Monsieur Perrault and his fairy tales

Charles Perrault

Charles Perrault

You seem to have enjoyed my Halloween Cinderella, which, added to my own inclination to do so, is reason enough to dedicate a series of posts to Perrault’s fairytales.

But first we should meet the author. Charles Perrault was born in Paris in 1628 into a family of wealthy bourgeois. As befitted his status, he received a careful education, on occasion running afoul of his school’s rules. There must have been a stong element of whimsy in him, for he wrote a burlesque version of Virgil’s most serious Eneid. He then went on to law school and became of member of the Bar, but discovered in short order that the practice of law was not to his liking.

As a well-connected young man, he had other options. He became a clerk in the Ministry of Finances, rose through the ranks and soon reported directly to Louis XIV’s most famous and influential minister, Colbert. He became Comptroller General of the Royal Buildings, a position of great importance, given the Sun King’s passion for architecture. The colonnade of the Louvre was build under his supervision.

He waited until middle age to marry, a much younger woman of course. But poor Madame Perrault died in childbirth after bearing him five children in six years, not an unusual occurrence at the time. Another misfortune followed a few years later: Colbert died, and Perrault, as his protégé, was dismissed from all of his public functions.

Perrault fairy tales

Perrault fairy tales

A widower and unemployed, Perrault returned to his first love, writing. Not that he has ever neglected literary endeavors during his years as what we would call an upper civil servant. He had been one of the most vocal proponents of “modern” literature versus the classics, and had played a major role in establishing the procedings of the French Academy.

Now he could dedicate his full time to writing. During the 1690s he published various literary versions of traditional folk tales. Perrault was not a mere scrivener. He chose between concurrent versions of the same stories, embellished, polished, removed what he did not like. Perrault’s fairytales are very much his own stories. They are terse, brisk, subtly ironic, unsentimental and beautifully written. If you read French, I recommend the original 1697 text, far superior to the better known “modernized” versions.

Finally, in 1697, he gathered this work into one volume, published, ostensibly by one of his young sons, as Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye, with the alternate title Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Tales of My Mother Goose, Stories or Tales of Times Past). The original tales were Sleeping Beauty, The Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, Puss-in-Boots, The Fairies, Cinderella, Riquet With the Tuft and Tom Thumb.

The falsely self-deprecating dedication to Elisabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans, Mademoiselle, Louis XIV’s niece, bears the hallmarks of Perrault’s wit:

On ne trouvera pas étrange qu’un enfant ait pris plaisir à composer les Contes de ce Recueil ; mais on s’étonnera qu’il ait eu la hardiesse de vous les presenter.

One shall not fin it odd that a child may have enjoyed composing the tales of this collection; but one shall marvel at his audacity in presenting them to you.

They were an instant success, with a second authorized edition the same year, and many pirated ones (yes, already…) And of course, foreign translations followed.

Perrault would die a few years later, after the turn of the century, in 1703. But as early as 1704, appeared the first French translation of Les contes des mille et une nuits (Tales of One Thousand and One Nights, better known in English as the Arabian Nights.) Ali Baba and Aladin never totally eclipsed the less exotic Cinderella and Donkeyskin, but the age of the Enlightenment was fascinated by faraway lands and people. In the eyes of many, Perrault’s down home tales lost some of their charm.

And then, in the mid 19th century, a new edition was published, with illustrations by Gustave Doré. Doré was an extraordinary engraver and he illustrated, among others, the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, the works of Rabelais and Byron. His reinterpretation of Perrault’s tales brought them back to life in the minds and hearts of readers young and old.

The pumpkin scene in my prior Cinderella post is by Doré. Note the play of the shadows in this dimly lit setting, the funny yet affectionate treatment of the fairy godmother, the bond between the two women. As in Perrault’s tale, the pumpkin has to be hollowed the hard way, painstakingly, by hand. The magic wand will come into play later, to turn it into a gilded carriage. What we have here are two women, one young, one older, both dressed as servants, in a typical country kitchen. Yet we feel we are in a fairytale.

The Doré edition immediately restored the tales to their former popularity, and countless other editions followed. Some of Perrault’s stories, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, were adapted by Disney, and the adaptations obscured the original works. All the more reason to rediscover those.

For the 1697 French edtion, see here, and for a (rather flat) English translation, here.

