Jesus Munoz

What floats Perrault’s boat? The details.

The works of Charles Perrault are undoubtedly some of the most exemplary pieces of literature in that they have had the capacity to evolve and adapt to the needs of the people over many generations. In particular, his collection of fairy tales published in 1697 as the Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (and otherwise known as The Mother Goose Tales) have become a popular commodity used to instruct children on basic values and morals of life.  In this essay I hope to re-establish meanings  latent in Perrault’s tales  that seems to have been lost or forgotten in subsequent versions and re-iterations of these fairy tales. I believe these “Perraultian” tendencies found in the 1697 version of these tales are essential to point out in order to truly understand the seventeenth-century richness of Perrault’s stories. Please do not mistake these explorations of his literature (or his literature, for that matter!) as didactic assertions of a definitive interpretation, but rather an opportunity to understand his writings through a wholly text-based analysis.

One particularly relevant trope (or thematic metaphor) present in all but two of Perraults’ fairy tales ( the exceptions are “Cendrillon” and “Le Chat Botté”) is le bois and la forêt, that is, the woods and the forest, which Perrault uses interchangeably in “Grisélidis” to refer to a particular kind of space that I will investigate in this paper. The woods are an environment we tend to associate today with fairy tales, partially because they play such an important role in stories like “Belle au Bois Dormant”, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge”, “Grisélidis”, “Les Fées” etc. One might be tempted to generalize this trope and the role it plays in each of these stories: it’s a dark, scary place where strange things happen. However, when observed closely, one can see that more reason and meaning can be extracted from this theme when we consider it in the specific context of each particular tale.

In fact, studied closely the woods seem to make no evident pattern of meaning across the collection of fairy tales. The role of this environment is different in each story. Yet, there is a way of reading what the woods does for the heroines in Perrault. For example, in “Grisélidis”, the woods represent a barrier in which the young prince loses himself and then inadvertently finds his future lover. Yet, this is not the case for Little Red Riding Hood who passes through the woods only as a pathway to her death. I will suggest, then, that perhaps the woods are not best understood as an independent and general trope, but rather as tools and reflections of the role the female protagonists play in their respective stories. It suggests that Charles Perrault was very much a feminist in his time and this background offers a good basis for this proposal.

Analyzing this theme cross-narratively provides us with a vivid image and paradigm that effectively presents a “Perraultian” vision of the woods in this collection.

Grisélidis et “le bois”

The forest in Grisélidis marks the unknown. The prince loses himself when out on the hunt and finds that this forest is home to a beautiful shepherdess named Grisélidis. To Grisélidis, the forest has been her home her entire life, yet this young prince courts her and takes her out of her forest into a lifestyle filled with riches and luxuries. Grisélidis has no evident power in this relationship with the prince, and remains submissive even when the prince tests Grisélidis by taking away her only child.

Her inactivity and lack of power in the decision-making process is evident throughout the story and is then represented through the trope of the woods.

When the prince decides to test Grisélidis for the final time and bans her from his palace, it is important to note that he returns her back to her home in the forest. In that sense, the forest represents her origins and although she is technically “banished” there, it is also a form of retreat to the place and life in which the prince first found her (40-43).

Much like Grisélidis, this forest is unchanging and completely receptive to the prince. Their connection becomes even more evident in the Princes’ description of Grisélidis when he first sees her. He describes her and makes mention of “sa naturelle fraicheur” (19), “her natural radiance”. Choosing to describe Grisélidis with such earthy and adoring terms makes a very compatible description with the way in which one could describe the woods in the story.

What’s important to take away from this example is that Grisélidis’ nature and behavior  are reflected with the description and role of the woods as a kind of haven. Much like her character, the woods represent static and unchanging beauty that is the antithesis of court fashion. An interesting way to consider her character, I believe..

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge et “le bois”

Since it was previously mentioned, let’s take Little Red Riding Hood as another example  of the tropic role the forest plays in its relation to the female protagonist.

In “Little Red Riding Hood”, we find a young naïve girl who is sent on an errand by her mother to deliver goodies to her sickly grandmother. While on this errand, Little Red Riding Hood (from this point on, LRRH) passes through woods where the first thing she encounters is a hungry wolf who wants to eat her. Not understanding the situation she’s in (120), she informs the wolf of her errand and reveals the details of her journey.

