Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

Tales for Future Times:

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Although much lesser known than his literary heirs the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, the seventeenth-century French writer Charles Perrault not only solidified the fairy tale as a literary genre, but wrote or adapted nearly all of the genre’s most signature stories, his tales entering the culture in ways that far transcend his own personal artistic reach. “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” Little Red Riding Hood,” Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” “Tom Thumb,” and the larger designation of “Mother Goose” stories all permeate virtually every level of modern art and entertainment, from rock songs to popular films to the most sophisticated stories and novels by such literary fabulists as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. With all these tales forming a common cultural currency, the clarity and intent of the originals has often been either obscured or contorted to serve sometimes questionable meanings, and while a film such as 1996’s Freeway creates a brilliant and necessary twist on the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, many more popular versions of Perrault’s works—from the saccharine Disney films to the grotesquely insulting Pretty Woman—manipulate their audiences by promoting reactionary gender and class stereotypes. Much of this is in the originals, though, and it’s often surprising to see just what is and what isn’t in Charles Perrault’s versions of these seminal fairy tales.

Perrault published his Stories or Tales from Times Past (subtitled Mother Goose Tales) in 1697, the work comprising three of his earlier verse stories and eight new prose tales, and arriving at the end of a long and not entirely satisfying literary life—Perrault was nearly seventy, and while he was well-connected, his contributions had been more intellectual than artistic—this slim volume achieved a success that hadn’t seemed possible to the man who’d long made his main living as a civil servant. Some of the stories were adapted from oral tradition, and some were inspired by episodes from earlier works, including Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and some were inventions wholly new to Perrault, but what was most significantly new was the idea of turning magical folk tales into sophisticated and subtle forms of written literature. While we now think of fairy tales as primarily children’s literature, there was no such thing as children’s literature in Perrault’s time, and with this in mind we can see that the “morals” of these tales take on more worldly purposes, despite their slyly clever packaging within the fantastical universe of fairies and ogres and talking animals.

Philippe Lallemand’s portrait of
Charles Perrault (detail), 1672
In “Puss in Boots,” the youngest of three sons inherits only a cat when his father dies, but through the cat’s wily scheming the young man ends up wealthy and married to a princess. Perrault, who was in favor with Louis XIV, provides two interconnected but competing morals to the tale, and he clearly had the machinations of the court in mind with this witty satire. On the one hand, the tale promotes the idea of using hard work and ingenuity to get ahead rather than just relying on your parents’ money, but on the other hand it warns against being taken in by pretenders who may have achieved their wealth in unscrupulous ways. Thus, a tale that seems like a didactic children’s fable actually serves as a double-edged send-up of class mobility, such as it existed in the seventeenth century.

Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” reads much like the popularized versions that we all grew up with, but with one big difference: The wolf eats the girl and her grandmother, and nobody comes along to save them. Without the happy ending, which the Brothers Grimm supply in their version, the story serves as a warning to young women against talking to strangers, and in its moral it warns even more strongly against the “charming” wolves who seem civilized but who are perhaps even more dangerous than brutish attackers. There’s no heroic male to slay the wolf and save Little Red Riding Hood from her own gullible innocence; there’s only danger, and it’s up to young women to learn how to recognize it.

Like “Puss in Boots,” Perrault’s “Cinderella” also has two competing and contradictory morals, and they likewise discuss questions of marriageability and class connection. One moral claims that charm is more important than looks when it comes to winning a man’s heart, an idea that suggests that anyone can achieve happiness, regardless of their conventional assets. But the second moral declares that no matter what natural gifts you have, you need a godfather or godmother in order to put them to good use, a message that acknowledges—and perhaps supports—society’s profoundly uneven playing field.

Catherine Deneuve in the film version of Donkey Skin, 1970
The most strange and amazing of Perrault’s tales, “Donkey Skin,” is also one of his least known, probably because its shocking grotesqueries have no way of being watered down and made easily palatable. In the story a dying queen asks her husband to remarry after her death, but only to a princess even more beautiful than she. Eventually the king’s own daughter grows to surpass her dead mother’s beauty, and the king falls deeply in love with her. At the suggestion of her fairy godmother, the princess makes seemingly impossible demands of the king in exchange for her hand, and the king somehow fulfils her demands each time, to both shimmering and terrifying effect. Then she demands the skin of the king’s magic donkey, which defecates gold coins and is the source of the kingdom’s wealth. Even this the king does, and so the princess flees, wearing the donkey skin as a permanent disguise. In Cinderella-like fashion, a young prince rescues her from her squalor and marries her, and events transpire so that her father also ends up happily paired with a neighboring widow-queen. Despite the tidiness of all its ends, this is the story that contains the messiest and wildest of Perrault’s invented worlds, and perhaps this is why posterity has been unable to tame it into a version that it feels comfortable presenting to children. There is no Disney version, but for the adventurous, Jacques Demy’s 1970 film starring Catherine Deneuve manages to capture all of the story’s perversity while casting the loveliest and most magical spell on its viewers.

