Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition

Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition


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Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition by Gretchen Schultz

The wolf is tricked by Red Riding Hood into strangling her grandmother and is subsequently arrested. Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella do not live happily ever after. And the fairies are saucy, angry, and capricious. Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned collects thirty-six tales, many newly translated, by writers associated with the decadent literary movement, which flourished in France in the late nineteenth century. Written by such creative luminaries as Charles Baudelaire, Anatole France, and Guillaume Apollinaire, these enchanting yet troubling stories reflect the concerns and fascinations of a time of great political, social, and cultural change. Recasting well-known favorites from classic French fairy tales, as well as Arthurian legends and English and German tales, the updated interpretations in this collection allow for more perverse settings and disillusioned perspectives—a trademark style and ethos of the decadent tradition.

In these stories, characters puncture the optimism of the naive, talismans don't work, and the most deserving don’t always get the best rewards. The fairies are commonly victims of modern cynicism and technological advancement, but just as often are dangerous creatures corrupted by contemporary society. The collection underlines such decadent themes as the decline of civilization, the degeneration of magic and the unreal, gender confusion, and the incursion of the industrial. The volume editors provide an informative introduction, biographical notes for each author, and explanatory notes throughout.

Subverting the conventions of the traditional fairy tale, these old tales made new will entertain and startle even the most disenchanted readers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691161655
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Series: Oddly Modern Fairy Tales , #11
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,209,434
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gretchen Schultz is professor of French studies at Brown University. Her recent books include Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France and An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry from France. Lewis Seifert is professor of French studies at Brown University. He is the author of Fairy Tales, Sexuality, and Gender in France, 1690–1715 and Manning the Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-Century France.

Read an Excerpt

Fairy Tales For The Disillusioned

Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition

By Gretchen Schultz, Lewis Seifert


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8345-5



Fairies' Gifts

It was the grand assembly of the Fairies, who were tasked with distributing gifts among all the newborns who had come into the world in the preceding twenty-four hours.

They were a varied bunch, these ancient and capricious Sisters of Destiny, these strange Mothers of Joy and Sadness: some appeared gloomy and cranky, while others were playful and clever; the young ones looked as if they had always been young, the old ones as though they had always been old.

All fathers who believed in Fairies had come, each one carrying a newborn in his arms.

Gifts, Aptitudes, Good Luck, and Invincible Circumstances were piled high beside the tribunal like prizes on a stage during an awards ceremony. The peculiar thing here was that these Gifts were not granted for achievement, but rather accorded as a grace to one yet to live, a grace capable of determining a child's destiny, of becoming the source of unhappiness as well as of happiness.

The poor Fairies were very busy, since the crowd of applicants was large. And intermediary creatures who exist between humanity and God are, like us, subject to the laws of Time and its unceasing succession: Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds.

In truth, they were as harried as ministers of state before a hearing, as overwhelmed as government creditors when a national holiday authorized free paybacks. I believe that they even watched the hands of the clock with as much impatience as human judges who, having presided since the morning, cannot upon occasion prevent themselves from daydreaming about dinner, their family, and their cozy slippers. Given that otherworldly justice involves a bit of hastiness and chance, it is not surprising to find that this is also sometimes true with human justice. We ourselves might be unfair judges in such cases.

So it was that upon that day the Fairies committed a few blunders that might strike one as bizarre — that is, if prudence rather than capriciousness were their distinct and eternal characteristic.

Thus was the power to magnetically attract fortune granted to the only heir of an extremely wealthy family. Having no sense of charity, nor being covetous of worldly goods, this child would later find himself prodigiously burdened by his millions.

Thus were Love of Beauty and Poetic Ability bestowed upon the son of a wretched pauper, a quarryman by trade, who could in no way nurture the potential or lessen the burden of his lamentable progeny.

I have forgotten to tell you that, on these solemn occasions, allocations cannot be appealed and no gift can be refused.

All the Fairies rose to leave, believing their task accomplished since no more gifts remained, no largesse left to toss to this human small-fry. But as they did, a good fellow, a humble shopkeeper I believe he was, stood up and seized hold of the nearest Fairy by the multicolored vapors of her gown and called out:

"Excuse me, Ma'am! You're forgetting my little one! I didn't come here to leave empty-handed!"

