He was called the “French father of fairy tales”, a politician turned story-teller who is largely responsible for the popularity of fantasies such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Over one hundred years before the Brothers Grimm cemented German culture and language in their chilling and horrific retellings, Charles Perrault introduced what came to be known in 17th century book circles as “a new literary genre” — the Fairy Tale.
Primed For Politics
Charles Perrault was born on this day, January 12, 1628. Ironically, he was the seventh child (sometimes considered to be clairvoyants) born into a wealthy Parisian family. His father and brothers before him had been government employees, and young Charles was groomed from birth to follow in their footsteps.
He studied Law at prestigious universities and had a reputation for his quick mind and wit. He served in the court of King Louis XIV and in 1663 he was appointed as a secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to Humanities. He was later appointed to the Académie Française, a council which oversaw all matters regarding French language and literature. He persuaded the King to bring his brother Claude into court, where Claude famously became a designer for the Louvre.
Perrault was well aware of how to use clout and wield influence. His connections to people in high places helped cement his family’s place in elite society. Interestingly, years later, Perrault would write Puss in Boots — a tale of a determined cat who uses wit and charm to elevate his lowly owner to a high position.
Perrault’s writing talents were obvious. In 1668, he wrote La Peinture (Painting) to honor the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun. In 1670 he wrote Courses de tetes et de bague (Head and Ring Races), to commemorate celebrations staged by King Louis in honor of his mistress, Louise Francoise, Duchess de La Valliere.
Perrault also had a hand in designing the layout of the gardens of Versailles. In 1669 he advised King Louis to include thirty-nine fountains. Each fountain represented one of Aesop’s Fables. Water jets spouted from the animals’ mouths, intended to give the impression the creatures were talking to one another.
Years later, Perrault would write of more talking animals — seductive wolves, slick cats, birds and rabbits who could be commanded to do a human’s will.
In the 1670’s an intellectual dispute began in the Académie Française between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. This was known, quite famously, as Le Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. It caused sharp divisions and much debate, not to mention bruised egos and political manipulation. The central argument was over which was to be valued more — “modern” art, created by contemporaries, or the “ancient” tried and true classics.
Perrault sided with the Moderns, taking the position that civilization, literature, art and culture must evolve together. He wrote a poem, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (“The Age of Louis the Great”) which honored modern writers such as Moliere and Francois de Malherbe. Perrault saw these writers as greater than those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perrault’s stand was a landmark in the eventually successful revolt against the confines and restrictions of traditions. Interestingly, the French Revolution, overthrowing the “old monarchy” in favor of the “new rule” of liberty, would also take place in Perrault’s lifetime.
Father of Fairy Tales
Tensions at court between Perrault and his boss, the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, eventually drove Perrault from court. He retired early, in 1682 at age fifty-six. It was then that he began to devote more time to his children. (Perrault had married late in life, at age forty-four. His bride, just nineteen years old, sadly died a few years later, leaving him with three young children.).
Perrault enjoyed telling the children folk tales which had been passed on by oral tradition. These stories were told in salons and had become very popular in France. Although Perrault is credited for introducing the “fairy tale” as a new literary genre, the term was actually coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel, Baroness d’Aulnov, who was writing stories of this nature as early as 1690.
Eventually, Perrault published his own versions of the oral traditions in his collection Tales of Mother Goose.
Interestingly, Mother Goose has never been identified as a real person, but several goddesses have been associated with her. The Alpine goddess Berchta, who is said to have one goose foot, is often thought to personify her.
Perrault’s stories, particularly his versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard, emphasize the dark side of human nature. They offer the lesson that success can be achieved if one can maintain virtue — even though the world is full of cruelty, trickery, chicanery and decrepit morals. Some scholars have suggested that Perrault used his fairy tale “spin” to reflect the evil nature of human beings, as he had experienced in his long career in politics.
Wolves, Beauties, Castles and Cats
One of Perrault’s most beloved tales is Little Red Riding Hood. It was written as a warning to readers about men preying on young girls walking through the forest. For anyone who has forgotten — Little Red goes out into the dangerous woods to deliver some goodies to her sick Grandma. She gets sidetracked by a conniving wolf. The wolf sneaks away and arrives at Granny’s house before Red, then actually poses as Granny, luring Red into more trouble. (It doesn’t end well.)
Perrault ends his tale with a moral, cautioning women and young girls about the dangers of trusting men. He states, “Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves/ Are the most dangerous of all… I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are, of all such creatures, the most dangerous!”
In Perrault’s version, Little Red even goes so far as to get in bed with the Bad Wolf. This results in her being eaten alive. (Disney it is NOT!)
Perrault remained true to his principles of favoring the “modern” over the “ancient.” He updated the ancient folk tales to fit his current audience (albeit the 17th century.) He used images and characters taken from everyday life. For example, his palace for Sleeping Beauty was modeled after the Chateau Usse, a French castle that would have been recognizable to his readers.
In Puss in Boots, the Marquis de Carabas was modeled after Claude Gouffier, the real-life Marquis of Caravaz. Perrault’s stories are full of quips, details, asides, and subtexts. Many of these are drawn from the contemporary world of fashion. (Very important to 17th c French Society,)
Happily Ever After
Charles Perrault died in 1703 at age seventy-five. This was just eight years after his first fairy tales were published. His works continue to be popular to this day, best known for their easy-to read style, creativity and deep cutting moral lessons. The Mother Goose collection was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729.
Happy Birthday Charles! Thanks for the forbidden forests, spectacular spells and magnificent magic!