is also revealed of the social world Perrault critiqued.

The Fairy

Interestingly, in a tale called the “fairies” (plural) there is only one fairy. But she is a shape-shifter. When the fairy appears to the younger sister, she is disguised as an old, weak, poor woman. When she appears to the older sister, she is disguised as a magnificently dressed lady with the air and habits of a princess.  As an old, poor woman, she resembles the lower class and tests the young sister on her empathy and tolerance, which the sister demonstrates to the fairy’s delight.  In her appearance as a young princess, the fairy resembles the highest social class and tests the older sister on her respect and tolerance for the upper class, a test the sister fails.  The “rewards” they get for their performances illustrate how the fairy reacts to them.

The Gifts

All of the gifts given by the fairy are gifts nature has to offer.  The younger sister is given the gift of spewing flowers, diamonds and pearls from her mouth every time she speaks.  The older sister is given the gift of spewing serpents, toads and vipers from her mouth every time she speaks. The younger sister is given the more pleasant gifts of nature.  Her gifts are the ones that are most cherished socially.  Flowers and diamonds come from the land and pearls come from the ocean, so her gifts represent the elements of land and water.  The older sister is given gifts that are vile and keep people away from her.  Her gifts come from swampy marshes where no one chooses to live.  In bad mouthing the fairy, the older sister is dropped down in rank whereas the younger sister is elevated.

However, the sisters’ “gifts” that result from the tests are not really gifts at all.  Gifts from fairies are usually given to help their subjects.  In this story, neither sister is equipped to use her gifts in her environment.  Neither of them will do well with them.  This is clear in the case of the older sister who ends up alone and lives at the corner of the wood. By failing to respect a princess, she goes against the rules of decorum, which results in her being banished from society. But it is also true that the young sister does not “use” her gifts to her full advantage. Like the older sister, she also runs off into the woods when her stepmother threatens her. The prince does find her in the end and sees her spewing diamonds from her mouth as she tells her tale of woe. Typically we see this as a triumph because he decides to marry her on the spot. But all he sees her for are her riches. So, has she really won?  One possible read on this scene is that young naïve girls need money if they want to marry well. .

The Takeaway

This is not so much a story about good versus bad, as a story meant to show the power of a strong social class system.  This story portrayed the young sister as a beautiful and respectful woman who ended having riches in the end.  These riches elevated her into a better social position, where she would respect and tolerate those in the high social class.  The eldest sister who was unpleasant and disrespectful to a “princess” ended up being ostracized from all good society and she died alone in the woods.  Her gift marked her as a selfish snob because she disrespected the nobility.  Two morals that we can draw from this story about diamonds and toads together form a lesson in social civility that does not seem all that positive. In these two girls, Perrault seems to be warning young women to watch what they say and the tone in which they say it when speaking to someone above their station, and also that they will only fit in if they have money and respect for lower social classes. That will get them a prince, but he may only love them for their money!

To end, I will mention another version of this tale by Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier and published in 1698 (just one year after Perrault’s tale), which is longer and much more complex. Against this version at thirteen and a half pages, Perrault’s story is easily overlooked and cast aside for its apparent simplicity. L’Héritier changed the primary function of the story by distinguishing among social classes based on the level of education of the characters.  The younger, more educated sister wins the heart and love of a prince in the end because she is so sweet.  L’Héritier has three main morals that she highlights in her version, all about how to use words in society: Sweet and polite language is worth more than money (564), If beauty is what catches someone’s attention, it is the sweetness that captivates them (557), and Vice is always punished and virtue is always rewarded (554).  Therefore, we can conclude that a person’s character is what is judged in the end.  If you have a poor character, you will be seen as ill mannered and insensitive.  If you have a strong, sweet character, you will go far in life and escalate through society. While on this surface this story seems much more complex than Perrault’s, it produces simpler morals. With one fairy playing tricks by appearing in two different guises, Perrault makes us wonder what really does mark social class. Is it character? Or simply how well you learn the rules of social conduct?