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.
In response to the Google doodles (which you can see the bottom of this post), many articles popped up about Perrault all over the Internet. In this post, I want to go a little deeper into a few things. One thing that struck me 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 an 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, as quite an elaborate and expensive method of educating the king’s young daughter. (If you have been to Versailles and wonder why you don’t recollect seeing the Labyrinthe, that’s because it is no longer there. King Louis XVI tore the Labyrinthe down during his own reign because of the prohibitive cost of maintaining it.)
Perrault fell out of of favor. 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 . He tried to revive the genre of epic in his day by writing an epic about a saint, Paulinus of Nola. Paulinus, as I found out researching this, was quite a remarkable saint, He was a Roman governor who renounced his wealth and position after converting to Christianity, and he was lauded by many of his contemporaries—including St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Martin, and St. Ambrose. But Perrault’s Saint-Paulin was not a success and was mocked by at least one of his contemporaries.
Perrault published Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des Moralites (Stories of Times Past with Moralities): Les Contes de ma mère Ioye (The Stories of My Mother Goose), under the name of his nineteen year old son in 1697. Various explanations exist about why he used his son’s name, but his actual reason is not known for sure. The contes went on to great success. There seems to have been a fad for telling fairy tales in salons and in the court, an affectation similar to the current adult fad for coloring pages from coloring books. Perrault’s book soon came to be referred to only by a modification of its subtitle: “Stories of Mother Goose.”
In reading a couple of Perrault’s stories, I saw that they were a lot grittier than the versions we hear today. This made me recall something I learned 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, bawdy, and grossly violent than many folk tales, which may or may not 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.
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 city 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).” Unlike the modern version, Perrault’s story has a second part that tells what happened after the prince and the princess married, and it’s not exactly on the line of “They lived happily ever after.” The mother in law turns out to be an ogre. No, not a metaphorical ogre, a real ogre who craves human flesh and who begins to cast her greedy eyes on her succulent young grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
Speaking of bawdy, other folk versions of the tale had the prince impregnating a sleeping beauty while she was still asleep and riding off again. In one version, when the babe was born, it woke the sleeping beauty by crawling up to her breast and sucking out a magic thorn that had put her to sleep in the first place.
This is an excellent article from the The Telegraph about how Perrault’s stories have been retold over the years since they were first published.
The Google Doodles
 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.