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Charles Perrault, the father of modern fairy tale

Updated on November 19, 2014
Charles Perrault - portrait
Charles Perrault - portrait

Charles Perrault: his biography and his fairy tales

We know him as the man who wrote some of the most popular fairy tales of all times. He actually didn't wrote them from scratch but based on the old fables and stories based on folk motifs.

He gave red color to the cap of Little Red Riding Hood, he set a spindle to Sleeping Beauty and he put glass slippers on feet of Cinderella, although all these characters were invented before his time.

But who cares? Charles Perrault was the man who wrote fairy tales in new, more orderly and modern style and gave them moral values. Most of this values we still expect in fairy tales, although some of them came from very different places and times as we live now.

In some way we can say Perrault is a father of the written fairy tale.

(Image credit: Wikipedia.org, PD licence)

Illustration by Harry Clarke, PD licence
Illustration by Harry Clarke, PD licence

Charles Perrault's Biography

Charles Perrault was born 12 January 1628 in Paris, France as a sevenths child in a middle class family. We can say he was born with silver spoon in your mouth because his father was a successful lawyer and member of Parliament.

Family Perrault was affluent but they were not nobility, so certain positions were still out of reach for them. Charles' father Pierre believed single most important key to success in society was education and he paid for it to all of his five sons (view on education for girls was pretty different in 17 century of course). Pierre have spent many evenings checking the acquired knowledge of his sons and demanding to summarize it in Latin.

Charles followed the steps of his father and started study the law (just like brothers Grimm will do almost two centuries later). Although he remembers this drills with sympathy in his autobiography he dropped from school at 15 years of age because he thought teachers were unfair to him. So he prepared for exams mostly by himself. He passed them and had served as a lawyer for three years before he became a secretary to his brother Pierre who bought himself a position of tax collector in Paris.

This move opened many exciting opportunities to young Charles Perrault.

Louvre - picture of section built under Perrault's guidance
Louvre - picture of section built under Perrault's guidance | Source

Perrault, Charles

Poet and government officer

Job at his brother was easy and Charles had plenty of time enjoying in astonishing library and he also used it to coin romantic verses.

He showed his work to a family friend and already established poet Philippe Quinault who used them to court a lady telling her he wrote the poems by himself.

When Charles found out Quinault presented Perraults poems as his own, he was angry of course, but not for long, because Quinault admited he did that because of the lady.

Perrault's sophistication was even more evident when he supervised construction of Pierre's house. When finance minister Jean Baptiste Colbert saw the result, appointed him as a secretary. From this position he got access to many business ventures, including designing a new section in Louvre, the king's palace.

Charles proved again blood is thicker than water and helped his brother Claude to get the job despite the fact his main competitor was famous Italian designer Lorenzo Bernini and Claude Perrault was physician by first profession!

Charles Perrault stayed in privileged government services for next twenty years...

(in photo: East wing of Louvre designed by Claude Perrault)

Labyrinth in Versailles

Scene from The Fox and the Crane
Scene from The Fox and the Crane | Source

One of typical projects of Louis XIV was labyrinth in the garden of his most famous palace Versailles. Andre Le Notre was an architect but Perrault was the one who suggested to plan it as a tribute to Aesop's Fables and a didactic toy to king's oldest son.

In 1668 Jean de La Fontaine published his own fables based on Aesop's and dedicated them to then six year old heir to the throne. This probably gave an idea to Perrault and the labyrinth was indeed designed with 39 scenes from Aesop's fables, each with at least one fountain and water representing words coming out of the characters' mouths.

They built it for five years and labyrinth survived one full century before being replaced with much cheaper arboretum by Louis XVI. Charles Perrault wrote a guide through the labyrinth too.

He did great things for kids before he had his own and way before he wrote his first fairy tale

Did you know Tuileries Garden, king's garden near Louvre, was opened to the public on request of Charles Perrault In 1667?

He justified his claim with words: 'King's garden is made so spacious that all their (talking about king demanded use of plural) children can walk in'.

Apparently only people who were not welcome in Tuileries were beggars, soldiers and servants.

