The Meaning of Mother Goose

The mental world of the unenlightened during the Enlightenment seems to be irretrievably lost. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to locate the common man in the eighteenth century that it seems foolish to search for his cosmology. But before abandoning the attempt, one might find it useful to suspend disbelief and to consider a story—a story everyone knows, though not in the following version, which is the tale more or less as it was told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France.

Once a little girl was told by her mother to bring some bread and milk to her grandmother. As the girl was walking through the forest, a wolf came up to her and asked where she was going.

To grandmother’s house,” she replied.

Which path are you taking, the path of the pins or the path of the needles?”

The path of you needles.”

So the wolf took the path of the pins and arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed.

Knock, knock.

Come in, my dear.”

Hello, grandmother. I’ve brought you some bread and milk.”

Have something yourself, my dear. There is meat and wine in the pantry.”

So the little girl ate what was offered, and as she did, a little cat said, “Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!”

Then the wolf said, “Undress and get into bed with me.”

Where shall I put my apron?”

Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”

For each garment—bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings—the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”

When the girl got in bed, she said, “Oh grandmother! How hairy you are!”

It’s to keep me warmer, my dear.”

Oh, grandmother! What big shoulders you have!”

It’s for better carrying firewood, my dear.”

Oh grandmother! What long nails you have!”

It’s for scratching myself better, my dear.”

Oh grandmother! What big teeth you have!”

It’s for eating you better, my dear.”

And he ate her.

What is the moral of this story? For little girls, clearly: Stay away from wolves. For historians, it seems to be saying something about the mental world of the early modern peasantry. But what? How can one begin to interpret such a text? One way leads through psychoanalysis. The analysts have given folk tales a thorough going-over, picking out hidden symbols, unconscious motifs, and psychic mechanisms. Consider, for example, the exegesis of “Little Red Riding Hood” by two of the best-known psychoanalysts, Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim.

Fromm interpreted the tale as a riddle about the collective unconscious in primitive society, and he solved it “without difficulty” by decoding its “symbolic language.” The story concerns an adolescent’s confrontation with adult sexuality, he explained. Its hidden meaning shows through its symbolism—but the symbols he saw in his version of the text were based on details that did not exist in the versions known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus he makes a great deal of the (nonexistent) red riding hood as a symbol of menstruation and of the (nonexistent) bottle carried by the girl as a symbol of virginity: hence the mother’s (nonexistent) admonition not to stray from the path into wild terrain where she might break it. The wolf is the ravishing male. And the two (nonexistent) stones that are placed in the wolf’s belly after the (nonexistent) hunter extricates the girl and her grandmother stand for sterility, the punishment for breaking a sexual taboo. So, with an uncanny sensitivity to detail that did not occur in the original folk tale, the psychoanalyst takes us into a mental universe that never existed, at least not before the advent of psychoanalysis.

How could anyone get a text so wrong? The difficulty does not derive from professional dogmatism—for psychoanalysts need not be more rigid than poets in manipulating symbols—but rather from blindness to the historical dimension of folk tales. Fromm did not bother to mention his source, but he apparently took his text from the brothers Grimm. The Grimms got it, along with “Puss ‘n Boots,” “Bluebeard,” and a few other stories, from Jeannette Hassenpflug, a neighbor and close friend of theirs in Cassel; and she learned it from her mother, who came from a French Huguenot family. The Huguenots brought their own repertory of tales into Germany when they fled from the persecution of Louis XIV. But they did not draw them directly from popular oral tradition. They read them in books written by Charles Perrault, Marie Cathérine d’Aulnoy, and others during the vogue for fairy tales in fashionable Parisian circles at the end of the seventeenth century.

Perrault, the master of the genre, did indeed take his material from the oral tradition of the common people (his principal source probably was his son’s nurse). But he touched it up so that it would suit the taste of the salon sophisticates, précieuses, and courtiers to whom he directed the first printed version of Mother Goose, his Contes de mamère l’oye of 1697. Thus the tales that reached the Grimms through the Hassenpflugs were neither very German nor very representative of folk tradition. Indeed, the Grimms recognized their literary and Frenchified character and therefore eliminated them from the second edition of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen—all but “Little Red Riding Hood.” It remained in the collection, evidently, because Jeannette Hassenpflug had grafted on to it a happy ending derived from “The Wolf and the Kids,” which was one of the most popular in Germany (tale type 123, according to the standard classification scheme in The Types of the Folk-Tale by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson).*

So Little Red Riding Hood slipped into the German and later the English literary tradition with her French origins undetected. She changed character considerably as she passed from the French peasantry to Perrault’s nursery, into print, across the Rhine, back into an oral tradition but this time as part of the Huguenot diaspora, and back into book form but now as a product of the Teutonic forest rather than the village hearths of the Old Regime in France.

Fromm and a host of other psychoanalytical exegetes did not worry about the transformations of the text—indeed, they did not know about them—because they got the tale they wanted. It begins with pubertal sex (the red hood, which does not exist in the French oral tradition) and ends with the triumph of the ego (the rescued girl, who is usually eaten in the French tales) over the id (the wolf, who is never killed in the traditional versions). All’s well that ends well.

