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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