This naivety becomes the downfall of LRRH. Even when presented with obvious signs of danger (121-122), she tends to always dismiss these suspicions and write them off with her gullibility. This sort of innocence is portrayed in her experience in the woods right after her encounter with the wolf. Perrault writes that after their initial meeting in the woods, the wolf races through the quickest path to LRRH’s grandmothers’ house, while LRRH spends her time “chasing butterflies and making bouquets of small flowers.”(121)

The woods in this story seem to mimic the personality and naivety of LRRH. Something important to note, is that LRRH had multiple opportunities to save herself and change the ending of the story. For example, at the time of her first encounter with the wolf, she neglects to ask the woodsmen, who were also in the forest (121), about the wolf and instead spends her time playing around. The woods are not only the place where LRRH meets her bringer of death, but also where she has the opportunity to save herself. The woods, in this sense, have become totally subjected to the will of LRRH, and LRRH’s failure to realize her situation and the danger she was in, led her to stray from her path the path to salvation that was in the woods all along.

With this in mind, we might also consider why LRRH does not run away when she begins to suspect it is not, in fact, her grandmother in her grandmothers’ bed. LRRH is already fearful of the voice responding to her knocking on her grandmother’s door, and should realize that it is very similar to the voice of the wolf she had seen earlier (121). However, in spite of this similarity, she dismisses her suspicions and attributes them to her grandmothers’ illness. At this point, it has become evident that LRRH will not escape from the wolf’s plan. Her naïve behavior in the woods and at her grandmothers’ house has become a sort of foreshadowing to how the rest of the story plays out.

We can now see that the naivety expressed by LRRH in the woods is repeated in the story and leads to her death by perhaps the most emblematic creature of the woods: the wolf. We begin to see that the actions and decisions made by these characters directly influence the role “le bois” plays in each story, and not, as conventional wisdom would have it, the other way around. That is to say, LRRH could find either her salvation or her doom in the woods. In some way, at least, it is up to her.

Riquet a la Houppe et “le bois”

One final example I’d like to reference is contained in the fairy tale “Riquet à la Houppe” or “Ricky with the Tuft”. In the analysis of this tale, I’ll focus on two sisters whose royal birth was accompanied by a fairy. The Queen gives birth to two daughters; the eldest is born so beautiful that the queen is overwhelmed with joy, and to moderate that joy, the fairy curses this beautiful daughter with stupidity. The Queen then gives birth to her second daughter, who is born extremely ugly. Seeing this, the same fairy consoles the Queen and gifts the second daughter with insurmountable intelligence. As these sisters grow, so do their gifts, and unfortunately, their defects as well. So much so, that bachelors from all over the land hear rumor of the eldest sisters’ beauty and travel her kingdom just to see her. When they do arrive, however, they realize how dense and stupid she is, and instead, turn their attention to the ugly younger sister who can hold marvelous conversation.

The joys of being beautiful for the older sister are short-lived and Perrault makes comment that she would give up all of her beauty to have half of the intelligence of her sister. After a while, she becomes so sad that “she retreats to the woods to lament about her misfortune” (172).

This is her first described encounter with the woods and we see that the woods have become a place of refuge for the older sister. After having suffered through so much because of her stupidity, she seeks consolation in the woods. This is very important because at this time and in this place, she meets Prince Riquet and, long story short, ends up returning to her palace that same day with incredible intelligence. This sort of process is really interesting to digest. The older princess, miserable and in need of help flees to the woods to take refuge. Unknowingly, she ends up meeting the one person who can grant her intelligence, and leaves the woods with what she desired most on her way in.

This same process takes place the second time the older sister seeks refuge in the woods. After a year of having both intelligence and beauty, she finds that many fine bachelors are asking for her hand in marriage, and the King leaves the decision of whom to choose entirely to this princess. In order to find the answer of whom she should marry, she retreats to the woods to think more clearly. (175) In the end, the princess find Prince Ricky again, makes him beautiful, and marries him. Again, we see that this princess is in need of something, so she goes to the woods to do something about her current situation and ends up getting what she most desires.

In this fairy tale, “le bois” becomes a site and a tool for this female protagonist to create her own happiness. The woods here are not full of obstacles or trials, but rather with the space  for the female protagonist to plot her own her own destiny.

Thinking back to the other two examples in “Grisélidis” and “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge”, it becomes clear that the woods played a similar role in these tales as well. The atmosphere of the woods become completely responsive to the actions of these female protagonists and play the role the female protagonist chooses to assign to it. This is incredibly interesting because in this way Perrault allows his female protagonists to develop control and influence over their lives in “le bois”  in several of his tales.  This analysis further gives us an opportunity to suggest that the purpose of this trope is to highlight the control these women have over their own destiny. Nothing is more important in the decision of their fates than what they seek and what they find in the forest.

With this analysis I hope to have shown that such “Perraultian” tendencies become apparent in the details of particular tales when these stories are read jointly and compared to each other. The ideology of the woods, long understood to be a place where heroines lose their power, instead becomes the condition for their power in Perrault’s fairy tales.