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nadeshda-illarionova1Nadezhda Illarionova (Photo credit: Google Images)


Donkey-Skin (Peau d’Âne) was written by Charles Perrault, in 1694. But it is also dated 1697 as Histoires ou contes du temps passé, (Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals oMother Goose Tales). So doubt lingers as to the year it was written.  I will date it c. 1695. Moreover, “unnatural love” seems a type rather than a motif. Type is the broader classification.

Summary of the Plot

A dying queen asks her husband to seek another spouse as beautiful as she is. The widowed king falls in love with his daughter who is as beautiful as her mother, hence the fairy tale‘s classification as “unnatural love.” However, Donkey-Skin seeks supernatural help provided by a fairy godmother. The princess is told that she must ask her father to provide her with lavish gowns, three as it turns out, and to kill his gold-defecating donkey. The father obliges and Donkey-Skin flees covered in the skin of the dead donkey.

After she escapes, Donkey-Skin starts working as a peasant. But a prince sees her through a key-hole when she is trying on one the lavish gowns her father has given her. This is an example of kairos, which means that the prince sees Donkey-Skin at the opportune moment. He falls in love to the point of being sick. In literature, French 17th-century literature in particular, writers have often depicted love as an illness.

The remedy that will heal the prince is not the skin of a wolf Isengrin’s age, but a cake Donkey-Skin has baked. She therefore bakes the cake and inserts her ring into the batter. So we now remember the foot-that-fits-the-shoe motif, Cinderella’s foot. The prince goes in search of the woman whose finger fits the ring and finds her. Donkey-Skin is returned to her regal self.

Réunion de dames, by Abraham Bosse

Réunion de dames by Abraham Bosse 17th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Salons and Préciosité

At the time Perrault wrote his Tales of Mother Goose (Contes de ma mère l’Oye), children’s literature was in its infancy. Charles Perrault was an habitué (a regular) of Salons and fairy tales are associated with Préciosité‘s main objectives: the refinement of language and manners, and the “Querelle des Femmes,”the 17th-century debate about women. Woman considered themselves as “précieuses.” At first sight, it therefore seems puzzling that the story of a princess resisting the incestuous advances of her father should be accepted in literature befitting fine gathering places. But such is not the case.

The Debate about women and Perrault’s Style

According to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Donkey-Skin is, indeed, part of the “Querelle des femmes,” the debate about women. Donkey-Skin exposes an abuse against women, which may explain its acceptability. Salonniers and salonnières also enjoyed the suspense. Finally, the tale might owe its acceptability to the rules governing fairy tales. Fairy tales have a happy ending so readers know that Donkey-Skin’s plight will end.   However, I should think that the manner in which the tale is told is its subject matter. Peau d’Âne is an exquisite versified tale. It is Salon literature.

On Charles Perrault, honnête homme and a “Moderne”

In other words, although Donkey-Skin is pursued by an incestuous father, the tale is told by an excellent writer. Perrault (12 January 1628 – 16 May 1703) was born to a wealthy bourgeois family and elected to the Académie française, in 1671. For two decades, he worked at court as Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s secretary. He mingled in Salons with other honnêtes hommes,[i] gentlemen who, by and large, were as they seem[ii], quite an achievement in 17th-century France. Finally, at the close of the 17th century, Perrault would lead the Modernes in the famous Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes.[iii]

Donkey-Skin, by Adrienne Ségur*

Donkey-Skin by Adrienne Ségur

Unnatural Love

Yet, in the Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification system, Donkey-Skin is listed as type AT 510B, [iv] i.e. unnatural love, rather than a type that could be called the flayed animal, such as The Lion, the Fox and the Wolf (AT type 50). The incestuous love of a father for his daughter does not seem appropriate entertainment for small children or the audience of Salons. We have seen, however, that it is acceptable. Moreover, it mirrors other motifs and types style redeems it.

The Flayed Wolf

Let’s recall Reynard the Fox, rooted in the Sick Lion tale or The Lion, the Fox and the Wolf (AT type 50). Reynard has overheard Ysengrin the wolf tell the king that Reynard has failed to join other courtiers who are at their sick king’s, the Lion, bedside. Reynard visits the king later and tells Noble that he has travelled everywhere in search of a cure. To be cured the king must wrap himself into the skin of a wolf, the age of Ysengrin.

It would therefore seems reasonable to link tales where a character is covered in the skin of another animal with the tale Aarne-Thompson have listed as AT type 50: curing a sick lion. Tales intersect and may border on other types. Although the Aarne-Thompson index classifies Donkey-Skin under its unnatural love category, Peau d’Âne does mirror the flayed-animal type, under any name. In fact Peau d’Âne also mirrors Goose who laid golden eggs (Æsop’ Fables, Perry Index 87) and Jean de La Fontaine‘s “La Poule aux œufs d’or” (V.13). Like the goose, the king’s donkey is aurifère, an endless source of gold.

