Book review: Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned

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


Edited and translated by:
Gretchen Schultz & Lewis Seifert
Princeton University Press

Release date:
Pages: 255
Genre: Literature / Comparative literature
European History




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I recently presented here Occult Paris, on the development of occult movements in Paris during la Belle Époque, especially in connections with the arts. Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned is also about that period in France, this time in regard to literature. I am extremely grateful to Princeton University Press for sending me the book.

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!
“How do you like this conceited little Frenchman who wants to understand everything?” asks the angry Fairy at the very end of his story (p.5).

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. For instance, when “Dreaming Beauty” hears what the Prince offers to her, she realizes it pales in comparison to all the dreams she’s been having for her hundred years of slumbers, so she decides to go back to sleep! (by Catulle Mendès, pp.11-17).
And Bluebeard is actually a good man, victim of “constant domestic adversity”, though each of his wives! (Anatole France, pp.183-210).

I thoroughly enjoyed the description of Melusina (by Daudet, p.6):

Something shapeless and shivering came to lean against the bar [at a trial]. 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.

Other quotations that I found fascinating:

Such is the fate of earthly poets, unfortunate beings too pure and not pure enough, too divine to share in the feasts of men and yet too human to dine among the fairies
Mendès, p.30

Isn’t that happiness? Giving the blood of your heart to an unknown passerby, and then following him… without knowing where you’re going…
Jules Ricard, p.83

I found the selection of texts remarkable. The editors and translators dug into very well-known and obscure writers, with texts that perfectly reflect the ambiance and concerns of the time.
The translations sound excellent to me, modern while imitating the style of tales.
I noticed many tales about Cinderella (the last one, written by Claude Cahun, has even her speak in the first person narrative).
This was actually not surprising to many, as I remember reading in another wonderful book, The Fictional 100, that there exists “more than seven hundred distinct variations of Cinderella”. If you read Lucy Pollard-Gott’s book (pp.169-172), you will even discover that this tale originated in China (hence the tiny foot!)

The book ends with short biographical notes on each author. There are also several really neat black and white illustrations throughout the volume.

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.


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.


schultzGretchen Schultz
is professor of French studies
at Brown University.
Her recent books include
Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France
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
Manning the Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-Century France.

Eiffel Tower Orange

What good adaptation of fairy tales have you recently read?

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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book free of charge from the publisher.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

5 thoughts on “Book review: Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I love looking at how the old tales have been presented and transformed through history. A novel I read last year that dealt with the origin of the Grimm fairy tales was The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth – highly recommended. Also her Bitter Greens, based on the tale of Rapunzel.


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