Tales for Future Times:
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Although much lesser known than his literary heirs the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, the seventeenth-century French writer Charles Perrault not only solidified the fairy tale as a literary genre, but wrote or adapted nearly all of the genre’s most signature stories, his tales entering the culture in ways that far transcend his own personal artistic reach. “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” Little Red Riding Hood,” Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” “Tom Thumb,” and the larger designation of “Mother Goose” stories all permeate virtually every level of modern art and entertainment, from rock songs to popular films to the most sophisticated stories and novels by such literary fabulists as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. With all these tales forming a common cultural currency, the clarity and intent of the originals has often been either obscured or contorted to serve sometimes questionable meanings, and while a film such as 1996’s Freeway creates a brilliant and necessary twist on the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, many more popular versions of Perrault’s works—from the saccharine Disney films to the grotesquely insulting Pretty Woman—manipulate their audiences by promoting reactionary gender and class stereotypes. Much of this is in the originals, though, and it’s often surprising to see just what is and what isn’t in Charles Perrault’s versions of these seminal fairy tales.
Perrault published his Stories or Tales from Times Past (subtitled Mother Goose Tales) in 1697, the work comprising three of his earlier verse stories and eight new prose tales, and arriving at the end of a long and not entirely satisfying literary life—Perrault was nearly seventy, and while he was well-connected, his contributions had been more intellectual than artistic—this slim volume achieved a success that hadn’t seemed possible to the man who’d long made his main living as a civil servant. Some of the stories were adapted from oral tradition, and some were inspired by episodes from earlier works, including Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and some were inventions wholly new to Perrault, but what was most significantly new was the idea of turning magical folk tales into sophisticated and subtle forms of written literature. While we now think of fairy tales as primarily children’s literature, there was no such thing as children’s literature in Perrault’s time, and with this in mind we can see that the “morals” of these tales take on more worldly purposes, despite their slyly clever packaging within the fantastical universe of fairies and ogres and talking animals.
|Philippe Lallemand’s portrait of|
Charles Perrault (detail), 1672
In “Puss in Boots,” the youngest of three sons inherits only a cat when his father dies, but through the cat’s wily scheming the young man ends up wealthy and married to a princess. Perrault, who was in favor with Louis XIV, provides two interconnected but competing morals to the tale, and he clearly had the machinations of the court in mind with this witty satire. On the one hand, the tale promotes the idea of using hard work and ingenuity to get ahead rather than just relying on your parents’ money, but on the other hand it warns against being taken in by pretenders who may have achieved their wealth in unscrupulous ways. Thus, a tale that seems like a didactic children’s fable actually serves as a double-edged send-up of class mobility, such as it existed in the seventeenth century.
Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” reads much like the popularized versions that we all grew up with, but with one big difference: The wolf eats the girl and her grandmother, and nobody comes along to save them. Without the happy ending, which the Brothers Grimm supply in their version, the story serves as a warning to young women against talking to strangers, and in its moral it warns even more strongly against the “charming” wolves who seem civilized but who are perhaps even more dangerous than brutish attackers. There’s no heroic male to slay the wolf and save Little Red Riding Hood from her own gullible innocence; there’s only danger, and it’s up to young women to learn how to recognize it.
Like “Puss in Boots,” Perrault’s “Cinderella” also has two competing and contradictory morals, and they likewise discuss questions of marriageability and class connection. One moral claims that charm is more important than looks when it comes to winning a man’s heart, an idea that suggests that anyone can achieve happiness, regardless of their conventional assets. But the second moral declares that no matter what natural gifts you have, you need a godfather or godmother in order to put them to good use, a message that acknowledges—and perhaps supports—society’s profoundly uneven playing field.
|Catherine Deneuve in the film version of Donkey Skin, 1970|
The most strange and amazing of Perrault’s tales, “Donkey Skin,” is also one of his least known, probably because its shocking grotesqueries have no way of being watered down and made easily palatable. In the story a dying queen asks her husband to remarry after her death, but only to a princess even more beautiful than she. Eventually the king’s own daughter grows to surpass her dead mother’s beauty, and the king falls deeply in love with her. At the suggestion of her fairy godmother, the princess makes seemingly impossible demands of the king in exchange for her hand, and the king somehow fulfils her demands each time, to both shimmering and terrifying effect. Then she demands the skin of the king’s magic donkey, which defecates gold coins and is the source of the kingdom’s wealth. Even this the king does, and so the princess flees, wearing the donkey skin as a permanent disguise. In Cinderella-like fashion, a young prince rescues her from her squalor and marries her, and events transpire so that her father also ends up happily paired with a neighboring widow-queen. Despite the tidiness of all its ends, this is the story that contains the messiest and wildest of Perrault’s invented worlds, and perhaps this is why posterity has been unable to tame it into a version that it feels comfortable presenting to children. There is no Disney version, but for the adventurous, Jacques Demy’s 1970 film starring Catherine Deneuve manages to capture all of the story’s perversity while casting the loveliest and most magical spell on its viewers.
While Perrault’s original tales are hardly the versions that were fed to us as children, they also can’t be expected to be the feminist and socialist alternate versions that we might wish them to be—see Angela Carter’s 1979 story collection The Bloody Chamber for this kind of modern twist; Carter had translated an edition of Perrault’s fairy tales in 1977 and was inspired to create her own versions as a response. Perrault was an upper-class intellectual during the reign of the Sun King, and unlike the fable-writer Jean de La Fontaine, whose rich narratives often criticized the powerful and took the side of the underdog—and who himself was not in favor with the megalomaniacal Louis Quatorze—Perrault didn’t have much of an interest in rocking the boat. Instead, as a leading figure on the modern side of the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” he brought new forms and sources to literature to create something that even the ancients had never seen. La Fontaine was on the side of the ancients and wrote fables in the vein of Aesop, and while La Fontaine was much more intellectually clever and lyrically sophisticated, it was Perrault’s modernity that lay the foundation for a new kind of literature that’s created a culture all its own. Perrault may have been writing for adults, but the fairy tales that he first put on paper spawned a revolution in what kinds of stories could be made into literature, and soon writing for children spread throughout Europe and eventually across the rest of the world. The results—and even his own works—may have gone far out of Perrault’s intent or control, but that’s what often happens when you introduce something new into the world. It seems that there’s a moral somewhere in that.