Charles Perrault (1628-1703)
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Where was Red Riding-Hood born? Over what realm ruled the parents of Sleeping Beauty? How long since the Fairy Godmother saved Cinderella from her hard lot? No one knows; or whether these charming maidens and others, and clever Little Thumb, Puss-in-Boots, "Figaro of the Nursery," and their brothers, are French, German, Persian, Indian, or Egyptian, or from the Northland. They have wandered over the world winning friends. Always young and fascinating, they live through the centuries. They came into existence when the races of men were young and simpleminded, and they have become the delight of unjaded child minds forever. No one knows when they were first heard of in France, but their stories were familiar to the peasants long before finding literary expression. The charcoal burners around their forest fires, the fathers and mothers gathered with the children beside the hearths in wretched cabins, thrilled with Charles Perrault awe and delight at the myths inherited from their ancestors; and doubtless modified by their own imaginations. These were the stories first written out, and published toward the end of the seventeenth century, by Charles Perrault.
Before considering them further, it will be interesting to know something of the man who, after an arduous public life, turned to fairy lore when he was over sixty, and in it won lasting fame and child love.
Charles Perrault, the youngest of four brothers, all of whom became distinguished, was born in Paris, January 12th, 1628. His father, a barrister, taught him at home; and then sent him to the College de Beauvais. He was a boy of noteworthy intelligence, and with the most ardent desire for accurate and absolute information. He argued and philosophized with his masters until ordered to be quiet. Then he boldly left school, accompanied by a young disciple named Beaurain, and wandering in the Luxembourg Garden, the truants laid out a plan of home education for themselves. This, strangely enough,—-for French boys usually were then as they are now, in strict subservience to their elders,—-they were allowed to follow. Perrault's impatience of routine and surrender to the guidance of his own individuality lasted always, and led him to employ his versatile talents in a great variety of ways. He studied law; then wearied of its minutiae after a few years' practice, and resigned his profession. In 1657 he aided his brother Claude, the famous architect, in building a house; and that so skillfully that in 1663 Colbert chose him to assist Claude in superintending the royal building operations. One of his achievements in this capacity was the design for the peristyle of the Louvre. Witty, genial, popular, versed in art and literature, he made himself very useful to Colbert; and at the minister's desire was elected to the Academy in 1671. Upon that authoritative body the practical Perrault exercised a lasting influence. He ordered all its business affairs. He brought about election by ballot, and himself invented and introduced a balloting machine. More than all, he suggested the public receptions to new members, which have given the Academy so strong a hold upon the nation. During these years he constantly showed himself possessed of a modern progressive spirit, and impatient of dead tradition. When Colbert would have reserved the palace gardens for royal use, Perrault protested: "I am persuaded that the gardens of kings are made so great and spacious in order that all their children may walk in them;" at which Colbert smiled and left them open to little Parisians.
Perrault was a true royalist, sincerely revering the court and its customs. His practical work and his panegyrics brought royal favor and reward. One of these panegyrics — 'Le Siecle de Louis XIV.' — caused the famous Battle of the Books, for his share in which Perrault was best known in his own day. He read this poem to the Academy, and its extolling of the present over the past aroused the wrath of Boileau, who attacked him furiously in behalf of the classics. A war of epigram ensued; and in his own defense Perrault published a long poem, tedious reading now,—-'Le Parallele des Anciens et des Modernes.' Here again he showed his belief that the new and the future promised more than the past. Each side had supporters; neither side won: but the battle raged hotly for years, and was long continued in England.
Colbert was a crabbed, difficult master, and grew more so. And Perrault married the lady of his own choice, not Colbert's for him, which made trouble. So his position became irksome; and in 1683 he resigned. After 1686 he devoted himself to authorship; and wrote a versified history, short poems, and religious works.
He was glad to exchange public intrigue for simple home life; "glad to train his children and turn from what was artificial to what was vital and genuine." In 1691 he published anonymously the first of his famous tales. This was 'La Marquise de Salusses, ou La Patience de Grisilidis,'—-our Patient Griselda. The plot, borrowed from Boccaccio, he treated in verse less able than his prose, and suggestive of an imitation of La Fontaine. 'Les Souhaits Ridicules' (The Foolish Wishes), and 'Peau d'Ane' (The Donkey's Skin), were also written first in verse.
Perrault may have heard his children telling the old stories that he himself had heard in childhood; and his mind, wearied of subtlety, may have found them freshly interesting and beautiful. His 'Contes de ma Mere l'Oye,' the tales of genial Mother Goose, were first published as a collection in 1697. They had already appeared singly, and in 1694 three of them had been included in the 'Miscellany' of Mostjen, a bookseller of The Hague.
The 'Contes de ma Mere l'Oye' were published in the name of Perrault's young son, Perrault d'Armancour, as though written by the child; and this has greatly confused the critics. The charm of the stories is their vivid style. The straightforward telling, the choice of detail, the graphic coloring, the general simplicity of tone, suggest a child's rendering. But interspersed are witty phrases, often parenthetical, mature reflections, and touches of amiable irony, for which Perrault himself is surely responsible. Each story terminates with an odd little moral in rhyme, usually omitted from the English versions.
The French mind has always been in sympathy with fairies; not boisterous tricksy elves like those of Briton and Germany, but deft little ladies who love to aid unfortunate human proteges. They are rarely malevolent like the slighted eighth fairy of Sleeping Beauty's christening. The element of the grotesque and fascinatingly horrible is usually supplied by ogres and ogresses, direct descendants of the cannibals told about by early voyagers. Like all folk-lore, these early French tales abound in clever beasts, such as Puss-in-Boots. To primitive receptivity of heart and mind, it is no more wonderful that a cat should talk than that it should purr. Inexperience believes in fairies as readily as in men; hence the delightful matter-of-course tone in Perrault's enchanted world. The humor is usually a simple burlesque, as in 'The Foolish Wishes,' when the black pudding sticks to the man's nose.
Perrault's stories made refreshing appeal to the courtiers and fine ladies at magnificent Louis's court. They welcomed them in the spirit which led them to throw aside silks and velvets, and masquerade as shepherds and shepherdesses.
Since then many generations of scholars have studied Perrault's text, finding their successive clues back to shadowy antiquity. For most of the tales they have discovered fanciful interpretations, based upon recollections of mythology. These may or may not be legitimate. Sleeping Beauty may have been winter, and the Prince reawakening spring; but children love the story for itself, not for the metaphor.
'Bluebeard' probably has a more recent origin than the others. He may have been suggested by mediaeval Gilles de Retz, notorious for cruel murders of children, which he expiated by being publicly burned. Or he may have been Cormorus, a Breton prince, reputed a wife-murderer. At any rate, he is firmly established as the fiercest of nursery bogies.
Perrault's stories have grown in popularity for two hundred years. England, Germany, and other nations soon took possession of them. They have been endlessly retold; changed, colored to suit the taste of the nations which adopted them. But Perrault's brilliant touch is discernible under all the modifications; and to him directly, we owe much of our best-loved fairy literature.
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