Given that nothing else remained, this might have been bothersome for the Fairy. And yet she recalled a law that, while well known, was rarely applied in the preternatural world inhabited by those impalpable deities (Fairies, Gnomes, Salamanders, Sylphs and Sylphids, Nixes and Nixies, Mermen and Mermaids) who, as friends of humankind, were often obliged to adapt to its passions. I'm talking about the law that allows Fairies, in cases such as this in which prizes are out of stock, to bestow as an exception one additional gift, provided that they are sufficiently imaginative to create one on the spot.

So the good Fairy replied, with composure worthy of her rank, "I give to your son ... I give him ... the Gift to please!"

"Please? To please how? And why?" the little shopkeeper asked obstinately, in the manner of one of those argumentative fellows unable to rise up to the logic of the Absurd.

"Because! because!" replied the angry Fairy as she turned her back to him. And as she caught up with the procession of her companions, she said to them, "How do you like this conceited little Frenchman who wants to understand everything? He received the best of all prizes for his son, and yet he dares to question me and dispute the indisputable!"

Le Spleen de Paris, 1869



The Fairies of France

"Will the accused rise," said the presiding judge.

There was a stirring from the hideous dock of pétroleuses, and something shapeless and shivering came to lean against the bar. It was a bundle of rags, holes, patches, strings, old flowers and plumes, and underneath it all, a poor, faded figure, leathery, wrinkled, chapped, whose malicious little black eyes quivered among its wrinkles like a lizard in the crevice of an old wall.

"What is your name!" she was asked.


"What did you say?" She repeated solemnly, "Melusina."

Under his mustache, as big as a dragoon colonel's, the judge smiled, but continued without raising an eyebrow: "Your age?" "I've lost track."

"Your profession?"

"I'm a fairy!"

In response, everyone — the court, the counsel, even the prosecutor — burst out laughing. But that didn't bother her at all; in a small voice, clear and quavering, which climbed high in the courtroom and hovered like a voice from a dream, the old woman began again:

"Oh, the fairies of France! Where are they? All dead, my good men. I am the last, the only one remaining. In truth, it's a great shame, because France was much finer when there were still fairies. We were the country's poetry, its faith, its honesty, and its youth. We contributed something magical and grand to all our haunts: to the bottoms of overgrown parks, the fountain stones, the towers of old châteaux, pond mists, and great, swampy moors. In the fantastic light of legends, we could be seen going just about everywhere, dragging our skirts on a moon ray or running on blade tips in grassy meadows. Farmers loved us, they venerated us.

"For those with naive imaginations, our brows crowned with pearls, our wands, our enchanted distaffs lent a bit of fear to the adoration. As a result our springs remained ever clear. Plows halted at the pathways that we watched over; and as we are respectful of that which is old, we, the oldest in the world, people let the forests grow and rocks crumbled of their own accord, from one end of France to the other.

"But the century marched on. Railways arrived. Tunnels were dug, ponds filled in, and so many trees felled that before long we were lost as to where to put ourselves. Little by little the country folk stopped believing in us. When we used to rap on his shutters in the evening, Robin said 'It's the wind' and went back to sleep. Women came to do their washing in our ponds. From that point it was finished for us. Folk wisdom sustained us, and so when we lost it, we lost everything. The power of our wands disappeared and, from the potent queens we once were, we saw ourselves become old, wrinkled women, malicious like forgotten fairies who, with all that, still needed to earn our daily bread but had hands that were incapable of doing anything. For a while, people came across us in the forest dragging loads of dead wood or gleaning by the side of the road. But the woodsmen were harsh with us, and farmers threw stones at us. So like paupers who can no longer make a living in the country, we went to the big cities in search of work.

"Some of us worked in the mills. Others sold apples in winter next to bridges, or rosaries at church doors. We pushed orange carts before us; to passersby we offered cheap bouquets that nobody wanted. Children made fun of our quivering chins, policemen ran us around, and omnibuses ran us over. Then came illness, deprivation, a poorhouse sheet pulled over our heads ... And this is how France let all its fairies die. The country has been well punished for it!

