Sunday, November 18, 2007

La Petite Chèvre, and where she led...

Only recently I was thinking to myself, a) that I haven't discovered any completely new blogs for a while, and b) that I have yet to come across anyone on-line with the same name as myself. Now it seems both things have happened at one time, by one of those pleasant googling acts of serendipity, which have yielded treasures before.

A few days ago, one of my students was saying that she had been telling her grandson the story of 'La Petite Chèvre de Monsieur Séguin'. I raised my eyebrows at this, 'You tell that story to your children?!' Yes, she said, it's a lovely little children's story. No, I said, it isn't. It is sad and terrible, the wolf eats poor Blanquette, and why? Why does she have to go out onto the mountain? The meaning is difficult for children, it is about innocence destroyed by its own choice... By this time they were giving me the amused, interested but slightly non-plussed looks they often do when I get into one of these two-and-eights arising from inter-cultural incomprehension.

'La Petite Chèvre' was one of the first things I remember reading in French. It was a staple of school textbooks, and I seem to remember we even had an old boardback children's book of it with pictures in the attic at home. Later, 'Lettres de mon Moulin' was one of the first books in French I remember owning. It puzzled and perplexed, as well as charming me, and persuaded me that there was a streak of the darkly morbid mixed with the maudlin in the French soul. I still get that feeling sometimes, but I think much of it is simply a darkness that accompanies the unfamiliar, something that is gained in translation.

The darkness in the soul of one's own culture is often overlooked, but in turn my students help me to see it afresh. We were listening to English Christmas carols, and I remarked that 'We Three Kings' was a favourite of the traditional school Nativity Play; coming to the (to my mind wonderful, and that since I was a child) verse on myrrh: '...its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in the stone cold tomb', their response was 'You give that to your children to sing?!'

On going back to the story of the little goat, of course what I had forgotten, and what is usually left out of the children's version, is that it is being told by Daudet, the worldly-wise, world-weary man of letters, as a cautionary tale to a young poet who has turned down a cushy but limiting job as a journalist to pursue his dream of artistic freedom. The allegory is spelled out nearly as baldly and transparently as one of Perrault's jaunty, wry morals, so that more or less all complexity, any mystery or layering of possible meanings, is tidily ironed out and put in order, we are not really left to wonder what it is about, there is nothing haunting or elusive after all, it is a simple fable, this equals that, from which we deduce... I think this is perhaps quite French too.

So, thinking on this, I went looking on the web for a summary or translation of the story. And not only did I find a lovely one, but I found it on the quite literally delicious blog of another Lucy, Lucy Vanel, who, I think, is American, living in Lyon. She writes and photographs just beautifully, most and especially, but not exclusively, about food. I could spend a long time over at hers, just salivating.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article. It seems to me that many European fairy tales, especially the Brothers Grimm, have a very dark side. I still have my childhood copy translated into Finnish, very well worn and falling apart! We grew up with these, but my daughter won't read them to her children.

Thanks for the other Lucy, nice find, I'll be checking it out!

Lee said...

The loveliest treasures in life are often found when we are looking for something else.

Lucy said...

Thanks both.
ML - It always seems to me that although Grimm's tales, unlike Andersen's, are bloodthirsty and scary, there's little melancholy or tragic about them, there is a robust lack of affect apart from the satisfaction of revenge and triumph! They still keep much of their mythic origins about them I think. 'Bluebeard' was the most traumatic experience I had of reading a fairy story, which I read when I was first reading completely independently. I'm still not sure whether the message it contains is salutory or destructive for the female psyche... It persists in many a modern novel, doesn't want to die. I'm not sure about giving the hardcore, nastiest fairy stories to kids now, part of me says they may be psychologically necessary, but I'm not sure if I were a parent I would.
Lee - Indeed, I have often found this!

meggie said...

The old fairy stories might have been terrifying,...but there seemed to be something magical, almost, & I loved the really old ones. They don't seem to be available now for children. There is too much Disney. Now I show my age, & grumpiness.

I agree, that many wonderful things in this life are accidental!