Charles Perrault (1628-1703)
It is odd that Charles Perrault should be remembered for dispraising ancient authors as well as for his collection of fairy tales, whose authors are, ultimately, among the most ancient. Perrault was born in Paris. His father was a lawyer, and he became one, too, before taking the position of Controller of Royal Buildings. Later he became a member of the French Academy. In 1687 he published a long poem attacking classical writers in comparison to moderns. This piece angered several of Perrault’s contemporaries, who engaged him in a furious and extended literary debate. In the year that this debate ended, 1694, Perrault published three verse tales, which were well received. In 1696 Perrault published eight more tales, this time in prose, in a French periodical and again in a separate volume entitled Stories from Times Past, with Morals—Tales of My Mother Goose. They were first translated into English about thirty years later and grew steadily in popularity. Perrault appended rhymed “morals,” which have been customarily omitted in later editions.
Tradition has it that Perrault intended to write the tales in verse (in the fashion of La Fontaine) but that, having told the stories to his son, who wrote them down, he became entranced with the innocent, bluff, hearty style of his son’s prose renditions and decided to use his son’s versions. It seems more probable, though, that Perrault himself wrote the tales.
It is often said that the Perrault versions of these tales have become the standard versions in the mind of the general populace, but many Anglo-American readers may be surprised at the “continuation” of “Sleeping Beauty” and the unsoftened ending to “Little Red Riding-hood.” To compare Perrault’s versions of the tales, furthermore, to the versions of the Grimms, Joseph Jacobs, or other writers helps to identify the distinctive traits of Perrault’s view. Certainly the world of the Perrault tales appears a trifle elevated or urbanized beyond the peasant folk milieu found in the tales of the Brothers Grimm or of Jacobs. In Perrault we find considerable attention paid to furnishings and fabrics, rooms with inlaid floors, full-length looking-glasses, ruffles and red velvet, gold cases for table settings, and mirrored halls, as if we were to look at the tales from a securely middle-class perspective. But the solidity of settings only makes more eerie the paradoxical world in which fairy godmothers appear like wishes, a “good old woman” lives in a castle fifteen years without human contact, a queen betrays cannibal longings, animals talk and mingle with humans, and a key takes on a mysterious stain. It is as if the bright and comfortable space of our ordinary domestic existence opens out toward a darker, ghostly penumbra. In the same vein, Perrault gives us, on the one hand, repetitions of the rags-to-riches formula in “Cinderella” and “Puss in Boots,” but, on the other hand, he casually destroys our anticipation of success in “Red Riding-hood.” And even when some stories nominally end well, we remember best the moments of horror, as when the cannibal night-prowling Queen would eat Dawn and Day, or when Blue Beard’s wife, facing instant death, hears not of rescue but only of nature’s disinterested cycles of decay and growth: “the sun, which makes a dust, and the grass, which looks green.”
If it be asked what the tales mean, beyond their indisputable value as sheer entertainment, the answers are as varied as the many approaches to literature. Obviously the tales can be interpreted as addressing a huge number of moral, social, and psychological issues; and books, both helpful and muddled, are still pouring from the presses purporting to tell “the meaning and importance” of the fairy stories. This is not the place to assess the relative merits of interpretive theories; suffice it to say that children of all ages have found the tales fascinating, not only because they have artistic merit but also because they make vivid our crises of existence—the regulation of appetite, our relations to animals and the rest of nature, the dangers of curiosity, the imminence of death, our drive for affection and acceptance, our responses to injustice, generational conflicts, the loss of innocence, the saving powers of hope and humor—all the concerns that beckon maturing beings deeper into life. Perrault’s avoidance of condescension and his variegated tones of Gallic delight in the tales ensure that they will be read and listened to happily ever after.
Source: Griffith, John W. and Frey, Charles H. Classics of Children’s Literature, Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson 2005