The ending is particularly important for Bruno Bettelheim, the latest in the line of psychoanalysts who have had a go at “Little Red Riding Hood.” For him, the key to the story, and to all such stories, is the affirmative message of its denouement. By ending happily, he maintains, folk tales permit children to confront their unconscious desires and fears and to emerge unscathed, id subdued and ego triumphant. The id is the villain of “Little Red Riding Hood” in Bettelheim’s version. It is the pleasure principle, which leads the girl astray when she is too old for oral fixation (the stage represented by “Hansel and Gretel”) and too young for adult sex. The id is also the wolf, who is also the father, who is also the hunter, who is also the ego and, somehow, the superego as well.

By directing the wolf to her grandmother, Little Red Riding Hood manages in Oedipal fashion to do away with her mother, because mothers can be grandmothers in the moral economy of the soul, and the houses on either side of the woods are actually the same house, as in “Hansel and Gretel,” where they are also the mother’s body. This adroit mixing of symbols gives Little Red Riding Hood an opportunity to get into bed with her father, the wolf, thereby giving vent to her Oedipal fantasies. She survives in the end, because she is reborn on a higher level of existence when her father reappears as ego-superego–hunter and cuts her out of the belly of her father as wolf-id, so that everyone lives happily ever after.

Bettelheim’s generous view of symbolism makes for a less mechanistic interpretation of the tale than does Fromm’s notion of a secret code, but it, too, proceeds from some unquestioned assumptions about the text. Although he cites enough commentators on Grimm and Perrault to indicate some awareness of folklore as an academic discipline, Bettelheim reads “Little Red Riding Hood” and the other tales as if they had no history. He treats them, so to speak, flattened out, like patients on a couch, in a timeless contemporaneity. He does not question their origins or worry over other meanings that they might have had in other contexts, because he knows how the soul works and how it has always worked.

In fact, however, folk tales are historical documents. They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions. Far from expressing the unchanging operations of man’s inner being, they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perhaps, then, the moral of the story should be: Beware of psychoanalysts—and be careful in your use of sources. We seem to be back at historicism.

Not quite, however, for “Little Red Riding Hood” has a terrifying irrationality that seems out of place in the Age of Reason. In fact, the peasants’ version outdoes the psychoanalysts’ in violence and sex. (Following the Grimms and Perrault, Fromm and Bettelheim do not mention the cannibalizing of grandmother and the striptease prelude to the devouring of the girl.) Evidently the peasants did not need a secret code to talk about taboos.

The other stories in the French peasant Mother Goose have the same nightmare quality. In one early version of “Sleeping Beauty” (tale type 410), for example, Prince Charming, who is already married, ravishes the princess, and she bears him several children, without waking up. The infants finally break the spell by biting her while nursing, and the tale then takes up its second theme: the attempts of the prince’s mother-in-law, an ogress, to eat his illicit offspring.

In one early tale from the Cinderella cycle (tale type 510B), the heroine becomes a domestic servant in order to prevent her father from forcing her to marry him. In another, the wicked stepmother tries to push her in an oven but incinerates one of the mean stepsisters by mistake. In the French peasants’ “Hansel and Gretel” (tale type 327), the hero tricks an ogre into slitting the throats of his own children. A husband eats a succession of brides in their wedding bed in “La Belle et le monstre” (tale type 433), one of the hundreds of tales that never made it into the printed versions of Mother Goose. In a nastier tale, “Les Trois Chiens” (tale type 315), a sister kills her brother by hiding spikes in the mattress of his wedding bed. In the nastiest of all, “Ma Mère m’a tué, mon père m’a mangé” (tale type 720), a mother chops her son up into a Lyonnais-style casserole, which her daughter serves to the father. And so it goes, from rape and sodomy to incest and cannibalism. Far from veiling their message with symbols, the storytellers of eighteenth-century France portrayed a world of raw and naked brutality.

How can the historian make sense of this world? One way for him to keep his footing in the psychic undertow of early Mother Goose is to hold fast to two disciplines: anthropology and folklore. When they discuss theory, anthropologists disagree about the fundamentals of their science. But when they go into the bush, they use techniques for understanding oral traditions that can, with discretion, be applied to Western folklore. Except for some structuralists, they relate tales to the art of tale telling and to the context in which it takes place. They look for the way a raconteur adapts an inherited theme to his audience, so that the specificity of time and place shows through the universality of the topos. They do not expect to find direct social comment or metaphysical allegories so much as a tone of discourse or a cultural style, which communicates a particular ethos and world view. “Scientific” folklore, as the French call it (American specialists often distinguish between folklore and “fakelore”), involves the compilation and comparison of tales according to the standardized schemata of tale types I have already referred to—the one developed by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. It does not necessarily exclude formalistic analysis such as that of Vladimir Propp, but it stresses rigorous documentation—the occasion of the telling, the background of the teller, and the degree of contamination from written sources.

French folklorists have recorded about 10,000 tales, in many different dialects and in every corner of France and French-speaking territories. Most of the recordings date from the period 1870–1914, “the Golden Age of folk tale research in France,” and they were recounted by peasants who had learned them as children, long before literacy had spread throughout the countryside. Thus, for example, in 1874 Nannette Levesque, an illiterate peasant woman born in 1794, dictated a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” that went back to the eighteenth century; and in 1865 Louis Grolleau, a domestic servant born in 1803, dictated a rendition of “Le Pou” (tale type 621) that he had first heard under the Empire. Like all tellers of tales, the peasant raconteurs adjusted the setting of their stories to their own milieus; but they kept the main elements intact, using repetitions, rhymes, and other mnemonic devices. Although the “performance” element, which is central to the study of contemporary folklore, does not show through the old texts, folklorists argue that the recordings of the Third Republic provide enough evidence for them to reconstruct the rough outlines of an oral tradition that existed two centuries ago.