Finally, to conclude this post, and add to our growing Louis-Léopold Boilly series, a painting titled And then the ogre ate him.

Boilly And then the ogre ate him

Boilly And then the ogre ate him

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11 Comments to “Monsieur Perrault and his fairy tales”

  1. Penny says:

    I just finished reading Donkey-Skin. It reminded me more of Cinderella but I enjoyed it anyway. and there is all kinds of things to read into these tales. I wondered if her father was in love with her because of the dead mother and wanted to recreate what he had with her.
    I am so glad this page still exists despite your unfortunate experience with hackers. Will continue to read the tales.

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  5. I have a another take on this and I actually wished I had the time right now. I’ll go ahead and subscribe and when I have a chance I’ll leave my response. Lovely blog by the way. I’m trying to make one going but my programming friend is slacking off on me. Thanks again for your post!
    Your Friend – Katharyn Faville .

  6. Ellen Moody says:

    Dear Catherine and all,

    The actual tales are interesting – that is to study them against the versions of other storytellers. The work on Perrault is often done generally — as against say Italian folklore gathering or Grimm.

    But work on Madame d’Aulnoy’s Contes de Fees is rich. Her tales are reprinted, and easy to read. She was translated into English and it’s probable her work seeps into Austen’s and Genlis’s by way of memory and imitation. She has been studied as one of these later 17th century “precieuse” feminists, only (as I recall) little was known of her real life (hid it I suppose), and she really retells the tales (I’ve read two) to defend individual liberty. She probably loathed court life.

    There are books on her in English and French; not in Penny’s library probably (James Beeler in English). She was called “Clio”, muse of history (Scudery was Sappho, Dacier Terpsicore &c&c).

    There was once someone on WWTTA who really appeared to have read a lot of Madame d’Aulnoy and like her fairy stories very much. Nowadays we might liken it just a bit to Emma Donoghue’s rewritings :).


  7. as always, a fascinating and illuminating mini-lesson on somebody I’ve always wanted to know more about, but never got up the gumption to find out!

    looking forward to more!

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Penny! I am not sure I can answer your question because I, for one, am a book addict AND a computer addict. No other addictions, fortunately

  9. Penny Klein says:

    Thank You for another enlightening post. I wish I could afford to buy another book, but alas late Nov and this week were big book buying binges and now I have a long wait before I can get another book. The local library never seems to have any ECW type books, only best sellers such as the type books that sell well so that it will bring in the readers but lately with all the computers, it is more the Internet and less for books. So that leads to the question, have read anything about what the trends are in Europe or your home–Paris in books vs the computer?

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Indeed, Arnie, you are right, la Grande Mademoiselle had died, and Mademoiselle d’Orleans in 1697 would have been Elisabeth-Charlotte, later Duchesse de Lorraine, and paternal grandmother of Marie-Antoinette. I amended the post accordingly. Is there a shadow dedication here? Really I can’t tell. Perrault would have been familiar with the Court because of his former functions, but it would have been unpolitic to dedicate a work to someone who had felt the effects of the Sun King’s ire. But then the dedication to a young princess like Elisabeth-Charlotte, without any influence of her own, and who would soon be married away, was not very politic either. What did Perrault mean by it?

    And yes, I was reminded of the dedication of Emma to the Prince of Wales!

  11. Catherine,

    I’ve been interested in Perrault for several months, because of the importance of his tales in the flow of literary history, and agree with you that his dedication has exactly that false self-deprecation that we have also seen from, among other great ironists dedicating works to royalty, Jane Austen and Voltaire.

    I think you may be incorrect, however, in stating that find it very curious that he dedicates his tales to “la grande Mademoiselle”, Louis XIV’s first cousin who was about Perrault’s age and who died an old woman in 1693. According to Wikipedia, the dedicatee was Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans, the niece of Louis XIV, who was 19 in 1697, (the same age as Perrault’s son who you correctly point out was the pseudo-author of the tales), and became the ancestor (per Wikipedia) of, among others, Marie Antoinette and various Hapsburgs. Before her marriage, she was known as “Mademoiselle”, and perhaps that is where the confusion arose?

    Or did Perrault have some sort of ongoing friendship with “La Grande Mademoiselle”, that made you think she was the “shadow” dedicatee?

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