18 Mar 2010

Monsieur Puss and the Marquis

“Who is Puss in Boots, girls?” I idly asked the Princess Jemimah and her best friend, the Princess Pea, last weekend in the car. “Ooh, I know, he’s in Shrek!” cried Pea. “No,” I persevered, “the original character – the one the Shrek Puss came from. You know, like the Gingerbread Man comes from the story of The Gingerbread Boy.” No answer. Then I asked Jemimah’s Daddy. “I don’t know,” he admitted with some surprise. I had asked the question because it had occurred to me that I didn’t know the answer either. Surprising, I thought, given the number to fairy tales we’ve read, but not an indictable offense. (What about you? Do you know the original story? You can get a refresher here.)

As it turned out, Jemimah and I had actually had read about Puss in Boots once or three times, as we discovered when we re-read the story through the week. It is one of the literally hundreds of fairy tales contained in the utterly peerless fantasmagorical read aloud book, Time for Fairy Tales - old and new edited by the equally incomparable May Hill Arbuthnot and published back in 1952. We read this book over and over when Jemimah was a wee-un. I think it is the best single read aloud book there is.

We also found Puss in Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book, which we’d read for AO1 a few years ago. Phew, I thought, I hadn’t let my daughter down after all, even if neither she nor I hadn’t remembered without a prompt and a revisit.

Kids nowadays don’t seem to read fairy tales. Sure, most will have a little book containing retellings – probably by Disney – of Little Red Riding Hood, The Gingerbread Man, Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Three Little Pigs; which must have come as some relief for the creators of Shrek, which features most of them, but what about Mr Vinegar or Tom Tit Tot and Rumpelstiltskin or Tattercoats or The Frog-King (sorry, he’s in one of the Shrek sequels as Princess Fiona’s Dad, I think) or Henny-Penny or the Three Billy Goats Gruff or Gudbrand or Little Freddy with his Fiddle or Urashima Taro and Momotaro, or Whippety Stourie and Lothian Tom, or Aladdin and Sinbad or Granny’s Blackie or the Fire-bird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa or Sadko or Clever Manka and Budulinek or Connla and King O’Toole? Who knows of all of those characters nowadays? Not many adults, I hazard to guess, and even less of their children.

Which is sad.

How can you go through life without knowing this stuff? A childhood without the wise, witty, gentlemanly, urbane, suave, classy and elegant Padre Porko is seriously lacking something special. How can a child exist without the elegant and beautiful French Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, the moralistic tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the amazing vernacular of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus and the delights of the brothers Grimm?

A childhood without Fairy Tales is a life without bloodthirsty giants and fearless giant killers, fairy spells and fairy godmothers, three wishes and magic spells, enchanted princes in the guise of beasts or bears or swans. It is life without witches (the benign one with a long pointy black hat and a wart on her nose; not the witches of the occult), gingerbread houses, dwarves, pixies, gnomes, ogres, beautiful princesses, gallant brave princes and cruel stepmothers. It is a childhood bereft of enchantment, magic, joy and imagination.

It is a childhood with something missing. It's a life lacking cultural literacy. Fairy tale characters appear over and over during the course of a lifetime - and not only in Shrek. If you don't know the stories you miss the subtle nuances of the argument. Some of the meaning is lost.

Fairy Tales introduce us to the delights of the repetitive tale. Read this little bit aloud and listen to your tongue tripping along with the animals:
So they went along, and they went along, and they went along, till they met Foxy-Woxy, and Foxy-Woxy said to Henny-Penny, Cocky-Locky, Ducky-Daddles, Goosey-Poosey, and Turkey-Lurkey: “Where are you going, Henny-Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky-Daddles, Goosey-Poosey, and Turkey-Lurkey?” And Henny-Penny, Cocky-Locky, Ducky-Daddles, Goosey-Poosey, and Turkey-Lurkey said to Foxy Woxy: “We’re going to tell the king the sky’s a-falling.”
Kids love this stuff, and will quickly learn the refrain, joining in with the fun bits as you read.

Oh joy, fairy tales are stories of courage and bravery, but they're also such fun. Repetitive tales are an ideal introduction to poetry, by the way - their rich lyrical language is almost poetry already.