"Go ahead and laugh, my good people. In the meantime, we have just seen what it is to live in a country without fairies. We have witnessed as all those sated and snickering farmers share their provisions with the Prussians and give them directions. There you have it! Robin no longer believed in magic spells, but he no longer believed in the country, either. Oh! if we had been there, we fairies, not one of those Germans who came into France would have left alive. Our dracos and our willo'-the-wisps would have led them to the bogs. With the pure water from springs that bore our names we would have mixed magic potions that would have driven them mad. And with a magic word uttered during our moonlit assemblies, we would have mixed up the roads and the rivers so well, and with brambles and brushwood so well tangled the undergrowth, where they always huddled together, that Mr. Moltke's little cat eyes would never have been able to find their bearings. With us there, the farmers would have marched! We would have made balms for the wounded with great flowers from our ponds, and bandages out of gossamer threads. And in the fields of battle, through half-closed eyes, a dying soldier would have seen his local fairy bending over to show him a bit of the woods or a bend in the road, something to remind him of home. That's how you go to war as a nation, how you make a holy war! But alas, in countries that no longer believe in fairies, that no longer have fairies, that kind of war is not possible."

Then the shrill little voice stopped for a moment, and the judge spoke:

"None of this explains what you were doing with the petrol found on you when the soldiers arrested you.

"I was burning Paris, my good man," the old woman replied tranquilly. "I was burning Paris because I hate it, because it scoffs at everything, because Paris is what killed us. It's Paris that sent scientists to analyze our beautiful, miraculous springs. On its stages, Paris laughed at us. Our enchantments have become tricks and our miracles dirty jokes. People have seen so many ugly faces go by in our pink dresses, and winged chariots under Bengal-lit moonlight, that they can no longer think of us without laughing. There were small children who knew us by name, who loved and even feared us a little. But instead of giving them beautiful, gilt picture books where they learned our history, Paris now puts heavy tomes of science within their reach, books that exude boredom like gray dust, that wipe our enchanted palaces and magic mirrors from their eyes. Oh yes! I was happy to see your Paris in flames ... It was I who filled the gas cans for the bomb-throwers, and I led them myself to the best places, saying, 'Go ahead, ladies, burn everything, burn, burn!'"

"This old woman is obviously mad," said the judge. "Take her away."

Contes du lundi, 1873



Dreaming Beauty

"Sleeping Beauty" is more than a tale put absentmindedly into writing: there is also a legend behind it. Let's bear in mind that the most conscientious and best informed of storytellers (even Madame d'Aulnoy or the good Perrault himself) sometimes fail to relate matters exactly as they occurred in fairyland.

Let me give you a few examples. Cinderella's oldest sister did not, as we have been led to believe, wear a red velvet outfit trimmed with English lace to the prince's ball: her dress was scarlet in color, embroidered in silver and embellished with orphrey. And I will grant you that, among the monarchs invited from all the countries of the world to attend Donkey Skin's wedding, some were borne in sedan chairs and others rode in horse-drawn carriages, with those traveling the farthest distances coming on elephants, tigers, and eagles. But it has never been told that the king of Mataquin made his entrance into the palace courtyard sitting between the wings of a tarasque whose nostrils exhaled bejeweled flames.

And don't hope to catch me off guard by asking from whom and in what manner I learned of these important matters. I once knew, a long time ago, an old woman who lived in a small thatched cottage on the edge of a field. She was very old, old enough to have been a fairy, which I always suspected her to be. As I sometimes stopped by to keep her company while she warmed herself under the sun in front of her little house, she took a liking to me. Just a few days before her death (or before returning to the mysterious land of Vivianes and Melusinas following her probationary period), she gave me as a going-away present a spinning wheel that was extremely old and quite extraordinary. Each time the wheel was spun, it would talk or sing in a quiet little voice that quavered a bit, just like a grandmother happily chattering away. It told many lovely tales, some entirely unknown and others it knew better than anyone. In the second instance it took a mischievous pleasure in pointing out and correcting errors introduced by those who have meddled in writing down such tales. You can imagine what I learned! And were I to recount all that the spinning wheel revealed to me, you would be astonished indeed.