While Perrault’s original tales are hardly the versions that were fed to us as children, they also can’t be expected to be the feminist and socialist alternate versions that we might wish them to be—see Angela Carter’s 1979 story collection The Bloody Chamber for this kind of modern twist; Carter had translated an edition of Perrault’s fairy tales in 1977 and was inspired to create her own versions as a response. Perrault was an upper-class intellectual during the reign of the Sun King, and unlike the fable-writer Jean de La Fontaine, whose rich narratives often criticized the powerful and took the side of the underdog—and who himself was not in favor with the megalomaniacal Louis Quatorze—Perrault didn’t have much of an interest in rocking the boat. Instead, as a leading figure on the modern side of the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” he brought new forms and sources to literature to create something that even the ancients had never seen. La Fontaine was on the side of the ancients and wrote fables in the vein of Aesop, and while La Fontaine was much more intellectually clever and lyrically sophisticated, it was Perrault’s modernity that lay the foundation for a new kind of literature that’s created a culture all its own. Perrault may have been writing for adults, but the fairy tales that he first put on paper spawned a revolution in what kinds of stories could be made into literature, and soon writing for children spread throughout Europe and eventually across the rest of the world. The results—and even his own works—may have gone far out of Perrault’s intent or control, but that’s what often happens when you introduce something new into the world. It seems that there’s a moral somewhere in that.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Nibelungenlied

The Nameless:

The Nibelungenlied and its Poet

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

In the earlier Middle Ages, before Dante ushered in the cult of the poet as the center of the universe, sagas and epics were almost always anonymous, because they narrated ostensibly true events that the author couldn’t claim to be the “author” of. Great epics such as Beowulf and The Song of Roland and El Cid all recounted heroic deeds that were common cultural and historical currency and that had been told by countless earlier poets, sometimes over the course of centuries. Poets often contended with earlier versions in an attempt to supersede them, but custom demanded that they as authors remain nameless, even in triumph. Perhaps the greatest of these anonymous epics, The Nibelungenlied (or The Song of the Nibelungs), came at a pivotal shift in poetic modes, when the brutal histories that it recounts needed to be tempered to an age of courtly chivalry, creating a strange and complex web of narrative priorities and strategies.

The author worked in a court somewhere in Austria at around the year 1200, and while his finely attuned courtly sensibilities made for a more sophisticated and nuanced work of art (paving the way for the likes of Dante), it’s clearly the poem’s outrageous contents that have assured its lasting appeal. In addition to fusing old and new artistic modes, The Nibelungenlied sews together two major narratives, and although it largely holds as a single piece, the seams show quite clearly. The first major part of the poem covers a period thought to be the early fifth century, narrating the marriages of Siegfried to Kriemhild and Gunther to Brünhild. In brief, the Burgundian King Gunther has a beautiful sister named Kriemhild, and a traveling warrior prince named Siegfried wants to marry her. In order to receive Gunther’s permission, Siegfried agrees to accompany Gunther to Iceland to help him win the hand of Queen Brünhild. Pretending to be Gunther’s vassal, Siegfried uses his wiles to help conquer the formidable Brünhild, who states that Gunther can only marry her if he beats her in three athletic contests. Donning a cloak that grants him invisibility and great strength, Siegfried helps Gunther win each contest, and Brünhild assents to go back to Gunther’s home city, Worms, where she marries Gunther and where Siegfried is allowed to marry Kriemhild. Sensing some sort of deceit, though, Brünhild fights off Gunther in the wedding chamber and ties him up for the night. Once more recruiting Siegfried, Gunther tells his new brother-in-law to use the cloak again to subdue Brünhild in his stead, but he warns Siegfried not to sleep with her. Siegfried wrestles Brünhild into submission, and he takes her ring and girdle, which the poet tries to gloss over but which symbolize her lost virginity. Siegfried then secretly presents the ring and girdle to his new wife, Kriemhild, with the poet keeping mum about anyone’s reactions to what this could possibly mean.