That claim may seem extravagant, but comparative studies have revealed striking similarities in different recordings of the same tale, even though they were made in remote villages, far removed from one another and from the circulation of books. In a study of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, Paul Delarue compared thirty-five versions recorded throughout a vast zone of the langue d’oïl. Twenty versions correspond exactly to the primitive “Conte dela mère grand” quoted above, except for a few details (sometimes the girl is eaten, sometimes she escapes by a ruse). Two versions follow Perrault’s tale (the first to mention the red hood). And the rest contain a mixture of the oral and written accounts, whose elements stand out as distinctly as the garlic and mustard in a French salad dressing.

Of course, as we know from written evidence, the tales existed long before anyone conceived of “folklore,” a nineteenth-century neologism. Medieval preachers drew on the oral tradition in order to illustrate moral arguments. Their sermons, transcribed in collections of “Exempla” from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, refer to the same stories as those taken down in peasant cottages by folklorists in the nineteenth century. Despite the obscurity surrounding the origins of chivalric romances, chansons de geste, and fabliaux, it seems that a good deal of medieval literature drew on popular oral tradition, rather than vice versa. “Sleeping Beauty” appeared in an Arthurian romance of the fourteenth century, and “Cinderella” surfaced in Noël du Fail’s Propos rustiques of 1547, a book that traced the tales to peasant lore and that showed how they were transmitted.

Du Fail wrote the first account of an important French institution, the veillée, an evening fireside gathering, where men repaired tools and women sewed, while listening to stories that would be recorded by folklorists three hundred years later and that were already centuries old. Whether they were meant to amuse adults or to frighten children, as in the case of cautionary tales like “Little Red Riding Hood,” the stories belonged to a fund of popular culture, which peasants hoarded over the centuries with remarkably little loss.

The great collections of folk tales made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries therefore provide a rare opportunity to make contact with the illiterate masses who have disappeared into the past without leaving a trace. To reject folk tales because they cannot be dated and situated with precision like other historical documents is to turn one’s back on one of the few points of entry into the mental world of peasants under the Old Regime. But how can we penetrate that alien mentalité? No matter how accurate they may be, the recorded texts cannot be held up to inspection as if they were so many photographs of the Old Regime, taken with the innocent eye of an extinct peasantry. They are stories.

As in most kinds of narration, they develop standardized plots from conventional motifs, picked up here, there, and everywhere. They have a distressing lack of specificity for anyone who wants to pin them down to precise points in time and place. Raymond Jameson has studied the case of a Chinese Cinderella from the ninth century. She gets her slippers from a magic fish instead of a fairy godmother and loses one of them at a village facte instead of a royal ball, but she bears an unmistakable resemblance to Perrault’s heroine. Folklorists have recognized their tales in Herodotus and Homer, on ancient Egyptian papyruses and Chaldean stone tablets; and they have recorded them all over the world, in Scandinavia and Africa, among Indians on the banks of the Bengal and Indians along the Missouri. The dispersion is so striking that some have come to believe in ur-stories and a basic Indo-European repertory of myths, legends, and tales. This tendency feeds into the cosmic theories of Frazer and Jung and Lévi-Strauss, but it does not help anyone attempting to penetrate the peasant mentalities of early modern France.

Fortunately, a more down-to-earth tendency in folklore makes it possible to identify the characteristics of tales in distinct traditions, and the fieldwork of specialists like Milman Parry and Albert Lord has demonstrated that those traditions can survive intact over long periods of time, even after the spread of literacy. In France, the fieldworkers have sorted their tales according to the standard Aarne-Thompson classification scheme, which covers all varieties of Indo-European folk tales. This procedure opens up the possibility of comparative study, and the comparisons suggest the way general themes took root and grew in French soil. True, one can never assert that a given text was recounted in a given way two centuries ago. It therefore would be unwise to build an interpretation on a single version of a single tale, and more hazardous still to base symbolic analysis on details—riding hoods and hunters—that may not have occurred in the peasant versions.

But there are enough recordings of those versions—thirty-five “Little Red Riding Hoods,” ninety “Tom Thumbs,” 105 “Cinderellas”—for one to picture the general outline of a tale as it existed in the oral tradition. One can study the structure of a tale, noting the way its motifs are combined and its narrative framed. And by working through the entire body of French folk tales, one can distinguish general characteristics, overarching themes, and pervasive elements of style and tone.

Here I would like to explore briefly three key questions: 1) Do the French tales express the realities of everyday life or do they provide fantasies of escape from it? 2) How do they compare with analogous tales in other traditions? 3) And if they conveyed something peculiarly French, what was its significance in relation to the general course of French culture?

The first question leads deep into the social history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries During the last few decades research on the Old Regime has uncovered a Malthusian society, in which the basic fact of life was the inexorable struggle against death. Most Frenchmen lived in or near a state of chronic malnutrition and offered little resistance when plague and famine sliced through the population. Of every ten babies born, two or three died before their first birthday and four or five died before the age of ten. Marriages usually lasted only about fifteen years, terminated by death rather than divorce. The Old Regime was a society of widows and orphans, of stepmothers and Cinderellas. Primitive farming techniques stood in the way of a general increase in productivity; and when the peasants accumulated some surplus, it was usually taken out of their hands by the agents of the seigniorial system. A bad harvest could drive hundreds of thousands below the line that separated poverty from indigence, forcing them on to the road, where they lived by their wits, begging and stealing, until in the end they surrendered in a pestilential poorhouse or crawled under a bush or a hayloft and died—“croquants” who had “croaked.”