Tuileries Garden in 17 century - Paris city plans (source: Wikipedia.org)

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Black and white drawing of the garden (bottom of the picture) and Louvre (center of the picture)Colored drawing of Tuileries Garden and LouvreColored drawing of Paris, part with Louvre and Tuileries Garden
Black and white drawing of the garden (bottom of the picture) and Louvre (center of the picture)
Black and white drawing of the garden (bottom of the picture) and Louvre (center of the picture)
Colored drawing of Tuileries Garden and Louvre
Colored drawing of Tuileries Garden and Louvre
Colored drawing of Paris, part with Louvre and Tuileries Garden
Colored drawing of Paris, part with Louvre and Tuileries Garden
Photo of French Academy
Photo of French Academy

The French Academy

As we can read in Perrault's autobiography one day mister Colbert asked him about the news from Academy and was surprised when he found out he is not a member of 'The Immortals'. Colbert told him he should apply when the next place is vacant and Perrault did that.

There can be only 40 members in French Academy at once and place for new member in most cases become available only when one of the 40 members, called Immortals - die. Well, in history were some other reasons to make a place vacant, including theft and collaboration with the enemy, but for our story is most important Charles Perrault was elected and later apparently even invented some kind of balloting machine for electing new members.

This position was another important step in his career and although we will never know for sure, it was probably more earned through his powerful connections in state administration than his quality of writings. Many famous authors never became members and this includes: Balzac, Descartes, Flaubert, Moliere, Proust, Sartre and Zola. They didn't achieve this kind of immortality for different reasons but they have something in common.

None of them had so powerful protector as Charles Perrault.

Perrault's private life

When he was already 44 years old, Charles Perrault married Marie Guichon, who was only 19 years old.

She died only six years later after birth of their fourth child. When he was forced to retire from government services, Perrault decided to devote his time to education of his daughter and three sons.

This is portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert - He was for many years the second most powerful man in France, right after the king Louis XIV

Jean Baptist Colbert
Jean Baptist Colbert

He was the most important person in Charles Perrault's career.

Colbert wasn't very happy when Charles Perrault married 25 years younger woman. This was a start of cooling off in their relationships.

How Perrault have fallen out of favor

Charles' brother was tax collector and Colbert was finance minister. Conflict of interests was to expect and Charles lost a lot of Colbert's sympathies too.

In 1682 Colbert gave some Perrault's positions to his own son marquis d'Ormoy and Perrault was forced into retirement. After Colbert death one year later Charles Perrault lost other prestigious and well payed positions. He finally used some time for his writings.

This includes the famous quarrel between ancients and moderns.

Nicolas Boileau, leader of Ancients
Nicolas Boileau, leader of Ancients

Ancients against Moderns

Literary debate or quarrel?

In 1674 Philippe Quinault (we have already mentioned how he was 'stealing' Perrault verses to charm a lady) wrote Alcest, libretto for tragic opera. Alcest was attacked from traditionalists and Perrault wrote a text in defense of his longtime friend's work. It was one of first clashes of views between artists who praised ancient masters from old Greece and Rome and more open liberal authors who claimed work of modern authors can be at least equal if not better.

The group including Jean de La Fontaine Jean Racine and lead by Nicolas Boileau argued the modern authors can only try to repeat what great masters from antiquity already achieved. They were called Ancients.

The group around Perrault was called Moderns and Perrault himself wrote homer would be much better poet if he was so lucky to be born under the regime of Louis XIV. The most famous text on this subject is his essay titled The Century of Louis the Great in 1687. Perrault wrote it in praise of glory of the king who was recovering after dangerous operation.

Well, the debate shook the Academy but nothing critical happened. Both sides made peace after decades of disagreement, sometimes also called The Battle of the Books.

Probably most important is this ironic fact: most famous work of Perrault is a collection of fairy tales, largely based of traditional folk stories and famous fables.

Charles Perrault: Fairy Tales - Tales of Mother Goose

Tales of Mother Goose
Tales of Mother Goose

The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World's Classics Hardcovers)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World's Classics Hardcovers)

Here they are, your old friends with sometimes surprising revelations, if you know only the sanitized versions ... There is only one book of fairy tales more important than this (by brothers Grimm), but in this one you'll find the essence of the genre - with impressive illustrations by the most important illustrator of all times- Gustave Dore.

