Smack-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men: Political Fairy Tales of Édouard Laboulaye.

Smack-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men: Political Fairy Tales of
Édouard Laboulaye. By Édouard Laboulaye. Translated by Jack Zipes.
Edited by Jack Zipes. 2018. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
288 pages. ISBN: 9780691181868 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Sarah N. Lawson, Indiana University

[Word count: 783 words]

Jack Zipes’s newest addition to his abundant collection of translated
fairy tale anthologies is a book of tales written by famed French
politician Édouard Laboulaye, best known in the United States for
his contributions to the Statue of Liberty. His literary work is far
less famous than his political work, but Zipes set out to translate a
number of his tales into English to demonstrate how he used his fairy
tales and other fiction as another vehicle for his political and
philosophical thinking. The tales are delightful, and they offer a
look at a little-known aspect of fairy tale history contemporary with
the tale collectors and writers from the nineteenth century.

Zipes offers a thorough introduction to the collection, providing a
short biography and career history of Laboulaye — needed, as his
fiction writing is overshadowed by the rest of his career. The
introduction helpfully situates Laboulaye’s tales into the overall
history of tale writing in Europe. He notes that although they appear
to be written for children, they are “actually too sophisticated” (3)
to qualify as children’s literature, a category steadily developing
in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In fact, several of the
tales were published in the Journal des débats, a publication for
highly educated readers. Thus, as Zipes puts it, “Laboulaye used his
fiction to reinforce his political convictions and to avoid
censorship” (8). This, along with other aspects of Zipes’s portrait
of Laboulaye, resembles the introduction to Zipes’s previous work on
the French tale writers of the late seventeenth century, Beauties,
Beasts, and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales (1989). His
useful claim that fairy tales are “part of the civilizing process” is
a term that appears repeatedly in his other work, indicating why
Laboulaye’s tales may have been of particular interest to Zipes.

The introduction offers summaries of Laboulaye’s longer works, such
as The Poodle Prince, Paris in America, and Abdallah, or the
Four-Leaf Clover, providing the reader with a better understanding of
Laboulaye’s interests and aims as a writer of fiction. These stories,
along with the tales provided in the collection, all show a kind of
moral reformation of the aristocracy, or a punishment for lack of
reformation. Their lessons are learned through magic or the actions
of lower-class characters, and not all of the stories have
happily-ever-afters. Zipes prefaces the collection by noting that he
has selected “sixteen unusually just and political tales” (20). He
presents them in chronological order from the period between 1858 and
1863 during which Laboulaye wrote fairy tales. The tales appear to be
inspired by similar narratives across Europe, including Italy and
Iceland, and adapted by Laboulaye for his own political and creative
aims.

The collection begins with the titular tale, “Smack-Bam, or the Art
of Governing Men.” It is the lengthiest of the tales, featuring a
snobbish prince who is so incensed when a girl hits him that he vows
revenge by locking her up after marrying her. The clever girl wins
out, but not before teaching the prince to be a more responsible and
humbler ruler. Indeed, humility is a prominent theme in the
collection, as both “Zerbino the Bumpkin” and “Briam the Fool”
feature protagonists with no cleverness at all who nonetheless
conquer tyrannical and greedy kings and ministers. These tales
resemble “Jack tales” in which simpletons win great wealth due to
great luck or the self-destruction of their opponents. Clever women
abound in the tales, often securing victory or safety for their male
relatives. However, Laboulaye’s criticism of the aristocracy is not
bound by gender, and vain queens and over-ambitious wives also
appear.

The latter half of the book features tales which are shorter and are
more clearly drawn from familiar tale types. “The Lazy Spinner” is
almost identical to the Grimms’ “The Three Spinners,” and
“Fragolette” is identified by Heidi Anne Heiner as a variant of
“Rapunzel” (ATU 310A) in her book Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the
Tower Tales From Around the World (2010). Similarly, “The Fairy
Crawfish” is a variant of “The Fisherman and His Wife” from the
Grimms’ collection. These examples, rather than weakening the
anthology, in fact enhance it and draw attention to the tales as part
of a thriving tale-collecting and tale-writing culture in the
nineteenth century. Further, Laboulaye’s political ideology, as
outlined by Zipes, is recognizable and holds true throughout the
collection.

The reader would benefit from referring to the introduction after
reading each tale, as Zipes provides short commentary on its
orientation within Laboulaye’s creative and political landscape.
However, the tales are entertaining reads on their own, and this
collection is a strong contribution drawing attention to a
little-recognized writer of fairy tales during this abundant period
of nineteenth-century Europe.

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