Of course one should resist the temptation to make the social history of the Old Regime into a roman noir. Conditions improved in the mid-eighteenth century; and the economy probably expanded, although it did not undergo an agricultural—to say nothing of an industrial—revolution. But most Frenchmen inhabited a world that was completely different from ours. The human condition has changed so drastically over the last two centuries that we can barely imagine the way it appeared to people whose lives really were nasty, brutish, and short. That is why we need to reread Mother Goose.

The original French tales, like those in other traditions, contain a good deal of fantasy; but when dreams come true in them, they leave the hero in the barnyard rather than in never-never land. It is simply a well-stocked barnyard and he has just enjoyed a good meal. Wish fulfillment usually takes the form of food. For example, when the discharged soldier La Ramée is reduced to beggary in “Le Diable et le maréchal-ferrant” (tale type 330), he shares his last pennies with the other vagabonds, one of whom turns out to be Saint Peter in disguise. As a reward, La Ramée is granted any wish that he wants. But instead of choosing paradise, he asks for “a square meal”—or, in other versions, “white bread and a chicken,” “a bun, a sausage, and as much wine as he can drink,” “tobacco and the food he saw in the inn,” and “to always have a crust of bread.”

Once supplied with magic wands, rings, or supernatural helpers, the first thought of the peasant hero is always for food. He never shows any imagination in his ordering. He merely takes the plat du jour, and it is always the same: solid peasant fare, though it may vary with the region, as in the case of the “cakes, fried bread, and pieces of cheese” served up in a Corsican feast. Usually the peasant raconteur does not describe the food in detail. Lacking any notion of gastronomy, he simply loads up his hero’s plate; and if he wants to supply an extravagant touch, he adds, “There were even napkins.”

One extravagance clearly stands out: meat. In a society of de facto vegetarians, the luxury of luxuries was to sink one’s teeth into a side of mutton, pork, or beef. The wedding feast in the imaginary “Royaume des Valdars” (tale type 400) includes roast pigs who run around with forks sticking out of their flanks so that the guests can help themselves to ready-carved mouthfuls. The French version of a common ghost story, “La Goulue” (take type 366), turns on the attempt of a couple to supply meat for their uncontrollably carnivorous daughter. And the peasant Cinderella does not pine for a prince. She merely wants to fill her belly: “She touched the black sheep with the magic wand. Immediately a fully decked table appeared before her. She could eat as much as she wanted, and she ate a bellyful.” To eat one’s fill, eat until the exhaustion of the appetite (manger à sa faim), was the principal pleasure that the peasants dangled before their imaginations, and one that they rarely realized in their lives.

They also imagined other dreams coming true, including the standard run of castles and princesses. But their wishes usually remained fixed on common objects in the everyday world. One hero gets “a cow and some chickens”; another, an armoire full of linens. A third settles for light work, regular meals, and a pipe full of tobacco. And when gold rains into the fireplace of a fourth, he uses it to buy “food, clothes, a horse, land.” In most of the tales, wish fulfillment turns into a program for survival, not a fantasy of escape.

Despite the touches of fantasy, then, the tales remain rooted in the real world. They almost always take place within two basic settings, which correspond to those of peasant life under the Old Regime: on the one hand, the household and village; on the other, the open road. The opposition between the village and the road runs through the tales, just as it ran through the lives of peasants everywhere eighteenth-century France.

Peasants’ families could not survive under the Old Regime unless everyone worked, and worked together as an economic unit. The folk tales constantly show parents laboring in the fields while the children gather wood, guard sheep, fetch water, spin wool, or beg. Far from condemning the exploitation of child labor, they sound indignant when it does not occur. In “Les Trois Fileuses” (tale type 501), a father resolves to get rid of his daughter because “she ate but did not work.” He persuades the king that she can spin seven fusées (100,800 yards) of flax a night, whereas in fact she eats seven crepes (we are in Angoumois). The king orders her to do prodigious feats of spinning, promising to marry her if she succeeds. Three magic spinning women, one more deformed than the other, accomplish the tasks for her and in return ask only to be invited to the wedding. When they appear, the king inquires about the cause of their deformities. Overwork, they reply; and they warn him that his bride will look every bit as hideous if he permits her to continue spinning. So the girl escapes from slavery, the father gets rid of a glutton, and the poor turn the tables on the rich (in some versions the local seigneur takes the place of the king).

The French versions of “Rumpelstilzchen” (tale type 500 and some related versions of tale type 425) follow the same scenario, although the tasks are different. The king orders the girl to spin whole haystacks into rooms full of linen, to load and unload fifty carts of manure a day, and to separate mountains of wheat from chaff. Although the tasks always get done in the end, thanks to supernatural intervention, they express a basic fact of peasant life in hyperbolic form. Everyone faced endless, limitless labor, from early childhood until the day of death.