For instance ... you think you know down to the last detail the story of the princess who, after pricking her hand on a spindle, fell asleep and was laid on a bed embroidered with silver and gold in a castle in the middle of the wood? She slept so deeply that nothing could wake her, not even when the Queen of Hungary's Water was rubbed on her temples. Well, it gives me no pleasure to inform you that you know nothing about how this adventure really ended, or that in the very least you are poorly apprised of its nuances. Were I not now to take it upon myself to enlighten you, you would forever remain in ignorance.

"Yes, yes," purred the Spinning Wheel, "the princess had been sleeping for a hundred years when a young prince, driven by love and glory, resolved to enter her resting place and wake her. Great trees, thorns, and brambles made way so that the prince might proceed. He walked toward the castle, visible at the end of a grand alleyway, and entered. He was a bit surprised that none of his entourage was able to follow him. After having traversed several marble-paved courtyards (red-nosed, pink-faced guards were sleeping, evidently from drink since in the goblets by their sides remained traces of wine), walked along spacious vestibules, and climbed staircases lined by snoring guards with shouldered rifles, he found himself in a gilded room where he saw, lying on a bed with curtains drawn open, the most beautiful sight he had ever seen: a princess fifteen or sixteen years old whose resplendent loveliness was luminescent and divine.

"I grant you that this all happened," continued the Spinning Wheel, "and that up to this point, Perrault was not brazenly misleading. But the remainder of his tale is entirely false. I cannot concede that, when awoken, Sleeping Beauty gazed lovingly upon the prince, nor that she said to him, 'Is it you, my lord? You certainly took your time.'"

Listen up if you want to know the truth.

The princess stretched out her arms, raised her head ever so slightly, and began to open her eyes. But she closed them just as quickly as if frightened by the light, sighing at length while her little dog Pouffe, who had also awoken, yapped angrily.

"Who is it," the fairies' goddaughter asked at length, "and what do you want of me?"

The prince, kneeling, exclaimed, "He who has come adores you and has risked great danger" (here he was boasting a bit) "to free you from the spell that held you. Leave this bed on which you have slept for a hundred years, give me your hand, and let us return together to the light of day and to wakeful life."

Astonished by these words, she contemplated him and could not suppress a smile, for he was a well-built young prince whose eyes were the loveliest in the world and who spoke with a most melodious voice.

"Is it true," she asked as she swept back her hair, "that the hour has come for me to be delivered from my lengthy sleep?"

"It is indeed."

"Ah!" said she. After reflection, she added, "What will happen if I leave the shadows to return among the living?"

"Do you not know? Have you forgotten that you are the daughter of a king? You will witness your delighted subjects rushing to greet you, crying out in pleasure, and waving multicolored banners. Women and children will kiss the hem of your gown. You will be the most powerful and celebrated queen on earth."

"I would like to be queen," said she. "What will happen next?"

"You will live in a palace as bright as gold, and you will walk upon diamond mosaics as you climb the steps to your throne. Courtiers will gather around you to sing your praise. The noblest of men will bow before the all-powerful grace of your smile."

"How delightful to be praised and obeyed," she replied. "Will I enjoy other pleasures?"

"Maids-in-waiting as skillful as your fairy godmothers will clothe you in gowns the colors of the sun and the moon, powder your hair, and apply beauty spots next to your eye or the corner of your mouth. You will wear a great cloak of golden cloth that will trail behind you."

"That suits me! I have always loved elegant clothing."