Traditions populaires

Also at play is tradition. Perrault’s Donkey-Skin is perhaps ageless. It was probably transmitted through an oral tradition and too widely known to be left aside. Before Peau d’Âne entered a learned tradition, i.e. a written form, a fairy tale was sometimes referred to as a “Peau d’Âne.”[v] Moreover, Jean de La Fontaine expressed his love of Peau d’Âne (VIII. 4) in his second recueil or collection of fables:

Si Peau d’Âne m’était conté, 
J’y prendrais un plaisir extrême. 

Le Pouvoir des Fables (VIII. 4)

If one should tell that tale so queer
Ycleped, I think, “The Ass’s Skin,”
I should not mind my work a pin.
The world is old, they say; I don’t deny it;
But, infant still
In taste and will,
Whoever would teach, must gratify it.

The Power of Fables (VIII.4)


According to Marc Soriano,[vi] Perrault used many sources before writing his Peau d’Âne in perfect verse. The tale is not altogether a rewriting of Giambattista Basile‘s (c. 1575 – 23 February 1632) lOrsa IT (The Bear), (Il cunto de li cunti overo le trattemiento de peccerille [The Tale of Tales or Entertaiment for Little Ones]) or Pentamerone. Nor is it a polished version of a tale by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (c. 1575 – 23 February 1632), the author of the Facetious Nights or Piacevoli Notti. It is Perrault‘s Donkey-Skin and one of the first fairy tales belonging to children’s literature. Perrault’s tales has set the tone. He has become the model.


So, eloquence and tradition have redeemed unnatural love. That would be my first conclusion. As suggested above, folktales enjoy a degree of immunity, not only as fiction but as part of a cultural heritage that has profound roots and crosses borders. Peau d’Âne is not altogether cleansed: the donkey is still “aurifère,” i.e. it defecates gold, and  Peau  d’Âne‘s father’s love remains a transgression. However, even in the most refined social circles, one does indulge, occasionally, i.e. a tad, in scatological humour, told correctly. Moreover, by the time Perrault wrote his fairy tales, Préciosité was no longer the ridiculous fashion depicted in Molière‘s  Les Précieuses ridicules (1659). Finally, not only does Perrault’s Donkey-Skin mirror many texts, but it is pared down and presented in verses, not the easier prose. Style transcends “unnatural love.”

However, I will end this post by introducing a new element. Let me quote Donkey-Skin’s fairy godmother who suggests that Donkey-Skin not contradict her father while nevertheless refusing his advances: “Mais sans le contredire on peut le refuser,” (“[b]ut you can avoir the necessity without displeasing him”) which is what Donkey-Skin does, thereby displaying that, with a little advice, the worldly wisdom of fables, she can negotiate her way out of her father’s incestuous requests. Her fairy godmother tells Peau d’Âne that incest, without naming it, is a “great sin,” (une faute bien grande), but her entire statement reads as follows:

Écouter sa folle demande
Serait une faute bien grande,
Mais sans le contredire on peut le refuser.
Peau d’Âne

“For, my dear child,” she said to her, “it would be a great sin to submit to your father’s wishes, but you can avoid the necessity without displeasing him.”
(Gutenberg [29021])


One is therefore reminded of Puss in Boots, a fairy tale in which a very clever cat takes his master from rags to riches using his savoir-faire, a more natural recourse than magic. Donkey-Skin will oppose her father “sans le contredire, (without contradicting him), which is also savoir-faire, not to mention empowerment.

Sources and Resources


[i] The term sprezzatura used by Baldassare Castiglione in the Cortegiano (c. 1528) conveys behaviour that does not necessarily go beyond mere appearances. It suggests nonchalance.

“Partly because of the influence of the salons and partly as a result of disillusionment at the failure of the Fronde, the heroic ideal was gradually replaced in the 1650s by the concept of honnêteté. The word does not connote “honesty” in its modern sense but refers rather to an ideal aristocratic moral and social mode of behaviour, a sincere refinement of tastes and manners.” (honnête homme, Britannica)

[ii] “honnête homme”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 23 May. 2013
[iii] According to the Modernes, the literature of France had reached an apex and could now serve as a model. The Anciens, led by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, who, with François de Malherbe, shaped French classicism, versification in particular, did not share this view.[iv] Christine Goldberg, “The Donkey-Skin Folktale Cycle (AT 510B),” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 110, No. 435 (Winter, 1997), pp. 28-46.
[v] See G. Rouger, ed. Contes de Perrault (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1967), p. 153.
[vi] Marc Soriano, Les Contes de Perrault, culture savante et traditions populaires (Paris : Gallimard, coll. ‘Tel’, 1977 [1968]), 113-124.

composer: Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764)
piece: Tambourins and Chaconne from “Dardanus” (1739)
performers: Musica Pacifica, at the Berkeley Early Music Festival main stage, June 2012.
Portrait (detail) by Philippe Lallemand, 1672

Portrait (detail) by Philippe Lallemand, 1672

© Micheline Walker
23 May 2013