Some try to escape by taking to the road, but they are pushed by poverty at home, not pulled by prospect of gold at the end of the rainbow. The fortunate travel as journeymen on classic tours de France. But the unhappy majority stumble about as beggars. In “Les Deux Voyageurs” (tale type 613), two discharged soldiers draw lots to see which shall have his eyes put out. Desperate for food, they can think of no way to survive except by operating as a team of beggars, the blind man and his keeper. In “Norouâs” (tale type 563), a single crop of flax means the difference between survival and destitution for a peasant family living on a tiny plot of land. The crop is good, but the bad wind Norouâs blows the flax away while it is drying on the field. The peasant sets out with a club to beat Norouâs to death. But he runs out of provisions and soon is begging for crusts and a corner in the stable, like any vagabond. Finally he finds Norouâs on top of a mountain. “Give me back my flax! Give me back my flax!” he screams. Taking pity on him, the wind gives him a magic tablecloth, which produces a meal whenever it is unfolded. The peasant “eats his fill” and spends the next night in an inn, only to be robbed by the hostess. After two more rounds with Norouâs, he receives a magic staff, which thrashes the hostess, forcing her to surrender the cloth. The peasant lives happily—that is, with a full larder—ever after, but his tale illustrates the desperation of those tottering on the line between poverty in the village and destitution on the road.

Thus, whenever one looks behind Perrault to the peasant versions of Mother Goose, one finds elements of realism—not photographic accounts of life in the barnyard but a picture that corresponds to everything that social historians have been able to piece together from the archives. The picture fits, and the fit was a matter of consequence. By showing how life was lived, terre à terre, in the village and on the road, the tales mapped the ways of the world for the peasants: they demonstrated the folly of expecting anything more than cruelty from a cruel social order.

To show that a substratum of social realism underlay the fantasies and escapist entertainment of folk tales is not to take the argument very far, however. The peasants could have learned that life was cruel without the help of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Cruelty can be found in folk tales as well as in social history everywhere from India to Ireland and from Africa to Alaska. If we are to get beyond vague generalizations in interpreting the French tales, we need to know whether something set them off from other varieties.

If we systematically compare the French tales with their counterparts in the English, German, and Italian traditions, I think we can distinguish particular cultural strains. Here I can only illustrate the point by contrasting a few French tales with tales having analogous structures in the collection of the brothers Grimm. Consider, for example, “Le Panier de figues” (tale type 570, Grimm number 165), which shows how much the same structure can be made to yield different effects. The structure goes as follow: a) A king promises his daughter to whoever can produce the finest fruit. b) A peasant boy wins the contest after being kind to a magic helper whom his elder brothers had treated discourteously. c) The king refuses to give the princess up and sets the hero a round of impossible tasks. d) Aided by the helper, the hero performs the tasks and marries the princess after a final confrontation with the king. The hero of the German version is a good-natured numbskull, Hans Dumm. He carries out the tasks in a setting charged with supernatural forces and crowded by fanciful props—a boat that flies over land, a magic whistle, a hideous griffin, dwarfs, castles, and damsels in distress. Although he sometimes shows glimmers of intelligence, Hans overcomes disaster and wins his princess by taking orders from his magic helper and by following his nose.

His French counterpart, Benoît, lives by his wits in a rough-and-ready world of dupe or be duped. The king defends his daughter like a peasant battling for his barnyard, using one ruse after another. As in the German tale, he refuses to surrender the princess unless the hero can guard a flock of rabbits without letting any of them stray, and Benoît succeeds with the help of magic whistle, which makes the rabbits come when they are called, no matter how hopelessly they seem to be dispersed. But instead of sending Benoît, like Hans, on a chase after a man-eating griffin, the king tries to separate rabbits from the pack by a series of stratagems. Disguised as a peasant, he offers to buy one for a high price. Benoît sees through the maneuver and uses it as an opportunity to turn the tables on the king. He will only surrender the rabbit to someone who can succeed in an ordeal, he announces. The king must drop his breeches and submit to a flogging. The king agrees but loses the rabbit as soon as it hears the magic whistle.

The queen tries the same ruse and gets the same treatment, although in some versions she has to turn cartwheels, exposing her bare bottom. Then the princess has to kiss the hero—or, in some cases, to lift his donkey’s tail and kiss its anus. No one can pry a rabbit from the pack. Still the king holds out. He will not give up his daughter until Benoît produces three bags of truth. As the court gathers round, Benoît lets loose his first truth, sotto voce: “Is it not true, Sire, that I switched you on the bare behind?” The king is trapped. He cannot bear to hear the next two truths and surrenders the princess. The magic props have fallen by the side. Battle has been joined terre à terre, in a real world of power, pride, and deviousness. And the weak win with the only weapon they possess: cunning. The tale pits the clever against the clever by half: “à rusé, rusé et demi,” as one of the peasant raconteurs observes.

That formula hardly does justice to the variety of themes that would emerge from a more thorough comparison of the French and German tales. One can certainly find clever underdogs in Grimm and magic in Le Conte populaire français, especially in the tales from Brittany and Alsace-Lorraine. A few of the French tales hardly differ at all from their counterparts in the Grimms’ collection. But if we allow for exceptions and complications, the differences between the two traditions fall into consistent patterns. The peasant raconteurs took the same themes and gave them characteristic twists, the French in one way, the German in another. Where the French tales tend to be realistic, earthy, bawdy, and comical, the German veer off toward the supernatural, the poetic, the exotic, and the violent. Of course, cultural differences cannot be reduced to a formula—French craftiness versus German cruelty—but the comparisons make it possible to identify the peculiar inflection that the French gave to their stories, and their way of telling stories provides clues about their way of viewing the world.

