Charles Perrault was a seventeenth-century French author and literary theoretician who is credited with creating the fairy tale genre. Perrault was born in a well-to-do bourgeois family of Paris. He studied law and spent the early years of his career working in the government and the court of King Louis XIV. Perrault also held influential positions in various councils including the ‘Académie Française’. Perrault’s career as a writer flourished only after the end of his political career. As a literary figure, Perrault is best known for his stand on the Modern versus Ancient debate. He was the leader of the Modern group and argued against traditionalism in literature. Perrault authored several poems, epic poetry and literary treatises but the one work that has made the deepest impact and continues to do so even today are his fairy tales. Written for his children these were retellings of traditional oral folk tales. On its publication, the collection of fairy tales titled ‘The Tales of Mother Goose’ captured the attention of the French society with its captivating and memorable stories. The fact that these tales are getting remade into movies even today speak about the timelessness of Perrault’s storytelling genius.
Charles Perrault was the son of Pierre Perrault and Paquette Le Clerc. He was born on 12 January 1628, the seventh and the youngest child of his parents.
The family was a distinguished and wealthy one His grandfather was an embroiderer for the royal family and his father was a lawyer in the Paris Parliament.
Claude Perrault one of his elder brothers was a hysician and an architect who designed the colonnade of the Louvre and the observatory of Paris. He also published works on natural history and architecture.
Charles Perrault studied at ‘Lyçée Saint-Louis’ and ‘Collége de Beauvais’ in Paris. In his memoirs published posthumously, he recounts how he had a discussion on philosophy with one of the professors after which he and his classmate decided not to return to class.
The two friends started studying the classic authors, history of the church, history of France and the bible on their own and translated the texts themselves.
Following the footsteps of his father, Charles Perrault studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1651. He was soon disillusioned of the job and left it after two years.
In 1653, he and his brother, Claude, published a poem ‘The Walls of Troy or the Origin of the Burlesque’. Claude was the Receiver General of finances for the city of Paris and a year later he helped Charles get work in his office.
In 1663, Charles Perrault became the first clerk of Jean Baptiste Colbert who was the finance minister of King Louis XIV. The same year, he became the secretary of the ‘Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres’.
His rise in the royal court continued and in 1665 he was appointed the comptroller general of the superintendent of the King’s buildings. At the same time, he was able to continue writing and penned a poem ‘Le Peinture’ in honour of Charles le Brun, the king’s painter.
In 1671, he was elected to ‘Académie Française’ the council that looked after issues related to French language and literature, and in 1672, he was made the general controller of the superintendent of the king’s buildings.
On Charles Perrault’s advice, King Louis XIV commissioned 39 fountains in the labyrinth at the gardens of Versailles. Each fountain represented a tale of the Aesop’s fables. They were built from 1672 to 1677. Perrault wrote a guidebook to the maze called the ‘Labyrinthe de Versailles’ in 1677.
The schism between Charles Perrault and the French literary circle started in 1674 when Perrault wrote a review praising a modern opera ‘Alceste’ by Phillipe Quinalt which had been criticized by the theatre critics.
In the battle which became famous as ‘Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns’, Perrault lead the modern faction. He believed that as civilization grows and improves so does literature. Thus, modern literature would always be finer than the ancient literature.
Perrault was instrumental in the founding of the ‘Academy of Sciences’ and the reorganization of ‘Academy of Painting’. However, in 1682, he was forced to retire because of nepotism in the French court. The next year with the death of Colbert he was removed from all the other positions he held and he stopped receiving the pension given to him as a writer)
Free from the work of the academies and councils, Charles Perrault found himself with ample time for literary pursuits. As an ode to Christianity, he wrote several epic poems including ‘Saint Paulin’ in 1686.
His 1687 poem 'Le Siècle de Louis Grand’ talks about how the poems of the modern authors like Molière and Françoise de Malherbe were better than the classical Greek and the Roman literature. The poem could be considered a manifesto of the modern stand in the Ancient versus Modern quarrel.
He reinforced his position in his four volumes of prose titled ‘Parallels of the Ancients and the Moderns’ (1688-1697). In the literary quarrel, Perrault’s foremost adversaries were the king’s historiographers Jean Racine and Nicola Boileau-Despréaux. The literary arguments lasted for seven years, ending in reconciliation in 1694.
The work that Perrault is most remembered by are his fairytales that were written for his young children. Published in 1697, ‘Les Contes de ma Mére l’Oye’ or ‘The Tales of Mother Goose’ has eight tales, some of them are known even today, namely, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Puss in Boots’.
The tales were mostly retellings of well-known oral folk tales. Perrault infused the tales with references and commentaries of life in the seventeenth century which placed the old texts in the modern context. His rewriting of the tales bought them to the attention of the gentry and ensured their permanence.
Tales like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ were written by Perrault as moral tales. He wanted to warn children about the dangerous men lurking about in Paris streets. His version where Red Riding Hood is devoured by the wolf at the end is starker than the version that we read today.
The original tales were published under the name of Pierre Darmancour, Perrault’s third son. It is said that he did so to avoid another quarrel with the Ancients with whom he had reconciled. The tales were translated into English in 1729 by Robert Samber.
Charles Perrault got married to Marie Guichon in 1672 when he was 44 years old and she was 19. They had three children. Marie died in 1678.
Charles Perrault died in Paris on 16 May 1703, at the age of 75. He was buried at the Church of Saint Benoit le Bétourné.