01/10/02
Charles Perrault
    by Rita Smith

Charles Perrault, born in Paris in 1628, had an active life. He first became a lawyer, but growing bored with that, he became chief clerk in one of the city offices and then Receiver-General of Taxes for the city of Paris. He wrote an article, which compared authors of antiquity unfavorably to modern writers, initiating a famous literary quarrel that lasted for years. He wrote poetry, including an adaptation of the sixth book of the Aeneid into comic verse. When the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres was founded to provide medals and commemorations of the king's glorious achievements, he was made secretary for life. He was elected to the French Academy in 1671, becoming its director in 1681.

With all this to his credit, Perrault could not have predicted that his reputation for future generations would rest almost entirely on a slender volume he published in 1697 with the unassuming title: Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals. Inside was another title: Tales of Mother Goose. This book contained eight simple stories: Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Puss-in-Boots, Diamonds and Toads, Rickey with the Tuft, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hop-o-my Thumb.

When Perrault began writing his stories in the 1690's, the fairy tale was already much in vogue, especially at the court of Louis XIV. It was a popular practice in court circles to spend a pleasant afternoon telling fairy tales. Perrault drew upon this oral tradition, utilizing the motifs, plot configurations, characters, and themes, to create his fairy tales, but making inspired changes and additions to the traditional versions. In "Cinderella," for instance, Perrault added the enchanted midnight curfew, the glass slipper, and the magical creation of the carriage, horses and footmen out of a pumpkin and various local rodents. The stories were innovative and compelling, filled with charm and wit; edifying, but with didacticism subtle enough not to discourage the reader.

In the past three hundred years, the stories have been through thousands of translations, adaptations, and inevitably, amusing corruptions. Because of their repeated telling and by virtue of the multiple layers of possible meaning and interpretation, they have become deeply embedded in the fabric of our culture. Variations of these eight stories continue to pour forth every year from presses around the world, offspring of that little masterpiece penned in 1697 whose success earned Perrault the honor of being called the Father of the modern fairy tale.

Sources:
Most of this material was gathered from the websites of the Biographical Resource Center and the Literature Resource Center, both part of the GaleGroup, available through subscription:
http://infotrac.galegroup.com/menu

Copyright 2002 by Rita Smith

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:21:31 EDT


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