Elected to the French Academy in 1896 and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921, Anatole France (1844-1924) was one of the most prominent writers and critics of France's Third Republic. He was appreciated by Marcel Proust, and along with Emile Zola and Leon Blum, he proved to be a fervent Dreyfusard. However, his stories and novels steer away from the scientific realism of Zola and often draw from the fairy, all the while containing ironic and skeptical elements. For instance, in his version of Bluebeard, published in his collection of tales Les sept femmes de la Barbe-Bleue et autres contes merveilleux (The Seven Wives of Bluebeard and Other Marvelous Tales, 1909), France pokes fun at the new scientific approaches to the analysis of the fairy tale and comically establishes Bluebeard's innocence.
In 1885 France published Le livre de mon ami (My Friend's Book), which includes his "Dialogue sur les contes de fees" ("Dialogue on Fairy Tales"). Through the "Dialogue" France celebrates the imagination and the tradition of tale-telling, at the same time that he criticizes certain scholarly approaches to the study of fairy tales. Immediately preceding the "Dialogue," France includes a letter to "Madame D***" in which he deplores the new emphasis on science in the education of children. He laments the fact that for the past twenty years, in France and elsewhere, people have the idea that "one must only give children scientific books, for fear that poetry will spoil their spirit" (262). (1) He applauds the creativity of storytellers, which is passed on to their listeners: "Storytellers remake the world in their own way and they give the weak, the simple, and the young the opportunity to remake it in their own way ... They help people imagine, feel, and love" (265). His distrust of science extends itself to early science fiction, which deceives children into believing, "on the reputation of M. Verne, that one goes to the moon in a shell and that an organism can defy the laws of gravity without harm" (265). Ironic words, indeed, given the scientific progress of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, France's message is clear and resonates still today: "Alas! our society is full of pharmacists who fear the imagination ... Oh mothers! don't be afraid that it will be your children's downfall: imagination, on the contrary, will prevent them from making vulgar mistakes and facile errors" (266).
The dialogue itself is constructed as a conversation between Laure, her cousin Raymond, and Laure's husband, Octave. Laure initiates the discussion by asking Raymond to speak about fairy tales. Raymond clearly is a learned man, which explains why Laure fears he will ruin fairy tales for her. Laure appears to be Raymond's country cousin, as her husband is a farmer of some sort (he knows about planting cabbage). Raymond's discourse constantly moves between positing theories of the origins of myths and fairy tales and criticizing other all-encompassing theories, often in somewhat arbitrary ways, as Octave points out. Nineteenth-century theorists...