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The Sly Modernity of Édouard Laboulaye’s Fairy Tales

Princeton University Press
Illustration by Yan’ Dargent for “Smack-Bam,” from Smack-Bam, 2018

Because of their oral ancestry and “once upon a time” framing, fairy tales are often understood as timeless—despite the fact that we largely owe our knowledge of them to folklorists of the Victorian era. Come bedtime, the seductions of suspense and imagination are what count for children, not questions of when, how, who, or where. It’s interesting, then, to look at a newly-released book of old fairy tales that presents its narratives as explicitly political, since politics and a specific moment are generally hard to pull apart.

Smack-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men collects sixteen tales by Édouard Laboulaye, a French law professor and jurist of the Second Empire, and a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery and of women’s rights. Laboulaye’s creative work has been eclipsed by his political career, but in his day he was recognized as a writer of fiction, too, and especially known for his fairy tales—with their satirical asides, irreverent humor, and free use of international sources, it is not hard to see why. 

What marks a Laboulaye fairy tale? They’re full of magical plots, and near-miraculous instances of luck and strategy. In “The Fairy Crawfish,” a personal favorite, a poor woodsman catches a crawfish but then lets it go when he discovers that it’s also a fairy. The crawfish shows her gratitude by granting him a number of wishes—actually, his wife’s wishes—until the requests are so outlandish that the good crustacean’s patience breaks. “Your wife deserves to be locked up in prison, and you to be hanged, you nasty imbecile!” it snaps. “The Little Gray Man,” an Icelandic tale, follows a little gray person who comes into a poor couple’s possession after an impromptu trade: helpfully, he starts stealing sheep for them from the king’s pastures. 

In a Laboulaye story, which might be a few fable-like pages or the length of a long short story, rulers are more often than not oppressors, and women and outcasts and peasants usually win out. Imprisoned for eating a piece of fish the wrong way—what else?—the hero of “The Three Wishes” regains freedom by a crafty handling of three requests. “The Young Woman Who Was Wiser than the Emperor”—well, the title speaks for itself.    

The title story of “Smack-Bam” is perhaps the most obviously politically themed tale in the collection. It turns on the young prince of a place called Wild Grass and his bumpy education in governing. To summarize without ruining the story: while still a child, the loved but willfully ignorant Prince Charming is assigned a tutor in the figure of a girl his own age, Pazza; clever but hotheaded, she occasionally opts to thump her entitled pupil out of his wrongheadedness. Yet that and learning the ABCs alone won’t make a good king of Charming, and the prince must undergo some basic lessons in self-awareness and statecraft. Rendered anonymous at a masked-ball, his famous wit and grace remains intact, yet mysteriously fails to attract female notice.

Further, he lets a power-hungry doctor become an adviser. The man takes quiet steps to centralize the government, increasing taxes and filling up the prisons, while forging ties with the army. (Though the story is not strictly allegorical, the adviser’s authoritarian impulses and the threat of a coup d’état echo the rule of Napoleon III, and give the tale a cautionary aspect.) “Man is decidedly the king of the wild beasts,” Laboulaye notes at one point in the story. By a subterfuge, Pazza eventually succeeds in opening the prince’s eyes to his predicament and self-absorption, and spurring him to action. 

Princeton University Press
Illustration by Henri Pille and Henri Scott for “The Fairy Crawfish,” from Smack-Bam, 2018

Elsewhere, shades of the political tend to come out not so much in overt moralizing as in sardonic description. An adviser in “Zerbino the Bumpkin,” for example, briefs the king on happenings in the state:

There have been no more robberies at the border crossing than usual. Three quarrels between sailors and six stabbing wounds. Five admissions to the hospital. Nothing new. Upper city: Taxes have been doubled. The prosperity and morality continue to grow. Two women dead from starvation. Ten children deserted by their parents. Three men have beaten their wives. Ten wives have beaten their husbands.

So much for official notions of “prosperity and morality.” In both “Briam the Fool” and “Poucinet,” random cruelty delivered from on high is a given. Before the main action begins in the first tale, six brothers are fatally stabbed in efforts to hold onto their prized family cow, Bukolla, which is coveted by the king. In the second story, a king gives an order that anyone who attempts but fails a test he’s set—to cut down a stubborn oak tree—will have his ears removed. “His majesty sought ways to avoid keeping his word without seeming to break it,” Laboulaye writes with characteristic incisiveness, wittily evoking the axioms of Machiavelli. 

Laboulaye’s tales are forward-thinking in their internationalism. Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who sought for their work to bolster a national language, or Hans Christian Andersen, who poeticized the form using his idiosyncratic perspective and life experience, Laboulaye tried to interpret and mix together stories from a wide variety of lands. When not clear from the opening lines, a source country might be indicated alongside the title: Bohemia, Iceland, Italy, Estonia, Senegal, Dalmatia, Turkey. What he borrowed from his sources and what he omitted or transformed is not made explicit; but the very act of openly adopting foreign models counts as an innovation, as do his sophisticated irony and wry commentary on a story’s events. The latter sometimes includes novel intertextual elements—for instance, at the end of one tale, the narrator offers a letter exchange with a fairy-tale scholar about how the matter behind the tale was ultimately resolved. 

In addition to his volumes of fairy tales—Contes bleus, Nouveaux contes bleus, and Derniers contes bleus—Laboulaye wrote three novels plus an immense quantity of nonfiction. These works included a three-volume history of the United States, several volumes on jurisprudence, a treatise on de Tocqueville, and a translation of Benjamin Franklin’s letters. Laboulaye was a leading contributor to the drafting of France’s new constitution when the Third Republic came about in 1870. An Americanophile who championed the North in the Civil War, Laboulaye is today often noted in biographies for his efforts to get the Statue of Liberty erected, a whim of posthumous reputation that likely would have made him smile. Although Laboulaye’s tales first surfaced in the intellectual Journal des débats, his view of his purpose seems to have been lighthearted—at least on the surface. “May my little heroes charm you with their stories, and spare you useless tears!” he wrote in a dedication to his granddaughter, and wishing that her own future children might one day read the book. 

Princeton University Press
Illustration by Yan’ Dargent for “Zerbino the Bumpkin,” from Smack-Bam, 2018

Laboulaye’s progressive views are especially notable in his portrayals of women in his stories. “Whether princess or shepherdess, every woman in a household has brains enough for two,” runs the conclusion in “Zerbino the Bumpkin.” In “Perlino,” a longer and funny, Neapolitan-based tale not included in Smack-Bam, the romantically dissatisfied young heroine fashions a love interest for herself out of almond paste, and this is not at all treated as a questionable solution. (Among other things, he proves to be an excellent dancing partner.) 

Encountered by the lay reader today, the political side to Laboulaye’s tales may be quite apparent, even if the conditions at play here, the autocracy under Napoleon III, have long faded from view. Yet Laboulaye’s satirical voice has a decidedly cumulative effect, and on occasion, as in “Falsehood and Truth,” its force is both poetic and starkly clear:

To be more certain of his victory, Falsehood built himself a palace over Truth’s tomb. But it is said that sometimes she turns in her grave. When this happens, the palace crumbles like a house of cards and buries all the inhabitants, both innocent and guilty, beneath its ruins.


Smack-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men: Political Fairy Tales of Édouard Laboulayeis published by Princeton University Press in the “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales” series, which is edited by Jack Zipes, who is also the translator of this volume.