The poor shepherd boy in “Les Trois Dons” (tale type 592) shares his food with a fairy disguised as a beggar and gets three wishes: that he can hit any bird with his bow and arrow, that he can make anyone dance with his flute, and that he can make his wicked step-mother fart whenever he says “atchoo.” Soon he has the old woman farting all over the house, at the veillée, and at Mass on Sundays. The priest has to turn her out of church in order to get through his sermon. Later, when she explains her problem, the priest tries to trick the boy into revealing his secret. But the little shepherd, who is trickier still, shoots a bird and asks the priest to fetch it. When the priest tries to grab it in a thorn bush, the boy plays the flute, forcing him to dance until his robe is torn to shreds and he is ready to drop. After he has recovered, the priest seeks vengeance by an accusation of witchcraft, but the boy sets the courtroom to dancing so uncontrollably with his flute that they let him free.

In “Der Jude im Dorn,” by contrast (Grimm 110), the hero is an underpaid servant, who gives his poor wages to a dwarf and in return receives a gun that can hit anything, a fiddle that can make anyone dance, and the power to make one unrefusable request. He meets a Jew listening to a bird singing in a tree. He shoots the bird, tells the Jew to retrieve it from a thorn bush, and then fiddles so implacably that the Jew nearly kills himself on the thorns and buys his release with a purse of gold. The Jew retaliates by getting the servant condemned for highway robbery. But as he is about to be hanged, the servant makes a last request for his fiddle. Soon everyone is dancing wildly around the gallows. The exhausted judge sets the servant free and hangs the Jew in his place.

It would be abusive to take this tale as evidence that anticlericalism functioned in France as the equivalent of anti-Semitism in Germany. The comparison of folk tales will not yield such specific conclusions. But it helps one to identify the peculiar flavor of the French tales. Unlike their German counterparts, they taste of salt. They smell of the earth. They take place in an intensely human world, where farting, delousing, rolling in the hay, and tossing on the dungheap express the passions, values, interests, and attitudes of a peasant society that is now extinct. If that is the case, can one be more precise in construing what the tales might have meant to the tellers and their audiences? I would like to advance two propositions: the tales told peasants how the world was put together, and they provided a strategy for coping with it.

Without preaching or drawing morals, French folk tales demonstrate that the world is harsh and dangerous. They show that disaster strikes fortuitously, that it cannot be predicted or explained but must simply be endured, like the Black Death. More than half of the thirty-five recorded versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” end like the version recounted above, with the wolf devouring the girl. She had done nothing to deserve such a fate; for in the peasant tales, unlike those of Perrault and the Grimms, she did not disobey her mother or fail to read the signs of an implicit moral order written in the world around her. She simply walked into the jaws of death. It is the inscrutable, inexorable character of calamity that makes the tales so moving, not the happy endings that were often grafted onto them after the eighteenth century.

Since no discernible morality governs the world in general, good behavior does not determine success in the village or on the road, at least not in the French tales, where cunning takes the place of the pietism in the German. True, the hero often wins a magic helper by a good deed, but he gets the princess by using his wits. And sometimes he cannot get her without performing unethical acts, as in “Le Fidèle Serviteur” (tale type 516), where the hero escapes with the princess only because he refuses to help a beggar drowning in a lake. The tales do not advocate immorality, but they undercut the notion that virtue will be rewarded or that life can be conducted according to any principle other than basic mistrust.

Those assumptions underlie the nastiness of village life as it appears in the tales. Neighbors are presumed to be hostile (tale type 162) and may be witches (tale type 709). They spy on you and rob your garden, no matter how poor you may be (tale type 330). You should never discuss your affairs in front of them or let them know in case you acquire sudden wealth by some stroke of magic, for they will denounce you as a thief if they fail to steal it themselves (tale type 563). In “La Poupée” (tale type 571C), a simpleminded orphan girl fails to observe these basic rules after receiving a magic doll, which excretes gold whenever she says, “Crap, crap, my little rag doll.” Before long she has bought several chickens and a cow and invites the neighbors in. One of them pretends to fall asleep by the fire and runs off with the doll as soon as the girl goes to bed. But when he says the magic words, it craps real crap, all over him. So he throws it on the dung heap. Then one day when he is doing some crapping of his own, it reaches up and bites him. He cannot pry it loose from his derrière until the girl arrives, reclaims her property, and lives mistrustfully ever after.

If the world is cruel, the village nasty, and mankind infested with rogues, what is one to do? The tales do not give an explicit answer, but they illustrate the aptness of the ancient French proverb, “One must howl with the wolves.” Roguery runs through the whole corpus of French tales, though it often takes the milder and more agreeable form of tricksterism. Of course tricksters exist in folklore everywhere, notably in the tales of the Plains Indians and in the Br’er Rabbit stories of American slaves. But they seem especially prevalent in the French tradition. Comparison with the Grimms demonstrates that whenever a French and a German tale follow the same pattern, the German veers off in the direction of the mysterious, the supernatural, and the violent, while the French steers straight for the village, where the hero can give full play to his talent for intrigue.