Excerpted from Fairy Tales For The Disillusioned by Gretchen Schultz, Lewis Seifert. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Translators’ Note and Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction xvii


Charles Baudelaire

Fairies’ Gifts 3

Alphonse Daudet

The Fairies of France 6

Catulle Mendès

Dreaming Beauty 11

Isolina / Isolin 17

The Way to Heaven 22

An Unsuitable Guest 27

The Three Good Fairies 31

The Last Fairy 36

The Lucky Find 41

The Wish Granted, Alas! 45

Jules Lemaître

The Suitors of Princess Mimi 48

Liette’s Notions 60

On the Margins of Perrault’s Fairy Tales: The White Rabbit and the Four-Leaf Clover 68

Paul Arène

The Ogresses 72

Jules Ricard

Fairy Morgane’s Tales: Nocturne II 77

Marcel Schwob

Bluebeard’s Little Wife 84

The Green She-Devil 88

Cice 92

Mandosiane 95


Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned 101

Henri de Régnier

The Living Door Knocker 108


The Mortis 115

Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen

Sleeping Beauty Didn’t Wake Up 128

Jean Lorrain

Princess of the Red Lilies 137

Princess Snowflower 142

Mandosiane in Captivity 148

Renée Vivien

Prince Charming 152

Albert Mockel

The Story of the Prince of Valandeuse 157

The Pleasant Surprise 165

Pierre Veber

The Last Fairy 173

Anatole France

The Seven Wives of Bluebeard 183

The Story of the Duchess of Cicogne and of Monsieur de Boulingrin 210

Emile Bergerat

The 28-Kilometer Boots 226

Cinderella Arrives by Automobile 233

Guillaume Apollinaire

Cinderella Continued, or the Rat and the Six Lizards 238

Claude Cahun

Cinderella, the Humble and Haughty Child 243

Bibliography 247

Biographical Notes 251

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Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent Tradition 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
wordsandpeace More than 1 year ago
VERDICT: Remarkable anthology of famous fairy tales as reinterpreted by French authors of the Decadent movement. Fascinating and very enjoyable example of comparative literature at its best. We are dealing here with an anthology, presenting 36 fairy tales, written by 19 different French authors. Most of these texts had never been translated in English before. They are part of an “enthralling and often troubling corpus”, in the line of “a long-standing fascination with the genre known in French as le conte de fées.” In the 19th century, the genre took a new life through reinterpretations, as witnessed in this volume, but also through adaptations for the opera, theater, marionette plays, and even films (cf. Georges Méliès). The rewritings sometimes totally misread Perrault’s tales, to better fit the current agenda of the authors. The introduction is a remarkable presentation of the writers included in the volume. They were part of the Decadent movement, “a cynical and aesthetically driven reaction to” the events of the tumultuous 19th century (p.xvii). The editors also present other trends of literature that developed at the same time in France, such as naturalism (Zola) and science-fiction (Jules Verne). These forty pages are excellent in explaining the development of decadent fairy tales in the cultural, social, and political background of the time, and the reason beyond their main recurrent themes, such as the “decline and degeneration, anxiety and distress associated with the incursion of the modern and the industrial, atypical gender expression and nonnormative sexuality” (p. xiv), in response “to the political, social, and intellectual upheaval of their times” (p.xvii). The texts are offered in chronological order of their publication date, with their author’s name, a title, and at the end of each, the name of the work it was published in, and in what year, going from 1869 to 1925. The fairies living in these pages have very human characters, reactions, and behaviors. They are often seen as victims of “modern cynicism and technological advancement” (p.xxv), and their disappearance is regretted and lamented upon. “France was much finer when there were still fairies” (Daudet, p.7). Now, we have machines, so we no longer need the help of fairies, nor are we surprised by miracles accomplished by them, since we have a scientific or technological explanation for everything (cf. p.178, about fairies who decide to leave their forest and go to Paris to impress and help people). There’s no place left “for fairies in the modern world (p.182). Actually in the same text by Daudet, the 1870 defeat to the Germans is precisely attributed to the fact that fairies are gone. Many texts are actually quite hilarious, even the first one by Baudelaire, in a style so different from his poems! Proposing to choose realism against fantasy, Willy has one of his character say: “Princes can no longer be changed into animals; the closest thing to that is a beast transformed into a functionary” (p.102) At the same time, through unexpected twists, many stories have a very dramatic and sad ending. And the theme of death and destruction is omnipresent. The justification given by the authors is often to relate things as they really happened, not how Perrault and other writers originally presented them.