The world has waited over 300 years for a really good critical edition in English of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault. Now we have in this book a reference version which will be hard for any scholar to surpass in years to come.
The eight tales in Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (more commonly known as Tales of Mother Goose), first published in 1697, mark a crossroads in western literature, where the oral and written traditions of storytelling met and fused. Over a hundred years before the Brothers Grimm, and without their scholarly aims, Charles Perrault – a functionary in the court of the Sun King – wrote down sublime versions of stories such as ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Puss in Boots’, and ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’ that have come to seem definitive.
Perrault’s prose style is brisk, elegant, and witty, and in this new translation Christopher Betts has matched him phrase for phrase. He has also made a spirited attempt at the alternately cynical and sentimental verse morals appended to each tale.
These fairy tales are presented with a full scholarly apparatus – introduction, bibliography, notes, and two appendices, containing summaries of other versions of the tales, and extracts from earlier drafts of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘The Fairies’. Christopher Betts is expecting an adult readership, which allows him the leeway, for instance, to translate Cinderella’s ruder nickname as Cinderbum; in the version made by Nicoletta Simborowski and myself in 1993 we settled for Cinderbutt, while the earliest English translation by Robert Samber, from 1729, has Cinderbreech.
Betts also includes Perrault’s three earlier verse fairy tales, ‘The History of Griselda’, ‘Three Silly Wishes’, and ‘Donkey-Skin’, the last of which is a riskier mirror-image of ‘Cinderella’. He is I think the first to have translated these stories into verse, a brave undertaking which presents something of a challenge to the more casual reader, who after over 50 pages of introductory matter is then faced with 77 pages of fairly pedestrian verse before reaching ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, and the real reason this excellent book needs to exist.