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Charles Perrault Tales of Times Past

Charles PerraultCharles Perrault, was born in Paris on January 12, 1628, the seventh child of Pierre Perrault and Paquette Le Clerc. The Perraults were a wealthy bourgeois family, and the father served in the royal government, a career path Charles and some of his brothers would later pursue.

Like his brothers, Charles was sent to the finest schools, attending the Collège de Beauvais beginning at age nine. Having begun writing at an early age and preferring to discover new ways of looking at old texts rather than accepting stock answers (which often irritated his teachers), he was nonetheless at the head of his class. Prior to his last year of school, his tutor encouraged him to write a thesis. But when his parents declined to pay for this, his tutor took out his disappointment on young Charles, who subsequently opted to stop going to classes and pursue his study of the classics together with another schoolmate who had suffered similar ostracism. Together for the next three or four years, they studied ancient philosophy at home, reading the Bible, Vergil, and Horace by day and strolling the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoons to talk about what they’d learned. These events, from his posthumously published memoirs, would presage his independent approach to scholarship and practice for the rest of his life.

Though he was admitted to the bar in 1651, he quickly wearied of the law after trying only two cases and in 1654 accepted a position as clerk under his older brother Pierre, who was the receiver-general (tax collector) of Paris. Charles stayed in this office for ten years, spending his spare time writing poetry and overseeing the construction of his brother’s house in 1657. The skill he showed in this project prompted Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean Baptiste Colbert to bring him on as his secretary at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in 1663, where Charles worked in the superintendence of royal buildings. When a new section of the Louvre was being planned, Charles was able to get his brother Claude appointed to the small council of three overseeing it and suggested the Colonnade, which was built between 1667 and 1674.

In 1668 Perrault wrote La Peinture (Painting) a poem in honor of Charles Le Brun, Louis XIV’s painter, and in 1671 he was elected to the Académie Française. In 1669 he advised Louis XIV to add thirty-nine fountains to the planned labyrinth in the Gardens of Versailles, each fountain depicting one of Æsop’s fables. The creation and installation of the animal sculptures, which featured jets of water spurting from their mouths was begun in 1672, the same year Perrault married nineteen-year-old Marie Guichon.

Perrault also had an illustrated guidebook, Labyrinte de Versailles, printed at the royal press in 1677. Unfortunately, his whimsical and immensely popular creation lasted little more than a century, as Louis XVI, in one of the lesser missteps of his reign, had the labyrinth destroyed in order to make way for an English garden stocked with exotic trees.

Around the same time, Perrault became involved in one of the more heated intellectual debates of the century, the so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns. After Jean-Baptiste Lully’s and Philippe Quinault’s opera Alceste was denounced by traditionalists for deviating from classical theater, Perrault wrote a defense of the relatively new form of musical theater titled Critique de l’Opéra (1674), which declared the work better than its source material, the classical tragedy Alcestis by Euripides. This debate, which Perrault’s treatise instigated, continued with his eager participation well into the 1680s, after Perrault was forced into retirement at the age of fifty-six in 1682. He wrote The Century of Louis the Great (1687) and Parallel between Ancients and Moderns (1688–92), where he argued the superiority of the literature of the seventeenth century.

The Ancients, led by Racine and Boileau, maintained that no writer could surpass the authors of antiquity, that the best they could do was to simply imitate them. The Moderns, led by Perrault, Fontenelle, and Marivaux, argued that new scholarship and new innovations allowed modern men to create new and better forms than the ancients could have imagined. The debate was a proxy of sorts for the larger argument over conservative versus progressive values that continues to this day.

Perrault and his wife Marie had four children before her untimely death after the birth of their youngest, Pierre, in 1678. As the widower father of four children under the age of six, Perrault no doubt practiced refining the folktales of Mother Goose on them, continuing the ages-old oral tradition of sharing and revising the tales, before setting down new versions of them in print sixteen years later.

In retirement Perrault also started to write epic poetry, including a poem on the life of St. Paulinus of Nola in 1686, but it was in revising Boccaccio’s tale about Griselda that Perrault caught the germ of an idea that would make him immortal. Too long and lacking in any sort of magical element, “Grisélidis” was closely related to the kind of tale Perrault would soon become identified with. “The Ridiculous Wishes” and “Donkey-Skin,” two fairy tales in verse, followed, published separately and then with the former in the book Grisélidis. These led next to the 1695 hand-drawn manuscript Tales of Mother Goose and his landmark book, Stories or Tales of Times Past: With Morals, in 1697. Originally attributed to his youngest son, Pierre Darmancour (who took the name from a property his father had bought for him), there has never been much doubt that Charles actually wrote them. (It has been plausibly suggested, however, that Pierre wrote a first draft that his father substantially edited. At only twenty-two years of age, Pierre died in 1700 while serving as a lieutenant in the French Army.)

After the massive success of his Stories or Tales of Times Past, Perrault wrote another major pro-Modern book between 1696 and 1700, entitled The Illustrious Men Who Have Appeared in France During This Century, and in 1699 he translated the One Hundred Fables (Fabulae Centum) of the Italian poet Gabriele Faerno from Latin into French verse. In 1702 he completed his memoirs, though they would not be published until 1909. Charles Perrault continued writing and publishing up until his death at the age of seventy-five on May 16, 1703.

For a self-professed and committed Modern, Perrault’s name has become as esteemed as one of the ancients his opponents idolized. And his fame and longevity derive from his retelling of tales more ancient than the classics. And yet, despite the apparent irony, Perrault exemplified the Modern approach he championed by making these dusty old tales new, daring to improve on stories handed down from mothers and grandmothers to children since before Vergil or Homer were old enough to hold a quill. He took a traditional form with no respect for logic—filled with magic, mania, madness, and mayhem—kept the wonder and horror, and introduced reason with a healthy dose of ironic self-awareness.

The folklorist Andrew Lang, in Perrault’s Popular Tales (1888), called him “a born Irregular . . . a truant from school, a deserter of the Bar, an architect without professional training, a man of letters by inclination, a rebel against the tyranny of the classics, and immortal by a kind of accident.” And author Angela Carter wrote of Perrault in the afterword to her 1977 translation, Little Red Riding-Hood, Cinderella, and Other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, that he was “a man who wanted to make of Paris a modern Rome, a visible capital of sweet reason, and his fairy tales are in a style . . . marked by precision of language, irony, and realism.” In creating his new classics, Perrault also ushered in a new age of retellings and reimaginings. And authors from every place and every era since have used his example to make these and countless other tales new by making them their own.