True, the hero belongs to the same species of underdog that one meets in all European folk tales. He or she will be a younger son, a stepdaughter, an abandoned child, a poor shepherd, an underpaid farmhand, an oppressed servant, a sorcerer’s apprentice, or a Tom Thumb. But this common cloth has a French cut to it particularly when the raconteur drapes it over favorite characters like Petit Jean, the feisty blacksmith’s apprentice; Cadiou, the quickwitted tailor; and La Ramée, the tough and disillusioned soldier, who bluffs and braves his way through many tales, along with Pipette, the clever young recruit, and a host of others—Petit-Louis, Jean le Teigneux, Fench Coz, Belle Eulalie, Pitchin-Pitchot, Parle, Bonhomme Misère. Sometimes the names themselves suggest the qualities of wit and duplicity that carry the hero through his trials; thus Le Petit Fûteux, Finon-Finette, Parlafine, and Le Rusé Voleur. When passed in review, they seem to constitute an ideal type, the little guy who gets ahead by outwitting the big.

The trickster heroes stand out against a negative ideal, the numbskull. In the English tales, Simple Simon provides a good deal of innocent amusement. In the German, Hans Dumm is a likable lout, who comes out on top by good-natured bumbling and help from magic auxiliaries. The French tales show no sympathy for village idiots or for stupidity in any form, including that of the wolves and ogres who fail to eat their victims on the spot (tale types 112D and 162). Numbskulls represent the antithesis of tricksterism; they epitomize the sin of simplicity, a deadly sin, because naiveté in a world of confidence men is an invitation to disaster. The numbskull heroes of the French tales are therefore false numbskulls, like Petit Poucet and Crampouès (tale types 327 and 569), who pretend to be dumb, all the better to succeed in manipulating a cruel but credulous world. Little Red Riding Hood—without the riding hood—uses the same strategy in the versions of the French tale where she escapes alive. “I have to relieve myself, Grandmother,” she says as the wolf clutches her. “Do it here in bed, my dear,” the wolf replies. But the girl insists, so the wolf permits her to go outside, tied to a rope. The girl attaches the rope to a tree and runs away, as the wolf tugs on it and calls out, having lost patience with waiting, “What are you doing, shitting coils of rope?” In true gaulois fashion, the tale recounts the education of a trickster. Graduating from a state of innocence to one of fake naiveté, Little Red Riding Hood joins the company of Tom Thumb and Puss’n Boots.

These characters have in common not merely cunning but weakness, and their adversaries are distinguished by strength as well as stupidity. Tricksterism always pits the little against the big, the poor against the rich, the underprivileged against the powerful. By structuring stories in this way, and without making explicit social comment, the oral tradition provided the peasants with a strategy for coping with their enemies under the Old Regime. Again, it should be stressed that there was nothing new or unusual about the theme of the weak outwitting the strong. It goes back to Ulysses’ struggle against Cyclops and David’s felling of Goliath, and it stands out strongly in the “clever maiden” motif of the German tales. What matters is not the novelty of the theme but its significance—the way it fits into a narrative framework and takes shape in the telling of a tale.

When the French underdogs turn the tables on the high and mighty, they do so in an earthy manner and a down-to-earth setting. They do not slay giants in a never-never land, even if they have to climb beanstalks to reach them. The giant in “Jean de l’ours” (tale type 301) is “le bourgeois de la maison,” living in an ordinary house like that of any wealthy farmer. The giant in “Le Conte de parle” (tale type 328) is an overgrown coq du village “having supper with his wife and daughter” when the hero arrives to bamboozle him. The giant in “La Soeur infidèle” (tale type 315) is a nasty miller; those in “Le Chasseur adroit” (tale type 304) are common bandits; those in “L’Homme sauvage” (tale type 502) and “Le Petit Forgeron” (tale type 317) are tyrannical landlords, whom the hero fells after a dispute over grazing rights. It required no great leap of the imagination to see them as the actual tyrants—the bandits, millers, estate stewards, and lords of the manor—who made the peasants’ lives miserable within their own villages.

Some of the tales make the connection explicit. “Le Capricorne” (tale type 571) takes the theme of “The Golden Goose” as it is found in the Grimms (number 64) and transforms it into a burlesque indictment of the rich and the powerful in village society. A poor blacksmith is being cuckolded by his priest and tyrannized by the local seigneur. At the priest’s instigation, the seigneur orders the smith to execute impossible tasks, which will keep him out of the way while the priest is occupied with his wife. The smith succeeds in the tasks twice, thanks to the help of a fairy. But the third time, the seigneur orders a “capricorn,” and the smith does not even know what it is. The fairy directs him to bore a hole in his attic floor and to call out “Hold tight!’ at whatever he sees. First he sees the servant girl with her nightdress between her teeth picking fleas from her private parts. The “Hold tight!” freezes her in that position, just as her mistress calls for the chamber pot so that the priest can relieve himself. Walking in backward in order to hide her nudity, the girl presents the pot to the mistress, and both hold it for the priest just as another “Hold tight!” sticks all three of them together. In the morning, the smith drives the trio out of the house with a whip and, by a series of welltimed “Hold tights!” attaches a whole parade of village characters to them. When the procession arrives at the seigneur’s residence, the smith calls out, “Here is your capricorn, monsieur.” The seigneur pays him off and everyone is released.

The bawdiness may have produced some belly laughs around eighteenth-century hearths, but did it knot the peasant viscera into a gutlike determination to overthrow the social order? I doubt it. Tricksterism does not offer a recipe for revolution. It shows that the clever underdog may exploit some marginal advantage by playing on the vanity and stupidity of his superiors. But the trickster works within the system, turning its weak points to his advantage and therefore ultimately confirming it. Moreover, he may always meet someone trickier than himself, even in the ranks of the rich and powerful. The outtricked trickster, another favorite theme of the French tales, demonstrates the vanity of expecting a final victory.

