Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Prince Charming's Mother Was a Real Ogre: Surprises from Charles Perrault, Father of the Fairy Tale

Charles Perrault is called "father of the fairy tale," because of the Mother Goose tales he published in the 1600s, a century before the more-famous Brothers Grimm. On January 12, 2016, Perrault was honored with not just one but three Google doodles in honor of what would have been his three hundred and eighty-eighth birthday. (Of course, since he died at the age of seventy-five, for three hundred and thirteen of those years, he has not been celebrating birthdays any more.)

In response to the Google doodles (which I show at the bottom of this post), many articles popped up about him all over the Internet.  In this post, I want to add a little bit more to the discussion, to go a little deeper into a few things. One thing that struck me personally about Perrault was his deep Catholic faith. He was so Catholic that he has an article to himself in the Catholic Encyclopedia! And another interesting thing is how much his stories are still with us, and how much they have been changed in the retellings since he first wrote them.

Perrault was a intellectual prodigy and very much involved with the court of King Louis XIV in France.  For one example, he was voted a member of Académie française. As an example of just one of his other many accomplishments, Perrault planned the Labyrinthe in Versailles, which featured thirty-nine fountains that depicted stories from Aesop's Fables. (King Louis XVI tore the Labyrinthe down during his own reign because of the prohibitive cost of maintaining it.)
One source said that Perrault decided during his retirement from the court at the age of fifty five to devote more time to his children and to his writing [1].   He tried to revive the genre of epic in his day by writing an epic about a saint, Saint Paulinus of Nola. St. Paulinus, as I found out researching this, was quite a remarkable saint, and he well deserved an epic. But Perrault's Saint-Paulin was not a success.

Perrault published Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec dez Moralites (Stories of Times Past with Moralities): Les Contes De Ma Mere Ioye (The Stories of My Mother Goose), under the name of his nineteen year old son in 1697. The book soon came to be referred to only by its subtitle. It went on to great success. There seems to have been a fad for telling fairy tales in salons, sort of like the current adult fad for coloring book pages.

After reading a couple of Perrault's stories, I see that they were a lot grittier than the versions we hear today. This made me recall that I learned while in graduate school that the folk tales from which fairy tales are sometimes derived were often bawdy like Chaucer's tales, not to mention bloody, dark, and violent. Even though Perrault's versions were more gritty than the versions we know now, they are less gritty than many folk tales that may have served as his sources.  He intended his stories for children, after all, as you can see by the frontspiece of his book.  And, he ended each of his stories with a rhymed moral.

Frontspiece of Contes De Ma Mere L'Oye

The moral at the end of his version of "Little Red Riding Hood", for example, made it obvious that a 'wolf' may be a man intent on preying on young girls who wander alone in woods, or even on the streets. 
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner," he wrote. "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!"
Perrault's version of "Sleeping Beauty" is titled "La Belle au bois dormant"  ("The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood").  Perrault's story has a second part that tells what happened after the prince and the princess married. Not exactly on the line of "They lived happily ever after." The mother in law turned out to be an ogre.  No, not metaphorically. A real ogre who craved human flesh and who began to cast her greedy eyes on her succulent young grandchildren and daughter-in-law.

Speaking of gritty, other folk versions of the tale had the prince impregnating a sleeping beauty while she was still asleep. Thank goodness, Perrault did not use that plot twist.

This is an excellent article from the The Telegraph about the permutations of Perrault's stories in more recent years.

The Google doodles. 
Le Maistre Chat, ou le Chat Botté (The Master Cat; or, Puss in Boots)
Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper)
La belle au bois dormant (The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood)
[1] En 1683, à l’âge de cinquante-cinq ans, il se retira des affaires dans sa maison du faubourg Saint-Jacques pour soigner l’éducation de ses enfants et aussi pour mieux s’adonner aux lettres que, depuis vingt ans, il avait à peu près délaissées. -- Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye avant Perrault by Charles Deulin. E. Dentu, 1879.

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