It is the complete opus of fairy tales written by Perrault, including three tales in verse only. One of the best possible gifts for every fairy tale lover.

 

In 1691 Perrault published first of his three fairy tales in verse. They all were negatively criticized.

Today most known of all today is Donkeyskin, which is really well known only to true enthusiasts. Real success came with the book titled Tales of Stories of the past (Histoires ou Contes du Temps passe) with eight fairy tales in prose. It was published in 1697, when Perrault was already 69 years old!

He published it under the name of his youngest son Pierre. The reason for this was probably fear of more negative reactions from the Ancients.

This book of fairy tales was first official cultivation of rough and superstitious stories, some known from folk tradition and some borrowed from authors from previous centuries (namely: Bocaccio, Basile and Straparola). Charles Perrault wrote them for extremely demanding audience (king's court), spoiled from decades of superior achievements in literature, music and other areas of art.

Plots of all stories were known before Perrault was even born, but he was the one who have written in modern literary form, added poetic descriptions and transformed them to present certain morals.

The book later became known under its subtitle Tales of Mother Goose and gave Perrault's the right to be called: father of the fairy tale.

Tales of Mother Goose - illustrated by Antoinette Lix

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The cover of Tales of Mother Goose (Contes de Perrault) by Antoinette LixLittle Red Riding Hood meets wolf - beware: there is no hunter in this versionBluebeard prepared to kill his next wife - her brothers will kill him insteadSleeping Beauty in the Woods - later we'll found out prince's mother is a cannibalThe Master Cat (Puss in Boots) - preparing terrain for his masterCinderella (The Little Glass Slipper) - her step sisters will be happily married in the end tooLittle Thumb - this is older version of Hansel and Gretel, with seven boys and no girls
The cover of Tales of Mother Goose (Contes de Perrault) by Antoinette Lix
The cover of Tales of Mother Goose (Contes de Perrault) by Antoinette Lix
Little Red Riding Hood meets wolf - beware: there is no hunter in this version
Little Red Riding Hood meets wolf - beware: there is no hunter in this version
Bluebeard prepared to kill his next wife - her brothers will kill him instead
Bluebeard prepared to kill his next wife - her brothers will kill him instead
Sleeping Beauty in the Woods - later we'll found out prince's mother is a cannibal
Sleeping Beauty in the Woods - later we'll found out prince's mother is a cannibal
The Master Cat (Puss in Boots) - preparing terrain for his master
The Master Cat (Puss in Boots) - preparing terrain for his master
Cinderella (The Little Glass Slipper) - her step sisters will be happily married in the end too
Cinderella (The Little Glass Slipper) - her step sisters will be happily married in the end too
Little Thumb - this is older version of Hansel and Gretel, with seven boys and no girls
Little Thumb - this is older version of Hansel and Gretel, with seven boys and no girls

Charles Perrault didn't write for children!

We should know all his writings, including fairy tales was intended for intellectuals and nobility.

Although his views could be considered as reactionary, they were very liberal for 17 century!

Evidence: Red Riding Hood by Perrault

Little Thumb by Harry Clarke
Little Thumb by Harry Clarke

Most popular Perrault's fairy tales

Here is a list:

Puss in Boots: This is one of Perrault's 'signature' fairy tales. Puss in Boots is a story about a cat, who helps his owner, poor miller's son, to not only gain wealth, but also social status coming through the marriage with a real princess. They both need only a pair of boots and a lot of trickery!

Cinderella: Perrault gave her famous glass slippers, coach made of pumpkin and virtue of forgiving. In his version her step sisters get married in the end together with Cinderella. And they were all beauties... If this differs from your recollection of the story, you should probably thank to Disney.

Bluebeard (sometimes Blue Beard): This is a story about mass murderer. Today it is not considered as appropriate for kids, but few centuries ago Bluebeard (illlustrated of course) was published in lullaby collections. Times changed, I guess.

Little Red Riding Hood: There is no hunter in Perrault's version. When wolf eats the girl, story ends. This supposed to have educational value and it probably does. Consolation effect was out of the question. Red Riding Hood with a hunter was already known before, but she wasn't wearing red hood.

