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Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg

Dear Readers,

When I started writing this post, I realized that I had already written a post entitled Fairy Tales and Fables and that I had used The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,[i] published in 1975 or 76, by Austria born American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (28 August 1903 – 13 March 1990). I am therefore providing a link to Fairy Tales and Fables as you may prefer to read the older post.


I also discovered that Wikipedia and other entries on fairy tales and fables are far more numerous and substantial then was the case when I first wrote about Puss in Boots and Beauty and the Beast.

First, I will write at greater length on the difference between fairy tales and fables a subject with which you are probably familiar.  Second, I will make a few comments about Puss in Boots.

From Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories, etext 19993 From Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories, Gutenberg etext 19993

Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories, Gutenberg [EBook # 19993]

Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales and fables

In his book, Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales are helpful to unhappy children because characters such as Cinderella have a fairy godmother who saves them. Cinderella has no recourse. Her father’s second wife has transformed her into a servant and one of Cinderella’s tasks is to clean up the chimney. “Cinder” means “ash” (cendre). Fortunately, the reader knows that her good looks, albeit hidden, will free Cinderella from her stepmother, her father’s second wife. Cinderella is an archetypal rags-to-riches fairy tale.  So is Puss in Boots.

In most fairy tales, beauty is a major asset, even in the case of Beauty and the BeastBeauty and the Beast is an exceptional fairy tale because Beauty falls in love with Beast when he is Beast, which would be comforting to a child who feels ugly. By falling in love with Beast, Beauty returns Beast to his former beautiful princely self. Beauty sees beauty beneath unsightly appearances, which makes her into admirable character, but in the end she marries a beautiful prince. The moral of that fairy tale, for there is a moral, is that one should look beyond appearances. But next to the moral is a forthcoming princely wedding.

Let us return to Cinderella. Alone, it would be difficult for Cinderella to escape her sorry fate. She has sought her father’s help, but he does not want to upset his new wife who prefers to look after her own two daughters. However, a fairy godmother comes to Cinderella’s rescue, a familiar device in fairy tales. So, given that a helpless Cinderella is saved by her fairy godmother, it would be Dr Bettelheim’s opinion that fairy tales benefit children, a notion that has been extended to adults. According to Dr Bettelheim, fairy tales provide optimism, whereas fables are pessimistic. Such may indeed be the case.

Fairy Tales: characteristics

In Puss in Boots, revisited, I listed characteristics of fairy tales in general and Puss in Boots in particular.  What follows is therefore somewhat repetitive.

  • Fairy tales have a happy ending, which is comforting. In this respect, Puss in Boots is very much a fairy tale;
  • The intervention of a fairy godmother, who is a magician, is also a characteristic of fairy tales. There is no fairy godmother in Puss in Boots;
  • Beauty plays a role in fairy tales, including Charles Perrault‘s Puss in Boots; Puss asks his master to disrobe, tells him to throw himself into the water and hides the clothes. As a result, the King who happens to be passing by, gives him appropriate clothes. Using a ruse is not a common device in fairy tales;
  • The use of magic or the supernatural is common in fairy tales. Puss is a magical or magic cat, but he is not a magician (see Puss in Boots, Wikipedia);
  • The number three is also common in fairy tales. There are three main steps to Puss’ master’s rise to power: the land, the river, and crafty acquisition of the Ogre’s castle, which is typical of fairy tales;
  • Fairy tales and fables may be retold. New versions are called retellings, a perfectly acceptable practice. There are several versions of Puss in Boots. The version I am using is based on Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots and does not differ substantially from the EBook provided by the Project Gutenberg, Mark’s version. In earlier versions of Puss in Boots the cat is a female;
  • Fairy tales originate in an oral tradition or a learned tradition. Puss in Boots originates in an oral tradition. It was first put in written form in Italy, thereby entering the learned tradition. It was told by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (c. 1480 – c. 1557). It was also told by Giambattista Basile (c. 1575 – 23 February 1632) on the second day of the Pentamerone (entitled “Pippo”). Project Gutenberg [EBook #2198]

Charles Perrault

However, the father of fairy tales, including Puss in Boots, is the above-mentioned Charles Perrault (12 January 1628 – 16 May 1703), a wealthy member of the French bourgeoisie who had worked at court (Louis XIV) and whose niece, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, had a salon. Perrault was familiar with salonniers and salonnières. In 1697, aged 67, Perrault published Histoires ou contes du temps passé, also known as Contes de ma mère l’Oye: Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals or Mother Goose Tales. Note that the title includes a “with Morals.”

Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, MS. Pococke 400, fol. 75b (Bodleian libraries, Oxford)
Kalīlah wa-Dimnah,
MS. Pococke 400, fol. 75b (Bodleian libraries, Oxford) (Photo credit: Bodleian)

Kalīlah wa-Dimnah a version of the Panchatantra, was translated into Persian by Abdullah Ibn Al-Muquaffa

the Panchatantra was written in Sanskrit by Vishnu Sharma

Fables: Indian and Arabic origins

Fables are lessons originally designed to help the prince conduct his life wisely. Such is the case with the Sanskrit Panchatantra or Pañcatantra. We also have the Sanskrit Hitopadesha, a collection of fables in prose and verse written in the 12th century.   (See Hitopadesha, Wikipedia.) After the Hitopadesha’s discovery, by Sir William Jones (philologist) (28 September 1746 – 27 April 1794), it was translated into English by Sir Charles Wilkins KHFRS (17 (1749 – 13 May 1836) who had translated the Bhagavad Gita (meaning The Song of the Bhagavan). According to its Wikipedia entry, “[t]he Bhagavad Gita‘s call for selfless action inspired many leaders of the Indian independence movement  including Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi [Mahatma Gandhi], who referred to the Gita as his ‘spiritual dictionary’.” Kalīlah wa-Dimnah is the Persian (Arabic) version, by Ibn Al-Muquaffa, of the Sanskrit Panchatantra. As noted above, Panchatantra stories are listed under Panchatantra Stories.

Æsopic Fables

However, the fables we read to our children and which are read by our children are Æsop’s fables. Among translators of Æsopica into English, Sir Roger L’Estrange is the most colourful individuals. He published his Fables of Æsop, and other Eminent Mythologists: with Morals and Reflexions, in 1692. In the French language, many Æsopic fables were written by Jean de La Fontaine‘s (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695). However, there have been many fabulists. Click on Fable to see a list of writers of fables.

Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots is a fairy tale written by Charles Perrault‘s (12 January 1628 – 16 May 1703). Yet it has two morals:

  • « […] L’industrie et le savoir-faire valent mieux que des biens acquis »: “Hard work and ingenuity are worth more than inherited [acquis: acquired] goods.” And
  • « […] C’est que l’habit, la mine et la jeunesse, pour inspirer de la tendresse, n’en sont pas des moyens toujours indifférents ». Clothes, good looks and youth are means of inspiring love or “mere appearances and civility can seduce women and society.”[ii] 

However, these morals are not very “moralistic.” One hopes, nevertheless, that the third son of the miller has learned that Puss’ ingenuity has taken him, the third son, from rags to riches and that he was lucky to be well dressed, good-looking and young. So, although a parallel may be drawn between the education of the prince, the earliest vocation of fables, and Machiavelli‘s education of his prince, Machiavelli and his prince inhabit the ruthless world of the factious city-states of the future Italy. Besides, the lessons are presented without the “obliqueness” that characterizes speaking animals. Animals speak and do not speak.

Æsop’s Fables

Æsop’s fables are brief lessons wrapped in a story in which most actors are animals, which could also be said of Jean de La Fontaine‘s (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) retelling of Æsopic fables (Volume One, 1668) and, to a lesser extent, of his retellings of a wider range of fables, including Fables by Bidpai (Volume Two, 1768). (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia.)

Animal stories also teach ways of getting oneself out of difficulty. In one Reynard the Fox story, Reynard plays dead (“faire le mort”) to his benefit. We do not know every version of Puss in Boots, but Marc Soriano,[iii] the author of Les Contes de Perrault, culture savante et traditions populaires, writes that in one retelling Puss also plays dead. This is an old motif. (See Stith Thompson [March 7, 1885 – January 13, 1976] and Aarne–Thompson classification system, a classification by motif, and Vladimir Propp‘s [29 April 1895 – 22 August 1970] Morphology of the Folktale, a structuralist classification by narratives and functions.


As for Puss, and all animals in beast literature, he is anthromorphic. Talking animals are humans in disguise and when humans are disguised as cats, they often serve as magic wands, not because they are magicians but because of their ingenuity and, ironically, their eloquence. So Puss is the denizen of a fairy tale, yet his main toosl are the tools foxes use: ruse and barat, Reynard’s talkativeness. He possesses within himself the resources that make him a fairy godmother and an agent of change.

Not that Puss is “children’s literature’s” only magical cats. Fairyland has other magical cats. However, with magical cats, we are faced with a paradox. Puss’ ingenuity places him above the human beings he uses to raise his master to the highest social rank. In fact, Puss civilizes the third son of the miller in order to take him from rags to riches, which is extremely ironic. He could therefore be considered the master. Puss in Boots is entitled Le Chat botté ou le Maître chat, Puss in Boots or the Master Cat. We have entered the topsy-turvy world of beast literature. Puss has made himself a human being.


Therefore, with Puss in Boots, we are in fairyland, but also find ourselves in the upside-down universe of speaking animals. Fred Marcellino‘s last illustration shows two little mice looking at a portrait of Puss, fully and beautifully dressed. Not only has he proven an invaluable inheritance, but in transforming his master into the King’s son-in-law, he has educated the prince and has also metamorphosed himself into little less than an aristocrat.


[i] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, (Vintage Books, New York, 1989 [1976; 1975]).

[ii] Jack Zipes, ed., The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[iii] Marc Soriano, Les Contes de Perrault, culture savante et traditions populaires  (Paris: Gallimard, collection “Tel”, 1968), p. 176.

Debussy, Arabesque No 1 Aldo Ciccolini, piano

© Micheline Walker
26 March 2013