Ultimately then, tricksterism expressed an outlook on the world rather than a latent strain of radicalism. It provided a way of coping with a harsh society instead of a formula for overthrowing it. Consider a final tale, “Le Diable et le maréchal-ferrant” (tale type 330), one of the trickiest in the repertory. A blacksmith can’t resist giving food and shelter to every beggar who knocks at the door, although he “has no more religion than a dog.” Soon he is reduced to beggary himself, but he escapes from it by selling his soul to the devil in return for seven years of freedom from poverty back at the smithy. After he has resumed his old habit of careless generosity, Jesus and Saint Peter call on him, disguised as beggars. The smith gives them a good meal, clean clothes, and a fresh bed. In return Jesus grants him three wishes. Saint Peter advises him to wish for paradise, but instead he asks for unedifying things, which vary according to different versions of the tale: that he can have a good meal (the usual fare: biscuits, sausage, and plenty of wine), that his pack of cards will always win for him, that his fiddle will make anyone dance, that his sack will be filled with anything he wishes, and in most cases that anyone who sits on his bench will remain stuck.

When the devil’s messenger comes to claim him at the end of the seven years, the smith offers hospitality as usual and then keeps him stuck to the bench until he grants a reprieve of seven years. Once they have elapsed, he wishes the next emissary from the devil into the sack and then pounds him on the anvil until he gives up another seven years. Finally, the smith agrees to go to hell, but the terrified devils refuse to take him in, or alternatively he wins his way out by playing at cards. Leading a troop of the damned—souls that he has won at the devil’s gambling table—he presents himself at the gates to heaven. Saint Peter won’t have him because of his impiety. But the smith takes out his fiddle and makes Peter dance until he relents, or else tosses his sack over the gate and wishes himself inside. Then, in some versions, he plays cards with the angels and wins his way up the celestial hierarchy: from a corner to a place by the fire, to a seat on a chair, and finally to a position close to God the Father.

It goes without saying that heaven will be as stratified as the court of Louis XIV and that you can cheat your way into it. Cheating serves very well as a strategy for living. Indeed, it is the only strategy available to the “little people,” who must take things as they are and make the most of them. Better to live like the smith, and to keep the belly full, than to worry about salvation and the equity of the social order. Unlike the German version (Grimm number 81), which is full of piety and nearly empty of tricks, the French tale celebrates the trickster as a social type and suggests that tricksterism will work quite well as a way of life—or as well as anything in a cruel and capricious world. Thus the primitive Mother Goose does have a moral after all. It shows that the world is full of fools and knaves—and that it is better to be a knave than a fool.

Of course the peasant raconteurs did not draw any explicit morals. They simply told tales. But the tales became absorbed into the general stock of images, sayings, and stylizations that constitute Frenchness. Now “Frenchness” may seem to be an intolerably vague idea, and it smells of related notions like Volksgeist that have acquired a bad odor since ethnography became polluted with racism in the 1930s. Nonetheless, an idea may be valid even if it is vague and has been abused in the past. Frenchness exists. It is a distinct cultural style; and it conveys a particular view of the world—a sense that life is hard, that you had better not have any illusions about selflessness in your fellow men, that clear-headedness and quick wit are necessary to protect what little you can extract from your surroundings, and that moral nicety will get you nowhere. Frenchness makes for ironic detachment. It tends to be negative and disabused. Unlike its Anglo-Saxon opposite, the Protestant ethic, it offers no formula for conquering the world. It is a defense strategy, well suited to an oppressed peasantry or an occupied country.

Thus the message of Mother Goose goes deep into French history, and in the course of time it has spread beyond the limits of folk tales and beyond the bounds of the peasantry. It has developed into a master theme of French culture, both sophisticated and popular. A long line of tricksters extends from the folk tales to the artful dodgers and confidence men of French plays and novels—Scapin, Crispin, Scaramouche, Gil Blas, Figaro, Cyrano de Bergerac, Robert Macaire. The theme still lives in films like Les Règles du jeu and journals like Le Canard enchaîné. It survives in proverbs like those we have already met—“à rusé, rusé et demi“—and in ordinary language, as in the approving way one Frenchman will call another “malin” (both “wicked” and “shrewd”), while everyone admits to being “Cartesian,” a quality that has less to do with the philosophy of Descartes than with the cunning of Puss ‘n Boots. Mother Goose did not die at the end of the Old Regime. She passed from the peasantry into everyone’s everyday life.

Of course everyday life no longer resembles the Malthusian misery of the Old Regime. The modern trickster follows new scenarios: he cheats on his income tax and dodges an all-powerful state instead of trying to outwit a local seigneur. But every move he makes is a tribute to his ancestors—Puss ‘n Boots and all the rest. As the old stories spread across social boundaries and over centuries, they developed enormous staying power. They changed without losing their flavor. Even after they had become absorbed in the main currents of modern culture, they testified to the tenacity of an old view of the world. Guided by proverbial wisdom, the French are still trying to outwit the system. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


An Exchange on Mother Goose May 10, 1984

  1. *

    The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography (second revision, Helsinki: Akademia Scientarum Fennica, 1961; Suomalainen Tiedeakademia, 1964). The tales referred to here follow the Aarne-Thompson scheme and can be located in the following books: Paul Delarue and Marie-Louise Tenèze, Le Conte populaire français (Paris: Editions G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1976), Johannes Bolte and Georg Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinderund und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1913–1932; Berlin: Hildesheim, 1963).