Fairy Tales have phraseology all of their own, without which our vocabulary is the poorer: Once upon a time; Alas, Alack; …while I go to Squintums; Fee-fi-fo-fum; Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, But Snow-White fairer is than you; Flounder, flounder in the sea, Come I pray thee, here to me; Snip, snap, snout, This tale’s told out. Then there are the words: cottager and husbandman and goody and goodman as well as balls and coachmen and footmen and coaches for them to ride upon; enormously rich merchants from far off kingdoms ruled by Princes and Kings and Tsars and Emperors and the Lord Marquis of Carabas. There are farmers and shepherds and burgomasters and fishermen and boys called Jack. Lots of boys called Jack.
The worse for witches and trolls; but even the most horrific of these tales, “are predominantly constructive, not destructive, in their moral lessons. ‘The humble and good shall be exalted,’ say the stories of Snow Drop (Snow White), Aschenputtel (Cinderella), the Bremen Town-Musicians, and dozens of others. ‘Love suffereth long and is kind,’ is the lesson of East of the Sun and One Eye, Two Eyes, and Three Eyes. In The Frog-King, the royal father of the princess enforces a noble code upon his thoughtless daughter. ‘That which you have promised must you perform’ and ‘He who helped you when you were in trouble ought not afterwards to be despised by you.”

Children and Books May Hill Arbuthnot 1947
Fairy tales teach moral truths. ‘Use your head’ is one. ‘Good things come to him who waits’ is another common refrain, as is ‘Kindness will triumph over evil in the end’. The good thing about the morality of fairy tales though, is that it is presented in a way that children find it palatable physic rather than a bitter pill. Fairy tales teach about brave self sacrifice, keeping a civil tongue, family loyalty and loving wives and mothers. They teach about decency, kindness and courage. They teach about keeping promises.

Fairy Tales encourage us to be good.

You don’t need a huge book of Fairy Tales to begin with. Most good stories bear repetition, and in fact some get better and better the more they’re read. Just grab a book of good unabridged tales in their original language and get started.

We’re currently reading Joseph Jacobs' collection of English Fairy Tales. Written especially for children, Jacobs' idea was 'to write as a good old nurse will speak when she tells Fairy Tales'. In this aim he succeeded wonderfully. In his delightful book you’ll get it all – the repetitive, the funny, the realistic, the wildly ridiculous, the long and the short. There is Henny-Penny; Tom- Tit- Tot; The Three Little Pigs; The Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk and more. Lots more. You can even find it free online. Andersen, Grimm, Lang, and most of the others are there as well.

Whatever you choose, and however you do it, don’t neglect the Fairy Tales.

Allow your child to imagine, allow your child to laugh, allow your child to dream.

Kids love these stories.

They’ll understand Shrek better as well.
Master of all masters, get out of your barnacle and put on your squibs and crackers. For white-faced simminy has got a spark of hot cockalorum on its tail, and unless you get some pondalorum, high topper mountain will be all on hot cockalorum…………………………..

…That’s all.


  1. What a wonderful, inspiring post! You are so right about the rich language of fairy tales. Kids need to be exposed to language that was from a time before, like, you know, modern English - LOL, FWIW, KWIM?

    I think I'll go read some right now.

  2. I wonder how many children know the original Shrek by William Steig?

    I don't know why but I never liked 'Puss in Boots' as a child and until kidlets would not have been able to tell the story. It is a very popular fairytale in Russia so my guys know the story well. I'm pretty sure we have at least three versions in Russian on our shelf as well as the Soviet-era musical on dvd.

    Fairytales, aah, a favourite topic of mine as well, Jeanne. I've spent so much time trying to track down the 2-volume set I grew up with (still haven't found it).

    You could have knocked me over with a feather when I first encountered parents that don't allow fairytales. One of my favorite essays on the topic is Karen Andreola's from her 'Charlotte Mason Companion.'

  3. I have lots of thoughts on fairy tales... One is that, despite loving and reading a large book of fairy tales when I was a child, there were many I didn't know. I didn't really know the story of Puss in Boots until I was an adult and read it to my son.

    Second, is that our library here in Japan has MANY Japanese fairy tales in English. It is interesting to compare them to western fairy tales. Probably my favorites are Florence Sakade's two collections of Japanese fairy tales.

  4. Oh I can simply get lost in the pages of children's literature.

    I hope you don't mind if I splash around today and get to know you. Don't worry, if I make a mess, I'll mop it up. Always delighted to meet new homeschooling friends


  5. What a fabulous post. I'm going to do my homework and take note of your suggestions.
    Let me share that I just bought The Blue Fairy Book for 50 cents, an old hardcover in good shape, at my thrifty store!
    There were many fairy tales you mentioned I'd love to discover or revisit with my girls who LOVE the 'real' stories, as they are discovering the originals, that's how they call them to differentiate from the Disney versions which I mainly don't have in movie and got rid of in book (argh, I couldn't read them).
    I enjoyed your long post, it wasn't long to me, I truly appreciate your analysis of the fairy authors and the excerpts of many tales and characters you mentioned.
    Thanks for your wisdom,

  6. One more thought:
    I used one of your links to brush up on "The Princess and the Frog." Then last night I told it to ds. When I got to the part about the princess kissing the frog, and the frog turning into a handsome prince, he said, "No, she turns into a frog." He has learned that from Disney advertisements for the movie!!!!!!


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