Charles Perrault was born in 1628, in an upper-class bourgeois family. After completing his education he started to serve in the government of Louis XIV (un fonctionnaire). In spite of his multi-faceted career, he is remembered by most as the author of our beloved Tales of Mother Goose.
In 1696, at 67, Perrault received permission to publish his “Histoires et contes du temps passé, avec des moralités. Contes de ma mère l’Oye” (“Stories and Tales from Times Past; or, Tales of Mother Goose”).
By the way, note how the word “fairy” does not appear in Perrault’s title. The expression was coined by one of his contemporaries, Madame D’Aulnoy, another author of tales.
As to the stories themselves, Charles Perrault did not invent them. The tales come from the popular oral tradition passed down from generation to generation, since the Middle Ages, when country people used to tell stories, by the fireside, in their vernacular. The word “mère” (ma mère l’Oye) refers to countrywomen, in that vernacular.
In the original folk tales (i.e. not the Disney versions that we are more familiar with) one finds numerous references to Italian Renaissance and chivalric ideals mixed in sometimes-gruesome medieval imagery. As our narrators explain in the Prologue Perrault gave those tales literary legitimacy by making them a proper, urban, and certainly fashionable literary genre.
Don’t miss the “morale” of the tale as told by Perrault on stage, in English during the Prologue and later in French:
“Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. “
On voit ici que de jeunes enfants,
Surtout de jeunes filles,
Belles, bien faites et gentilles
Font très mal d’écouter toutes sortes de gens,
Et que ce n’est pas chose étrange,
S’il en est tant que le loup mange.
Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) is a cautionary tale. It was written as a warning to the young ladies living at the court of Louis XIV against wolves often hide under the guise of smooth and friendly strangers. Bluntly put, rape was common at the court in the dark and endless corridors of the palaces of the king; and a young girl alone was no match for a hungry courtier. In fact, a common expression of the time was to say that a girl who lost her virginity had “seen the wolf”.
Now, did you know that the original version was so tragic?
In 1687 Perrault, who has become a prominent member of the prestigious royal Literary Academy (L’Académie française), writes a poem to praise the greatness of Louis XIV over ancient emperors (Le Siècle de Louis le Grand) claiming that:
«L’on peut comparer, sans crainte d’être injuste, le siècle de Louis, au beau siècle d’Auguste.»
This is the beginning of a great debate over the merits of the Moderns versus the Classics (la Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) in which Perrault played an influential role. Basically, the artists (authors, painters, architects, musicians, etc) and scientists of the time had to take sides in the following debate: is progress possible and therefore can this century become greater than the great age of classicism? His success as a “modern” author (his tales are written in a simple language compared to the rather bombastic style of contemporary “classic” prose) seems to indicate that it may very well be the case…. or maybe it demonstrates that every age needs to show a more (“modern”) sense of acceptance of previous ages and grow from that cooperation? After all Perrault’s stories were all borrowed from “Times Past”.