Sleeping Beauty in the Woods: This is well known story of Sleeping Beauty. It doesn't have folk roots, although there are some myths which can be related to this story. Perrault probably took Basile's Sun, Moon and Talia and added fantastic elements from older versions. Prince, who 'rescues' (in fact he took advantage of her deep sleep) the princess has ogress for mother and she coins a plan to eat her daughter in-law with both grandchildren.

Little Thumb: We know this fairy tale mostly from fairy tales of brothers Grimm. It is titled Hansel and Gretel there. The main differences:in Little Thumb woodcutter have seven kids (born only three years apart!), all boys, their enemy is an ogre, not a witch, and they were abandoned by their parents not by a stepmother and a father.

Yes, a lot of material for further studies...

Glass Slippers

There is still a debate about glass slippers in Perrault's Cinderella. Some people believe they became glass by wrong translation. In some older versions they were made of fur.

But experts now agree on this one. Glass slippers are made of glass on purpose.

Do you prefer Grimm's or Perrault's Cinderella? - Punishment or forgiveness of her sisters?

Cinderella by Charles Robinson, PD licence
Cinderella by Charles Robinson, PD licence

Wishing tree or fairy godmother?

Golden slipper or glass slipper?

See results

Have you learnt something new about Charles Perrault and his FairyTales?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Richard1988: His biography is very educative. It tells us a lot about a life of an artist today as well. (At least about one of options almost every artist has.)

    • Richard1988 profile image

      Richard 3 years ago from Hampshire - England

      I can see why you chosebto do a lens on the life and work of this man. Very interesting!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @aesta1: Thanks for your visit!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Yes, I enjoyed reading about his life.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: :)

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      I can never get enough of your work!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Not exactly. Perrault wrote them based on oral tradition and Grimms wrote them based oral tradition. But Perrault made his stories purely as entertainment and proof of his writing skills, so there was initially more of 'author approach' from the very beginning. Grimms on the other side started as scientists, preserving cultural heritage and only later started rewriting tales to more fit their systems of values and the education goals they believe they carry.

      One more important thing. Grimms would never admit they took anything from Perrault because he was French and they were writing German cultural heritage down although their most important source was of French origin...

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      if Perrault wrote them, did the Grimm Brothers just rewrite them?

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @KamalaEmbroidery: My pleasure:)

    • KamalaEmbroidery profile image

      KamalaEmbroidery 4 years ago

      I didn't know any of this. Thanks.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: I appreciate it!

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      DebMartin 4 years ago

      Who knew! So much to learn in this world, even about Fairy Tales. Thanks. d

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      Returning to pin this.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @DebMartin: :)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @tonybonura: I hope I helped a bit:)

    • tonybonura profile image

      Tony Bonura 4 years ago from Tickfaw, Louisiana

      I did not know about Perrault until I started reading your lenses. Thank you for informing me. Blessed by TonyB

      TonyB

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Hope so:)

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Returning to love this again...you sure got me thinking here!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: :)

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      This is all very educational for me. Never thought that much went into Fairy Tales. Obviously, I was wrong.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Yep, hours of research and hours of writing. I hope it will help somebody... Thanks for your kind words.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Its funny that we always think now of fairy tales being for children when they weren't written for them, I guess Charles Perrault saw it as his mission to make some changes along the way to familiar tales, I've wondered how that happened, how interesting and well done...you must spend hours and hours doing your research!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Frednun1965: Thanks for your visit.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Lovely introduction to my namesake storyteller! :)

    • Frednun1965 profile image

      Fred Alb 5 years ago from Uruguay

      Interesting information, very enjoyable.

      Thank you very much for compatirla.

      Continuing well!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: And there are even more storytellers with this name!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Thank you!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      very interesting information. Thanks!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @sukkran trichy: My pleasure.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      thanks for introducing this great writer. very interesting information

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Melissa Miotke: Yes, Cinderella is pretty popular... Thanks for your support!

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      Melissa Miotke 5 years ago from Arizona

      Cinderall is my daughters favorite! Blessed

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Thank you very much!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      I sure did. I'm getting so hooked on your lenses. I love the history involved.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Deadicated LM: That was my intention:)

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 5 years ago

      Very interesting Lens, you taught me about someone new today.