An illuminated manuscript of The Nibelungenlied
As the years pass, something continues to bother Brünhild about her husband and Siegfried, and she eventually convinces Gunther to invite Siegfried and Kriemhild back to visit Worms. Not understanding why Gunther ever allowed his sister to marry Siegfried, who she thinks of as having a lower rank, Brünhild ends up in a confrontation with Kriemhild over precedence. Arguing over who should enter the cathedral first, Kriemhild is offended and angrily presents Brünhild with the stolen ring and girdle, humiliating the defeated queen. After much ado, Gunther’s vassal Hagen kills Siegfried and steals all his treasure. Kriemhild is forced to accept peace, but she holds a very, very long grudge.

In the second part of The Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild is married to King Etzel of Hungary (the historical Attila the Hun), and when they have a son, she invites Gunther and his Burgundian court to the child’s baptism. The assassin Hagen has grave reservations about the visit, but since peace has been agreed upon, they all make the trip to Etzel’s castle, where they’re all ruthlessly slaughtered, to the last man. The second part has none of the twists and turns of the first part, but its slow and ominous rise to unbelievably bloody heights takes as much poetic space as the entire first part, and with far less padding. Many critics claim The Nibelungenlied to be a kind of medieval Iliad, a quasi-historical epic poem that narrates its founding figures’ drama in one massive swoop, but its two very different parts read a little more like the different modes of The Iliad and The Odyssey, on a much smaller scale and with far less artistic integrity. While Homer’s two poems contain centuries of embedded lines that come from widely varying sources and styles, The Iliad and The Odyssey still hang together with far more seamlessness than The Nibelungenlied, which betrays not just the splicing of its major parts, but the competing sensibilities of its brutal sources and its courtly audience.

Magda Bánrévy’s Nibelungenlied, 1933
Perhaps The Nibelungenlied and its anonymous poet were by design fated to be far secondary to their great Homeric forebears. While earlier medieval epics were much more economical and uncomplicated in their ferocity, in this period of the Middle Ages courtly patronage both allowed and demanded that a poet deal with much more material and on a much more complex scale, and unfortunately the resulting poetic refinements and span of mind and scope of sources ended up being as much of a restraint upon the poem as they were a source of largeness and richness. Perhaps no poet could have juggled so many requirements. Or perhaps the Middle Ages just didn’t contain a historical panorama as vastly alive as that of the Greeks. Or maybe it’s simply that Dante hadn’t come along yet to limn heaven and hell into the most outrageous and ingeniously integrated poetic system. The Nibelungenlied is merely an earthly poem, with no gods or afterlife, and it’s possible that its terrestrial nature is what keeps it from full flower. Whatever the reason for its limitations, it’s still an awesome and terrifying work of art, and even though its nameless poet wasn’t able to raise it to a transcendent level—even though he wasn’t free to make it all his own and to innovate to the point where he might have become an actual named author—it’s still the consummate poem of its complex and entangled times, and is perhaps despite itself an obscure portrait of its lost poet.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

John Gardner’s Grendel

Reshaping the World:

John Gardner’s Grendel

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Among the many innovations of twentieth-century Modernism, the recasting of old texts into strikingly new contexts made for fascinating and original ways to conceive of ourselves and once again made the novel into something truly novel. James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses was loosely patterned on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the former book’s protagonist Leopold Bloom standing as a complex contrast to the classical Odysseus, with the reader’s knowledge of the Homeric hero playing off of the book’s information by filling in the backing framework and creating expectations that Joyce very cleverly manipulated and made new. Just three years after Ulysses, one of Joyce’s most devoted acolytes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, published The Great Gatsby, which is similarly based on The Satyricon, a first-century Roman novel attributed to Petronius that serves as a byword for its era’s decadence. While the high Modernists used these ancient works as a kind of thematic touchstone, more recent writers have created alternate or intertwining versions of classic works. In 1966, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre that took up the young Bertha and attempted to give her a richer existence than the one she suffered in the Charlotte Brontë novel. Much more indelibly, however, John Gardner’s 1972 novel Grendel retells the Old-English Beowulf story in the voice of the monster himself, creating a character and a work that—amazingly—compete with the original in both narrative and imaginative power.

