FRENCH FOLKTALES: FROM THE COLLECTION OF HENRI POURRAT Selected by C.G. Bjurstr"om, Translated and with an introduction by Royall Tyler, New York: Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, 484 pp., illustrated, $21.95
FOLK tales have always been a constant source of entertainment and instruction, magic and mystery, homely wisdom and insight. But the status of the folk tale in literary circles has fluctuated over the centuries.
At times, critics and molders of taste dismissed such tales as crude products of ignorant minds best relegated to the realm of the kitchen and the nursery. Other times, the humble origins of folktales prompted some critics and scholars (most famously, the brothers Grimm) to value them all the more as natural, unspoiled expressions of the popular spirit.
Folk and fairy tales became objects of reverence for 19th-century romantic nationalists in search of a vibrant vernacular tradition. They later became objects of study for linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other social scientists in search of lively grist for their new disciplinary mills.
As folk tales made their way into university curricula, they were gathered and classified in much the same fashion as specimens of plant life were collected by botanists. Collectors were trained to record each tale precisely as the teller happened to recite it, lest the purity of the data be ``contaminated'' by the researcher's personal preconceptions, style, or book-learned affectations.
Modern social science's preference for the faithful transcription - and the concomitant suspicion of those who took liberties - has been the chief reason why Henri Pourrat's massive collection of tales from his native Auvergne, ``Le tresor de contes,'' fell into disrepute among serious scholars of folklore. Pourrat (1887-1959) began collecting tales in 1910, a task that resulted, first in a 13-volume edition published between 1948 and 1964, then in a larger, seven-volume edition that began appearing in 1977.
From the 1,009 tales in this seven-volume French Gallimard edition, Carl Gustaf Bjurstr"om has selected 105, arranged in seven sections corresponding to the volumes from which they were drawn: ``Fairy Enchantments'' (from ``Les f'ees''); ``The Devil'' (from ``Le diable et ses diableries); ``Bandits'' (from ``Les brigands''); ``Around the Village'' (from ``Au village''); ``The Mad and the Wise'' ( from ``Les fous et les sages''); Bestiary (from ``Le bestiaire''); and ``Love and Marriage''(from ``Les amours'').
The stories range from brief jokes and fables to elaborate tales of adventure and enchantment. Yet even the briefest are full of wit and ingenuity, while the longest are only as long as the amount of pleasure that can be extracted from the charms of repetition and variation and from the enlivening contrast of simplicity and embellishment, all classic rhythms of the storytelling voice.
Some of these tales are familiar; many others may be refreshingly unfamiliar to the average reader. The selection is unusually rich and varied. The editor has chosen well, making it possible to read the entire collection without really feeling that you are starting to wander in circles through the same material.
As a group, these tales are much less violent than the Grimms', more humorous, romantic, and, in the loose sense of the word, philosophical. Whether it's the effect of Pourrat's own French Roman Catholic sensibility or of that same outlook among the folk from whom he collected these tales, the dominant tones of this collection are an engaging blend of the pious and the earthy; the worldly wise and the innocently sentimental. ``There was once a poor, poor family whose daily diet was the opposite of a dog's,'' begins one story.``Dogs eat their meat without bread, while these people ate their bread without meat. And I'll tell you, they didn't even get bread every day, either!''
Retelling in his own words the tales he collected from local storytellers, Pourrat transgressed the rules of modern scholarship. Yet, he was, in effect, emulating what tellers of folk tales always do. In a very important way, Pourrat's artistically embellished, gracefully retold tales may be truer to the spirit of folklore than the most painstakingly accurate scholarly transcription of a tale and its variant versions. (Pourrat did keep records of his original sources, but chose not to publish them. They remain in the Centre Henri Pourrat in the Biblioth`eque municipale and interuniversitaire de Clermont-Ferrand.)
As Royall Tyler notes in his introduction to this English translation, Pourrat's literary gifts - his colorful descriptions of characters, his elegant phrasing, his imaginative reworkings - help restore what too often is lost when a story passes from the oral to the written word: the sense of spontaneity and invention that the teller imparts with her or his vocal inflections, gestures, facial expressions, and ad libs to a responsive audience.
It is a great delight to be able to read these stories, not as scholars scanning texts for data, but as the ordinary audience of men, women, and children who listened in the fields or around the fireside must once have heard them.