There are in fact three monsters in the Beowulf epic—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and an unnamed dragon—and although Grendel is the first and easiest to be killed in the original poem, Gardner lets him tell the story from his warped, peripheral perspective as if his experience were the very center of the tale, as all of our perspectives are. A frustrated and solitary creature, Grendel howls at the stupidity of the beasts and humans who inhabit the land around him, and although he’s largely just a brutish and grotesque figure, he’s nonetheless a higher life-form whose broader perspective affords him a deep understanding of the humans’ insane folly. They can’t understand his speech, but he can understand theirs, and his long lifespan allows him to observe the humans’ patterns and progressions on both a small and a large scale, their incremental shifts and consolidations of power shocking both Grendel and the reader with their short-sighted brutality. Grendel is especially astonished by how humans use theories to guide and justify their sickening actions, his longer view unveiling their manipulative and self-destructive use of ideas and revealing the purposeful inhumanity that propels these human beings into the purposeless abyss.

An illuminated manuscript of Beowulf
Entrancing Grendel even more than they repulse him, the humans accompany and abet their ceaseless slaughter with an epic retelling of events that shapes it all into a gorgeously seductive narrative. Known as “the Shaper” (a literal translation of the Old-English word “scop”), the resident poet entertains and flatters the current king with illustrious and heroic tales of the king’s own conquests, the singer’s harp-accompanied verse versions lulling not just the humans with their artistry, but also Grendel, who becomes obsessed with the Shaper’s marvelous reshapings. Perhaps recalling Franz Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor Samsa in his story “The Metamorphosis,” with Gregor’s dual higher and lower natures soaring alongside his sister’s violin playing, Grendel’s susceptibility to the Shaper’s magic reveals at once his finer sensitivities and his simple-minded propensity for being hypnotized by artistically hewn lies—this double-edged susceptibility mirroring our own as readers of fine literature and believers in flattering mythologies about ourselves and our civilization.

Delving into the deepest heart of darkness, Grendel leaves the human world for a while and descends far into the bowls of the earth, where he meets a dragon whose utterly terrifying conversation takes the reader on a trip through an underworld that surely stands alongside any in classical or medieval literature. A fatalist in the deepest and most nihilistic sense of the word, the dragon expounds upon a philosophy of meaninglessness that removes any agency or purpose from any possible choice or action. A kind of prophetic visionary, he can foresee all events, past and future, including his own death, and he explains to Grendel that even his knowledge can’t forestall anything that’s been laid out. If he were to attempt to thwart his fated death, he would merely be bringing it about more surely by falling into its inexorable steps. The dragon is a higher life-form than Grendel, and much of this conversation goes over Grendel’s head, his mind drifting off as all this abstract thought fails to capture his imagination in the way that the Shaper’s entrancing words do, but Grendel retains an infected residue of this worldview as he reascends to the human world and moves toward the death awaiting him at the hands of the newly arriving hero, who is fated to become the subject of the Beowulf epic that inspired Grendel’s own tale.

It’s difficult to tell which is more sick, the publicly espoused lies that further the ends of brutality, or the resigned but sophisticated nihilism of prophecy and philosophy, but by juxtaposing and entwining them, Gardner paints a grim picture of a species so lost in words that it has very little concept of the true meaning of its actions. By putting all of this old wine into a new fictional skin, though, Gardner strikes deep into our self-recognition and tries to reawaken us to ourselves. But can we truly see it? Grendel entrances as a work of art as surely as any Shaper’s song, and even though it tells deeper truths, it’s possible that its art and its philosophy simply leave us ravished rather than reshaped. Like David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, which endlessly entertains us while warning us of the dangers of endless entertainment, Grendel straddles a tricky line. Like Wallace, Gardner was a fierce moralist but also a master artist capable of spinning mesmerizing fictional webs. Gardner even once condemned Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—a novel that in fact contains profound moral and historical criticism within the arc of its mindless pleasures—as decadent and amoral entertainment. And Wallace, a thoroughly didactic Dostoyevskian, leveled similar criticisms against Pynchon, who was very unsecretly his idol. There’s just no pleasing some moralists.

So what do we take from these novels—and from Grendel in particular? Do we change our lives, or do we just change our minds, or do we just keep turning the pages, in love with the sound of the Shaper’s voice? Is there any way to truly awaken from the nightmare of history and reshape the world in the way that the great novels do? Perhaps not. Grendel certainly doesn’t wake up to pull away from the matrix that artfully slaughters him and everyone else within its sphere, and neither do we as we repeatedly follow our politicians into yet more artfully manufactured wars. But maybe the shock of this novel can open our eyes—if only to the dragon’s fatalistic vision of the future, which we may not be able to change or opt out of but at least can perceive and experience with clearer and finer senses.

—David Wiley